Good news! You’ve landed a role in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Your director hands you these lines.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
• Puck, Act 5 Scene 1
If the text just looks like a hodgepodge of words to you, don’t panic! These techniques can help you to turn complex lines into a compelling spoken story.
Understand the words
- First, read through all of the words slowly and carefully, one sentence or idea at a time. What is the overall impression you get? Even if you don’t understand everything the first time, the more that you practice, the better you’ll get at it.
- Do you know what all of the words mean? If not, get out your trusty dictionary. (You can check pronunciations while you’re at it.)
Understand the references
- Research references you don’t understand. For instance, what does it mean to see ‘Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt?’ Time to review your ancient history! Online resources like Sparksnotes can really help. Keep in mind, though, that there is more than one correct way to interpret a passage of text, or even one word.
Understand the ideas
- Look at where a single idea is expressed in the text. Ideas aren’t neatly contained, and can flow across several lines.
- What do the words describe? Shakespeare says that the poet’s eye ‘doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven.’ Paraphrase ideas using your own words, so you are clear on the message you are trying to get across.
- Play with the ways you can say different words, such as lunatic, lover and poet. Can you add more interest or give visual reinforcement to what the words mean?
Explore how to show off the language
- To add interest to his text, Shakespeare uses contrasting or repeating words, and tricks including alliteration (words that contain the same sound). Does he do so in this passage? How can you use these tricks to strengthen your performance?
- Which words in the text give clues as to pacing and emotion?
- What different emotions or tactics are used in the text? Using more than one approach makes a long passage much more interesting for your audience.
- Is there a metre to the passage? How do the words sound if you follow the rhythm? Where might a pause or emphasis add meaning? The placement of punctuation gives you clues.
- Finally, the words are only part of the story you tell. How does your character move and behave? Are there any physical actions you can use to help your audience understand the language?
The wonderful thing about performing Shakespeare’s text is that it gives actors plenty of room to grow. The more that you delve into the text, the more your understanding and interpretation of the language will evolve. Remember to talk to your fellow performers about additional meanings and subtext within the words as you continue to rehearse.