The Eloquent Shakespeare

A Pronouncing Dictionary for the Complete Dramatic Works with Notes to Untie the Modern Tongue
by Gary Logan

Have you ever read one on Shakespeare’s works and not known how to pronounce a word? (If not, are you human?) Where do you normally turn? Most regular dictionaries that you might keep on your shelf only include words in modern usage; not words, names, and places that haven’t been in widespread common use in 400 years.

You could ask someone and hope they’re right. If you have a good movie or audiobook of a play you can check there and listen… but that seems like a little too much trouble for a single word.

What you need is dictionary of pronunciation (I have several) from an authoritative source. I’d say Gary Logan is one: He was the Chair of Voice and Speech at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, and has worked as a voice coach for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford Shakespeare Festival, The Shakespeare Theatre Company, and several others.

There’s really no reason not to have a pronouncing dictionary if you’re an actor or director working on Shakespeare’s plays. You’re doing yourself, your company, and your audience a disservice by deciding not to check to see if you’re pronouncing a word correctly. Even if it’s not Shakespeare, and the play has difficult words, one should do their homework and look it up.

But why buy this one? It’s not the cheapest one out there so it had better be good. As a matter of fact, it is good. It might even be right for you — not all dictionaries are the same or right for everyone, I’ll have you know.

The Eloquent Shakespeare lists its pronunciations in Standard American Stage Dialect, a sort of “neutral” dialect that has no distinct regional features. It’s like the speech that most news anchors and classical actors employ while reading the news and speaking Shakespeare, respectively. This means that some of the common words may have a pronunciation that is different from the way you speak.

A feature that I enjoy is the fact that all the words are only transcribed using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). If you’ve learned IPA in theatre school, all the better. If you haven’t, there’s a key to each symbol at the bottom of every page. It’s not that hard to figure out.

The notes and introduction are very well done and informative, if you ever read them. Not everyone’s the type that reads an introduction to a dictionary but I suggest you always do. You’ll be happy you did — why have a tool when you don’t know how to use it properly? The dictionary seems to be complete. It even includes one of my favorites, honorificabilitudinitatubus! Rare or show specific words have the play in which they appear listed next to the headword. If it scans differently in different places there’s a note there to help you. There are even foreign language pronunciations of words and phrases. I know now how to pronounce Si fortune me tormente, sperato me contento.

My biggest complaint is the cover. It looks nice and pretty, but if I saw it on a shelf I would never know that I needed to have it. The whole cover looks like a really long title. Not a big deal, I can take off the dust jacket if needed. But don’t judge this book by its cover!

There are other pronouncing dictionaries out there for less, but if you are an actor, director, teacher, or other serious Shakespearean, I would recommend spending a little extra to get this nicely produced, authoritative, complete, hardcover (long-lasting), and easy to navigate resource.

The Eloquent Shakespeare: A Pronouncing Dictionary for the Complete Dramatic Works with Notes to Untie the Modern Tongue is available from Amazon.com

Shakespeare’s Advice To The Players

by Peter Hall

I’ve read a lot of Acting Shakespeare books and posted reviews on some of them here. Many good, some not up to par, but Peter Hall’s Shakespeare’s Advice to the Players is definitely a winner in my book.

How can you argue with a man who has had over 50 years of experience directing the Royal Shakespeare Company (and elsewhere) with the likes of Laurence Olivier, Edith Evans, John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, Judy Dench, Anthony Hopkins, and Ian McKellen? The man knows what he’s talking about. Great part of this book number one: Real authority.

Hall makes it clear in the book that he speaks from a place of authority. Not because he says it, but because he learned it from the best actors. The above actors, as well as the great John Barton, have been among his tutors for creating the best use of Shakespeare’s text onstage.

I say using Shakespeare’s text and not acting for a reason. This isn’t abook about acting, per se. It’s about using the text to effectively bring meaning, emotion, story, and acting to the audience; all necessary to “act” Shakespeare. Hall continuously repeats the fact that the text will serve as your strongest ally if you know how to use it. If my post about it can’t convince you of that fact, Peter Hall’s book can.

The advice is wonderfully concise. By page 61 Hall has already laid out and explained “the rules.” The next hundred pages or so are textual analysis of scenes and monologues that are not to be skimmed or skipped. Read the whole book! The explanation at the beginning has plenty of value, but until you see the techniques in action you won’t fully get it. This is probably the closest you will get to having Peter Hall giving you a private lesson on Shakespeare.

If you aren’t already familiar with the acting process the book might not be for you. The book assumes that you have a decent understanding of what Shakespeare’s text is and how it works. It seems to me that there’s too much info in here for someone new to acting Shakespeare. Not that you’d get nothing out of it, but some of the ideas won’t sink in as well as one who has more Shakespearience.

As an added bonus, you can hear Peter Hall working with a couple actors on the publisher’s website. Go ahead and listen to it now for a preview of what’s in the book.

Is this the best book ever? I haven’t had anything bad to say about it yet. Rather than looking for a criticism, I’ll conclude. Peter Hall has been working with some of the best actors for the past 50 years or more. He’s picked up a lot of great knowledge and wisdom along the way. Pick up a copy. Whether you’re an actor, director, vocal coach, dramaturg, student, or scholar, I’m sure you’ll find it helpful.

Shakespeare’s Advice to the Players is available from Amazon.com.

Mastering Shakespeare

by Scott Kaiser

What is it that British actors have over American actors that aides in performing Shakespeare? Scott Kaiser raises this question in the introduction. Many American student actors ask themselves this question all the time in training and afterwards. No wonder that the topic comes up, most of the great Shakespearean performances in movies are by Brtis, while the Americans are generally there to sell tickets.

The answer? It’s not that Americans lack anything, but that the modern acting tradition is strongly based in a seemingly not-classic-friendly style: Lee Strasberg and his teachings of the Stanislavsky System, which only included the methods described in one of Stanislavsky’s book and excluded all information about voice, diction, rhythm, verse speaking, punctuation, body, etc. All the stuff important to acting Shakespeare.

Scott Kaiser endeavors to bridge the gap with his book, by explaining “how to apply a Stanislavsky-based approach to the challenges of acting Shakespeare.”

In the introduction Mr. Kaiser acknowledges that it’s impossible to really learn acting from a book. Instead, he turns it into a play. Based on the form employed by Richard Boleslavsky and his book, Acting: The First Six Lessons, Kaiser writes dialogue between a master teacher and his sixteen students. Actors are, after all, used to reading scripts and translating it into personal experience.

In that regard, the book is very effective. Reading along with the students process with the master teacher, Mr K., is a very nice change from other acting books that have a technical manual kind of approach. This book is much more practical. The questions the students have might just be what any other student would ask. Years of teaching experience has obviously culminated in this book.

Mastering Shakespeare doesn’t spend much time talking about meter, scansion, or verse vs. prose, there is an assumption that the student knows about this already. What the book really concentrates on is what inspires the text. “Why am I saying these words right now?” Reading the book offers many different tools to answer that question.

The only thing this book lacks is more introductory information on acting Shakespeare: Scansion, rhetoric, verse speaking, etc. This book assumes that a student has a fairly solid foundation in acting and acting Shakespeare. That being said, it probably shouldn’t be the first thing you read if you’re a beginning student. It is one of many books that should be a part of the actor’s arsenal. Directors and teachers should pick up a copy for insight in helping an actor create specific choices and a believable/sustainable performance.

Mastering Shakespeare is available for $19.95 on Amazon.com

Evoking and Forgetting Shakespeare

by Peter Brook

Peter Brook is one of the most influential minds in today’s theatre. The impact he has had as an author and director of plays and films might just be immeasurable. His 1968 book The Empty Space as well as his 1970 Royal Shakespeare Company production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream have been hugely influential upon today’s scholars, directors, teachers and actors.

The Theatre Communications Group (TCG), has produced the Dramatic Contexts series to document “important statements on the theatre by major figures in the theatre.” Thank you kindly, TCG.

Being part of the Dramatic Contexts series, this isn’t a book that Brook published. This 47 page, large print book contains transcripts of two speeches Peter Brook made in the mid 1990s: Evoking Shakespeare and Forgetting Shakespeare, delivered in Berlin and Paris, respectively. If one were to compare this to Brook’s other works, Evoking and Forgetting Shakespeare leaves the reader wanting more.

The book is not large and can easily be read in an hour. This reviewer was left unsatisfied with only 47 pages of Peter Brook’s ideas. Why not include more speeches and articles? However, in so few words, the Brook still manages to make some profound statements about producing, directing, and studying Shakespeare’s works today. The first section (Evoking…) raises and attempts to answer questions such as “Why is Shakespeare still relevant today?”, “Who was Shakespeare – the man?”, and “What do we mean by calling him a genius?” Brook explores Shakespeare’s capacity for memory. An author whose writing contains such densely-packed language full of imagery must have had a super-human talent for conjuring such images and in his mind (and linking them together). He speaks of the challenges of producing Shakespeare’s plays today and attempting to make them feel new and “modern” without losing the power of the language.

Forgetting Shakespeare asks the actor (or director, etc.) to “Forget that these plays had such an author. [...] So just assume, as a trick to help you, that the character you are preparing to play actually existed.” Why? Because you are not like Hamlet. Because you are not the news-caster for Shakespearean headlines. Because actors seem to do very well when the portray people who actually lived. Just look at any of your favorite biography films.. it’s true. This way we forget about the author, what his intentions may have been, his philosophy. All things that get in the way. So the only way to find Shakespeare is to forget him. My summarizing and paraphrazing is not nearly as eloquent or inspiring as Brook’s so I suppose you’ll just have to buy a copy and read it for yourself.

At nearly $9, it’s a little pricey for the amount of paper they used, so if you’re a casual Shakespeare reader this probably isn’t for you. This work, though, should be read by the die-hard fans as well as actors, directors, and teachers of The Bard. The ideas inside are well worth the price. And because of the short length, it’ll be easy to come back to again and again for inspiration.

Evoking and Forgetting Shakespeare

Memorizing Shakespeare with ScenePartner

There’s a relatively new online product out that was created to help actors learns lines. Just click on over to MemorizeShakespeare.com and see what the buzz is about.

The whole idea behind this method is that learning by ear the most effective way to remember text, just like the way you learn song lyrics or another language. The learning is entirely audio. There’s no text to read so that you don’t memorize the page layout rather than the text, you instantly know how to pronounce words, the rhythm of the text, and you don’t have to worry about hurting your arm with the weight of the complete works in your hand. You can even download your cues to practice with once you learn your lines.

Sounds pretty good, right? Before going any further let me take this opportunity to invite you to try it for yourself. You can download their sample and learn Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy. Although there are plenty of helpful tips out there to help actors learn lines, most experienced actors have a method that works for them after years of experimenting. This one might work for you, it might not.

The advantages I mentioned above sound good and it’s definitely better than nothing. But for someone who is serious about succeeding in acting Shakespeare’s text this method is not the alpha and omega of learning lines.

There is a fair level of inflexibility with recorded text. In any given production, lines may be cut. With ScenePartner, each cue is a single track. But sometimes pieces of lines are cut. A few lines in the middle of a speech may be removed, words are different depending on the source, and directors may even alter words. Punctuation is different in various editions which can alter phrasing and meaning and the recorded version might not correspond perfectly.

Students beware. You might be new to acting Shakespeare and glad to find a resource that tells you how to pronounce the words and memorize the text easier, but do you know what all the words mean? I would recommend not learning any lines until you have discovered what the difficult or unfamiliar words mean. You can’t act words you don’t know. Please take the time to figure out what you’re saying first, no matter what method of memorization you use.

If actors were to do their homework to find definitions, do scansion, play with the imagery in the text, and make the words their own so that the words aren’t merely being recited, this resource may be a good addition (not substitute) to the methods they employ to learn lines.

From $12-24 per album for lines and another $12-24 for cues (price varies per character), it’s not too much of a hole in your wallet for this help, and if it works for you – by all means, take advantage of this resource!

The long term investment of a good reference books and a digital audio recorder make for a much cheaper alternative if you plan to memorize a lot of Shakespeare.

The Shakespeare Papers

If you like Shakespeare (as I percieve by your being here none of you hates him) you must check out The Shakespeare Papers. Each of these 16 page marvels are a wonderfully designed exploration into a specific theme of Shakespeare’s works, and worth having.

To give you an example of the sorts of things covered, the first issue covered the motif of “…Morning and the diverse ways Shakespeare describes it to us, sometimes without ever using the word.” Each page includes a couple quotes involving morning from various plays. But it’s not just a random list… they’re all beautifully poetic passages that you may not fully notice or appreciate when reading or seeing the play as a whole. The Shakespeare Papers are kindly asking you to stop, take a look at the little things that make up the whole of Shakespeare’s canon… you will be amazed and know not what to say.

Also included in the first issue is an explanation of the quotes. In fact, each issue includes some sort of analysis of the topic covered… you’re getting some scholarship too in a great looking packet. I should mention that the graphic design is really well done. It’s nice to have something this good looking beside the bland scholarly journals that I receive.

Speaking of scholarly journals, that’s not what you’re getting and it’s a great thing! Too much scholarship can take the fun out of Shakespeare, so you get just enough info to educate you on a small subject. These are very easy to follow along in (it’s only a few pages!) and if you want more, you can get extra tidbits through email every now and then if you’d like. I only wish I could get more issues more often!

It’s very easy to got lost in the forest of knowledge of Shakespeare’s works, the Shakespeare Papers is a wonderful guide to exploring the beauty contained in each tree. At $38 a year for 6 booklets, I would strongly recommend getting a subscription for yourself and one for a friend.

ShakespeareScene

Perhaps you’ve heard of a brand new magazine called ShakespeareScene. If you haven’t, their website describes the periodical as, “The twice yearly publication aims to provide a stimulating mix of topics on Shakespeare, his work and times, together with a comprehensive international listing of what, where & when plays & events are being held. Shakespeare Scene takes you exclusively to the heart of Shakespeare.”

There are a few Shakespeare journals published aimed at scholars and advanced students. There are other bulletins published for various other Shakespeare related organizations. This magazine seems to have been created to fill whatever demand there is for a magazine about Shakespeare performances, media, discoveries, etc. available to any Shakespeare-enthusiast. I happen to be subscribed to all the types of publications I mentioned above, including ShakespeareScene. I thought that one more couldn’t hurt. My curiosity was piqued when I first read about this new magazine.

The first issue recently found its way into my mailbox and subsequently into my hands. Any brand new resource starts on rocky ground as far as getting a subscriber base and generating enough interest to keep up production. And as much as I hate to say it, Shakespeare isn’t the most popular subject out there.

I’ve almost finished reading this issue. There are some interesting articles on various subjects: Shakespeare taught in Brazil, Examining Henry V and justifying war, as well resources on Shakespeare performances… they include a list of theatres showing Shakespeare all over the world! There’s also a fair share of not so interesting (in my humble opinion) sections. There are mistakes in the printing here and there, the layout needs some work, and I do like a magazine with lots of pictures. The magazine has its share of faults, but it’s a first issue! It could be the start of something really good. If the team of ShakespeareScene is reading this: keep it up! You’ve got a good thing going.

And if you are considering subscribing, it couldn’t hurt to try it for a couple issues right? For the casual Shakespearean fan, you can pick and choose from what’s online if you don’t want to spend the money OR you can forget the internet and have the info mailed right to you. If you’re a die-hard Bardolater like me, check it out. You might find something you like.

Asimov’s Guide To Shakespeare

William Shakespeare has been given more titles than can be counted: The best British Playwright, most influential English author, most accomplished author in history, best writer in the history of the English language, the best writer ever, the list goes on. Shakespeare also has the reputation of being rather thick, wordy, sesquipedalian, and just plain hard to understand. There are plenty of dictionaries, lexicons, and other books for dummies on Shakespeare that have been written to help the average person understand the greatest of playwrights. But boring teachers in schools across the world are continually giving students the impression that you have to be a genius to fully understand and appreciate Shakespeare.

Isaac Asimov shows us that one must only be a genius to single-handedly write a book that can really help people really understand what is really going on in the many works of William Shakespeare. And he does it quite nicely.

This book is not a bunch of footnotes put together. It is not entirely composed of word definitions, translations of the text to modern English, and not a summary. It is, as we are told in the title, a guide. Just as a tour guide walks us safely along the path explaining and educating, so too does Asimov with the entirety of Shakespeare’s plays and even a couple of his poems.

In the introduction Asimov reminds the reader that Shakespeare, although a writer “for all time,” was initially writing for an Elizabethan audience. The history, mythology, and other knowledge is what he was writing about. “Any yet, if we did know a little more of what that writing was about, would not the plays take on new dimensions and lend us still greater enjoyment?” And through the course of the rest of the book Isaac Asimov lets the reader know much more of what the writing was about – leading to greater enjoyment. Much greater. This reviewer, in fact, nearly leaped for joy after reading the chapter on Hamlet. A play regarded by many as Shakespeare’s greatest and most complex writing is made crystal clear. Each play is put into historical context, obscure passages and references are explained, and enjoyment of these plays increase exponentially.

The books can be used two ways. Primarily, a guide through the entirety of Shakespeare’s plays to be read from cover to cover. A tour guide requires you to be on the same path they are on, so if you haven’t read a play some of the chapter on that work might not be as helpful as it could be. The book can also be a reference. Each chapter need not be read in order. Each applies to a specific play, so during or after the reading of any play you may reference the appropriate chapter. Either way, be sure to read the introduction!

There’s a lot that can be said for this book, but in the end it really speaks for itself. Isaac Asimov doesn’t just prove his immense knowledge of Shakespeare’s language and history, but that once you know a thing or two about what The Bard is talking about you will have an appreciation for the plays. This work is strongly recommended to teachers and students of Shakespearean works both in the fields of Theatre and Literature. With Isaac Asimov as your guide you will truly find that William Shakespeare is a writer “for all time.”

Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare: A Guide to Understanding and Enjoying the Works of Shakespeare