Shakespeare's Plays

Shakespeare’s Advice to the Players: Act 1


‘Speak the speech, I pray
You, as I pronounced it to you,
Trippingly on the tongue’
(Hamlet, Act 3, Sc 2)

Such is Hamlet’s advice to the players, performing a play he has written. If only Shakespeare had left similar instructions to unlock the text and enable a modern student’s understanding.

Although, on closer inspection, perhaps he has…

Even if we struggle to understand the words, there are clues within the verse structure that can assist us. Actors use these in rehearsal, to help them make character choices and decide how to play a scene. Similarly, these ‘hidden instructions’ are just as useful to students trying to understand Shakespeare’s language today. We can never fully know the Bard’s intentions about how scenes should be played but by using the following tools, we can make an educated guess; Forget the ‘Da vinci Code’, I give you ‘The Shakespeare code’…

Phonics

We can learn much about a character’s emotions by exploring the sounds of their words (phonics). Act 1, Sc 1 of Romeo and Juliet is a great example:

Abraham: Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?
Sampson: I do bite my thumb, sir.
Abraham: Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?
Sampson: No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you,
Sir, but I bite my thumb, sir.

Try speaking the consonants aloud and in isolation (just the consonants, not the whole word).

For example:
‘Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?’
D B T TH T S S

Are these hard or soft sounds? What do they make you feel? Repeating the ‘t’ sound in isolation seems to emulate spitting. Similarly, the ‘S’ sound could be described as snake-like. How about the ‘D’ sound? Could it be reminiscent of bullets? In this scene there is an interesting repetition of plosive (p,b,t), fricative (s) and affricative (th) consonants exploding from our lips like modern day expletives. Shakespeare has provided us with a violent soundscape, where characters spit, hiss and fire their words at each other. We could therefore deduce these are angry, hate-filled people, which fits perfectly with the Montague and Capulet relationship.

Vowel sounds also house emotion. In the balcony scene, the vowel sounds directly contrast those in Act 1, Sc 1:

Romeo: But, soft! What light through yonder
Window breaks?
It is the East, and Juliet is the
Sun!
Juliet: O, Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou
Romeo

Now speak the vowels in isolation. E.g:

O, Romeo,           Romeo!       Where fore art thou  Romeo?

OH OH EE OH, OH EE OH!  AIR AW      AH AW   OH EE OH?

Are these long or short sounds? Hard or soft? What do they make you feel?

The lovers communicate with elongated, soft sounds. In this scene alone, Romeo and Juliet say ‘O’ eleven times. That’s eleven times we hear a sound that could be described as sensual and orgasmic. The soundscape of this scene is one of love, longing, and passion, fitting beautifully with how Romeo and Juliet feel about one another.

In conclusion, if you’re struggling to understand the actual words, take an actor’s approach. Look for repetitive patterns of consonants and / or vowels. Play with them. Speak them aloud and think about how they make you feel and what they sound like. This can be a really useful tool. Once you know the underlying emotion it can become easier to interpret the words themselves.

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Fay has taught extensively within arts education for 15 years. She specialises in English and drama, with an emphasis on Shakespeare. Having trained as an actor at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, she worked for many years as a theatre actor, spending a lot of time performing Shakespeare’s plays. Alongside this she established a career as a freelance theatre practitioner working with primary, secondary and SEN schools on a varied program of drama projects. She has worked within the GCSE Drama and English curriculum as well as A level English and Theatre Studies. She has also developed programs of work utilising drama as a way of enlivening other curriculum subjects. Fay has spent several years working closely with Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, where she devised and delivered work to engage students with Shakespeare’s language in an active way. She is also a freelance content writer.

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