We often get asked by students (and teachers) how we keep 3 shows, and so much Shakespeare in our heads! It has had me thinking, how did I learn so much Shakespeare in such a short time? And more importantly, what do I do to demystify Shakespeare’s language and put it into my own voice?

When I was at school I studied Shakespeare in English. We read his plays out loud, all sitting down in the classroom swapping at every new dialogue line with the teacher reading out any stage directions. We would then maybe watch a movie or two, if they were available, and then toddle off to write our essays. At assessment time you could find the English students during individual study time all silently pouring over their texts as if they were still writing an essay on To Kill a Mocking Bird or some other piece of literature.

Through this process I wrote good essays about themes and the dichotomy of the human spirit, but I never felt close to Shakespeare’s text and words. I loved Shakespeare’s language but never truly felt like it was my language. It was something to be enjoyed from afar, to be written about, something to discuss over tea and biscuits; not something I wanted to really investigate, get lost in a black hole of googling, or something that I could be physically and mentally challenging. Shakespeare was never something that I thought could be mine.

To essay, or not to essay?

There is nothing wrong with knowing the themes of the plays, nor spending time reading the text, or indeed writing essays… But that is not why Shakespeare wrote what he wrote. He wrote these words to be read out loud, to be performed, to inspire and excite people. This is something that I had always known from an academic point of view, but it wasn’t until I was at university studying acting that I really understood the impact of this and how we are usually taught to approach Shakespeare at school.

The thing that I really wanted to know was how could I still sound like me when performing Shakespeare? How could these people that I relate to on so many levels also sound relatable?

The best advice I was given when tackling Shakespeare was “make it your own”, but what did that mean? In my experience, I think that it means something slightly different to everyone so all I can do is give a few pointers and talk through a few of the things that I do when I first pick up a piece of Shakespeare.

What does that even mean?

One of the first ways that I make the language my own is to go to find a dictionary. I know that this might seem a little tedious, but believe me it has helped me more times that I can count! I always go through my text reading it aloud. Whenever I come across a word or a phrase that I don’t understand I look it up in a dictionary. From the simple to the obscure a dictionary can help to demystify what the characters are talking about. A great example of this is one of Hamlet’s famous lines:

“Now might I do it pat, now ‘a is a-praying.”

‘Pat’ often trips me up, and is great because depending on the dictionary/footnotes it can mean a variety of things. Such as: neatly, opportunely, aptly, simple, slick, smooth, but, precisely… The list goes on! If you have lots of time and really want to nerd out have a look at different dictionaries for different interpretations of the same word. Footnotes in your texts are also a massive help: someone else has already had a go at looking through resources and figuring out what characters are going on about! When unlocking Shakespeare it is really about having as many tools at your disposal as possible so get defining those words and phrases.

She said what?

Great, so now I know what the words mean, I know what the characters are talking about and I guess I know what is going on generally… What next, Eleanor? So glad you asked! The next thing I do is get up out of my chair, that is all the “book work” I do. As I mentioned before, Shakespeare is meant to be performed! I would highly recommend finding a buddy (or a small group) and tacking the text scene by scene, speech by speech, reading it aloud. Get up and improvise some blocking. Move where you think you might need to move and be a bit silly with it. If you are studying a comedy I find that this is 100% the best way to uncover the majority of the jokes. If you think it is a little bit naughty, chances are you are on the right track! Jokes in Shakespeare are often full of innuendoes, making fun of how words sound, or simply repeating sounds in an amusing pattern. A great example of a character that does all three of these things is Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet:

“Why, is not this better now than groaning for love?

now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo; now art

thou what thou art, by art as well as by nature:

for this drivelling love is like a great natural,

that runs lolling up and down to hide his bauble in a hole.”

Once you have read aloud you might want to go back to the dictionary and clarify a few words that still remain illusive.

In other words…

So now you know what the words mean, you have had a bash at speaking the language, and you’ve moved around a bit. Now it is time to literally put the text into your own words. This is also referred to as paraphrasing the language. I find that this is a really important step in making Shakespeare sound like me, so that it fits my body rather than a performer over 400 years ago. There are some online resources around that have already done this, but I think it is always good to do it yourself first and if you get really lost to then check them out. In fact, I think that this is a thing I would recommend for life. You don’t need to spend too long paraphrasing, and it definitely doesn’t need to be word for word. This should be a tool to use to help deepen your understanding of the text. If you still have your buddies around you can discuss (in your own words) what the characters are saying, where they are, and what is happening to them. Often brainstorming aloud can inspire further discussion and really unlock the more subtle layers of the language.

Treat yo’self

If you have time, and are really enjoying the discovery of Shakespeare and want to explore a little further check out any performances you can, interviews of actors or find a different text with different footnotes. The beauty of Shakespeare’s language is that there is room for everyone to have a slightly different interpretation, it might mean something slightly different to each person. Share your ideas, have fun with the language, see if you can be silly and throw caution to the wind. I love this language so much. I truly believe that you can too. Take Shakespeare’s plays off of their pedestals and throw them around a bit, give them a run for their money and see how much you can pull them apart. This is how I unlock Shakespeare. This is how I perform Shakespeare in my own voice.

Now I could write so much more on my process, but I wanted to give you a taste and to excite you to give it a go and discover how you might make Shakespeare your own and not some piece of literature to be read in silence out of some form of respect. Go forth and enjoy!

— Eleanor – Team M

Some websites/resources that I keep coming back to: