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Shakespeare Quickies: Tips and Tricks for Breaking It Down

Download the printable version here, or read it below.

Shakespeare Quickies

Let’s start with the basics. 

What is a…? 

• tragedy – everybody dies, especially the titular character (the one(s) that the play is named after). Nobody gets married and no one but the villain has any fun.

• comedy – everybody gets married. Well, at least one couple. And nobody dies! Some characters might be absolute turds, but we’re supposed to laugh at them. Ha.

• “problem play” – there are some plays where people might get married or coerced into marrying someone, or maybe some where one person dies but we’re supposed to ignore that. These are plays that some editors can’t put into nice, neat categories, so they call them problems. Measure for Measure is a prime example.

• romance – one of a group of later plays that could otherwise be a comedy except that some weird shit happens – magic and shipwrecks and time travel… Just kidding about that last bit. The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest and Pericles (who??) are examples.

• history – duh. The Elizabethans loved to hear about their royals. Much like everyone gushing over frickin’ Prince Harry these days. Oy.

Vocab Words

What is this Olde English shit? – 5% percent of all the words in all of Shakespeare’s plays are ones we don’t use any more, so stop being afraid of it! – put your big boy panties on and just use context clues! The English of Shakespeare’s day was actually called Early Modern English, so let’s all drop that Olde crap.

• yeah, maybe you won’t ever use ‘consanguineous’ in casual conversation, but that’s because you probably didn’t marry your first cousin! [it means ‘near in blood’ or ‘sharing blood’]

• but if you’ve watched your Bitcoin account lately you probably used the word ‘dwindle’ (invented by Shakespeare) or if you say something snarky about your bestie, he might call you a ‘critic’. 

•  Shakespeare invented 1800+ words and we still use most of them today, like swagger, skim-milk, lonely and elbow (as a verb)

• he loved prefixes like un- and dis- and invented lots of new words using those:

Unaware, undress, uncomfortable, unreal

Disobey, discover, disappoint, disgust, disreputable

• The prefix dis- is especially cool because it is the name of the ruler of the Underworld – Hades. He was also called Dis. So, when you dis-obey, you are obeying the Dark Lord and not your parents.

WTF is Iambic Pentameter? 

• first of all, it’s a fucking logical name for this thing if you just have a couple of clues – 1) iamb = I. Am. – it’s 2 beats, one softer (unstressed) and one more emphatic (stressed). Pent = 5. Meter = rhythm. SO, it’s a rhythm with 5 double beats.

• the double beat sounds like a heartbeat – it’s a human body rhythm for both you, the actor / speaker + audience    I. Am. – you are alive and that’s your rhythm!

• it’s the main rhythm of S’s verse. There are other rhythms. Don’t worry about them for now!

• but then… there’s Prose! That’s just everyday blah blah… It does have a rhythm in a way, but nvm

Feminine endings??

• sometimes the rhythm is not enough. Sometimes a character is too excited, upset or horny to be calm and measured, so there might be extra beats in a line. If it’s just one extra beat (you’ll hear us say “plus one” a lot) then it’s called a “feminine ending” because women are supposed to be more emotional (OY! Gimme a break!)

• sometimes there might be +2 or +3 extra beats! When you find those, that’s Shakespeare giving you a heads up: “you are upset here!” The clearest place to see this is in a long speech – make a heartbeat chart, like this: 

Then turn it on its side to really get a sense of when your heart is racing in the speech. Like this:

In this speech we can see that Macbeth is already coming IN to the scene a bit worked up because he starts with a +1 line, immediately followed by that HUGE word ‘assassination’ which makes the next line a +2. But then further down when he talks about the deed coming back to bite him in the ass, he has a +3 with the line ending ‘justice!’ Cool, right?? 

• The longest line in the canon belongs to someone who is just overcome with love: “It is my lady, O it is my love, O that she knew she were.”  – 16 BEATS!! Insane! Or in love. Same difference. This is Romeo when he first sees Juliet at the balcony. 

Verse vs. Prose: who speaks what when

• In general, characters speak in verse if they are noble or elevated characters – this doesn’t have to necessarily mean they are high-class characters. Caliban speaks in verse when he talks about his island, because it is an elevated ideal in his mind and deserves beautiful language.

• In general, characters speak in prose if they are regular folk, like townspeople, tavern sluts and soldiers. When a character who usually speaks in verse switches to prose, pay attention!! There must be a reason, which might be one of these: they are sick, crazy, confused, under a spell, or lying. Hamlet speaks in prose in Act 2 because he is pretending to be sick (lying). 

Line ending blueprints

• when you use the rhythm of the lines and don’t fight it, you will discover some cool things. Speak your verse line, take a breath, and speak the next one.

• breathing and INspiration – that breath gives you fuel to think of what you want to say next

• allow yourself to discover the next line during the breath. What do you want to say next? Look at the third line of the speech above. It ends with the word ‘catch.’ If Macbeth breathes there, then he has a second to think about WHAT he wants the outcome of that assassination to be. What does he hope to gain (catch) by killing his king? The next phrase could contain many ideas – fame, a crown, simply pacifying his nagging wife… You get the idea…

• The second thing that happens if you breathe at the end of the line is that you allow the listener to catch up for a sec. Thus the last words of your lines are suspended in the air for a fleeting second. If the listener (the audience) hears nothing else, they will at least hear those last words. Therefore, the final words of each line act as a blueprint for the speech as a whole. Don’t believe me?? Try it! Here’s a speech of Leontes’ from The Winter’s Tale:

Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning cheek to cheek? is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? stopping the career
Of laughing with a sigh?–a note infallible
Of breaking honesty–horsing foot on foot?
Skulking in corners? wishing clocks more swift?
Hours, minutes? noon, midnight? and all eyes
Blind with the pin and web but theirs, theirs only,
That would unseen be wicked? is this nothing?
Why, then the world and all that’s in’t is nothing;
The covering sky is nothing; Bohemia nothing;
My wife is nothing; nor nothing have these nothings,
If this be nothing.

BLUEPRINT:  Nothing. Noses? Career. Infallible. Foot? Swift? Eyes. Only. Nothing? Nothing. Nothing. Nothings. Nothing.

SOME MEANINGS OF ‘NOTHING’:  void, emptiness, absence, valueless, meaningless.

***It is also Elizabethan slang for pussy, i.e. no-thing (no penis)

So we can understand, from his line endings, that Leontes is in total despair. His life is now meaningless. His wife has betrayed him. Everything he had is gone.

Imbedded stage directions

• perhaps you’ve noticed that there are almost no stage directions in Shakespeare’s plays. Isn’t that great? That means you can move wherever your gut tells you. Unless it says, “Exit pursued by a bear,” in which case – good luck!

• However, if Shakespeare did think a certain action was needed in a particular place, then he wrote it right into the speaking part. So, if your line says “Here I kneel. If ever my will did trespass…” – DO IT!  This is just Shakespeare giving you a little help as to how the scene should go.  (‘beseech’ = kneel also)

Shared lines

• often on the page you will see that one character has half a line and then the other character answers with half a line. This means they are sharing a verse line. Four beats for you, six beats for me. When two characters do this a lot it indicates that their relationship is very close in some way. Pay attention! They might be lovers (R&J do this throughout the balcony scene). They might be husband and wife (the Macbeths), or they might be two people who are just forever bound up together because of circumstances (Othello and Iago). Whatever the case, they are finishing each other’s thoughts and completing each other’s rhythms. 

• so half a line doesn’t mean you have a big, fat pause before the next person speaks. It means the pacing picks up!

Folios, Quartos and Editors, oh my!

•  When Shakespeare was writing plays they were not meant to be published. Hell, actors were one step up from whores, so never mind playwrights… When Shakespeare wrote a play he sold it to a playhouse and the playhouse owned it then. So, with maybe a couple of exceptions, the plays were not published during his lifetime. The few that were published were made in small reading versions called Quartos (because they took a page of printing paper and folded it twice to make 4 small sheets). 

• after Shakespeare’s death a couple of his friends, named Heminges and Condell, gathered up all the Quartos, playbooks from the theaters, and actor scripts (called roles because they were rolled into a scroll) and they published them all in a giant book called The First Folio. You can still see these in museums, but these days those tricky bastards on the interwebs have even published them for you online! This is where you can see how the plays looked as Shakespeare wrote them. There are lots of extra Eees on the ends of words and random words are capitalized. Those are all great clues for you “treasure hunt” (as Erin likes to call it). How might you say ‘speake’ as opposed to ‘speak?’ Or how about this bit of Folio text:

So excellent a King, that was to this

            Hyperion to a satyr: so loving to my Mother

            That he might not beteem the winds of heaven

            Visit her face too roughly. And yet, within a month?

            Let me not think on’t: Frailty, thy name is woman.

            O God, a beast that wants discourse of Reason

            Would have mourn’d longer–married with my Uncle,

            My Father’s Brother, but no more like my Father

            Than I to Hercules.

How do those capitalized words change the emphasis of the speech?

(check out the Line Ending Blueprint words on THAT baby too!!)

• Which brings us to editors. They are humans, and flawed humans at that. Just like the rest of us. Unfortunately, they feel like they have to stick their greasy little fingers into everything or else it looks like they’re not doing their job. So, this is what you need to do: question their choices! If you feel like something doesn’t sit right in some edition you’re reading, check a different one. Maybe there’s another word in one version that the editor in your version thought wasn’t the correct word choice. (The nerve of these guys thinking they can second-guess Shakespeare, after all!) Also, when you see the word ‘Aside’ you should definitely try the phrase as NOT an aside and see how that changes things. ‘Aside’ is an editor word. It does NOT appear in the First Folio. 

Translation texts – BOO!

• speaking of editors… ugh! Translation texts, like No Fear Shakespeare, suck. Sorry. Not gonna sugar-coat it. First of all, just the idea that Shakespeare needs to be translated is ludicrous. It ain’t French!! Remember that Modern English thing we said earlier?? OK, so maybe there are some words that trip up a reader here and there – so what’s wrong with some good FOOTNOTES?? 

• Also, NF Shakespeare promotes the idea that there is only one right way to interpret a line and that’s just bull. 

• Furthermore, they generally take all the fun out of the wordplay that Shakespeare is just so fucking good at. For instance, Mercutio’s line “Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man,” is translated as “Ask for me tomorrow, and you’ll find me in a grave.” Which is NOT the point! The point is that Mercutio is bleeding out and still making jokes! That tells you much more about his character. He is not taking death lying down! (that’s also a joke, for all of you out there who need a translation)

• So when you get assigned that new play, please believe in yourself and don’t buy a translation text. You can get it with a little help from your friends (us) or a great resource text with some good footnotes. May we suggest the Cambridge Series editions which have tons of wonderful pictures from productions as well as questions to think about with each act in the play. Great fun!

We hope this guide and our rambling Episode #70 have been helpful. Please email us your questions, or even your scorn and confusion, and we’ll be happy to take a stab at it.


Nasty Talk: A Guide to

Olde Worlde Sexting

Here’s a handy guide to all those words we keep saying mean DICK or VAGINA or SEX…

Enjoy!