How to Memorize a Shakespeare Scene

Updated: Jan 6, 2021


This is Part 4 of my series on memorizing Shakespeare. To see my previous posts in this series, check out the links below:

There are some special challenges (and advantages) to memorizing and playing a Shakespeare scene. Your lines and your partner's lines are poetically interdependent. They are interwoven in a way where there is a rhetorical back and forth. Ideas, symbols, and images blossom, evolve, and transform between you. You need to be able to follow those lines of thought. You can't (or shouldn't) memorize your lines completely isolated from your partner's lines. You need to analyze the scene as a whole. It will help you to remember your own lines when you know how they relate to and respond to your partner's lines.



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I will show you step-by-step the best way to go about memorizing a Shakespeare scene. To demonstrate this, I will use Act III, Scene V of Romeo and Juliet as my example:

JULIET

Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day.

It was the nightingale, and not the lark,

That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear.

Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate tree.

Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.


ROMEO

It was the lark, the herald of the morn,

No nightingale. Look, love, what envious streaks

Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east.

Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day

Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.

I must be gone and live, or stay and die.


JULIET

Yon light is not daylight, I know it, I.

It is some meteor that the sun exhales

To be to thee this night a torchbearer,

And light thee on thy way to Mantua.

Therefore stay yet. Thou need’st not to be gone.


ROMEO

Let me be ta'en. Let me be put to death.

I am content, so thou wilt have it so.

I’ll say yon grey is not the morning’s eye.

'Tis but the pale reflex of Cynthia’s brow.

Nor that is not the lark, whose notes do beat

The vaulty heaven so high above our heads.

I have more care to stay than will to go.

Come, death, and welcome! Juliet wills it so.

How is ’t, my soul? Let’s talk. It is not day.


JULIET

It is, it is. Hie hence! Be gone, away!

It is the lark that sings so out of tune,

Straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps.

Some say the lark makes sweet division.

This doth not so, for she divideth us.

Some say the lark and loathèd toad change eyes.

Oh, now I would they had changed voices too,

Since arm from arm that voice doth us affray,

Hunting thee hence with hunt’s-up to the day.

O, now be gone. More light and light it grows.


ROMEO

More light and light, more dark and dark our woes!


1. Understand the scene.

You need to make sure you have a general understanding of what is going on in the scene and what everyone is saying.

  • If possible, read the whole play for context.

  • Use an annotated edition such as the ones published by Arden, The New Cambridge Shakespeare, or Folger. (I prefer Arden as I find they provide the most informative and insightful footnotes. Click on the links to compare the three different versions on Amazon.) You can also check out No Fear Shakespeare online for free, to see their modern English versions of the text as well as other study notes.

  • Look up any words you don't know. For the more archaic words no longer in modern usage, a great resource is www.shakespeareswords.com.

2. Divide the scene into beats. Name the beats.

A beat division occurs in the text when there is a significant shift in thought, subject, or action. In this scene the divisions are fairly clear because the scene has a point, counterpoint like structure. So the scene tends to shift when the next person speaks.


Here are the beat divisions I came up with:

It’s not day.

JULIET

Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day.

It was the nightingale, and not the lark,

That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear.

Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate tree.

Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.


It is day.

ROMEO

It was the lark, the herald of the morn,

No nightingale. Look, love, what envious streaks

Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east.

Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day

Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.

I must be gone and live, or stay and die.


It’s not day. Stay, don’t go.

JULIET

Yon light is not daylight, I know it, I.

It is some meteor that the sun exhales

To be to thee this night a torchbearer,

And light thee on thy way to Mantua.

Therefore stay yet. Thou need’st not to be gone.


As you wish.

ROMEO

Let me be ta'en. Let me be put to death.

I am content, so thou wilt have it so.

I’ll say yon grey is not the morning’s eye.

'Tis but the pale reflex of Cynthia’s brow.

Nor that is not the lark, whose notes do beat

The vaulty heaven so high above our heads.

I have more care to stay than will to go.

Come, death, and welcome! Juliet wills it so.

How is ’t, my soul? Let’s talk. It is not day.


Be gone.

JULIET

It is, it is. Hie hence! Be gone, away!

It is the lark that sings so out of tune,

Straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps.

Some say the lark makes sweet division.

This doth not so, for she divideth us.

Some say the lark and loathèd toad change eyes.

Oh, now I would they had changed voices too,

Since arm from arm that voice doth us affray,

Hunting thee hence with hunt’s-up to the day.

O, now be gone. More light and light it grows.