Monday, September 05, 2005

Tips for Memorizing Shakespeare

Been told that you have to memorize some ? Been there, done that. Probably Romeo and Juliet, right? Balcony scene? You're not alone. You probably resent the assignment. You've probably already tried it and aren't doing too well, and are looking for ideas.


I'm with you. I think the whole concept of "Memorize some Shakespeare, it'll be good for you" might be the worst thing that teachers do when it comes to the subject. Because they do it all backwards. You have no context for the words, you've probably been told "don't even think about watching the movie until after you read the script", and you probably don't really care in general. You're just doing it because you've been told to do it, and you want to get it done as soon as possible.

I have an easy way to demonstrate how bad of an idea this really is. Let's take a song that I like. Say, Astronomy Domine, by Pink Floyd. It helps if you've never heard it. Now, memorize it. Why? Because I said so. Because I've told you that it has value, and I'm the teacher, and I'm in a position to punish you if you fail. Do it on time, too, or else you fail.

Even if you succeed, do you think you'll ever like that song? Sure, maybe you could recognize it and even pull a few lines out of your memory, but would you know what the words mean? Would you care? Not likely. Very early on in your education I'm quite sure that they started watching for something called "reading comprehension", which means that you can do more than just repeat the words, you can actually understand the meaning of what it is that you're saying.

So why isn't this true with Shakespeare? The way it is positioned -- memorize first, understand second, appreciate last (if ever) is just totally backwards. The most important thing to you has to be just being able to mindlessly repeat the words so that you can pass the assignment. And you then promptly forget them after you get your passing grade.

I'll show you a little trick. Right now, off the top of my head: When shall we three meet again, in thunder lightning or in rain? When the hurly burly's done, when the battle's lost and won. That will be e'er the set of sun. Where the place? Upon the heath. There to meet with...Macbeth! I come, Greymalkin...Paddock calls....Anon, Anon......Fair is foul and foul is fair, hover through the fog and filthy air!

That's the first scene of Macbeth. Nobody ever told me to memorize that. I can do it with large hunks of different plays, too. I'm not even an actor, I've never had to get up on stage and recite any of it. It just sticks for me, sometimes.

So having said all that, I can finally get to the tips. Some ideas for you, in no special order:
  • See if your teacher will let you memorize a passage of your choice. Many will, assuming that it is of an acceptable length. This gives you more freedom in finding a passage that is more comfortable for you. Some people find the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet just too sappy to take seriously. So maybe take something from the great sword fight that Romeo and Tybalt have in Act Three? Or even something from the Chorus at the very beginning. Juliet's "Gallop apace, you fiery footed steeds..." bit is great, once you realize that she's basically hanging out at the window saying "I wish it would hurry up and get dark so Romeo can get here."

  • See the movie! How are you supposed to know what these words sound ou like if you don't hear someone speak them? Always remember that Shakespeare wrote plays not novels. His words were meant to be performed. If your teacher insists that you not do this, then ask if you can complete the assignment by copying down the words instead of reciting them. If all you did was memorize what the words look like on paper, you can't be expected to know what they're supposed to sound like.

  • Get some context for the words, by any means necessary. Ask somebody who has read the play, if you can't see the movie. You need to have some clue about what the words are supposed to mean, otherwise I could just as well be asking you to memorize "blue garbage cat does triangle five table hands title"... or any other string of random words. In the balcony scene, Romeo is hiding in the bushes and has just seen Juliet come out onto the balcony. He's talking to himself, trying to find words to describe how beautiful she is, how she stands out against the night sky (that's where all that "Juliet is the sun" stuff comes from). Juliet, meanwhile, is also talking to herself out loud, saying "Of all the men in the world, how come I had to fall in love with one of my family's mortal enemies?"

  • Find the rhythm in what you're memorizing, as if it were music. This is poetry, after all. As you read it, tap your hand along and try to get the appropriate dah DAH dah DAH dah DAH sound. Or, in the case of what I just read, DAH da DAH da DAH... WHEN shall WE three MEET aGAIN, in THUNder LIGHTning OR in RAIN? WHEN the HURly BURly's DONE, WHEN the BATtle's LOST and WON... Get the idea? but SOFT what LIGHT through YONder WINdow BREAKS, it IS the EAST...
  • Try to group the lines into a logical set. Usually one "line" is not a complete sentence. Shakespeare did tend to be wordy. "But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?" is a complete sentence, but it is a question. So what's the answer? "It is the east, and Juliet is the sun."
  • "Practice" by keeping an ear open for other lines in the play that stuck in your head. It's actually easier to memorize 20 individual lines scattered around the play than it is to memorize 20 in a row. Much of the difficulty in memorizing a Shakespearean monologue is just plain lack of confidence. You get a block that says "I can't do it" and thus you can't. But once you realize that you've already memorized a bunch of lines without even trying, that mental block tends to go away.
  • Try to remember that these are indeed people talking to other people, trying to get their point across. Put some emotion into the words. That's one of the reasons that I say to try finding a passage that you really like. When I was in high school and had to do the balcony scene, there were 4 boys and 4 girls in the class and we were paired up to recite it. And, of course, all of us were painfully shy over the whole prospect, since if we actually did it well, then we'd have to endure endless speculation that we must like each other (ewwwwwww). I remember deliberately doing it badly just to avoid that. So maybe try a scene where Romeo is angry (like after the death of Mercutio), or when Juliet actually stands up for herself.
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Good luck! Try not to let the experience of memorizing Shakespeare make you hate it for life. There's some good stuff in there, if you listen for it.
More Stories on Memorizing...

49 comments:

~Luv Always Natalie~ said...

Thank you for all of your help. I am to memorize Polonius's part in Hamlet Act 2 Scene 2. I was having dificult so I decided to take a break for a little while and let it soak in. I have found that this works for me too. Letting it soak in I mean.

Duane said...

ALL of it? Polonius has many lines in that scene. Are you acting the part? I'm used to hearing that people are to memorize a particular single speech or soliloquoy.

Polonius and Claudius are very hard to do, they are very wordy. Even Claudius and Gertrude comment on how Polonius never seems to get to the point. Which is perhaps something that can be used -- imagine that as you're talking, people are rolling their eyes at you and wishing you'd just get to the point. Don't lose sight of the fact that everything he says is talking to someone. He's not just saying the words (like in many of Hamlet's soliloquoys). Everything Polonius says is supposed to have a point or be the answer to a question that he has been asked.

Good luck!

Devin said...

Thanks for the tips! I'm in grade 9 and I have to memorize Mercutio's speech about Queen Mab in Act I, scene iv. Writing it out helps, so thanks!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tips, they are very useful and relate alot to what I am memomizing for R& J

Anonymous said...

it's still hard for me , because i can't get some of the words to flow. i have to memorize act 2 scene 2 juliet's balcony speach. line 33 through line 48 . any more tips ?

Duane said...

You're talking about this part, right?

JULIET

O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I'll no longer be a Capulet.

ROMEO

[Aside] Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?

JULIET

'Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

You want my best advice? Look for some trigger words, and break it up. For instance, look at how often she comes back to the word "name", or "Montague", or "Romeo". Think of it as a bunch of small bits to memorize between those parts. This bit is pretty straightforward too: nor hand nor foot nor arm nor face ... that's just a list of body parts.

You're also lucky that there are many famously known quotes in this speech - wherefore art thou Romeo? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet? Hopefully you can build up the space between them.

Hope that helps. My best advice continues to be, get into character. Don't just memorize a string of words. Try to be Juliet and figure out why she's saying what she's saying. The whole speech is her thinking aloud on the nature of names, and how it's only the name Montague that is her enemy, and how ultimately names are just words that mean nothing. Everything else is examples.

Hope that helps!

Alan K.Farrar said...

Actors learn 'on their feet' - moving, adding gesture, with someone: Try cutting the text into parts and putting them in different places on the room - then moving between them to read what they say.

Add images and colour to the text - close your eyes and remember the images and the order they come in.

SAY it out loud, don't try to hold it silent in your head.

(Make sure you understand what you are saying)

y i x i n said...

Yay.
I get to memorise 16 lines of Macbeth.
Memorizing Shakespeare it bad enough.

MACBETH. just makes it worse :)

why does he have to talk in blank verse?

Duane said...

Well, which 16 lines? Some are easier than others :)

MetalFromHell said...

i need help memorizing Brutus's monologue from Julius Caesar Act II Scene 1 lines 114-140 or it may say 120-146

Anonymous said...

I don't imagine you would have any advice for someone playing Helena in All's Well That Ends Well, do you?

Kat said...

I'm trying to memorize Hermia's part in Act 3 Scene 2 lines 304-313 (""Puppet"? Why so?" until "But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes.") for Tuesday. Otherwise I will face the wrath of the director-from-hell. XD

Any tips?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your help! I'm trying to memorize Shylock's 23 line speech in ''The Merchant of Venice'' Act 1 scene 3. My teacher has assigned it...unfortunately

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the help!! I have to memorize all of Iago's lines for act 4 scene 1 and he just likes to talk on and on in that act. He likes to plan out every little thing in his soliloquies. I definitely helps a lot! =)

ekim said...

I"m gonna show this to my teachcher because I hate this assignment! this webpage is the story of my life... only I'm mercutio and not doing a balcony scene.

Anonymous said...

hamlet is 191 frames long

how long is a frame?

A chunk of writing on the screen
in a bubble about the size of a Q card

David McCormick said...

Excellent tips! I actually run a site called MemorizeShakespeare.com and a lot of your tips coincide with mine. There are tons of little extras, though: memorize before a nap, study on an empty stomach, try to move around as if you're acting the part, etc. The most important is to get off-book asap, and listening to a recording on mp3 is the best way to do that!

VampiresAreReal said...

Thank-you for the tips! I have to memorize ToNS of lines in Romeo and Juliet for my Honors English class. Then I have to say it in front of my whole class. I am in Act 5, Scene Three as;
Paris
Juliet
Prince

Paris has a lot of lines!

Anyways,.....thank-you very very much.
People like you make the world easier for people like me. LOL

Anonymous said...

omg you guys are so lucky... 16 lines and 20 lines... im dead i need to memorize 43 lines by tomorrow!!!

Willshill said...

Steps One, Two, & Three: SAY IT OUT LOUD!-over, and over, and over again. As mentioned, Shakespeare never meant for his plays to be READ silently in a library. This is PHYSICAL stuff. The rhythms will take over-you need to HEAR them yourself. Surprisingly (or not, to someone who's memorized lines for a living) Shakespeare is easier to remember than any other dramatic material because of the Music he injected into the lines. Vocalization is a physical, working muscle-it needs to be exercised like any other. Don't let the academicians impose an unneeded and unwarranted fear, simply because it happens to be "shakespeare". Don't "try to memorize" it. There's no "mystery"--just DO IT--out loud. Tomorrow you'll wake up knowing it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you soooo much, you knew exactly what was happening, none of the other searches helped at all

Anonymous said...

oh my god im in a play and am desparately trying to learn some lines in a midsummer nights dream within six hours

Olivia Warren said...

THANKYOU SOOOOOO MUCH!
I am 15 and have 3 days to learn Juliet's Galop Apace, the balcony scene and a contemorary monologue for an audition for a scholarship!
You have no idea how much these tips help, just making the whole situation seem less daunting and impossible.

It was only after going back to understand the words that i remembered i love Shakespeare, and this is an opportunity rather than a punishment. And simply realising that i LOVE the words means i can remember them!


YOU ARE HEROES IN YOUR OWN RIGHT!
Thanks again. Olivia.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for all of your help. I had to memorize lines 232-257 in A Midsummer Night's Dream. This is where Helena says: How happy some o'er other some can be! Through Athens I am thought as fair as she... My teacher assigned me these lines and I didn't get to choose it. Once again thanks. I am starting to like Shakespeare.=)

Broseph said...

aAfriend and i have to memorize 30 lines each, but it has to be a conversation or something of the sort. What play should we do and what scene/ act should we do?

Anonymous said...

Hamlets to be or not to be

JM said...

Anonymous said...Hamlets to be or not to be
-------------------------
--Is a soliloquy. A solo speech.

Are you male or female? What gender is your partner?
Look at Midsummer--it has both verse and prose dialogue between a combination of character mixes-M/M, F/F, M/F, Males playing females, Oberon and Titania, Oberon/Puck. Some of it way out funny stuff.

Anonymous said...

i have 46 lines due in 3 hours .....help :(

Lauren said...

I am having to memorize Marc Antony's funeral speech in Julius Caesar. The beating, DAH dah DaH, works well.

JM said...

Careful that you don't try to make every line fit the dah DUM dah DUM pattern. Speak it out loud and know what he's saying before you try to fit the pattern of the beats. More times than we think it's like normal speech. More important that you follow the way it would normally be said, and fit the iambic beat (weak-strong) where it naturally falls, otherwise you can get sing-songy.

And there are lots of words like ambitious and honorable which don't fit the pattern of the ten beat line unless you make them more syllables than we would--am-bi-ti-ous, for instance--you don't absolutely have to pronounce them that way, just know that that's why the line doesn't seem to dah DUM when it should.


Saying it out loud and hearing yourself speak it will help to impress your sense memory with the words. The beat pattern is only a guide if you get stuck and can't figure out how the rhythm of a certain line goes.. Knock 'em dead.

JM said...

Post on Marc Antony's speech disappeared-gone like a flash...

Duane said...

For spam protection, these old posts have comments automatically moderated. So your comment was invisible until I could hit the approve button. One of these days I'll switch over to something a little more powerful, like Wordpress, that will allow known power users to comment with abandon. Until you bug me. :)

Anonymous said...

thanks for the tips! i have to memorize all of pucks lines in a midsummers night dream for my high school production of it. i am really nervous about it!

Anonymous said...

I have to memorize all of Oberon's line for my school's shakespeare play, a midsummer nights dream... I have a week and like a TON of paragraphs before we have to start blocking. Any advice?

JM said...

Out Loud--over and over...and over--until you're sick of hearing yourself. Visualize what Oberon is saying (as noted above) --he paints vivid pictures. If you record the lines and cues do it without emotion; just plainly speak them, don't try to act them on tape or you'll wind up getting into a rut that's hard to get out of. Listen to your tape when you can't speak out loud and make it the last thing you hear as you drift off to sleep at night. When you get to the blocking, association with the space will make it easier to solidify what you know. Break a leg.
It's a great role--chew on it.

Anonymous said...

THANK YOU!! this site really helped
did you know some of your tips actually contradict some other sites tips for memorizing Shakespeare
one of them for me was listening and watching a movie with the lines I'm supposed to remember (try youtube)
but other sites said to not do that since I'll be confused with how the actors said it and their "European accents"
but I didn't listen to them and memorized 8 line within 30mins of watching it
(I have to memorize 14 lines
of hamlet's soliloquy "to be or not to be")

Anonymous said...

It does help. Gotta memorize Romeo and juliets balcony scene by Wednesday and so far I'm on the second page which is like line115

Anonymous said...

Just read it and write it over and over again while saying it. Did that and had it down in 40 mins. no joke. That is, 32 lines of Romeo in the balcony scene. Try it that way.

Anonymous said...

For my english class I have to memorize 15-20 lines of "A Midsummer Night's Dream". We are allowed to chose any section of it, and I play the role of Hermia, usually. Are there any suggestions of wich lines I should try to memorize? Thanks!

Skylar said...

Thanks for the tips. I'm in eighth grade and selected Othello's monologue in Act I Scene III. I have the first and last parts pretty well down, but the middle...ah, well. That's going to need some work. I have to have it memorized by Thursday, and I started early. :P

KLB said...

High school students, I empathize with you. Next semester in English, we're reading R&J (I don't have a problem with THAT, I love the play) and every student is required to memorize a monologue. Worst of all, the monologues are graded on LENGTH, not on how well you understand the text.

I learned a trick to memorizing Shakespeare from the best Shakespearean actor/director I've ever had the good fortune to know. Start from the bottom of the monologue and work your way up. For example, if I were memorizing Helena's "How happy some o'er other some can be" monologue, I would start by learning the last line: "To have his sight thither, and back again." Once I have that, I'll memorize the last two lines: "But herein mean I to enrich my pain, to have his sight thither, and back again." And so on.

This technique has never failed me, but it works best with verse. Another thing that helps, though it might not be considered a trick, is to find the emotional turning points in the speech. The amazingly talented director (see above) also taught me how to find what he called the "beats" in the monologue (not the iambic kind). So while memorizing the Helena monologue, I could also break it down into chunks by thinking, "Okay, so I'm contemplating the nature of love...now I'm talking about how Hermia stole my boyfriend...now I'm formulating a plan that might hurt her, but will get him back...."

These two methods have always been my best friends while memorizing Shakespeare, but tricks are no substitute for practicing hard. Don't wait until six hours before a show to memorize your lines; the best time to memorize them is NOW.

Anonymous said...

Ok, so i need to memorize the to be or not to be monolog from hamlet. I'm getting there but its taking forever do u have any tips?

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for the tips!
I'm trying to memorize Brutus' part in Act 2 Scene 1 of Julius Caesar, and i finally got it!

Quinn said...

These are all helpful, I had to memorize Thisbe and Puck's part for act 5 in Midnight Summers Dream

Gabby said...

Hi, I am having to memorize a speech said by Macbeth in Act 5 Scene 5 lines 9-28, and every time I try to memorize it, it slips right out of my head. Any tips? I have tried breaking it down line by line but no matter how many times a say it I can't get it word for word. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the help! I have to memorize a huge chunk of Midsummer by next week and well TITANIA has quite a few lines. (most of them leave me literally clueless. I found making them more like a song works great for me. Thanks again for your help.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your help! I have to memorize Antony's Speech in Julius Caesar in 2 Days! It also helps if you put 4 sentences on a index card then do that for the whole speech or whatever it is that you are doing. then memorize it. take it in parts, and say it out loud.

Anonymous said...

This may help. I've been given the role of Brutus (btw I'm female) and my brain has been doing the '"I can't do it" therefore I can't' thing for the past month. Show is in a week and I'm still so far behind, but maybe if I just let myself realize how far I've gotten it'll be easier. Thanks!

guardgirl said...

Thanks so much! I was given an assignment to memorize Brutus' Soliloquy in Julius Caesar. Didn't know how to do it until I read this life saving blog:-)