A Gateway Into Shakespeare

By Emma Wright

William Shakespeare. The Bard. Chances are it’s a love or hate relationship. Shakespeare is studied all over the world, his works translated into every major language, and performed more often than any other playwright. In his relatively short lifetime (he died at age 52) Shakespeare wrote at least 37 plays (plus several collaborations), 154 sonnets, and 2 poems, all of which he wrote mostly between 1589 and 1613. His longest play is Hamlet, his shortest is The Comedy of Errors. Why has he stuck around for so long? Because his plays grapple with big ideas, and really get down to the core issues and concerns of humanity, with recurring themes including love, power, and revenge. In this way, Shakespeare is universal and timeless. 

All bar two of his plays were published post-humorously by two of his friends in a document called the First Folio. During his lifetime, there existed official copies of the plays, known as the prompt-books, usually found at the theatre at which the work was produced. Ninteteen of his plays appeared in quarto format. The quatros were branded “fraudulent” by Folio publishers Heminge and Condell, and so in response scholars deemed the First Folio the only authoritative Shakespearean manuscript. This was revaluated in the late nineteenth century, and it was concluded only ten of the quartos were corrupt or unauthorised, meaning nine of them were legitimate transcripts of the plays. Nowadays, the Arden is perhaps the most respected and reliable edition of Shakespeare’s work. You will notice differences in the text or footnotes when comparing it to say the Oxford or the Cambridge, because in some cases editors have had to make big choices when they are pulling from and amalgamating the quarto and folio editions. This explains why you may discover slight variations if you’re looking at different versions of his plays.

Shakespeare’s plays are often divided into three categories: the histories, the tragedies, and the comedies. His body of work is also separated into four correlating periods of writing, which span his career linearly from start to end: the early period, period of comedy, period of tragedy, and period of romance/tragicomedy. Though difficult to accurately date when he wrote his plays, scholars have extrapolated and concluded what they believe to be a chronological order, believing his first plays to be historical dramas Richard III and the three parts of Henry VI, followed by Titus Andronicus, The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. His final plays are thought to be The Tempest, Henry VIII, and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Plays including All’s Well that Ends Well, Measure for Measure, The Merchant of Venice, Timon of Athens, Troilus and Cressida, and The Winter’s Tale are deemed ‘problem plays’ (scholars frequently contest exactly which plays earn this title). A ‘problem play’ refers to a play that neither fits the comedy or tragedy mould, and which cannot be easily classified, and therefore in production presents a unique opportunity to the creative team to decide which direction to steer the show in.

Verse, Prose, & Iambic Pentameter

Like all writers, Shakespeare honed his craft throughout his career, which becomes evident when you read and compare his early works to his later ones. He wrote mostly in what is called ‘dramatic’ or ‘blank’ verse (meaning unrhymed), in iambic pentameter. An ‘iamb’ is a single poetic unit, a ‘foot’, consisting of an unstressed syllable (a short syllable) followed by a stressed (long) one. This sounds kind of like a heartbeat. ‘Penta’ means five, so pentameter means five ‘feet’, five sets of this ‘da-dum’ unstressed/stressed syllable pattern. Stressed syllables are often indicated with a ‘/’ symbol, unstressed a ‘˘’. The dictionary defines a ‘metre’ in poetry as “the rhythm of a piece of poetry, determined by the number and length of feet in a line”, so ‘pentameter’ literally translates to five measures. When ‘scanning’ a verse (scanning refers to the process of finding a verse’s rhythm), look out for ‘elisions’, words which the Bard intends to be shortened or slurred to fit the iambic pentameter, sometimes indicated by an omitted letter replaced by an apostrophe (e.g. the two syllable lovest becomes ‘lov’st’, or the three syllables in interest becomes two when slurred to ‘intrist’).

You may hear the Bard’s verses referred to as “decasyllabic”, which simply means each metrical line consists of ten syllables. Though it can sound confusing, this metrical speech rhythm is actually quite natural to the English language, and Shakespeare wrote in it because it was the most common verse meter of the time (he didn’t create it). Additionally, it has a ‘sing-songy’-ness about it, which is thought to make it easier for actors to memorise. Blank verse doesn’t contain a rhyme scheme, though Shakespeare certainly makes use of rhyme in his verse (i.e. not all blank verse is rhymed, but blank verse can rhyme). Pay attention to if/when your character rhymes. Rhyming may signify a character has entered a heightened emotional state, or the rhyme may signify a character is speaking formally, or even being cheeky.  

Shakespeare certainly deviated from a strict iambic pentameter in his writing. Sometimes you will find a line ends with an extra syllable, meaning the line contains 11 syllables as opposed to 10, which is referred to as a ‘feminine ending’. A ‘ceasura’ is a pause in the middle of a line that breaks the regularity of the pattern, usually coinciding with a punctuation mark. An ‘epic ceasura’ is when there is an extra unstressed syllable in the middle of the line, usually before a punctuation break, which can be thought of like a mid-line feminine ending. Within the pentameter, Shakespeare also varies from an iambic (unstressed/stressed) pattern with trochees (stressed/unstressed), spondees (stressed/stressed), and pyrrhic feet (unstressed/unstressed). You may also find what’s called an ‘anapest’ in which two unstressed syllables precede a stressed syllable (i.e. in Henry VI’s “You made | in a day | my lord, | whole towns | to fly”), or a ‘dactlyl’ which is a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. I think of these like triplets, but scholars may disapprove.

Shakespeare also wrote in prose. You can quickly identify verse from prose as in verse the start of each line is capitalised and the text is laid out on the page in narrower blocks. There is much discussion as to how much to read into when Shakespeare writes in verse and when in prose. Some believe he switched between the two simply to create variety or depending on how he wished to technically structure a section of text. Others believe the choice contains information as to a character’s status, mood, psychology, or speaks to the relationship and level of intimacy between characters. If you take this approach, it is certain that there are no hard and fast rules. Some think that Shakespeare’s lower-class characters speak in prose and his intellectuals speak in verse, but this is not true. Beatrice and Benedict spend much of Much Ado About Nothing speaking in prose, and they are both of the middle/upper-class with sharp wits and intellects.

Performing Shakespeare

Now we move onto the challenge that is performing Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s plays were written to be performed, so my first piece of advice when studying or rehearsing a Shakespeare is to read the text aloud. Secondly, the old adage of “treat a contemporary like a classic and a classic like a contemporary” comes into play, and if you’re performing Shakespeare you need to trust that the writing does the bulk of the heavy-lifting. Also note, as always, your usual text detective work (ala Stanislavski) is in play. So break it down, attach actions, and figure out your objectives.

Where things start to differ begins with subtext. It’s said that Shakespeare didn’t write subtext. In speeches what’s on the page is what a character is authentically thinking and feeling in the given moment. As a general rule, treat a soliloquy or a monologue as revelatory, and allow your character to discover every word and idea in the moment, thinking on the line (not in-between, or you’ll disrupt the pentameter!).

You are also going to want to befriend your dictionary. There is no need to be embarrassed when you inevitably need to look up a word, and it is so important that you understand every word that comes out of your character’s and scene partners’ mouths (unless you decide your character is using or hearing a word they don’t know the meaning of, though I suspect these occasions are rare). Remember that if you don’t fully understand the definition of a word, there’s no way you’ll be able to transmit the full meaning of it to your audience, and everyone will be confused.

Note that there are certain words that we use differently today to how people did in Shakespeare’s time. For example, the word “marry” in Shakespeare is often used as an oath or a mild curse word, “fond” may mean foolish, “would” can mean “wish”, and “sport” refers to a kind of amusement or entertainment. Then there’s your “wherefore” (why), “anon” (soon), “forsooth” (in truth), “art” (are), “doth” (does) and so on, which simply require a quick google or ruffle through a dictionary. When I’m going through a Shakespeare, unless I feel 100% confident defining a word accurately, I will google it and write the definition down at the bottom or on the back of my page. I do this for all my texts actually!

This leads into paraphrasing. A lot of actors find it helpful to write out their Shakespeare text in their own words. For example, “O weary night, O long and tedious  night, / Abate  thy hour! Shine comforts from the east, / That I may back to Athens by daylight, / From these that my poor company detest” (Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) becomes “What an exhausting, long, tiring, repetitive night, / Make it stop! I wish for the sun to rise and for the comforting light of day to shine from the East, / So I may return to my home in Athens in daylight, / And escape these people here in this forest, my former friends, who hate me and my company”.


While easy in the Bard’s plays to get swept up in the poeticism and themes, it’s important to pay attention to the rhetoric. Rhetoric is defined as “the study of writing or speaking as a means of communication or persuasion”, and it’s something Shakespeare was educated and extremely well-versed in. So when you’re looking at a monologue or a soliloquy, look for the argument, for how the ideas are clearly and persuasively conveyed, and examine how your character introduces, builds, and concludes their argument.

A big tool of rhetoric used by Shakespeare is antithesis, the setting up of one word of group of words against another, the use of oppositional images. Examples include the famous “To be, or not to be, that is the question”, where Hamlet is weighing up his options of being, living, versus not being, dying. Another example is in one of Hermione’s courtroom speeches in the Winter’s Tale, “I doubt not then but innocence shall make false accusation blush and tyranny tremble at patience”, in which she lays out the oppositional forces of innocence and false accusation, tyranny and patience. If you can clearly distinguish and present these opposing ideas, your audience will keep up and the text will sing.

Be sure to identify when a character starts listing in a speech, when Shakespeare is building and escalating an idea. Also look for sound patterns, and for when a character speaks more so in consonants and when in vowels. In your lists, be sure to separate the key thought or idea from the parentheticals, as you’ll often want to differentiate the two vocally. Make sure you land the thought, and use the parentheticals to gain and build flow and momentum. Another general rule of thumb is that consonants contain thought or indicate thinking and intellect whereas vowels contain emotion and indicate feeling, which can give you a sense of which inner motive force (hello again Stanislavski!) your character is being led by in the moment.

I have also been taught to pay special attention in verse to the first and last words in a metrical line, as these often encapsulate the general meaning and drive of a speech. A teacher of mine asked us to draw a table and in one column write in all our line starting words, and in the next the ending words. Sometimes it doesn’t amount to much, but more often than not I’m surprised by how significant these words are. For example, in the first six lines of Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” speech, the start and end words are: “To”, “question”, “Whether”, “suffer”, “The”, “fortune”, “Or”, “troubles”, “And”, “sleep”, “No”, “end”. Interesting, right?

Final Tips

Paint your images. This comes back to your dictionary work, but once you understand what the words in your text mean, make sure you have clear images for them in your mind’s eye and are able to translate those to an audience. In a smaller space the clarity in the actors mind may be enough, but you also want to work on projecting the images into the space, and targeting and painting the images for your scene partner/s and/or audience (and no, we don’t mean miming!). If, for example, you are setting a scene in a prologue, if you’re describing a landscape, cast each landmark onto a part of the stage. If you map it out for the audience, use the text effectively, and have clear images in your mind’s eye, your audience will understand you, conjure their own images, and you will have done your job (Shaky would be proud). It’s also important to remember not to labour the verse, and to keep your speeches moving. This preserves the pentameter, and stops the speech from becoming contrived.

Be prepared for multiple storylines. Shakespeare loved to write interweaving story arcs. Examples include Midsummer, which presents the journey of the lovers, of the mechanicals, and of the fairies, and The Winter’s Tale, in which you have Leontes’ kingdom in Sicilia, Polixenes’ kingdom in Bohemia, and the world of the Shepherd and his son, the Clown. Inevitably these storylines intersect, such as when the fairy queen Titania falls in love with one of the mechanicals, Bottom, or when Florizel, Perdita, the Shepherd, the Clown, and Polixenes travel from Bohemia to Sicilia for the end of the play. It’s important to consider how the storylines serve one another. For example, Titania is at odds with king of the fairies Oberon because she refuses to hand over to him a changeling boy she promised his mother, a dear friend of hers who has passed, she’d protect. This bond between women is echoed in the relationship between Helena and Hermia, dear friends who are falsely led to believe the other has betrayed them, and thus a theme of female friendship and strength in sisterhood emerges. 

Though there is much more to discuss, I will conclude this article with the following advice. Embrace the big-ness of Shakespeare, but do so without placing his work on a pedestal. As stated at the start of this article, Shakespeare wrote stories that speak to humanities greatest fears and motivators, often with life or death stakes. Don’t attempt to diminish these stakes or bring them down to that of everyday life. You can’t play Romeo and Juliet pedestrian-ifying the all-consuming, young love that in the shortest timespan convinces them they’d rather die than live without the other. It’s huge stuff! To steal from Stella Adler, the danger the actor faces with work like Shakespeare’s is making it small, because it isn’t, it’s epic and universal. At the same time, don’t be afraid to make Shakespeare your own, and though he may be considered one of the greatest playwrights to ever live, you won’t do his plays justice if you’re too busy worshipping or fearing them.

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