Decoding Shakespeare: Understanding and Performing His Words | Shakespeare

Decoding Shakespeare: Understanding and Performing His Words

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Understanding Shakespeare can be an intimidating task for an actor. There’s the archaic language to navigate, the nuances of his writing to understand and articulate, and the pressure one can feel performing the work of an author so highly regarded in the theatrical canon. Even if you do manage to speak his words with some confidence and skill, it can feel like another hurdle entirely to do so with any warmth; and that’s to say nothing of actually enjoying the experience (which you’d hope, on some level, to do). Sometimes, we can find ourselves so tied up in wanting to ‘do Shakespeare properly’, we lose sight of what makes his work so endearing. This is a deadly mistake, because understanding Shakespeare is tied to appreciating his brilliance: how his use of words, language, and poetry come together to forge incredible characters and stories.

This article covers five concepts that will aid you in navigating Shakespeare’s words. While they are tied to helping you unlock the language itself, remember that their primary goal is to help you to a place where you can look past the more daunting aspects and truly gain an appreciation for the writing. There is no reason that you shouldn’t enjoy the works of William Shakespeare. You are doing yourself a disservice if you settle for anything less.


#1 Study The Words, Know The Words

The first task you need to complete requires equal doses of patience and honesty: look through the language, write down and research every word you don’t know. Even if you think you understand the meaning of a particular word—even if context gives you the general gist of how it should function—add it to your list, regardless. Not knowing the definition of a word in a Shakespearean script has sunk far too many actors in an entrance exam or audition; don’t become a cautionary tale told by drama teachers and directors when the solution was simply to be prepared. And just as you record unfamiliar words: extend this rigour to phrases or references that cause any confusion. Maintain your honesty: does this character’s line make one-hundred-per-cent sense? Is there any ambiguity? It’s probably worth a quick glance at a footnote or website (including this very online publication). 

When we first perform a piece of Shakespeare, it is often our impulse to shoot for a naturalistic reading of the text, rather than being bogged down in deciphering archaic words. Indeed, it is a popular piece of advice for actors to read the text out loud and power through the more confusing moments—ignoring the footnotes and grappling for that semblance of normalcy. However, this can result in those difficult sections always feeling weak in comparison. When listening to an actor perform such a passage, you can almost hear when they wish to speed through a particularly difficult moment, even if subsequent work has been done.

#2 Study The Text As A Whole

It’s almost shocking that this even needs to be written, but if you’re performing a passage from one of Shakespeare’s plays, read the whole play that it comes from. Read different versions if you can get your hands on them, and if there are any filmed versions, watch those as well. Develop an understanding of the whole story; study character arcs and motivations, and identify the all-important subtext that hints at deeper meanings. 

One of the great myths about Shakespeare’s writing is that there is no subtext to be found—all that is required for an actor to faithfully convey the intended meaning can be found in the here-and-now of his language. “Just say the words”, young actors are sometimes told. While the villainy of Iago or Richard III might be readily apparent in their soliloquies, how is one to interpret the loving declarations of Goneril and Regan to King Lear without their treachery later seeming like a jarring reversal? How can one explain the non-action of Hamlet? The seeming subjugation of  shrew-like Katherina?

Subtext is often found in the symbolism of Shakespeare’s words; poetic phrases are often worth some interrogation. Consider this oft-misinterpreted line from Macbeth, where Lady Macbeth speaks to overhearing her husband’s murder of Duncan:

Lady Macbeth: “I heard the owl’s scream and the cricket’s cry.”

Some read this line as a sign of the natural world reacting to Macbeth’s treachery; others argue it refers to Lady Macbeth’s relief that, despite a bloody struggle, the murder was not audible over the sounds of nature. However, the larger context of the play (aided by some knowledge of wildlife and historical context) suggests another reading entirely: owls screech when they hunt. Crickets, in Shakespeare’s time, were forced to sing by being roasted alive in copper boxes placed by the fireside. To paraphrase the above line:

Lady Macbeth: “I heard somebody attacking and the sound of death.”

This reading supports the characters’ subsequent actions, in which they move quickly to plan their next move and absolve themselves of the murder. Without a greater contextual understanding of the scene, the meaning of this line is often lost.

For more on Macbeth, explore our

#3 Interrogate The Rhythm

This next exercise might transport you back to your high school English class: take time to study Shakespeare’s use of rhythm. Just as actors sometimes skip over unfamiliar words or phrases in the name of grasping ‘naturalism’, others reject the inherent rhythm of iambic pentameter: nobody wants their reading tainted by the plodding of da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM.

The truth is, Shakespeare hides a lot of meaning and intention in how his rhythms are structured; consider writing out the stressed/unstressed beats over each line and seeing what you discover. Take the below example, from Hamlet:

 –    /   –    /   –    /     /    –    –    /    –

Hamlet: “To be, or not to be, that is the question.”

Notice the divergence from the iambic rhythm in the middle: instead of an unstressed/stressed iamb, Shakespeare switches to the stressed/unstressed of a trochee. He signifies to us the importance of that moment, the singular weight affixed to that “that”, in a way that brings an added significance to Hamlet’s realisation. Just by interrogating what the rhythm is doing, we start to gain a greater understanding of how the language is communicating its meaning.

#4 Speak The Words

Once you’ve established the meaning of words and phrases, scanned the rhythm to find the poetry of the language and contextualised the piece: it’s time to perform the words out loud. This is where all of Shakespeare’s choices—the words he uses and how they fit the poetry of each line—will start to crystallise. Now that you’ve done the foundational work, you can start to apply your own acting process to making the piece your own. Find the character’s objective, plot your actions, think about physicality (often overlooked given Shakespeare’s minimal stage directions). Simply put, do everything you would normally do preparing a scene. The goal, at this stage, is to normalise the words—to get Shakespeare down off the pedestal we so often place him on, so you can shake off your preconceptions and get to the work you do best. 

Sometimes, this can be difficult. For all of our new-found understanding, the language itself can still trip us up and feel archaic. If you find yourself hitting this wall, our final exercise should prove mightily effective. Try the Substitution Exercise.

#5 The Substitution Exercise

The substitution exercise is simple: take the piece you are working on and rewrite it using none of Shakespeare’s original words. Keep the meaning as close to the original as possible, and be sure you don’t get tripped up reusing smaller words such as “if”, “and” and “the”. Let’s try it out with the Hamlet quotation we used above:

Hamlet: “To be, or not to be, that is the question.”

StageMilk: “Should I exist? Alternatively: shouldn’t I exist? My singular, pertinent query.”

In our defence, it’s a lot harder than it sounds. Here’s another example you might recognise: 

Romeo: “That which we call a rose, by any other name would still smell as sweet.”

StageMilk: “Flowers of family Rosaceae, regardless of nomenclature, nonetheless retain the identical pleasant odour.”

Once you’ve got your version as refined and concise as it can be, try performing it. Say it out loud, try to find the poetry and get the same ideas across: same action, same objective, same characterisation. Usually, it will be a clunky, cringe-worthy mess. 

Then switch back to Shakespeare.

It should feel like you are shifting into a high gear: gliding, streamlining! The best arrangement of words you have been searching for to convey the desired meaning were there all along! Enjoy the elegance of Shakespeare’s word choices; appreciate how his sentences carry meaning so beautifully and concisely. Unlearn the damaging stereotype of his language being full of fluff and “hither” and “forsooth” and “anon”. Shakespeare’s writing isn’t flowery, it’s dense: he can convey ten thoughts in the space a modern writer might struggle to put across one. As an actor, relish in how much there is to sink your teeth into.

Conclusion: Find the Love

Herein lies the ultimate objective in understanding Shakespeare: learn to appreciate what makes his writing so extraordinary. Find the love for the way he uses language, and crafts characters and stories we still feel the desire to bring to life on our stages year after year. Yes: his hegemony in Western arts is tied to some problematic systems of power (let’s not get started on the white boy’s club of the theatrical canon), and yes: he does tend to hog at least one programming spot per-theatre, per-year. But there is so much to be gained by exploring his plays and sonnets that will enrich you as a performer—or artist of any discipline. Do yourself the greatest favour of your career and lose yourself in his words.

About the Author

Alexander Lee-Rekers

Alexander Lee-Rekers is a Sydney-based writer, director and educator. He graduated from NIDA in 2017 with a Masters in Writing for Performance, and his career across theatre and television has seen him tackling projects as diverse as musical theatre, Shakespeare and Disney. He is the co-founder of theatre company Ratcatch (The Van De Maar Papers, The Linden Solution) and co-director of Bondi Kids Drama, a boutique drama school offering classes to young people in the Eastern Suburbs. Alexander is drawn to themes of family, ambition, failure and legacy: how human nature can flit with ease between compassion and cruelty. He also likes Celtic fiddle, mac & cheese and cats.

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