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Playing Shakespeare; not reading him, not writing him; but playing him.

One guide comes from Shakespeare’s speech from Hamlet’s speech to the players.

Approaching Shakespeare
 Elizabethan actors were able to use the subtle cues that Shakespeare writes within the
 There are few absolute rules when playing Shakespeare, but many possibilities. Actors
should work as explorers, investigating the work and the text through character, action
and story.

 How does Shakespeare’s text work? John Barton (former director at the Royal
Shakespeare Company) said he doesn’t believe there is only one way to perform
Shakespeare. Rather, each director, actor, or teacher may have their own interpretation.

 Actors can examine what is inherent within the text to make choices for communicating.
Shakespeare’s text was very much about listening.

 Most audiences may not listen to Shakespeare’s text in modern day, unless the actors
make you listen.

Modern Audiences: How can the actors make the audience listen to the text?

 What is difficult in Shakespeare? ---Shakespeare’s text, written at a particular time for

particular actors. Actors today have a different kind of mind and a different kind of way
of playing text, with a more ‘naturalistic’, or more modern, approach. Our modern
influence is influenced by psychology (Freud), Stanislavski, or film/cinematic genres.
 A Few Things Stand Out: Characterization is a mid-nineteenth century word, and
motivation and naturalistic are acting vocabulary that came from the 20th century.

Shakespeare’s Acting is on the Line:

 Within Shakespeare’s time, there was not the concept of subtext
 Actors can truly trust the language within Shakespeare. The evidence for who a character
is lies not just in what a character says, but how he says it. The emotion, at times, has to
be bigger in order to speak the heightened language.
 Language and words for the Elizabethans were not written down, but were sounds, were
spoken. Their relationship to words was what they heard, and how they heard it.
 Actors must know each word, and should aim to grasp the structuring of words in
relation to each other.

A Challenge for the Actor: A Marrying of Two Traditions

 Two Traditions - How to marry the Elizabethan text with a modern tradition.
Heightened language must be found by the actor, and heightened performance must be
married with the naturalistic.

The Text and The Rules:

 Heightened Language: any language that is perhaps not naturalistic; meaning that it uses
metaphors, colorful words, rhyming, and words we may not use in our normal day-to-day
 The heightened language is there to help the actor to express the heightened emotion. To
really search the heightened language, you should test the boundaries; carve out the
boundaries. For example, when you explore the heightened language, you may try
challenging yourself in going further than you might in your natural speech, with the idea
that you could always pull back.
 Above all, you are searching to find a balance between the text and yourself.

Let the Language work upon you:

 Text-Emotion-Action: The emotional quality of the actor and character can give the
text a type of tone, or tonal quality, to the line.
 Antithesis: Antithesis is the setting of one word against another; the setting up of one
word against its opposite. Opposites are key within Shakespeare. Look to the antithesis
and play them.
 Allow each weighty word to affect you: in the phrase ‘happy plight’, you must
experience happy before plight, and experience them both fully.
 Speaking Timbre/Pitch/Onomatopoeia: The actor must have a love of sounds, and
the use of sounds to communicate the action/character. The alliteration within the
words within the line should help the actor in communicating the tone of the speech.
 Action within the word/phrase: There is a logic to the phrase, and to the combination
of words. The words are doing something with the line, with the entire line to something
outside of the self.

Common Structures of thoughts for monologues and soliloquies:

Monologues and Soliloquies can usually be divided into three parts. The first, responds to the
immediate situation. The second, explores the situation. The third comes to some sort of
resolution, and can even conclude that there is no resolution at all.



Prose: Written or spoken language without metrical structure; in ordinary form

‘In his plays, Shakespeare used prose about 30 percent of the time, to define characters of ‘lower’
social status than his nobles, to create colloquial, informal, or relaxed tone, or to make a character
who usually speaks verse sound particularly genuine and straightforward.’ (Speak the Speech

Examples of when prose is used by Shakespeare:

 in serious letters, proclamations
 where the character is mad or appearing to be mad
 for cynical commentary or to reduce flowery speech to common sense terms
 when the rational is contrasted with the emotional
 for simple exposition, transitions or contrasts
 for scenes of everyday life
 for low comedy
 for bantering, or relaxed conversation

Verse: heightened language, with metered structure

is something to get help from. It is there to help the actor, full of little hints from Shakespeare
on how to act it. Ask not what it is, as it is not something static.

 Helps actor to learn lines.

 Blank verse has a rhythm, and can help keep the attention of the audience.
 ‘Verse is simply speech or writing that has distinctive patterns or rhythm (think of a
nursery rhyme or song). These patterns are called meter. The building blocks of meter
are small groupings of syllables called feet. The foot Shakespeare used predominantly is
called an iamb. An iambic foot has two syllables, with the first syllable unaccented, and
the second accented.

RHYME: Correspondence of sounds between words

Examples of when rhyme is used by Shakespeare:
 ritualistic or choral effect
 highly lyrical passages that give advice or a moral
 song
 examples of bad verse
 prologues, epilogues and choruses
 in plays-within-plays, where it distinguishes between the imaginary and the real world
 manifestations of the supernatural (except ghosts: normally they retain human blank
verse use)


Shakespeare created language full of imagery, figurative language, and sound devices.

1. Test your understanding of the words

- Oxford English Dictionary (find in the library or online)
- Paraphrase
2. Stress for meaning
- Find the rhythm
- Syncopate for meaning – varying the rhythm of the text
3. Celebrate the poetry
a) use the punctuation: provides roadmap for the organization of the characters’
thoughts and dictates rhythmic shifts in the text.
b) Pay attention to repeated sounds, which are clues for meaning.
c) Connect key words and phrases.
 action words (verbs)
 naming words (nouns)
 antithesis: amplifying, explaining and contrasting words (may be adjectives, adverbs)

In Shakespeare there is interplay of sound and meaning.

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Romeo & Juliet

Sound Devices:
 Rhyme: repetition of the last sounds in 2 or more words
 “In fair Verona, where we lay our Scene”
 Assonance: repetition of vowel sounds
o From ancient grudge break to new mutiny
 Consonance: repetition of medial or ending consonant sounds
o Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle.
 Alliteration: repetition of initial consonants
o “From forth the fatal loins of these two foes”
 Repeated words: in one or more phrases
o Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean

RHYME SCHEME: pattern in which lines of verse are rhymed.
In the SONNETS Shakespeare uses 14 lines where alternating lines rhyme.
Every 4 lines Shakespeare introduces new rhyming sounds: ABAB CDCD EFEF
The last 2 lines form a couplet. COUPLET = two consecutive rhyming lines: GG

NOTE: Rhyme is strong in and of itself. Without having to over stress the rhyme, it is good to
be aware of it.

PUNCTUATION: Punctuation gives you your breathing cues, which can help with getting
across the meaning of the line. In Shakespeare’s time punctuation, like spelling, was sometimes a
‘creative’ act. Shakespeare’s original punctuation was intended for the actor’s use, as cues for
understanding the character’s mode of thinking.

Punctuation is used:
1. To map out thought progression.
a) ( , ) commas: the weakest indication of thought progression; commas set ideas apart but
don’t necessarily indicate pauses; they serve as visual signs of thought shifts
b) ( ; ) semi-colons: stronger than commas; they indicate the connection between two related
c) ( : ) colons: even stronger; used differently in Shakespeare’s time from today; the colon
seems to complete an idea, and signal an energetic charge into the next idea.
d) ( . ) periods: indicate a complete stop; periods complete an idea, they complete a sentence.

2. In paragraphs: In long speeches, punctuation is used to identify the organization of oral

 : (colon) used to signal several independent clauses.
 . (period) used when a major idea is completed, and thought shifts occur

Verse Rhythm

Blank verse – Iambic Pentameter

 de-dum, de-dum, de-dum, de-dum, de-dum
The iamb:
- / - / - / - / - /
ta-DUM ta-DUM ta-DUM ta-DUM ta-DUM

- = unaccented
/ = accented

 Blank verse is actually close to how we talk – and in that way, is close to naturalism
 Much of Shakespeare is not spoken within scanning
 Shakespeare sets up a norm, and then breaks it, to signify some kind of meaning to the
audience, and also to the actor. Syncopation:
o Syncopate: to take a beat that is regular and break it up using irregular beats, or
o Contrapuntal stressing: to put and accent on beats that are not regularly
Iamb ( - / ) unstressed, stressed
trochee ( / - ) stressed, unstressed
pyrrhic ( / / ) stressed, stressed
amphilbrach ( - / - ) unstressed, stressed, unstressed


The first two syllables in an iambic line are inversed in their stress. This creates a trochaic foot.
DUM-de de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM
/ - - / - / - / - /
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest, (Julius Caesar)

These variations only occur in two places and never anywhere else:
 at ending or beginning of a line
 at ending or beginning of a phrase on either side of the caesura

 A caesura is pause in the middle of the line.
 Usually it’s indicated with punctuation, but not always.
 When a new idea is expressed after a caesura, it has come quickly on the heels of the one
that preceded it.
 Refers to a natural pause in the middle of the line.
 Both trochaic variations and feminine endings can happen around these pauses.

An example can be found in Hamlet’s speech:

To be, or not to be--that is the question:

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep--

DOUBLE ENDINGS (also known as FEMININE OR WEAK endings)

A light stress at the end is a ‘feminine ending’, as a weak ending. There is controversy around
this because we associate feminine with weak, and the with the rise of feminism, there is a push-
back within this. However, what it is getting at is that there is a potential for two options, strong
and weak, that provides a balance, or perhaps alternatives to delivering a line.
 This happens when a verse line follows the regular pattern through the first 4 feet but on
the fifth foot an extra unstressed syllable appears added to the iamb. Thus, the line has an
extra beat.
 Stresses tend to land on the strong words within the line, and this can be determined
when considering the character, situation, etc., to give clues as to what the actor might be
trying to say, and why. Typically, strong words are VERBS and NOUNS

 A shared verse line between two speakers, means ‘pick the cue up’, and don’t add a pause.
 Pick up the cue – meaning – think faster; think as you speak. Don’t think before the line,
but think and react on the line. Our naturalistic bias tends to make us add more pauses
that are not necessary or appropriate in Shakespeare.

BROKEN OR SHARED LINES - When a line of verse is begun by one character and
completed by another. Both characters share a verse line.
 Sometimes this indicates a quick cue pick-up.
 Less often, it's a cue to pause.
 i.e. Macbeth and Lacy Macbeth Scene

Other Textual Considerations:

Shorter lines usually indicate a slight pause - MISSING SYLLABLES

We may find verse lines that are missing more than one 1 or 2 syllables, and are not shared lines
between characters (see below for ‘shared lines’).
Shakespeare intends for an action to go in place of the missing syllables.

An example can be found in Juliet’s lines:

O churl! Drunk all and left no friendly drop
To help me after? I will kiss thy lips;
Haply some poison doth hang on them.
[Kisses] Thy lips are warm. (only 4 syllables in this last line)

 There are possibilities within the text. One must ask the question as to what they could
do in using or speaking the text, and then make a choice that supports the character’s or
actor’s logic.

Elision – the omission of a sound or syllable when speaking (as in I’m, let’s, e’en). The process
of joining together or merging things, especially abstract ideas.
 Elision is the term referred to when contracting a syllable to make for instance a 3-
syllable word work as a 2-syllable word.
In-te-rest vs. In-trest
 If Elisions are formally noted within the text we call them contractions: I’d, he’d, etc.

Sometimes it is up to the actor to make the elision:

 ‘That the fixed sentinels almost receive’ (Henry V)
o depending on the scansion, the actor can say fixed or fix’d, in order to make sense
of the rhythm in the line
 At times, the pronunciation of the words may change depending on the scansion of the
o In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo says the word banished, rather than saying banish’d.

There is no world without Verona walls,

But purgatory, torture, hell itself.
Hence-banished is banish'd from the world,
And world's exile is death: then banished,
Is death mis-term'd: calling death banishment,
Thou cutt'st my head off with a golden axe,
And smilest upon the stroke that murders me.


Shakespeare used contractions in order to keep the ten-syllable iambic pentameter line. Hence,
Shakespeare contracted words and created surprising pronunciations


SHAKESPEARE sometimes adds an extra syllable to keep the 10-syllable iambic pentameter
line. i.e. ba – ni-shed