To Be Or Not to Be: The Best Way to Memorize a Shakespeare Monologue

Updated: May 12, 2021





This is the third post in my series on memorizing Shakespeare. To see the previous posts, click the links below:


Part 1: Memorizing Shakespeare 101: The Best Strategies for Actors

Part 2: The Fastest Way to Memorize a Shakespeare Sonnet: A Step-by-Step-Guide


In this post, I will be showing you step-by-step exactly how to memorize a Shakespeare monologue or soliloquy, and we'll be using the most famous passage in all of English literature, Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech, as our example template. This is the most efficient method I have devised.



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1. Understand the monologue.

Pretty obvious advice here, but it shouldn't be taken for granted. You want to make sure you understand exactly what the monologue is saying, so you can analyze it properly.

  • Read the entire play for context. It's helpful to understand the monologue as part of the larger play. Where in the play does the monologue take place? What happens before and after? This will help you interpret what is going on in the monologue and how to play it.

  • Read an annotated copy of the text. An edition of the play with plenty of footnotes is your best tool for fully understanding the monologue and the play. It will explain a lot of the archaic words and references, clarify some of the sentence constructions, and will just generally provide a lot of juicy insight. I prefer the editions of the plays published by Arden and Folger. Arden has more abundant, in-depth notes, but they tend to be more complex and academic. Folger's notes are more concise and straightforward. There are also sometimes "longer notes" in the backs of the books (both Arden and Folger), with more extended explanations and interpretations.

  • Look up any words you don't know. My go-to free resource for looking up any outdated words is www.shakespeareswords.com.

  • Summarize the monologue in your own words. This is a good exercise to ensure you have a firm grasp of the overall meaning of the monologue. By putting it in your own words, you make it your own. You more fully integrate your understanding of the monologue. To show you an example of what you might come up with, here is the original text of "To Be Or Not To Be" and here is my summary:

To exist or not exist. Is it more honorable to endure the hardships of life or to fight back and end the suffering? To die and just sleep and end this enormous pain would be a relief. But what about what comes after death? That's the fear that stops us and makes us prolong our lives. Who would choose to take the oppression, insults, pain of unrequited love, the injustice and the abuse, when he could settle his accounts by stabbing himself? Who would bear these burdens if not for the fear of the afterlife, that unknown place where we all go and can never return. It confuses us and makes us accept our horrible circumstances in life, instead of rushing headlong into the unknown. Thus our deeply thinking minds make us cowards. And the healthy flush that comes with a committed resolve becomes sickly and pale with too much thinking. And high ambitions and great plans get turned aside and don't get put into action.


Now, I must take a moment here to explain that interpretation of this scene and this monologue has been hotly debated for a really long time. It is apparent that the speech is about whether it is better to live or to die and the contemplation of suicide as a tool to end life's suffering. But given the context of the play, it doesn't seem likely that in the speech Hamlet is earnestly deciding whether or not to kill himself. (In the scene just before this, Hamlet has set in motion his scheme to put on a play to "catch the conscience of the King.") The speech is a bit removed from his personal circumstances, and seems to be more a meditation on the universal human experience of suffering. He doesn't speak of "I" or "me," but rather "we." And yet, we can see how the speech does relate to his personal circumstances in a somewhat indirect way. There are undercurrents that seem to speak to his dilemma about what to do about Claudius, whether to kill him or not. Some critics go so far as to say when Hamlet says "To be or not to be" he really means "to act or not to act" or even "to kill or not to kill." Indeed, a lot of Hamlet's lines in other scenes where he is feigning madness have that similar quality. There are layers of meaning. Sometimes the wordplay and dual meanings are more overt, and sometimes they're more subtle. Certain things he says seem to hint at something else, something more portentous, which unnerves the people he is talking to and makes them suspicious of him. Varying interpretations of this scene and speech seem to hinge on whether or not Hamlet is aware that Claudius and Polonius are spying on him, whether he is saying certain things purposely for them to hear. Ultimately, how the scene is played will be up to the director.


In my opinion, it's not particularly useful for an actor to put a lot of conscious effort into playing up the possible subtext to the speech, to in effect make it about the subtext. That would require contorting the text past its reasonable meaning. Those undercurrents are there, and I think an actor can trust those undercurrents to emerge naturally and be felt by just playing the speech for what it actually says.


A couple more resources for helping you understand "To be or not to be":

2. Divide the monologue into beats. Name the beats.

Breaking the monologue into beats makes it less intimidating and more digestible. A beat division occurs in the text when there is a significant shift in thought, subject, or action. Sometimes beat divisions are subjective and depend on how the actor would like to play the monologue. Put a line between each beat, so you can see each beat as separate from one another. To name each beat, use a phrase that summarizes that beat in a nutshell and helps you identify it. I've identified six beats in Hamlet's monologue. Here they are along with the names I've created for them:

HAMLET


To be or not to be

To be or not to be—that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles And, by opposing, end them.


To die, to sleep, what a relief!


To die, to sleep— No more—and by a sleep to say we end

The heartache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to—’tis a consummation Devoutly to be wished.


To die, to sleep, uh oh...


To die, to sleep— To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub, For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause. There’s the respect That makes calamity of so long life.


Why bear all this horrible crap?


For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,

The pangs of dispriz’d love, the law’s delay, The insolence of office, and the spurns That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes, When he himself might his quietus make With a bare bodkin?


Why bear this? Because of the unknown.


Who would fardels bear, To grunt and sweat under a weary life, But that the dread of something after death, The undiscovered country from whose bourn No traveler returns, puzzles the will And makes us rather bear those ills we have Than fly to others that we know not of?


We're all cowards.


Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, And enterprises of great pitch and moment With this regard their currents turn awry And lose the name of action.


3. Underline and/or bold the important key words or phrases in the speech.

This helps to visually distinguish the most important words in the text. These words carry the most weight and meaning and are the most memorable. They do the heavy lifting, so to speak. Focusing on these key words and making them visually stand out more will help you in memorizing the monologue.


Here are the key words I chose in Hamlet's monologue:


HAMLET

To be or not to be—that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles And, by opposing, end them.


To die, to sleep— No more—and by a sleep to say we end The heartache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to—’tis a consummation Devoutly to be wished.


To die, to sleep— To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub, For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause. There’s the respect That makes calamity of so long life.


For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,

The pangs of dispriz’d love, the law’s delay, The insolence of office, and the spurns That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes, When he himself might his quietus make With a bare bodkin?


Who would fardels bear, To grunt and sweat under a weary life, But that the dread of something after death, The undiscovered country from whose bourn No traveler returns, puzzles the will And makes us rather bear those ills we have Than fly to others that we know not of?


Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, And enterprises of great pitch and moment With this regard their currents turn awry And lose the name of action.


4. Find the overall structure of the monologue.

The purpose of this step is to figure out how the monologue is built. What is the skeleton that holds it all together? When you have this detailed overview of the journey of the monologue, it serves as a map, which helps you in your memorization. You will have a scaffold you can build upon.


To find the structure, here are some questions you should ask: