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

Updated: May 12





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.



Want to give your memorization a turboboost? Check out my FREE MASTERCLASS, Memorizing Lines the Smart Way



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 My go-to free resource for looking up any outdated words is www.shakespeareswords.com.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:

  • What is the overall through-line? (What is the path or journey through the monologue?)

  • What are the patterns and repetitions?

  • How do the beats relate to one another?

  • How do the parts create the whole?

  • What are the literary devices or rhetorical strategies that are used?

Let's apply this structural analysis to Hamlet's speech. The speech is structured as a philosophical argument. It's almost like a term paper or essay. (Hamlet is a college student after all who was studying in Wittenberg prior to the events of the play.) The first beat is the introduction:


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.


It starts with a concise thesis question that will be the subject to be explored throughout the rest of the speech: "To be or not to be." From the start, he is setting up the two sides that will be weighed against each other. You can picture two sides of an old-fashioned scale sinking back and forth. The two sides are pitted against each other throughout the speech. The next sentence is a restatement, an elaboration of what he means by "to be or not to be" and again it is structured as a "this or that" statement.


This introductory beat is followed by two "to die, to sleep" beats:


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.


With that repetition of "to die, to sleep" the two beats parallel each other. The first "to die, to sleep" beat ends with the comforting notion of relief from pain. There's a soothing, lulling rhythm and nice shushing sounds with the phrase "'tis a consummation devoutly to be wished."


The next "to die, to sleep" beat tries to continue that lull, but it gets sharply interrupted mid-line with the sobering phrase, "Ay, there's the rub." It's followed by a monosyllabic line: "For in that sleep of death what dreams may come." The monosyllables highlight the line's message and give it gravity. The verse's rhythm forces us to actually pause after the phrase "must give us pause." With "there's the respect" there's a sense Hamlet has reached the bottom line of his argument. This is what it comes down to. The elongated rhythm of "so long life" reflects that tedium he is talking about. Where the previous beat ended with the hope of sleepy relief this one ends with the disquieting fear of the afterlife.


Next follows two "who would bear" beats:


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?


The first contains a long, tiresome list of life's hardships. There's this trudging rhythm. It burdens the listener with this tedious, pileup of tragedy. The list is followed by the speech's only two line rhyme. The ease of that rhyme is tantalizing. It seems to say, wouldn't it just be easier to kill oneself? But "with a bare bodkin" brings sharp fear back into focus. The phrase feels like the unsheathing of a blade.


The second "who would bear" beat brings back that trudging rhythm again with "grunt and sweat under a weary life." But this beat emphasizes the fear of the unknown.


The last beat serves as the conclusion to Hamlet's argument:


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.


This beat sums things up. "Thus" is repeated twice. Hamlet says approximately the same thing in three different ways: too much thinking makes us afraid to take action.


So now you should have a strong overview of the entire monologue. Keeping this in mind will help you as you continue memorizing. For this speech it's simply 6 beats:

  • 1 introductory thesis beat

  • 2 "to die to sleep" beats

  • 2 "who would bear" beats

  • 1 conclusion beat

5. Take a break!

Take a break and do something completely different. A good option would be to do some type of exercise that gets your heart rate up for about 15 minutes. Yes, it will help with the memorization.


6. Memorize one beat at a time.

First, it's important to get away from the words on the page as soon as possible. Don't just continue reading your script over and over. You can read through the beat a few times, but then test yourself! Speak the words from memory, and if you get stuck, make an effort to find the words from within. Then glance at your script to check if you said the lines correctly. (Read my post here, specifically Tip #6 to see why this improves memorization.)


There are a few different ways I suggest going about rehearsing and memorizing each beat:

  • Speak the beat aloud and listen for the "music." When you speak the lines, notice the way it sounds. Listen for the poetic rhythm and linguistic texture. Savor the words by emphasizing the vowels and consonants. Observe the effect of these sounds. Notice how the "poetic music" makes you feel and how it contributes to the meaning of the lines.

  • Speak the beat aloud and focus on the meaning of the words. Think about what you are actually saying and what the words actually mean. Think about the specific word choices and the phrasing that is used. Think about some of that structural journey we identified.

  • Use your imagination. When you speak the lines, allow the language to evoke images for you. Memory has a strong affinity for images. Allow your mind to brainstorm. What scenarios pop up for you? Use all of your senses to immerse yourself in those images. Put some of those images in your body and act them out literally. What does "a thousand natural shocks" feel like in your body? How about "grunt and sweat under a weary life"?

  • Get on your feet and experiment with blocking/staging. Start to really act. Experiment with intention and movement. Think of bringing some of those images to life in 3-dimensional space. The movement through space will be another series of hooks for your memorization.

7. Categorize each beat according to how well you know it.

Once you've gone through and tried to memorize each beat, assess how well you know each beat. Perhaps divide them into three categories. The first category is for the beats you are the least confident about, the ones you don't know very well. The second category is for the ones you know better. And the third is for the beats you have down solid.


8. Take another break!

A great option here would be to take a nap. Sleep consolidates memory, and even a nap of 1-1.5 hours can contain all the phases of sleep necessary for that process.


9. Revisit each beat using spaced repetition.

Read this post I wrote to learn about spaced repetition in more detail. In a nutshell, we remember things better when we space out our learning over time. Go back to your beats and the categories you divided them into. The intervals we use for our repetition depends on when we want the material to be fully memorized.


Need the monologue 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 certain beats, they will move up into the next category. Still having trouble with certain spots? Try some of the tips I describe in this post.


10. Revisit the monologue top to bottom using spaced repetition.

At a certain point you will have all of the beats about equally memorized. They'll all be in your "solid" category. Put the beats back in the correct order, and rehearse the monologue top to bottom using spaced repetition.

1st repetition: After 15-20 minutes

2nd repetition: After 1-2 hours

3rd repetition: After 6-8 hours

4th repetition: After 24 hours


If you have less time before the monologue must be memorized, use shorter intervals. If you have more time, use longer intervals.


There you have it! Your Shakespeare monologue should now be confidently memorized. Looking for some more inspiration? Check out this rendition of "To be or not to be" performed by Adrian Lester:




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