When you are applying to drama school most schools will request that you learn at least one “Classical” piece. Although you’ll be able to choose Webster, Marlowe, Jonson and other contemporaries it is most likely that you’ll be performing a speech from Shakespeare. This article covers: finding your speech, the basics of performing Shakespeare and how to take your learning to the next level.
The problem I find is when you search “how to perform Shakespeare” there are very few guides that are reliable. True, there are lots of thick books on the subject but that’s exactly the problem… there are too many thick books. I know because I’ve read all of them and have performed Classical speeches in auditions many times. This is a condensed guide for drama school students and young actors.
If I don’t cover all your questions in this article – which is unlikely because it’s a craft that takes years to perfect – then I’ll list reading material and source information.
Choosing a speech
Undoubtedly the best place to find speeches from the plays of Shakespeare is this site: https://www.shakespeare-monologues.org/home
It was my bible while I was auditioning and a monologue from this site got me into drama school. The reason this is such a good website is because it’s all completely free. I made a big mistake of buying “The complete works of Shaksepeare” for hundreds of poundswhen I was auditioning. I now realize that it was a complete waste of money. I always suggest saving whenever you can and instead of purchasing the complete works of Shakespeare just use this site and start reading. Why pay for something you don’t need? You’re a student so spend it on essentials instead.
Once you’ve found a speech that you like then I reccomend that you read the play that it’s from – the whole thing. Not only that but make sure you go and see it. If you live in a big city this will be easy because the cannon of Shakespeare are always being performed. If you live in a small town or village then you have my permission to watch a BBC adaptation or a version online.
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Learning the speech
Once you’ve chosen a speech you don’t want to learn your lines just by looking at them in your bedroom. Don’t just stare at the page repeating your lines in order to cram them into your brain. I know you’ll want to get them learnt as soon as possible but it will improve your audition so much if you just stop right there!
Don’t learn your lines to death. Learn your lines to life!
A much better technique is to forget about learning the lines. That may sound contradictory but by taking a step back you’ll improve your understanding of the text. You have to practice the speech so much that the lines come as a bi-product. Say them in different ways so many times that you just naturally remember them. Experiment and explore the rythm in the speech as well as letting the natural pace impact how you deliver them.
The problem with sitting down and trying to memorize them is that they come out boring because the process of learning them has been invariably boring. If you sit there and just stare at the page – which is what most people do – then your performance will be as rehearsed and as stiff as a wooden stage.
My favourite exercise:
Have your Shakespeare speech written out or typed up on a piece of paper. It should be in blank verse which means there is a capital letter at the start of each line. This is my very simplified explanation of blank verse so if you want a more in-depth explanation then please see the further reading section. Let’s take an example from a line written by Shakespeare:
“If music be the food of love play on”
Notice how there is a rhythm that alternates back and forth throughout the line
If MUsic BE the FOOD of LOVE play ON
On every second syllable there is an emphasis. We do this all the time in everyday speech and its part of the way the English language is structured. This doesn’t need to be on the second syllable every time this one just happens to have 10 syllables – which is called iambic pentameter.
You don’t need to know about this subject perfectly or in a lot of depth, especially if you are applying to drama school. However, if you do this exercise then you should be on your way.
All I want you to do is read through your speech and tap out the rhythm behind the words. When you think there is an emphasized beat then I want you to step forward on your dominant foot and then rock back on your other foot for the de-stressed words.
You’ll look like a bit of a muppet because if anyone saw you you’d look like you were dancing with a piece of paper in your hand but it’s important for you to feel the rhythm in the writing and not just speak it plainly.
Do not make the mistake I made of going into the audition and trying to show the panel that I knew what the rhythm was. Once you think you feel the rhythm then drop it! Speak the speech normally as if you are saying it. The rhythm is just meant to inform your choices and not to constrain you.
Alternatively you can tap this out with your hand on your thigh:
“To BE or NOT to BE that IS the QUES-tion”
“tap TAP tap TAP tap TAP tap TAP tap TAP tap”
This line has 11 syllables which is called a feminine ending, and when you go to drama school you’ll learn that there are many more technicalities within Iambic pentameter. However, you don’t need to know the names of them in order to find what the rhythm is. Just notice that Shakespeare has formalized what we do every day in colloquial speech and feel where it is in your speech.
Remember, you speak this naturally if you just say the line so don’t think about it too much. Become aware that there is a rhythm in the language but don’t overly focus on it or think that you have to demonstrate that when in the audition room.
My favourite introductory book on the subject is Ben Crystals: Shakespeare on Toast. He has written some seriously heavy hitting books on the subject but this is by far his best for a beginner. It goes over iambic pentameter in much more detail than I can in a blog post. If you are more of an academic character then it might help you to learn more about the subject but remember what I said in the previous section – you don’t need to learn this or demonstrate it in the audition room because the whole point of drama school is that they teach this in-depth.
If you want to get into more detail then the second book to look at would be Peter Brooks: The Empty Space It is written by the legendary Director, Peter Brook and goes into much more technical detail about how an actor should approach classical text. I would only reccomend this to students who have time to consider classical texts more. It wouldn’t necessarily be suitable for those people who aren’t a massive fan of studying a subject or academic. Then again, you might fall head over heels in love with Shakespeare and end up becoming a scholar on the subject.
Finally, I suggest you buy Conor McGrath’s: Drama School but only if you are applying to drama school and are looking for an in-depth guide of performing shakespeare. If you are already a trained actor or have experience in performing classical texts then this book wouldn’t be suitable. It’s best for those people applying to drama school or haven’t had much auditioning experience who are looking for an easy guide.
Final thoughts for the audition room
The auditioners aren’t looking for perfection. Remember this when you’re walking into the audition room or getting nervous. Often they see applicants with very limited knowledge of the Classical texts and they understand that this may be your first time performing Shakespeare.
You do not need to show that you understand Iambic Pentameter or perform the speech in a way that you think is “Shakespearean.” Instead, focus on the truth of what the character is saying.
Finally, good luck!
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