How to Memorize a Shakespeare Scene

Updated: Jan 6


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.


ROMEO

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


You can see that by doing this, you create a basic map of the scene. You can start to see the journey the scene takes. Which leads us to my next step.


3. Find the structure of the scene.

So the beats have provided us with a basic map. Now we're going to fill it in with more detail.

Here are some questions you should ask:

  • What is the through-line?

  • How does one character's lines relate to the other character's lines?

  • What words and images get repeated?

  • Are there any rhymes or rhythmic patterns?

So let's first take a look at what is actually happening in this scene. It's the morning after Romeo and Juliet have been married and spent the night together. With the coming of day, Romeo must leave Verona and flee to Mantua. In the first beat, Juliet tries to convince Romeo that it is still nighttime, which means he doesn't have to leave yet. She might know perfectly well it's morning, but she's trying to keep harsh reality at bay. She's playing around, weaving a little fantasy. In the next beat, Romeo says no, it really is morning and is confronting the reality of having to leave. In the third beat, she denies it some more, and insists it is still nighttime. She's playing pretend. In the fourth beat, Romeo turns and indulges her game. He embraces the fantasy, but takes it to its ironic, morbid end by invoking death and welcoming it. In the fifth beat, the beautiful bubble is punctured. There's a role reversal. Juliet allows reality to flood back in and urges him to go, accepting painfully that he must leave her.


Several things get repeated throughout this scene. Notice how many opposites get pitted against each other: the lark vs. the nightingale, day vs. night, light vs. dark, staying vs. going, life vs. death. Romeo and Juliet are stuck between these opposites. They're stuck between two difficult and painful choices. It's good to follow which words get repeated and see the journey those words take. Follow "lark," "gone," "day," and "light."


Notice how there are a few rhyming couplets that appear throughout the scene. Notice the effect they have. The rhyme tends to highlight what is being said in those lines. It makes them stand out. The rhyme encapsulates something poignant and important. A few times, one person starts the rhyme, and the other person completes it. There's a sense of urgency or reinforcement with that matching. Rhymes are easier to remember, so use these to your advantage.


4. Hook your lines to your partner's lines.

Take a look at your lines, and figure out what parts are a response or elaboration to something your partner said. Find the parts of their lines that you are responding to. Connect them together. See how one leads into the other. When your partner says their lines, let those key response words trigger and propel your next line.


For example, notice how Romeo's first line of "It was the lark, the herald of the morn" is a direct response and contradiction to Juliet saying, "it was the nightingale." Hook those two lines together in your mind.


Check out this post to learn an exercise that helps you link lines together in this way and makes your reactions more genuine.


5. Memorize one beat at a time.

Now it's time to go through methodically and memorize your lines beat by beat. You may already notice that through the work and analysis you've already done, some of the words are already memorized. The trick is to provide more and more meaning and elaboration to the words so they become stickier.


Now you don't have to memorize your partner's lines word for word, but I encourage you to spend time mulling over your partner's lines. Think about them from the perspective of your character. How does he/she feel about what the other person is saying? What do those words spark in them? Make note of any ideas that come to mind. Include your partner's lines as you practice. Read through them and take them in before reciting your lines in response.


Here are a few ways to go about memorizing each beat:

  • Memorize one phrase at a time, of between 5-9 words. This tip is based on findings that our working memory is limited. And at any given time it's best at holding about seven items or "bits" of information. Break your lines up into phrases of between 5-9 words, and work on one phrase at a time. Eventually the individual words in the phrase will be glued together more in your mind so that the phrase itself becomes one "bit." After that, you can string more phrases together.

  • Speak the lines aloud and listen for the poetic "music." Speak the lines aloud and notice the sound and feel. Savor the vowels and consonants. Notice how there is meaning and intention in the sound and feel of the poetry.

  • Speak and focus on the meaning of the words. Speak the words and focus on the semantic meaning of the words. Think about why your character is choosing to say these exact words.

  • Create representative images. Shakespeare always uses very rich imagery, which is very helpful, as the mind remembers images best. Flesh out these images in your mind. Indulge them with all your senses.

  • Get on your feet and experiment with blocking/staging. Movement and staging will add more elaboration and meaning to the words, which will give your memory more to hang onto. Get up and start really acting!

  • Test yourself! Don't just review your lines by reading them on the page. Get off the page as soon as you can and test yourself. The more you can retrieve the words from within, the more you strengthen your memorization of the lines. Glance at the page just to check yourself.

6. Take a break.

Breaks actually help your memory. Take a break and do something completely different for a little while. Some good options include doing some exercise or taking a nap.


Check out these posts to learn more about how exercise and sleep boost memory:

7. Evaluate how well you know each of your beats.

A good way to do this is to use what I call The Speed Test. Simply recite your lines at a faster pace than normal. If those lines are thoroughly memorized, they should spill out of your mouth quite smoothly without much mental effort. If you get stuck on some parts, or you have to slow down to remember some of the lines, then that is a sign those lines need some more work.


Place your beats into three categories: 1-the ones you know the least, 2-the ones you know better, and 3-the ones you have down solid. (If your beats include some of your partner's lines, that's fine. Just read your partner's lines before testing yourself on your own.)


8. Revisit your beats using spaced repetition.

We remember things better when we space out our learning over time. This principle is called spaced repetition. To use this, revisit your beats according to how well you know them.


Let's say you need the scene memorized in a couple days. Try these intervals:


1st category: Review every 15-20 minutes

2nd category: Review every 1-2 hours

3rd category: Review every 6-8 hours


As you improve on beats, they will move up to the other categories, so you can revisit them less. To learn more about spaced repetition, check out this post:

Still struggling with a few spots? Read this post to learn how to work out those kinks:

9. Revisit the whole scene using spaced repetition.

When you feel you have all of your beats about equally memorized, revisit the entire scene top to bottom using spaced repetition.


Here are my suggested intervals:

1st repetition: After 15-20 minutes

2nd repetition: After 1-2 hours

3rd repetition: After 6-8 hours

4th repetition: After 24 hours


You can adjust them according to your needs. If you need to memorize the scene quicker, use shorter intervals. If you have more time, lengthen the intervals.



Ready to learn more? Check out my FREE MASTERCLASS, Memorizing Lines the Smart Way


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