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Shakespeare 101: Breaking in the Bard

Shakespeare isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But for those who veer away because it seems intimidating or stuffy or boring, having a command over the basic approach can be empowering and exciting. Shakespeare can be for anyone. Even if it’s not something you plan to make a career of, working with Shakespearean text can be an incredible tool to broaden range, hone specificity, sharpen technical acting skills, and deepen your commitment to high-stakes scenes. If you’re new to the classical acting game, here are some ways to approach Shakespeare for the first time!


1. Find the rhythm.

Shakespeare often writes in verse, and specifically in iambic pentameter. Lines that conform to this style will follow a meter, broken into two-syllable “foots” or “iambs”  (an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable). Each line is made of five iambs. While there are whole fields of study that can be devoted to this, the first thing to realize about it is that Shakespeare has rhythm and flow. Each iamb can be thought of as a heartbeat (bah-DUM bah-DUM etc). While you don’t want to fall into a robotic chanting monotone, neither do you want to fight the rhythm. Working with it can help reveal the flow of a monologue and the heart of the text. If this all sounds technical and overwhelming, all you have to do is speak the text out loud. Once you start speaking, the rhythm makes itself clear!


2. Know what you’re saying.

Shakespeare makes beautiful use of an extensive vocabulary and is full of arcane references. However, if you don’t know what you’re saying, that is immediately apparent to your audience, and it will feel empty and stiff to you as an actor. There are so many resources to help with this. A great way to start is by breaking it up in chunks and just circling every word, phrase or reference that you don’t know. Sometimes I even circle ones I do know, but for which I would like more specific context. Then comes the research. There is no shame in No Fear Shakespeare or Cliff Notes to help you get the gist of things. Shakespeare’s Words: A Glossary and Language Companion, by David Crystal and Ben Crystal, is an incredible resource, not only listing almost any word used anywhere in Shakespearean canon, but also noting which plays they appear in and how they are used. 


3. Put it on the text.

Some playwrights (Chekov for example) are all about the subtext. What’s between and underneath the words. Shakespeare less so. He puts big feelings right on the words. If a character says “this hair I tear is mine,” they are physically tearing their hair out. The challenge is to commit fully to the emotions the text demands, which is why working Shakespeare can be such a powerful tool to cultivate honesty, vulnerability, and courage in your work. 


4. Shakespeare is meant to be heard, not read.

If you’re just reading Shakespeare and studying it academically, you’re not getting the full effect. He was a playwright; his words are meant to be played. Get up on your feet and work the text out loud; rehearsal will move faster and it will make more sense.


5. Make it personal.

We don’t perform Shakespeare to replicate “the real way” it was done four hundred years ago. We perform it because the themes and language and stories still speak to us. Putting your own voice and perspective into Shakespeare is not only allowed, it breathes new life into the words. It makes it relevant. 


6. Practice makes perfect.

The more you expose yourself to Shakespeare, the more you will develop an ear for it, and the more quickly you’ll pick up the text and make it feel natural. Remember you don’t have to experience Shakespeare all on your own! Go see live performances, watch taped live performances, or start with films of his work. Whatever gets you excited and inspired. You’ll pick up the words more quickly if you connect to them.


Too often, we gatekeep Shakespeare. There can be so much elitism and snobbery surrounding his canon that it’s easy to feel discouraged, intimidated, or excluded. These words are free. They’re still around for a reason. While some of his references and ideas might need updating for modern sensibilities, the core themes are universal and easily bent to tell modern stories. Shakespeare is for everyone who wants to speak Shakespeare.