Watching an amazing Shakespearean actor is like the perfect storm coming together. There are so many factors needed in order to truly give an outstanding performance. But when you get that perfect combination then it is really like watching magic happen.
I am very lucky to have seen lots of Shakespeare performances throughout my life despite being still so young (even though I feel old sometimes). I also just sat through a couple of days of watching lots of Shakespearean monologues so I have auditioning and performance on my brain. I am no expert by any means so this post is more a way of sorting through my own thoughts on what I believe makes a great Shakespeare performance. So here we go!
Strength: The first thing that makes an impression for me is the quality of someone’s voice. Shakespeare requires some real power. The language is already something that audiences need to adjust to and might be uncomfortable or unfamiliar with. A person who has strength in their voice has the ability to project and also takes command of every word they say.
Mini rant: girls struggle with this the most and I believe this is related to the sociocultural conditions that girls grow up with as opposed to boys. Girls feel the pressure to be sweet and polite and romantic which results in weaker voices. They fall into the trap of what I call the “Juliet voice.” Wispy, breathy voices with low volume. Playing a girl in love does not translate into losing all the power in her voice. And this is just a good tip for life.
Articulation is also crucial. I think this is a tip that everyone knows but not everyone does in practice. Articulation when acting is important in general but especially with Shakespeare. This relates to what I said earlier about not everyone being an expert in the language. Clarity and voice quality are essential to translating the message to the audience.
Pace: There are two common mistakes that people make when performing Shakespeare monologues and both are a result of the same problem. Either someone zips through the monologue lightning fast or they take too many pauses resulting in a choppy monologue. The root of the problem is just not having enough confidence in their knowledge of the monologue. The person who zips through is scared of forgetting something and just wants to get it all out as quickly as possible. The pausing person is often thinking about the next line or has memorized the piece in fragments that have been put together. Unfortunately both result in a poorly presented monologue because neither is allowing themselves to be present with the monologue.
Physicality: I may as well have called this portion ‘presence.’ Shakespeare is incredibly physical because much of the dialogue needs to be translated through the body. I want to see actors who really command and fill a space. And by fill a space I don’t necessarily mean someone who moves around tons during a performance. I have seen some amazing scenes take place with someone standing completely grounded. The best tip I can give for physicality is that the body needs to be synced up to the dialogue.
Impulsivity: This is important. Much like with speeches, it is good to have a road map idea of where the monologue is going but actors should never rigidly decide when they might perform an action (unless the monologue forces them to). When I say sync up the monologue and dialogue I do not mean the actions need to be the same every time. Great actors know the monologue so well that every action just occurs naturally. I am always impressed when I see someone with strong impulses because it means they are letting the monologue occur to them as they go. It also reveals a level of comfort with themselves and on stage which is refreshing.
Monologue Selection: I’m going to tread as lightly as possible here. There are some great monologues that work within the context of the show that may not be a good audition piece. Females are at a disadvantage for monologues because not many of them show the variety of male monologues. It isn’t our fault but that is just the way Shakespeare wrote them! I can’t say how much I loved it when a girl would come in and say she was doing a male monologue. It’s just a badass move. If I had my way, I would urge both male and female actors to look into the lesser known Shakespeare plays. Look for monologues that you can find an objective to ground yourself in that also include a strong arc between beginning and end. Don’t fall into the trap of monologues that present one emotion or characteristic. Okay this is my one big preachy section done.
Thinking: This is going to sound like the easiest thing but it is actually the hardest. There is something so mesmerizing about watching someone perform a piece where they are so present that it is like they’ve never heard these words before. The thoughts are occurring to them so naturally that you might even forget they are performing at all. They respond as the thought comes up and that motivates them to keep going. So many of Shakespearean monologues are just thinking and working through a thought. That stream of conscience is deceptively hard though. But wow when someone can do it then it is just stunning.
The Magic: Something you can’t teach. Some people just radiate an energy within them that cannot be ignored. They are charismatic and entertaining and magnetic. Just a joy.
This is definitely an opinion piece. Well everything I write here is an opinion piece but usually I am referring to a specific production. This is just a rambling about what I think creates a great Shakespearean actor. There are lots of great actors who are unable to do Shakespeare. It is its own beast to tackle. I am no expert by any means but the more you encounter Shakespeare, the more you are able to recognize a great Shakespearean actor. I also did not even touch on ensemble work, comedic timing, or directability, which are all other huge parts about doing Shakespeare.
All I really know is how amazing it is when you see this combination of these things come together and result in a spectacular performance. It’s something special.
I decided to include some examples of some of my favourite performances. Not all of these are even an example of everything I talked about but they do exhibit that specialness.
Adrian Lester as Hamlet
Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth
Ian McKellen as Richard III