Shakespeare Acting Lessons

Mastering Shakespeare acting techniques is very important if you want to attend classical acting auditions.

If you’ve never taken a Shakespeare class in acting school, you may find acting Shakespeare tricky or even impossible, but the truth is that once you get into it, Shakespeare’s scenes and monologues are some of the easiest to perform because the text was written with actors in mind and is full of wonderful hints and choices for performers.

So whether or not you’re new at Shakespeare, check our online acting classes for help with your next Shakespeare scene or monologue.

Shakespeare Acting Lesson 1:
How to Look for Clues in Blank Verses

  • The blank verses found all over Shakespeare’s plays typically have a rhythm of unstressed and stressed syllables
    (Ta DUM/ ta DUM/ ta DUM/ ta DUM/ ta DUM /).
  • This rhythm is most close to the rhythm of everyday speech and therefore sounds very naturalistic, so actors don’t have to feel that they are reciting poetry when performing Shakespeare.
  • Once we understand the normal rhythm of blank verse, we can look for breaks in that rhythm to get clues on acting moments or characterization directly from Shakespeare.
  • Shakespeare uses over-stressed and under-stressed lines to direct the actor in his plays. For example, in this Henry V monologue, extra stresses in the lines tell a lot about Henry’s state of mind as he tries to convince his troops to go out and fight once more.

Shakespeare Acting Lessson 2:
Thinking the Words

Because Shakespeare’s writing is so rich, his words can really fill you emotionnally if you just “think them”. This acting tip works when performing plays by any good playwright, but it is particularly useful with Shakespeare acting because of the importance of bringing out the meaning of the text to the audience.

By simply thinking the lines you speak, you will be in the moment and the audience will be with you. For example, in the aforementioned Henry V monologue, Shakespeare uses stresses to set one word against the other (a technique called antithesis). By just thinking the words, the actor is taken over by the meaning of the speech and brings it out to the audience. No acting or subtext work is required. It’s all right there in the lines!

Shakespeare Acting Lesson 3:

A big part of playing Shakespeare is getting a feel for the pacing of the material. The danger when we approach classical playwrights is to take many long pauses. Understanding Shakespeare’s pacing cues can help you avoid this and realize how important it actually is to keep the pace, so that the pauses you do take have a real impact.

  • Verse lines with a natural pause at the end are called “end-stopped verses”. They help the actor know where to breathe and how to break up long sentences in Shakespeare’s plays to make sense of them for himself and the audience.
  • Short lines (less then 10 syllables) in Shakespeare usually tell the actor to take a pause while a shared line is a direction by the playwright to pick up the other actor’s cue.
  • Sentences that run from verse to verse without pauses can have specific dramatic effect (for example, portraying a character’s overwhelming emotion or enthusiasm.
  • None of the clues in Shakespeare are hard fast rules the actor has to follow. If they were, acting Shakespeare would be boring. The beauty of all the clues left in the text by the playwright is that it makes the actor think by giving him a choice. For example, if a sentence runs through the verse line, you can choose to follow the written punctuation and run the line through or you can choose to take a pause at the end of the verse as usual. Either way, Shakespeare’s writing gets the actor to stop, think and make a choice… and making choices is what it’s all about! What Shakespeare does is ask a question so we can find “an acting reason for the answer”.

Learning Shakespeare From The Best

If you want to dig deeper into Shakespeare acting, get Playing Shakespeare , a collection of nine recorded workshops from The Royal Shakespeare Company.

You will learn not only from one of the biggest experts of acting Shakespeare, renowned director John Barton, but also by watching Oscar-winning actors workshop monologues and scenes. It’s like taking an acting class with all the best Shakespeare actors, including Ben Kingsley (Gandhi, House of Sand and Fog), Judi Dench (Shakespeare in Love, M in James Bond), Ian McKellen (The Lord of the Rings, X-Men) and Patrick Stewart (X-Men, Star Trek).

There’s no better way to learn!