Guide note: Each month, our "Teaching Shakespeare" columnist writes about bringing Shakespeare to life in the classroom and drama studio. This month he explains how to prepare a Shakespeare soliloquy.
How to Prepare a Shakespeare Soliloquy
by Duncan Fewins
Most of Shakespeare’s longer speeches for one character are soliloquies – a moment when a character shares their inner feelings with the audience alone. Often, the character discusses what is happening to them and their current options. They use this time cut out of the play to assess their situation, make sense of it and devise a plan. Most characters use the audience during the soliloquy as if they are a friend, so the audience needs to feel part of the discussion and complicit in the character’s plans.
Workshop: Developing a Soliloquy
This is my five-step guide to help you prepare a soliloquy for either a full performance of a Shakespeare play or an audition speech.
Think about the context. Even if you are auditioning, you need to understand where the soliloquy is in relation to the whole play and the character’s journey through it. Reading and knowing the entire play is crucial. In particular, think about what has happened immediately before the speech. Usually, a soliloquy is triggered by a key event – this is why Shakespeare gives his characters time to make sense of their situation. Your first job is to demonstrate the character’s feeling at the beginning of the speech.
Analyze the structure of the text. A soliloquy is a mini play in itself. It has a beginning, middle and end. Divide the text up into beats or subsections, each with a separate function. For example: “beat one – initial anger.” Once you have divided the speech up, you can begin to think about how to play each section in terms of physicality and voice.
Think about where your character is. This is crucial to the way in which they behave in the scene. Depending on their situation, move as naturally as you can as if you were there. Your movement and speech will vary greatly depending on if you are outside in a storm or in your enemy’s private home.
Sequence the information. Having established the basics (context, structure and situation), begin to sequence the information together and develop the work. Your audience should not be able to see the joins between your sections. The gaps between your beats or sub-sections need to be filled with gestures that demonstrate your character’s thought process.
- Emotional engagement is essential. Having worked on a good basic structure with natural movement and vocal quality, you must now engage with the character’s emotions. Without it, your work will feel false and contrived. Try to translate your own feelings from personal experiences into the role, either by thinking about your past emotions, or simply by acting out how you would behave in particular emotional states.
Don’t move unless you have to! Sometimes actors feel like they must move just because they are static. Many soliloquies require little movement and some speeches require no movement at all. Move only when the character should.
Always make sure you know how to say unfamiliar words. Mispronunciation is embarrassing! Audio and video tapes are always useful in this respect – or perhaps you could ask a teacher or practitioner.
For auditions, always chose a speech that is close to you in age (unless you’ve been given a speech to learn). It is very difficult for any actor to play a character who is a lot older or younger than them.
- Finally, be yourself! The worst soliloquy performances I have seen occur when the actor tries to conform to a Shakespearean style of acting. This is always false and difficult to watch. Remember, a soliloquy is a personal reaction to events, so you need to engage with real feelings and thoughts. These can only come from you.