Well isn’t this fun! Congratulations to Josie, a high school student who just won a trip to NYC for the National English Speaking Union’s Shakespeare Competition! She writes in the comments:
I've given it my all,but next round is sure to be a challenge.i am to perform a sonnet and a 20 line monologue (tamora from titus andronicus act 1 scene 1 and sonnet 29)the only diffrence is i am also expected to be able to cold read a random monologe that they pick for me and i'll only have but a minute to look over it :( This competition is based more on the understanding of a piece than the actual performance i would like to know what advice you could give on cold reading shakespeare. Thank you,
I wish I was in a position to help, but I’ve never been a performer of this stuff so I wouldn’t know the first thing about how to deliver a “cold reading”. Help from the audience?
Here’s my best advice, with the above disclaimer in mind. I’ll use Sonnet 29 as an example, since you have to do it anyway, and not only do I have it in my playlist (Rufus Wainwright, seriously, check him out), I have the lyrics pinned up on my wall at the office:
Try your best to find what you feel is the essence of the passage, and then work backwards. Surely, in 20 lines or so, there is guaranteed to be a passage that clicks with you, that you immediately think “Ok, that makes sense, I get that.” Then reconstruct as much as you can around that – what came before, what after? Why? I once described Sonnet 29 to somebody this way: “Some days I’m sad and hate my life and I don’t really know why, but you know what? I think about having you in my life and realize I wouldn’t change anything for the world.”
Where’d I get that? Mostly from “Haply I think on thee.” I get that. Makes sense. What’s right before it? “Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising.” That’s the twist to be found in all the sonnets – the first half is clearly about these “self despising thoughts”, and it’s the “thinking on thee” that turns it all around from there.
Maybe that’s a silly example, maybe it’s too trivial for what you’re going to do, I don’t know. You’ve got more courage in you than I do, I’ll tell you that! I could never get up on stage, much less compete at it.