The Best Books and Resources for Shakespearean Actors
Updated: Jan 6, 2021
This is a companion post to my previous post, 10 Books Every Actor Needs.
Playing a Shakespearean role is an entirely different ball of wax than playing a contemporary role. Actors who are a bit clueless might think they can get by by just speaking in a more antiquated and declamatory way or by trying to seem more...British. But playing Shakespeare is so much more than that! It requires training and refined technique. Here are some of the best books and resources to help the budding Shakespearean actor.
1. Playing Shakespeare by John Barton
John Barton was a British theatre director and co-founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company. This book is a brilliant, practical guide for actors. High school and college English classes have trained us to read Shakespeare's plays from a literary perspective, a task of cloistered scholarship. But it's important to remember that his plays weren't written to be read they were written to be performed. The book explains how to analyze the text for the purpose of playing it: using the verse and poetry, etc.
Perhaps even more valuable than the book is the 9-part workshop video series of the same name. Recorded back in 1982, this series of master classes is a THRILL to watch, and is amazingly instructive for any aspiring Shakespearean actor. John Barton directs the workshops, with legendary RSC actors such as Ian McKellan, Judi Dench, Patrick Stewart, and Ben Kingsley acting and rehearsing various scenes. In the hands of such masterful actors, Shakespeare's language comes alive spectacularly.
BONUS: You get to see what Patrick Stewart looked like when he had HAIR. Well...at least some hair.
The series is available on DVD. It also is currently posted on YouTube. (The poster hasn't received a copyright violation just yet.) Check out Part 1 below:
2. Speaking Shakespeare by Patsy Rodenburg
Patsy Rodenburg is a renowned voice coach who has worked with The Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre. Shakespeare's language is extraordinarily dense and rich, which is a gift as well as a challenge for the actor. Because of this linguistic intricacy, proper voice and speech training is particularly important for Shakespearean acting. This book is an extraordinary resource for preparing the body and voice as well as understanding how to approach and analyze the text.
3. Freeing Shakespeare's Voice by Kristin Linklater
Kristin Linklater is a master voice and speech coach and her Linklater Technique is taught in many drama schools. In my last post, I recommended her foundational book, Freeing the Natural Voice. In this book, she brings her brilliant technique to Shakespearean text.
4. Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare by Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov is best known for being a science fiction author, but he also was a major history buff. Among his various historical books, is this guide to Shakespeare. This MASSIVE tome has a wealth of dramaturgical, background information on each of Shakespeare's plays. This book is super helpful for filling out the world of the play for yourself.
5. Any Arden versions of the plays
When it comes to printed copies of Shakespeare's plays, you have a lot of publications to choose from. Arden hands down has the most helpful and informative footnotes in their editions. Whatever Shakespeare play you happen to get cast in, do yourself a favor, and go get yourself a copy of the Arden edition of the play. You won't regret it. Don't bother getting Arden's volume of Shakespeare's Complete Works though; it doesn't have any of the footnotes!
6. Shakespeare Uncovered - PBS series
Shakespeare Uncovered is a series that has been airing on PBS for the past few years. It just completed its third season. Each episode takes you on a journey through one of the plays guided by a professional actor who has played the main role before. Such illustrious hosts include Morgan Freeman, Ethan Hawke, Helen Hunt, and David Tennant. They delve into the themes of the play. They also go behind the scenes with actors rehearsing and performing the play at The Globe Theatre in London.
You may be able to stream some of the episodes on the PBS app. The older episodes require you to be a PBS Passport member.
You can also buy them on DVD here:
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