I love memorizing poetry, from Shakespeare to Luci Shaw, from Donne to Chesterton, and so I thought I’d share a post with some of reasons for I love poetry—and, of course, plenty of excerpts from what I’ve memorized!
In a time when we casually associate memorizing things with drudgery, I want to point out first of all that memorizing and reciting worthy poetry can be a joy. I know that memorizing is a tough skill to learn; I used to be very bad at it. It was years before I really appreciated Psalm 23, one of my early memorywork pieces. But my mom persevered and made me keep on working on memorizing, and now I’m memorizing on my own, choosing poetry and working on it. Memorizing and reciting poetry is probably my best consciously-developed habit, and mostly I do it for joy. I just love the words, love reading them and memorizing them and reciting them. It’s truly a wonderful thing to have some of the great heights of the English language kept always with you, almost made a part of you, like having mighty genii ready at your call. It is beautiful and joyful to memorize these words combined by skill and the gift of God into forms that can choke up your throat and make your heart go differently and your eyes feel odd when you recite them.
Death, be not proud, though some have called theeJohn Donne, “Holy Sonnet X”
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so…
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
This post is part of a series on memorizing Shakespeare. Last week, we talked about getting ready to memorize—how to understand what Shakespeare means and how to pronounce it. Next week, we’ll discuss practicing Shakespeare and getting ready to perform.
At this point, you should have read your part over aloud a few times, and you should have a fair idea of what it means. Now it’s time to memorize!
The main thing here is speaking aloud and repetition, plus repetition and repetition.
Let’s imagine that you want to memorize Hamlet’s part in Hamlet I.ii. Your first few lines will come in this chunk of dialogue:
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!
“Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire,” the gold casket says. “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves,” says the silver casket. “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he has,” says the lead casket. (II.VII, 5,7,9) The portrait of Portia, a beautiful and wealthy young noblewoman, lies in one of these caskets; if a suitor picks that casket, he weds her, but if he choose another, he must forswear marriage forever. Besides finding Portia’s husband, the caskets illustrate different ways – gilded but false, or true as a plumbed line – of looking at love.
Not all great men are good men: and as portrayed by Shakespeare in the play which bears his name, Richard III illustrates this excellently. In his first speech, laying out the setting of the play, Richard declares his intention “to prove a villain” and calls himself “subtle, false, and treacherous” (I.I, 30; 37). But this is only for the audience: when he interacts with the other characters, Richard wears a mask of plainness, gentleness, and honest loyalty—as he says, “I … seem a saint when most I play the devil.” (I.II, 337). He can lie, deceive, and murder his way into near-absolute power without blinking an eye except to shed hypocritical tears. He is skillfull and poised, walking, when he needs to, a knife’s edge such as that he dares when he bids Anne tell him to kill himself. By his own and the world’s standards, he is very successful; enough, I think, that he can be termed a great, if not a verily great, man.
After following Henry V with some of Shakespeare’s sonnets, we read King Lear in my class through Roman Roads Media. I was assigned a “reading response” to each of these—I’ve posted the one about Henry V. The guideline about length is to make our responses 400-500 words long, and I had a hard time bringing my piece about the sonnets up to that. Once I’d found my subject(s) about King Lear, though, I had the opposite problem… I had to keep pruning comments and quotes I wanted to include, and if you subtract the words counted for line citations and count words typed like “[S]erve” as one word, this comes to exactly 500 words!
Besides the Fool, whose task is providing pithy commentary, there are three types of significant characters in King Lear: the all-out good, such as Cordelia, Kent, and Edgar; the all-out evil, such as Edmund, Goneril, and Regan; and those who intend good but do not properly use authority and/or discernment – Lear, Albany, and Gloucester.
You cannot get rid of Cordelia, Kent, or Edgar, no matter how hard you try. Disown them. Dismiss them. Put bounties on their heads. They’re coming back. These characters are the Christ-figures in the play, people who come back to those whom they love, even after being rejected, as God keeps coming back to us. “[S]erve where thou dost stand condemn’d,” Kent tells himself, mentioning “thy master, whom thou lov’st.” (I.IV, 5,6)
Roman Roads Media offers several history/literature courses, and right now I’m enrolled in one focusing on Shakespeare, the metaphysical poets, and Milton. A recent assignment was to read Shakespeare’s Henry V and write a response to it. Here—somewhat edited—is what I came out with.
Henry V opens with English characters discussing whether or not to launch a campaign against France. The bishops at court have financial reasons for wanting the campaign pursued, while King Henry is more interested in whether he may “with right and conscience” (Act I, Scene II, line 96) claim the crown of France. I am not, however, going to only cover what they did discuss, but what, to my surprise, they did not discuss—whether it was morally acceptable for them to invade France!