Skip to main content

3 Ways to Overcome Shakespearean Intimidation on Stage

May 23, 2018

3 Ways to Overcome Shakespearean Intimidation on Stage

Shakespeare plays

Most people are familiar with the storylines of famous Shakespeare plays like Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet – but when you’re actually looking at the scripts, sometimes it can feel like you’re reading another language! To combat this, here are some tips from Baltimore acting teacher Larry P...


Finally got that audition or that part? The one in the Shakespeare play? Suddenly overrun by the worry that the language will be too much? Confidence that has never left you before suddenly nowhere to be found? There are ways to deal with intimidating language before they divert all that energy from you and your craft.

Understand What You Are Saying

(“You Keep Using that Word. I Do Not Think it Means What You Think it Means” – Inigo Montoya, “The Princess Bride”)

This may seem like a no-brainer, but far too many actors worry much more about memorizing the words than what they are saying. Especially in places where those words and phrases might not be as clear as they should be. An example I frequently use in classes comes from the famous Shakespeare play Romeo and Juliet. When Juliet stands on the balcony and asks “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” she is not actually looking for Romeo in a physical sense. The word “wherefore” actually means “why” – in this case Juliet asking rhetorically, “Of all the people in the world I had to fall in love with, why did you have to be Romeo, a Montague?” This one realization lets you give a completely different inflection and action than one that has you looking to find Romeo.

There are many places and resources to understand the words your character is speaking, obviously dependent on how much prep time you have before you have to perform (or even rehearse). A number of publishers of famous Shakespeare plays have editions with either extensive glossaries on each page, or (my particular favorite type) a complete “modern English translation” on the facing page, as done by publishers like “No-Fear Shakespeare”. In fact, whenever I direct any Shakespeare play, I have every one of my actors do their own lines in paraphrased English, writing every Shakespearean line in modern English – either as a handout to the audience, or solely for their own character work. It helps me gauge how the actor is interpreting his own character, and allows me to make sure his interpretation meshes with the vision that I (and the designers) have for that show.

Conjure Up a Vision

(Context, Context, My Kingdom for Some Context)

Once you have a clear concept of what the language is saying, you need to find a context in which to put it. One of the best things about Shakespearean performance is that it lends itself to interpretation. Your interpretation as an actor, your Director’s interpretation, and the Designers’ interpretations. It is often especially critical for a Shakespearean monologue audition to be creative. You as an actor might not appreciate the sheer tonnage of the same monologues done over and over that directors and casting staff will hear in the course of a season, or even in for a specific show audition. Many years ago I did an audition for a small professional theatre, for only the second Shakespearean play I had ever performed. The play was Hamlet, and I chose to do the most familiar and overdone monologue from that play (and perhaps in all of English literature); the “To be or not to be…” piece (Act III, sc. 1).

After worrying about being pedestrian, I decided not to avoid the piece (as my acting teacher advised), but rather to change the context. I borrowed a friend, sat him down in front of me, mimed putting a weapon to his throat, and made the speech not about suicidal contemplation as it was written, but about deciding whether or not to murder. Same words, same meter, slightly altered delivery.

Practice, Practice, Practice

(“What is ‘How do you Get to Carnegie Hall, Alex?’”)

This one might also seem fundamental, but so many actors worry about the memorization of the words (see the first section above), that how those words come out can often be neglected. The meanings of the words, and the context of the words that we spoke of before, need to be worked on, tweaked, adjusted, and experimented with. Think of it as rehearsals before the rehearsals. The director will give you much of the context, but the more detailed you make each line, the more comfortable you will feel “inside” your character, and that audition piece, or that performance, will cease to be paralyzing and intimidating.

LarryPLarry P. teaches and tutors in a variety of subjects in Baltimore, MD, as well as through online lessons. His tutoring business is geared toward middle, high school, and college students, with specialties in the Humanities, writing research papers, and drama. Learn more about Larry here!


Newsletter Sign Up


Suzy S.