Once you’ve chosen a speech you don’t want to learn your lines just by looking at them in your bedroom. It’s better to say them in different ways so many times that you just naturally remember them. The basics of performing Shakespeare is really the basics of Acting. Those people who can master a difficult art like classical texts are much better prepared for the contemporary speech of prose.
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. In this section, I will talk very briefly about how to tackle Iambic Pentameter in text and then go onto basic exercises to prepare a speech.
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. 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
Every second syllable there is an emphasis on this line. 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 perfectly or in a lot of depth – do this exercise and 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 in Iambic pentameter. However, you don’t need to know the names of them in order to find what the rhythm is.
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.
When you read books on Shakespeare they get extremely technical very quickly.
If you are an actor you should focus more on feeling and not on thinking.
They aren’t looking for perfection and they know that you have very limited knowledge of the Classical texts. So don’t think you need to show that you understand Iambic Pentameter. Focus on the truth of what the character is saying.