Written and Edited by Lindsay Price January, 2009
In this newsletter, we'll focus on performing the Shakespeare monologue.
At some point, everyone who takes drama has to perform a Shakespeare monologue. The Shakespeare monologue is a special monster. You have to make sure you understand what's happening, what you're saying, and convey that understanding to an audience. Add to that, you must create a vivid character and dynamic blocking choices! That's a lot of work for one two minute monologue. Where do you start?
In this newsletter we're going to look at understanding the text, character development, emotional action, and some performance hints and tips.
It's inevitable. If you're working on a Shakespeare monologue, you're going to have to do some language work. There's nothing worse than an actor who doesn't know what they're saying. You can't fake it.
Unless you're going to become a professional Shakespearean actor, or go on to study it extensively, there are only two language exercises that I would suggest for every Shakespeare monologue:
Your first step is to identify and define every word that you're not familiar with, or doesn't make sense in the context of the sentence. Shakespeare uses many words that do not have the same meaning as they do today. For example, the word soft is used to describe something neither hard nor sharp. In Shakespeare's time it meant, "wait a minute." When Romeo says, "But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?", he is saying, "Hey wait a minute, who's there?"
Say the following out loud. Never read Shakespeare silently, always speak it!
Down, down to hell and say I sent thee thither.
This is from Henry VI. It is said by Richard (who goes on to star in Richard III) as he kills Henry.
What are the unfamiliar words? thee and thither.
What do they mean?
you (thee is an object, thou is the subject)
to that place
Now say the line with those words changed: Down, down to hell and say I sent you there.
We'll turn our attention to translation for a moment. It's so important to remember that Shakespeare WAS writing in modern English for his time. His texts did not come across as funny-sounding or archaic to his audience. To that end, you must treat the language as if it is written in modern language and speak it as if it is written in modern language.
To do that, you have to understand exactly what you are saying, and keep that translation in your head as you speak Shakespeare's words.
It's not enough to plunk modern words into Shakespeare's spaces. That's just going to make the sentence sound stilted and fake. For example, Down, down to hell and say I sent you there is awkward. No one in the middle of committing murder would speak like this! You have to make the sentence sound as if it were written today:
Go to hell! Tell'em I sent you.
Here's a trickier one to try on your own:
You draw me you hard hearted adamant!
This is Helena speaking to Demetrius in A Midsummer Night's Dream. A little hint: The modern definition of adamant isn't going to help you. You'll need to find the archaic definition... Click here to see the answer.
A NOTE ON IAMBIC PENTAMETER: When you start with Shakespeare, you'll invariably encounter someone stressing the importance of iambic pentameter. Yes, it is important. And yes, it can have great effect on a performance. It is a part of the language of Shakespeare.
I also think that unless you're going to be become a professional actor, or you're going to study acting, working on the iambic pentameter of a monologue hurts more than helps. It's easy to get into a trap of speaking in the rhythm of the meter, which is not at all what Shakespeare intended.
If you're interested in learning more about the structure of Shakespeare's language, by all means do it. Otherwise, take that time and focus on character development instead.
Check out these Shakespeare language resources:
It's easy to ignore character development in a Shakespeare monologue. There's so many other things to think about! But it's doubly important to pay attention to your character – the character is what makes your monologue come to life. A flesh and blood character transcends the most difficult to understand language. Shakespeare's characters have the same qualities that you have; they have the same emotional reactions as you have. The foundation of Shakespeare is the characters and the conflict they face. That's why Shakespeare remains relevant.
As you prepare, think of your character as no different than a modern character. Use modern exercises to help you create the character.
This short monologue is spoken by Demetrius in Act II scene I of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Demetrius is speaking to Helena, who has followed him into the woods. Helena loves Demetrius, but Demetrius loves Hermia. Demetrius wants to stop Hermia from running of with her boyfriend Lysander. As you read along, speak the following out loud:
DEMETRIUS: I love thee not, therefore pursue me not.
Where is Lysander and fair Hermia?
The one I'll slay, the other slayeth me.
Thou told'st me they were stolen unto this wood;
And here am I, and wode within this wood,
Because I cannot meet my Hermia.
Hence, get thee gone, and follow me no more.
First, translate the speech into modern English. Click here to see the answer.
To treat Demetrius as if he is a modern character in a play we're going to look at the following elements:
First, go through the play and highlight the information given about your character in the text. Write it down in a point form list so you can clearly see what you know about your character.
What information do we know about Demetrius? In the speech itself we know that he loves Hermia, hates Lysander and doesn't love Helena. But that's not the only source of information. This is why it's so important to read the whole play. You never know how a detail from earlier in the play can inform the monologue, or add an additional layer to the performance.
The most important piece of past information for Demetrius is that he and Helena used to date. Helena says the following speech in Act I scene I:
For, ere Demetrius looked on Hermia's eyne,
He hailed down oaths that he was only mine,
And when this hail some heat from Hermia felt,
So he dissolved, and showers of oaths did melt.
Before Demetrius fell for Hermia, he told Helena he was only in love with her. That is a highly important clue to Demetrius' character. Think about the moment in modern terms. Demetrius tells Helena he loves her and now he's telling her to get out of his sight. This is not an archaic emotional response!
As you're reading along, speak Demetrius' speech aloud three times, with three different subtexts:
This leads nicely into Character Background: we've already established how important past moments can be to a present moment. Next you want to fill in the blanks for your character. Yes you should do this, even if you're only performing a monologue! The more you know about the character the more three-dimensional you can make them in the moment.
Don't get caught up in the "Shakespeare," the Elizabethian period details... that's not the point of the exercise. You're working toward making the character human, you're trying not to think of the character as archaic. Create modern details. For example, I would suggest that Demetrius was a spoiled brat as a child, and a bully while in school. That type of detail works for any character, whatever period.
Create a character profile for Demetrius with the following details:
There are always going to be questions that you can ask and answer about your character. Particularly with Shakespeare where there can be a lot of gaps! You should be able to come up with at least 10 questions about your character based on the story. Answer them in what ever manner works for you – improv, writing, interview, etc. Again, don't get caught up with the period.
Some sample questions for Demetrius are:
And don't forget the basics:
A big part of character development is physicalization. This is something that gets ignored time and time again in Shakespeare monologues. How does your character stand? How do they walk? How do they exit and enter a room?
Physicalization must be a part of your character development. Here is an exercise series to get you thinking about your character's physicality.
The last piece in the puzzle is the emotional journey of the monologue. It's essential to build an emotional action into Shakespeare. This is what an audience, a judge, a director will connect to. Even if someone watching you doesn't quite understand what you're saying, it's hard to misinterpret emotion.
Actors often feel that because a monologue is so short, that there's only time to hit one emotion and hit it hard. This is not the case at all. Human beings never experience one emotion at a time. We are happy/sad. We are angry/embarrassed/nervous. Emotional variety is key.
Using the Demetrius monologue, explore the following exercises to play with emotional variety.
Guilt for Helena, Love for Hermia, Hatred for Lysander.
Anger for Helena, Infatuation for Hermia, Jealousy for Lysander.
Tenderness for Helena, Weakness for Hermia, Irritation for Lysander.
Dislike for Helena, Happiness for Hermia, Exasperation for Lysander.
How do the different variations read? What do they tell you about the character? How do they affect the reading of the monologue?
Some actors have trouble creating gesture and movement in their monologues: I don't know how to move, I don't know when to move. Do I have too much blocking, do I have too little? What to do with my hands? Do I stand for the whole thing?
The easiest way to address physical action in a monologue is to connect it to the emotional action. Don't move because you think you should. Move with purpose. Move with emotion. If you have three emotions in the monologue, come up with one move or gesture for each emotion.
Using the previous exercise, come up with an physical action (a move or a gesture) for each emotion.
Here are some handy hints for auditioning or competiting with Shakespeare.
Electrify your audience, don't shock them. Actors want to stand out and be memorable. Some actors feel the only way to do that is to be graphic, or to wail uncontrollably, or to shout from beginning to end. It puts the emphasis on the action and not on you. It confronts the listener and doesn't engage them.
Never go over the time limit. I judge for Thespian monologue competitions and I am amazed how often competitors go over the time they've been given. Be ruthless with your time, always err on your monologue being too short. An auditioner can get what they want out of your audition in under a minute.
Be appropriate. Do your homework. If you're auditioning for a play, choose a monologue that will make the director think you're appropriate for a certain role. If auditioning for a school, you need to showcase your talent. Choose age appropriate material.
Look for emotional change. When choosing a monologue look for pieces that change emotionally from beginning to end. For example, I would never suggest Ophelia's mad monologue. She's mad from beginning to end. There's no emotional change. There's nothing to learn about the character. It's hard to make that a showcase moment.
Avoid the Familiar. These are the monologues that everyone knows - 'To be or not to be....' Avoid anything you're familiar with. They're overdone and it will be hard to stand out.
Choose Material you like. It's amazing how few actors take this into consideration. It's hard to work on a piece that you're not passionate about. It will show in the final product.
Do not Ignore the Physical Action. Nothing hurts a monlogue more than an actor who speaks so well, but hasn't thought at all about the physical action of the piece. The actor who wanders from foot to foot. The actor who paces. The actor who uses the same gesture seven times. It shows a lack of dedication and focus – that's not what you want to show a director or judge.
Memorizing Shakespeare is no easy feat. How do you keep those words in your head?
The main thing you have to do is show no fear. Shakespeare is not written in another language. It is not irrelevant. Every Shakespeare character deals with emotions and themes that are still vibrant today. Language may have changed over the past few hundred years but the emotions are exactly the same. And on stage, a flesh and blood emotionally varied performance will always win out over a technically linguistically perfect performance. Find that hook to playing the character and you'll captivate any audience.