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Soliloquy Preparation

Compiled by Edward Isser


Many of the exercises connected to the site call upon students to perform soliloquies or short scenes. For many students this is a daunting and frightening prospect. Most, if not at all, have little or no acting experience and even those who have performed previously have probably never attempted Shakespeare. The goal of this teaching guide entry is not to turn your students into stellar actors, but rather to provide the fundamental basis for how to approach performing a soliloquy or a scene.

Educators looking for guidance--either in rhetoric or performance--should visit our "sister" site: Tom Gandy's Shakespeare Through Performance. We particularly recommend Kurt Daw's Scansion Guide and the Performance Exercises -- both of which are in the Teaching Guide.

Performance exercises provide multiple pedagogical dividends. First, they illustrate the possiblity of multiple--valid--interpretations of individual moments. Second, the very act of preparing a soliloquy forces students to approach the text in a more immediate and revealing manner then passive reading could provide. The following instructions are adapted from a methodology developed by Audrey Stanley. The only requirement is that each student be provided with multiple xerox copies of each speech (at least six copies)--preferably enlarged to make it easier for them to read and easier for you to correct.

Depending upon time constraints and pedagogical strategies, individual educators should adapt and edit the following exercises to fit individual classroom needs. But beware, students are usually eager to jump right in and begin reciting speeches. Without proper preparation this is of little pedagogical value and leads to mind numbingly boring speeches that cause Mr. Shakespeare to spin in his grave...

Defining the Speech

Ask students to read a speech out loud in class. This should be done informally-- Students may sit at their desk or on the floor-- try to alleviate pressure by emphasising the fact that it is a reading and not a performance. You can have the men read one of Angelo's soliloquies from II.ii or II.iv. Women can read Isabella's soliloquy at the end of II.iv. Go around the room multiple times so that each student gets to read a minimum of two times (if time is an issue, then one time will suffice). Variations on this first reading include breaking a speech down into individual lines. Have the students sit in a circle (or multiple circles--depending on the size of the class) and have each student read one line in turn and go around the circle until the entire speech is recited. Or, have each student read until there is punctuation (comma, colon semi-colon or period) and then move to the next student.

As a homework assignment, require students to look up any words that seem strange or confusing in a Shakespeare glossary, the Oxford English Dictionary, or the Interactive Shakespeare script. Remind students that some words had different meanings during Shakespeare's time and so even words that appear self-evident may be misleading. Using a xerox copy of the speech, instruct students to create glossary annotations in the right hand margin. These annotations and glosses should be footnoted.

As a homework assignment, require students to re-type the entire soliloquy in their own words. This paraphrase should be explicit. For each word in the text, the students should substitute another on practically a one-to-one basis. It is essential that the students refrain from glib, reductive paraphrases that reduce a line to a short phrase. This exercise insures that students are cognizant of exactly what they are saying.

Interpretating the Speech

On a clean xerox copy of the speech, instruct students to use a blue and red pen to underline all verbs (in red) and all nouns (in blue). Have students circle the stress words in each line. There should be no more then two stresed words per line. What is a stress word? Those words which the students deem to be most important. This adds to the students' understanding of the speech and introduces our first stab at introducing vocal variety. Stressed words--by definition--should be delivered differently then unstressed words.

On a clean xerox copy of the speech, have students scan the speech into iambic pentamenter (See Kurt Daw's outstanding Scansion guide). Students should keep in mind words they stressed in the previous exercise. Invariably, they will begin to notice the correspondance between words they thought should be stressed and those which are stressed in their scansion.

On a clean xerox copy of the speech, underline the antithesis (oppositions) in the speech and connect them. In a different color mark all assonance (similar sounding vowel sounds); rhymes, alliteration or onomatopopeia (vocal imitation of sound e.g. swish). In addition, students should highlight all commas, semi-colons, colons, and periods.

On a clean xerox copy of the speech, have students make an objectives chart in the right hand margin. Have the students find active verbs such as I want; I need; I desire; I hate; I love, etc. Have them note whenever they think a new action verb comes into play. This change of active verb denotes a new tone, tactic or objective. Inform your students that each of these changes requires a different vocal tact-- a step up the emotional ladder. To assist in identifying these transitional moments, have students walk randomly about the room (with script in hand)-- whenever they feel a new impulse--a new tact-- they should change direction -- and note it in the margin of their scripts.

On a clean xerox copy of the speech, mark the vocal patterm; pitches, fast or slow, staccato or legato, falling/rising

Character Work

Have the students re-read the entire text and carefully note every description of their character as set forth by other characters. For example, if a student is working on Isabella, note what Claudio says to Lucio about her in I.ii; what the Provost says to Angelo about her in II.ii, etc. In this manner, a picture begins to emerge about how Isabella is objectified in the world of the play.

Students should analyze their character from their own perspective. Decide what is the arc of the character throughout the course of the play. How does "my" character grow and development? What has she learned? How has she changed? What did she want at the beginning of the play? What does she want at the end? Make a list of physical and emotional characteristics. Is my character dull, sharp, subtle, obnoxious, etc. What does my character look like? What is my character's level of education?

A soliloquy or an excerpt from a scene does not come from out of the blue-- it precedes or concludes a scene set at a specific time and place within the course of the play. The student must be cognizant of the dramatic function performed by the specific speech. Students must answer a series of questions in order to be properly oriented. Why is your character entering or remaining? Who is he addressing? And for what purpose? What is the objective of the speech (i.e., what does he want TO DO-- always use action verbs!) This is crucial-- a speech is never merely flowery language, but has a specific purpose. Not only identify what the character wants, but also note what stands in the way-- the obstacles. Often these obstacles are internal-- a fear of losing one's immortal soul (Isabel) or societal--fear of discovery and shame (Angelo). Drama is a result of conflict which happens when an objective confronts an obstacle. A soliloquy without an objective and an obstacle is going to be a bore. But a soliloquy with a series of objectives and multiple obstacles is a dynamic event full of shifting tactics, tones, and vocal varieties as the actor experiences a dialectical process.

Performance Work

The speech should be memorized cold. It is essential that students make every effort to memorize the speech in a neutral manner--without inflection, without editorialization, without making any performance choices whatsoever--as if they were memorizing listings in the phone book. One "trick" is to begin memorizing backwards-- in other words, learn the end of the speech first and then move backwards to the beginning. This is an actor's "trick." Invariably what we memorize first is what we remember best. In performance, this will pay dividends because the student will gain confidence as he or she goes on aware that it will get easier the closer to the end of the speech they get.

Based upon Kristin Linklater's methodology, have your student's lie on their backs. First have them check the rhythm of their breathing to relax and clear their minds. This can be accomplished by having students sing out a breath on a low-pitched note as AHHHHHHH, then breathe normally. Now alternate AHHHHs and normal breaths about six times. Once students have relaxed physically and vocally have them speak each word of their speech separately-- differentiate between the connectives (and, to, toward, but, etc.); the nouns (imagery or information?); verbs (active or passive?); and chosen stress words. This is slow and excruciating, but essential. The students must get a "feel" for each word-- that transcends the intellectual analysis of the earlier exercises. After students have methodically spoken each word in 3 or 4 lines multiple times-- then (still on their backs) have them try to connect the words into lines. Once the words have been connected into lines, then connect the lines into complete thoughts.

After the speech has been memorized and the word work is complete--Students should be asked to walk about the room. Ask them to choose a direction to walk with the first line, whenever they sense a new thought, idea, or energy-- Have them come to a full stop--take a slight pause-- and then resume walking while speaking the "new" thought. In this manner, the students should work their way through the entire speech. Have students compare the discoveries they make while doing this with their prior "intellectual" text work. Students will invariably discover pauses, stops, shifts, and changes in tone that they had not anticipated .

Inexperienced actors invariably forget quckly that they are reciting iambic pentameter and often fall into naturalistic cadences. This can be reduced by forcing them to visualize the actual shape of the line. As they walk around doing their speeches, tell them to stop for a beat and kick the air at the end of each line. Cicely Berry has argued that there should be a half-stop at the end of each line-- by forcing students to physicalize this pause-- it will become ingrained in their consciousness.

Combining text work and word work, the student is finally ready to begin "performing." The first recitations should be done in dorm rooms or in private to reduce anxiety. Students should begin to layer aspects on as they gain greater comfort. Begin with simple recitation concentrating on breathing and pauses (short pause at the end of each line; short pause at each comma; longer pause at each period); add in objective pursuit and response to obstacles; then add in transitions. Once students feel comfortable and confident, suggest they add in objects such as props or furniture with which they can interact and pieces of clothing appropriate to their character. Additional layers include character work, vocal variety, and the Berry/Linklater notion of "climbing the ladder"-- that is gaining emotional intensity with each tactic shift so that the soliloquy culminates emotionally and vocally.

First and foremost, the teacher must create a classroom environment that is supportive. non-competitive, and non-threatening. Performing publicly is even more stressful then speaking publicly--which is considered by many to be one of the greatest horrors. Class should be begin with warm-ups (See the Resource Guide which has many useful warm-up exercises). Fun and silly warm-up exercises relax students and create a communal sense of safety. Students should be asked to take notes while their peers "perform." Things that should be noted include clarity of objectives; development of characterization; and clarity of meaning. Students should be forbidden from making any kind of value judgements about their peers ("it was bad or it was good-- or I liked it or hated it"). Instead, notes should be clinical and specific.

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