Wednesday, 26 September 2012

How to Read a Shakespearean Soliloquy

How to perform a Shakespeare soliloquy
Whether you’re performing in one of Shakespeare’s plays, preparing an audition speech or simply reciting a soliloquy for English class, there are ways to ensure that you get to grips with the speech.

Here are 3 simple steps to reading and, most importantly, understanding a Shakespearean soliloquy.

1. Make Sure You've Read the Whole Play

This is a trap that young student actors often fall into; they assume simply knowing the speech is enough. However, if you don't understand the context of a soliloquy, then you can't truly get to grips with its meaning.

For example, Hamlet's 'to be or not to be' cannot be fully understood as a philosophical examination of suicide and death, until you know what has brought Hamlet to that moment of dark reflection.

The same can be said of any other Shakespearean soliloquy: What brings Macbeth to that point of nihilistic hopelessness in the 'tomorrow' speech? What prompts an unexpected revelation for Viola in the 'I left no ring with her' soliloquy?

2. Follow the Rhythm

Iambic rhythm is important, but
should be used naturally

No, not the rhythm of the night like DeBarge, but the iambic rhythm of the vast majority (but not all) of Shakespeare's soliloquies. 

If you're not familiar with what that means, it's essentially a pattern of unstressed and stressed beats, which in its simplest form sounds like this: de DUM - de DUM - de DUM - de DUM - de DUM.

If we put words to that, we begin to see that Shakespeare has made it very clear that certain syllables are intended to be emphasised. 

For example, if MUS - ic BE - the FOOD - of LOVE - play ON

Once you've established the specific pattern of the soliloquy you're reading, you might find it useful to mark the text or simply highlight the syllables that should be stressed. 

However, you'll probably notice that overemphasising the iambic rhythm makes the speech sound like a bad nursery rhyme. So, at this point, you may want to pull back on those stressed beats, so you master something that resembles a slightly more natural speech pattern. 

That said, it's important to keep yourself aware of those accented beats, because Shakespeare's chosen them to be stressed for a reason. Not only will it help you find the soliloquy's groove, but it might also help make sense of the speech.

3. You Can Go Your Own Way

Try not to be influenced by famous interpretations
of a speech | don't be afraid to do your own thing

One of the wonderful things about Shakespeare, in my opinion, is that much of his work is open to interpretation. And this, in part, is why his plays have such staying power. 

There are still questions that we don't have the answers to: Is Hamlet really mad? Is Macbeth wholly responsible for his downfall? Is Shylock a victim or a villain? Why does Iago want to destroy Othello? Is Petruchio really in love with Katharina? 

Questions  questions, questions. And there really is no right or wrong answer to any of them. In fact, the answer frequently hinges on the way a production of a Shakespearean play is performed. 

A director or actors can choose to turn Richard III into a completely comic figure, they can make the Christians of The Merchant of Venice thoroughly dislikeable, or they can turn Lear's elder daughters into justifiably upset women. 

My point is that Shakespeare gives us very few absolutes. So, don't feel that you have to perform a speech in a particular way. 

Don't be afraid to have your own opinion about a character or the events of a play. If you can justify why you've taken a certain angle, you can never be wrong.

If you'd like to find out more about the world's greatest playwright, be sure to check out What's It All About, Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon.

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