He's the man, the myth, the legend. Despite having 'shuffled off this mortal coil' (Hamlet, 3.1) 405 years ago, old Shakespeare is still very much a cornerstone of contemporary theatre. Right or wrong, people often use his work as a benchmark for 'good acting.' However, due to its archaic and somewhat flowery language, many individuals (actors and audience alike) find it difficult to approach.
Fear not - this blog post is here to help!
You can do quite a few things as a performer, which will support you to tackle (and master) the Bard's plays. Let's have a look at some!
Understand the Language:
This one is pretty important. One of the biggest problems that actors (and audiences) face when approaching Shakespeare is the language. All those 'arts,' 'doths,' and 'wherefores' make for very confusing sentences; plus, Shakespeare invented countless words himself - anything for the rhyme! Don't be put off, though; understanding the script's language is the first hurdle; once you're over that, it gets a lot easier.
The first thing I suggest you do here is work your way through the lines and highlight any words you don't understand. Don't be afraid to search for the definitions online: it's not cheating! Once you've done this, read through the scene(s) or monologue(s) you are working with and translate the language into modern, easily understandable lines. An excellent online place to find pre-translated versions of Shakespeare's work is Sparknotes; you can use it to help you. However, I definitely recommend trying to put it into your own words.
Understand the Character:
Once you understand the words on the page, it's time to delve deep into the narrative and uncover your character, motives, story-arc, and relationships with others. Approach this bit like you would any other form of theatre. Read through the whole script and pick out key character traits, subtle (or obvious) indications of backstory, and primary objectives. You can then build your character in your mind and consider how these factors will influence your performance.
Another fundamental way to set yourself out as a great Shakespearean actor is to understand their syntax and grammatical rules, getting to grips with how Shakespeare wrote the text. Punctuation, particularly, can catch people out.
Let's take a look at an example from A Midsummer Night's Dream:
Come, sit thee down upon this flowery bed
While I thy amiable cheeks do coy,
And stick muskroses in the sleek, smooth head,
And kiss thy fair large ears, my gentle joy.
Lots of people's first reaction will be to read line by line, pausing at the end as though completing a sentence. However, Shakespeare is a tricky devil, and this is a rookie mistake. Instead, look to the punctuation; use this as your indicator for pauses, like you would if this were any other prose monologue. Instead of stopping after 'flowery bed,' continue through into the next line until you reach a punctuation mark: 'cheeks do coy,' and use that to navigate your pauses.
You should also pay attention to whether the punctuation is a comma, semi-colon, or full stop. Commas and semi-colons indicate that the related subject and thought process will continue, so (generally) should be shorter pauses. In contrast, a full stop ends that thought, so it should be longer to show this.
Now that you understand the text, it is time to move on to performance tips!
Action is your Friend (but Don't Overdo It)
Performing with a bit of movement and action will significantly help convey the meaning of the text; it also makes the scene more interesting to look at. Remember, although the language may be alien, Shakespeare's characters are supposed to be real, tangible people, and people move!
If you feel like you're too static, shake it up a little (unless the context calls for being stationary, in which case stand until your heart's content). Consider how you use your body, try adding appropriate hand gestures, move your arms, change levels, interact with your space and other characters, and move around to different locations on stage. Anything that can give your acting some motion will go a long way in breathing additional life into your performance.
Beware, though; you can have too much of a good thing! The Bard himself advises: 'do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently' (Hamlet, 3.2). Too much motion can be chaotic and distracting.
Consider Pace, Tone, and Pitch:
A classic Shakespearean cliche is the picture of an actor dully and monotonously listing their speech, all to the rhythm of the same beat. Don't fall into this trap! Vary the pace of how you are speaking. A lot of this will come from understanding the emotion behind the lines. For example, if your character is excited, then talk faster, louder, with a lighter tone and perhaps a higher pitch; if your character is sad, speak more slowly and with a lower tone. Give the text life and let the character's personality shine through.
Another misperception we often experience with Shakespeare is people thinking that they must speak the verses with a posh/received-pronunciation English accent. Unless the characterisation and context call for it, don't bother. Wherever you come from, your natural accent is fantastic, so use it! Shakespeare's plays would have been performed in his heyday in what is called 'Original Pronunciation' (essentially a forerunner to modern English and all its accent variety). In short, the notion of performing Shakespeare in posh RP (received-pronunciation) would have been far from his head, probably because he wouldn't have even known what RP is!
Although these tips are just a foundation, they provide a good starting point to understanding and bettering your Shakespearean acting. Following them will help you step out from the crowd, but it takes time and effort to master a skill. So the only thing to do now is to get up and start practicing!