Memorizing Shakespeare 101: The Best Strategies for Actors

Updated: May 12





If you're new to Shakespeare, reading and memorizing Shakespearean text can be quite intimidating. But once you become accustomed, you eventually realize that despite the outmoded words, Shakespearean text is actually easier to memorize than contemporary text. Why is that? The primary reason is because most of Shakespeare's text is written in poetic verse. Poetry, with its meter, rhyme, and sound, has a more rigorous structure than prose, which naturally makes it easier to remember. You intuitively may already know this. Just think how many song lyrics you know by heart without even trying!



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When you understand the distinct features that set Shakespearean language apart, you can learn to use those features to your advantage as you are memorizing. Here are a few tips to help you really step up your game and memorize Shakespeare fast.


1. Understand the meaning of the text.

This may seem rather obvious, but it can't be taken for granted. Make sure you understand what the text means and what you are actually saying, otherwise you might as well be memorizing gibberish, and it's pretty freakin' hard to memorize gibberish. Get an annotated copy of the play published by Arden or Folger. Arden has richer and more extensive explanatory notes, but Folger will give you the most necessary explanations. You could also consult No Fear Shakespeare, published by Sparknotes. They have copies of each play printed with the original text side-by-side with a modern language version of the text.


That doesn't mean everything will be absolutely plain and clear to you. Some parts of Shakespeare are a bit cryptic or ambiguous. But it's important to have a strong grasp of what you're saying.


To make sure you fully understand the text:

  • Look up any words you don't know - Many of the commonly used words in Shakespeare's plays are no longer in contemporary usage, or they mean something different than the modern meaning. Be sure to look up any word you don't know, Shakespearean or otherwise. The best free online resource for this is www.shakespeareswords.com. If you want to get more geeked out on definitions, another great resource, though a bit harder to access, is the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED is fully available online with a subscription, but check your local library system to see if they offer free access to the OED through their website. Many of the major city libraries including in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles offer this. Or if you happen to be in college, your school likely gives you access to the OED as well.

  • Look up any allusions you don't know - Shakespeare often makes rich use of literary allusions in his plays. If you have an annotated copy of the play, there should be footnotes that explain each allusion to some extent. If necessary, do more research to fully illuminate the allusion. Even just reading the Wikipedia article will do. These allusions are mostly biblical, mythological (Greek or Roman), or historical. When you understand the stories or people he is referring to, you will have a richer picture of what is going on in the play.

  • Come up with a summary in your own words - This is a good exercise to solidify your understanding of the text. Go through each line you have and restate it in your own words.

2. Make use of the poetic verse.

Shakespeare's verse is primarily written in iambic pentameter. What does that mean exactly? An iamb is a metrical foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. It sounds like da-DUM. Some examples of words that fit an iamb: anew, describe, before, portray, below. Pentameter means there are five metrical feet in every line. So a line of iambic pentameter is five iambs. The rhythm sounds like da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM. Sometimes lines will have an extra unstressed syllable at the end; this is sometimes called a "feminine ending" or a "weak ending." (I know, I know, sexist much?)


Get familiar with this regular rhythm. Think of it as a regular heartbeat. What's interesting is that iambic pentameter approximately mimics the natural rhythm of the English language. You might sometimes even speak in iambic pentameter without even trying.


It's important to know that all of the poetic features of the text are a reflection of the character's state of mind. And rhythm is primary; it gets at something in the gut. Really feeling the rhythm will give you butt-loads of insight about the character! You'll be able to figure out what is really going on with them at a visceral level.


To really tune in and use the rhythm of the poetic verse:

  • Speak the text aloud - It's important to speak the text aloud so you can feel and hear the rhythm and sound in your mouth and in your body. Slow it down a little. Perhaps speak in a way to exaggerate the rhythm at first. Keep your internal ear focused on the sound and feel of the text. Notice how it adds to the meaning already inherent in the words. Think of it as a sort of meditative exercise. Notice how it makes you feel when you speak the words. What does it evoke? Is the rhythm nervous? Urgent? Flowing and relaxed? Skipping and playful? What does it illustrate about what is going on and what the character is saying? At some point, get up on your feet and walk to the rhythm as you speak the text aloud. You want to get the rhythm and the language into your body.

  • Scan the text - Scansion is the system of marking the text to illustrate the metrical patterns in the poetry. It involves marking the unstressed and stressed syllables in each line. These are the symbols you use, unstressed and stressed respectively: ˘ ʹ . Speak the text aloud, feel the rhythm, and mark your text accordingly. Some text is a bit ambiguous and could be scanned in different ways. In those cases, it's up to you as an actor to make a choice. Connect your rhythmic choices to your acting choices. Marry the rhythm to the meaning. See the YouTube video below to learn how to scan a poem. This may be a bit difficult for you at first if you're not used to scanning text. Don't be too obsessive if there's little bits you're not sure of how to scan. It's not meant to get you all up in your head. If you get frustrated with it, set aside scansion for now. The main thing is, scansion is a helpful tool to get you to start tapping into the rhythm of the text and noticing what it is doing.



  • Notice any irregular rhythms - Shakespeare's verse isn't always purely written in iambic pentameter. He switches things up quite a bit. When the pattern breaks, TAKE NOTICE! Feel it out; what effect does it have? What does it say about the character and their current state? For example, in Juliet's speech in Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene II, it starts:

"Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds."


Notice that the line starts not with an iamb, but a trochee, meaning the syllables of "gallop" are stressed then unstressed. That start gives her line an urgency that reflects her impatience. She wants night to come NOW!


  • Notice any lines that rhyme - Lines will sometimes rhyme in Shakespeare's plays. There is often a couplet that ends a scene or a part of a scene. It puts a button on things, often before an exit, giving it a feel of finality. Sometimes rhyme is used to highlight lines and make them stand out. Or rhyme is sometimes used to indicate wit or playfulness. Or they indicate a child-like simplicity. (Many of Puck's lines in A Midsummer Night's Dream rhyme.) Rhymes are often easier to remember, so take advantage of them!

  • Notice monosyllabic lines - Shakespeare often has lines that are all monosyllabic words. Monosyllabic lines stand out. They make the speaker slow down a bit and give the words emphasis. What message is being emphasized in those lines?

3. Use the rich imagery.

Shakespeare's language is full of rich, elaborate imagery. This is immensely valuable for memorization because the human mind remembers images best! Be sure to flesh out all the images in your mind. Indulge them; make them come alive with all your senses! When Hamlet says "'tis an unweeded garden, that grows to seed," see, smell, and touch that disgusting garden.


Observe this monologue from Richard III performed by Ralph Fiennes. There's much that is awesome here, but I think his delivery especially captures the vivid imagery of the piece. He makes phrases like, "hew my way out with a bloody axe" and "pluck it down" so deliciously chilling!



4. Use the phonesthetics.

What is phonesthetics? It is the artistic use of the sounds of words. Shakespeare was masterful at using the sounds of words to make his language come alive in an exciting way for the listener. Alliteration and assonance are used a lot to evoke certain feelings. The language has a sonic texture. The sound of the words contributes to the meaning of the words. To really tap into this, speak the words aloud and really savor them. Emphasize the vowels and consonants. Notice the sensations you feel when you speak them. How do they feel in your mouth and in your body? How do they sound? What emotion are they evoking? Use the sound of the text to inform you about the character and what they are going through. In general, vowel sounds tend to convey emotion, and the consonants tend to convey the intellect. In Hamlet's first soliloquy, notice how he says "O" several times starting with, "O that this too solid flesh would melt." He's so aggrieved throughout, it's like he's moaning with anguish.


For a demonstration of how to incorporate the phonesthetics, take a look at this video of James Earl Jones performing a monologue from Othello. Notice the particularly fun and delicious way he says "mighty magic."




5. Use the rhetorical patterns.

Shakespeare scenes are often like rhetorical dances. Or if things are more heated, it's like linguistic swashbuckling. There's this give and take. One character says something, and then the other character takes that statement and plays with it or elaborates on it in some way. There is often a repetition or parallel construction of some kind. Sometimes a character says a line that creates a rhyming couplet with the previous person's line. Noticing these patterns can really help you in your memorization, especially in learning your cues.


For example, in Richard III, Act 1, Scene 2, Gloucester (Richard III) and Lady Anne go back and forth like this throughout the scene. Here's just one bit of it:


Gloucester

Vouchsafe, divine perfection of a woman,

Of these supposed-evils, to give me leave,

By circumstance, but to acquit myself.


Lady Anne


Vouchsafe, defused infection of a man,

For these known evils, but to give me leave,

By circumstance, to curse thy cursed self.


See how everything he says in his lines has a corollary in her lines. Not all scenes are like this of course; the connections are more subtle, but they're there, so look for them!


There are also rhetorical patterns in monologues that structure the speaker's argument or through-line. For a demonstration of this in action, check out this performance by Damian Lewis of Antony's monologue from Julius Caesar. Notice how he masterfully uses the repetition of the phrase, "And Brutus is an honorable man."




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