I love Shakespeare: I love reading Shakespeare, I love hearing Shakespeare, I love watching Shakespeare, I love costuming Shakespeare, and I love performing Shakespeare. And I know I’m not alone in this—Shakespeare’s work is eminently delightful to tongue and ear, and a great deal of fun to try to bring to life. Before you can perform, however, you need to memorize. And memorizing Shakespeare can seem very daunting!
If you do it right, though, memorizing Shakespeare can be interesting and enjoyable. I’ve memorized several hundred lines of Shakespeare, and in this series of posts I’ll share some pointers on how to memorize both conversations and monologues.
This week’s post is about how to understand Shakespeare and get ready to memorize it. Part 2 will be about memorizing the lines, from dialogue to monologue.
Read and understand
You can’t do a good job performing what you don’t understand. Part of your job as an actor is to interpret the play, to come before your audience with the words and show their meaning. Shakespeare is quite often confusing. However, when the lines are well delivered, the actor can help the audience to understand what they mean. Besides, though it’s possible to memorize by rote without knowing what you’re talking about, you’ll have a much better—and more entertaining—time if you understand what your lines mean!
Therefore, the first thing you do as you’re memorizing a scene should be to read it all aloud, perhaps a few times. You can read your part aloud, and the other parts silently, or you can read it all aloud, or you can get someone to read the other parts while you read yours. Whatever you do, this will help you feel comfortable with the lines. You’ll find out what you understand and what you don’t, and start to get a sense of the rythm and flow of the speeches. Look up some of what you don’t understand, especially if it seems important—if you have a Shakespeare copy with notes, these will probably be helpful (we like the Folger editions).
Context will often be helpful with unusual or confusing words or phrases. Beteem, for example, occurs in I.ii (Act One, Scene Two) of Hamlet. However, its meaning is apparent from the context: Hamlet’s father was “so loving to my mother / That he might not beteem the winds of heaven / Visit her face too roughly.” As this suggests, beteem means allow.
You don’t have to understand every bit of every line. Often, a general idea of what the speech means will be enough. For example, I don’t think I could give a direct paraphrase of this part of Hamlet’s first monologue: “Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears / Had left the flushing in her galled eyes, / She married.” But with the rest of the speech, and what I understand of this sentence, for context, I know what the point is: the queen remarried too hastily. Deliver it quickly and don’t stumble, and you’ll get the point across.
I advise you to investigate what the lines mean before you try to memorize them, but remember that you’ll understand them further as you memorize and practice and accidentally meditate on them.
While you’re going over the lines before memorizing, also think about how the words should sound. Usually the rythm of the language will guide you, especially with the unusual words; sometimes words you know will be pronounced a bit differently. For example, Horatio tells Hamlet of watchmen with “fear-surprised eyes.” In Shakespeare’s time, it was more common to sound every letter of a word (that’s why some speeches and editions will say oppress’d instead of oppressed). To fit the meter, which itself fits Elizabethan custom, surprised should here be pronounced Surprisehd. (Correctly noted in modern punctuation as surpriséd).
Some words which Shakespeare knew but we have forgotten can be easily mispronounced. A common one of these is a synonym for yes. When it’s spelled aye, I think people usually get it right—it’s pronounced almost like eye—but when it’s spelled ay, they can get confused and pronounce it like the name of the letter A. But spelled either way, it’s pronounced eye.
Another common mispronunciation is that odd little i’ occurring so often in Shakespeare. Now obsolete, it’s a contraction for in. Hamlet isn’t “too much eye the sun,” he’s “too much ih the sun.”
After you have an idea of what your character means, why he means it, and how to pronounce it, you’re ready to start memorizing…
But that’s for next week!