Five Essential Books on Acting Shakespeare
Playwright Tom Stoppard, after seeing the actor Simon Russell Beale in The Winter’s Tale, astutely said to him, “Shakespeare exercises all your muscles—doesn’t he.” That might sound daunting to some actors, and I’ve known a number of very experienced actors to shudder at the very mention of acting Shakespeare. Sadly, the fear of acting Shakespeare often robs actors of the potential that he has to offer us. It can be a tremendous challenge, undoubtedly, but there is some good news: there are so many wonderful resources out there to help you and boost your confidence exponentially!
This article contains a list of five essential books on acting Shakespeare. They are the top titles I would recommend to any student or professional actor who needs some practical guidance for tackling the Bard. If I could only take five things with me to a deserted island, these books might not feed me or provide much shelter when the Tempest comes … but I’d be well-equipped to perform Shakespeare’s complete works while I awaited rescue! This list is in chronological order and each book is very much a practical guide, so I would encourage you to make sure that you get the exercises up and on their feet and always speak the text aloud.
When searching for the essential book on acting Shakespeare, it’s important not to forget the plays themselves. I always encourage actors to only work with published editions of Shakespeare and to avoid dodgy internet copies. The play’s the thing, after all! There are so many great publishers and each edition presents its own series of unique and specific acting clues from punctuation, to word choice, to layout and even glossary. If you prefer working from a smart device, I would suggest investing in the app Shakespeare Pro, which includes all of his plays, poems and sonnets and a word glossary (David and Ben Crystal below). It’s been a real game-changer for me as I work with student actors on scenes and speeches.
“Wisely and slow. They stumble that run fast.” – Romeo and Juliet
#1 Playing Shakespeare by John Barton (1984)
Playing Shakespeare is a seminal text and widely referenced as the “go-to” resource for actors when working with Shakespeare. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first or fiftieth time, this book is invaluable. John Barton (1928 – 2018) was one of the co-founders of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in 1960 and is regarded as one of the most influential Shakespearean directors and teachers of the 20th century.
In 1982, assisted by some of the RSC’s well-known and leading company members, Barton led a nine-part workshop series on how to act Shakespeare, which was filmed for London Weekend Television. It’s a wonderful series and it’s a real treat to see some of finest classical stage actors like Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, David Suchet and Ben Kinglsey in action as they work on the text. Sometimes you can spot some of them smoking cigarettes in the background.
Fortunately for actors, Barton transcribed, edited and published these workshops into book-form in 1984. The most recent edition of Playing Shakespeare also includes an 80-minute featurette of Barton interviewing some of the actors from the original series as they discuss whether there have been any significant shifts or changes to approaching Shakespeare since the early 80s— especially as our Western theatre and acting tradition has evolved. Barton prefaces Playing Shakespeare by saying, “This book is set out as a dialogue because that is what Playing Shakespeare was: a series of conversations, rather than something conceived in a literacy form. I hope it’s the best way to present the subject-matter clearly. I believe that acting is a subject for discussion rather than just exposition.”
This book’s original aim remains true: to help the modern actor analyse Shakespeare’s text—not as a literary exercise—but as a means to play it. This book unpacks how Shakespeare’s text
works (verse and prose), so we can act him with a deeper and more profound connection and understanding.
#2 The Actor & The Text by Cicely Berry (1987)
Cicely Berry (1926 – 2018) was the first voice director of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and held that position for 45 years, from 1969 – 2014. She is considered to be one of (if not the) most influential voice and text teachers of recent times. Her immense CV includes coaching and directing some of the finest classical actors of the past 50 years and also working with Hollywood stars Samuel L. Jackson, Claire Danes and Helen Hunt (as can be seen in the must-watch workshop series, Working Shakespeare.)
Berry’s teaching style was flavoured by a naughty sense of irreverence and her legendary chain-smoking, along with her profound gift for understanding voice and text. The Actor & The Text is an important for actors and directors, with a clear and concise examination of how to unlock heightened or difficult text—predominately through the lens of Shakespeare. This book addresses all the practical considerations for the modern actor and is very accessible to the reader. The chapters are dedicated to all the hot topics you need to know when working with Shakespeare and how
that applies to other texts too. The book is divided into four parts:
- Part One: Attitudes to Voice and Text
- Part Two: Shakespeare – Setting out the Rules
- Part Three: Shakespeare – the Practical Means
- Part Four: Voice Work
This book also builds on the exercises from her hugely acclaimed first book Voice and The Actor (1973). I would recommend this book not only to actors, but also to anyone who speaks publicly and works with argument and rhetoric (particularly lawyers and politicians). This book will help you to inspire change in your audience. Berry was not only a voice and text coach, but also a political activist with an emphasis on a humanist and universal approach to Shakespeare. To quote Peter Brook: “There is no such thing as a correct voice” ; Berry’s work gives us permission to celebrate our own, unique voices as we work on big texts and tackle big ideas.
#3 Speaking Shakespeare by Patsy Rodenburg (2001)
Patsy Rodenburg, OBE, is one of the world’s leading authorities on Voice and Shakespeare. Rodenburg is the former Head of Voice at the prestigious Guildhall School of Music & Drama and founded the voice department at the National Theatre of Great Britain. She has worked extensively for leading UK theatre companies Cheek by Jowl, Complicite, RSC, and Shared Experience, just to name a few. As a voice and text coach, Rodenburg has worked all over the globe with countless actors and public-speakers. In the context of acting and voice training, Rodenburg is known for “The Three Circles of Energy”, a theory denoting three specific ‘circles’ of energy, depending on who the speaker is addressing and the effect they wish to have upon their audience. The circles are covered in several of her books (including this one), as well as this excellent clip of her teaching available on Youtube.
Speaking Shakespeare is a wonderful book for any actor who wants to learn more about the process of analysing and acting Shakespeare. Rodenburg has over 40 years’ experience working with actors on heightened text and this book covers everything from ‘rhyme’ to ‘given circumstances’. In the preface, Rodenburg lists the principles of her book Speaking Shakespeare as:
- To understand any play text fully you have to speak it.
- To release its full power, you have to commit through the body, breath and the word.
- You have to trust the words and what those words mean.
- To access the power of a play, you have to know how it’s constructed.
- You can’t act Shakespeare until you can speak him.
Not only does the book include many brilliant exercises that integrate voice and text but also has some fabulous anecdotes from her work with some of the finest stage actors in the world: Daniel Day-Lewis, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Antony Sher and Maggie Smith (just to name a few). I’m often reminded of what Rodenburg says to actors when they’re working on the floor with Shakespeare: you need to play the music before you interpret it! I’m slightly paraphrasing there, but the effect still stands. You can’t act Shakespeare until you can speak him.
#4 Shakespeare’s Words: A Glossary & Language Companion by David Crystal and Ben Crystal (2002)
Professor David Crystal, OBE, is an eminent linguist, scholar and author who is one of the world’s leading authorities on the English language. Intimidating, to say the least. David Crystal and his son, the actor Ben Crystal, have produced this staggering language companion. They are also known for their work recapturing and preserving ‘Original Pronunciation (OP)’, the way Shakespeare’s language would have sounded to its Elizabethan audiences (take a look at this clip of Ben discussing and performing Sonnet 116 in OP.)
Shakespeare’s Words is the culmination of a massive three years’ work with a two-pronged approach to building the resource: David approaching the work as a linguist, and Ben from a theatrical point of view. The Crystals worked their way through the Penguin paperback editions of Shakespeare (poems and plays) observing every single line and separately highlighting any word that might be potentially unknown or obscure for a modern audience. They came to a total of 50,000 words. Now, 50,000 sounds like an awful lot; however, there are close to a million words in all of Shakespeare’s work (including repetitions). David contends that there are only 5-10% of words that would require any “modernisation” (changing the word in order to clarify for a modern audience). He suggests that nearly 90% of Shakespeare’s words have not lost their meaning. Nevertheless, as Modern English evolves, we do encounter ambiguous or obsolete words in Shakespeare and it is important to look words up. Sometimes the words are not the problem—it’s often our comprehension and knowledge that might be sorely lacking. That’s why this lexicon is such a lifesaver!
Shakespeare’s Words also includes comprehensive summaries of the all plays with diagrams illustrating the characters’ relationships inside the world of the play. It really is a fantastic resource that is super handy to have in the rehearsal room or during your preparation of a role – especially useful for general comprehension. David proposes that we should attempt to be more fluent in “Shakespearian”—and especially as theatre people—instead of always resorting to cutting or modernising the text. Food for thought, to be sure.
#5 Shakespeare’s Advice to the Players by Sir Peter Hall (2003)
Sir Peter Hall (1930 – 2017), along with John Barton (above), co-founded the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1960 and was appointed the company’s first Artistic Director. Hall is considered to be one of the most influential figures in modern British theatre. Notably, Hall directed the English-language premiere of Waiting for Godot in 1955, introducing the playwright Samuel Beckett to London audiences for the first time. A self-described “iambic fundamentalist”, Hall was known to be meticulous about observing and obeying the iambic pentameter in Shakespeare’s text (the verse rhythm) and often saying “the sanctity of the line is paramount”. Dame Judi Dench has spoken about the late Peter Hall directing her in a production of Antony and Cleopatra and recalling that he would often stand at a lectern beating out the rhythm of the meter.
Hall’s approach to acting Shakespeare may be considered staunchly “traditional”—especially in recent years as the modern Western theatre has moved towards a more naturalist and colloquial approach to verse-speaking. This style is particularly evident in Andrew Scott’s recent performance as Hamlet (Almeida, 2017), a performance which eschews much of the rhythm of the piece
in favour of a more naturalistic delivery.
The title of Hall’s book is, of course referencing, Hamlet’s famous advice to the players in Act 3 Scene 2 of the play:
“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc’d it
to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as
many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke
my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your
hand, thus, but use all gently; for in the very torrent,
tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind of your passion,
you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give
It’s a sage piece of acting advice for we modern players. In Hall’s book, which is a mix of manual and memoir, he encourages the actor to trust the ‘form’ of Shakespeare and allow the playwright to direct you as you observe the acting clues that are found in the text. This slim volume is a perfect companion text to John Barton’s Playing Shakespeare and will help you ‘speak the speech’ with a deeper connection to sense and meaning.
These five essential books on acting Shakespeare offer a wealth of knowledge that has been tried and tested for generations by some of the world’s finest classical actors, directors and teachers. I would say the obvious link between the five—besides the authors having strong ties with the RSC—is a sense of trust. We need to trust that Shakespeare has given us everything we need in the text. I think ultimately these books will help us to understand how Shakespeare’s language works and help us to observe the clues he has given us.
Shakespeare is not only the greatest poet of the English language, but he was also an actor and a pragmatist. We need to embrace his mastery and let him guide us through his work. Now go, enjoy Shakespeare’s words!
By guest contributor Patrick Klavins.
Other must-read books:
- Acting Shakespeare by John Gielgud
- Freeing Shakespeare’s Voice by Kristin Linklater
- Mastering Shakespeare: An Acting Class in Seven Scenes by Scott Kaiser
- Secrets of Acting Shakespeare by Patrick Tucker
- The Quality of Mercy: Reflections on Shakespeare by Peter Brook
- Year of the King: An Actor’s Diary and Sketchbook by Antony Sher
You might also want to take a look at some of our other resources on StageMilk for acting Shakespeare:
- Decoding Shakespeare: Understanding and Performing his Words
- How to Read Shakespeare: Six Techniques
- How to Act Shakespeare
Finally, check out our Monologues Unpacked series, which examines and coaches you through each of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches and sonnets. Enjoy!
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