Making Shakespeare sound natural and modern

Making Shakespeare sound natural and modern
Photo Credit: John C. Willett via cc

How to act Shakespeare in a modern way

Making Shakespeare sound natural is difficult: the language and the pentameter and the very fact that it is Shakespeare means that we subconsciously can pile on the drama of it all.
What seems to happen more often than not is we put on our Shakespeare voice and start to overact.
This wonderful clip from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Playing Shakespeare television series allows us a little insight into the rehearsal process and how we can bring naturalism to Shakespeare by really looking at it through the lens of our modern acting techniques.
If we look at intentions and relationships we are able to add true emotion and feeling to a line of Shakespeare verse or prose and give it a more naturalistic feeling.

How to add intention to Shakespeare and give it a more relevant reading

Look at young Sir Ian McKellan and how he switches the emotional intention of the opening line of The Merchant of Venice to change the meaning of it.
By simply thinking about “painting it over with a colour called sadness” he is able to add richness to the words and the line seems to ground itself in reality and become more natural for today’s modern audience.
To make Shakespeare relevant to today’s audience we need to add this emotional depth and naturalism to our delivery and then we are deliberately making the text as natural as possible.
The director that is seen in the above clip working with the actors is John Barton. Interestingly he was asked to write a book about his knowledge of Shakespeare, but he refused. He told the publishers that it was impossible to talk about Shakespeare without having living and breathing actors present to demonstrate the infinite subtleties and poetry of Shakespeare’s text.

Don’t read Shakespeare alone – get together and make it live

Shakespeare is just some dusty old words on a page if it is not spoken aloud, it is written to be performed aloud: to be spoken by actors. One way to really start honing your Shakespeare skills is to get together with your friends regularly and hold a Shakespeare reading session.
This is what Joss Whedon and friends did … and probably still do.
His regular Shakespeare play readings – just for fun and to stretch everyone’s acting chops – led to his wonderful movie of Much Ado About Nothing, which is full of actors delivering Shakespeare in a natural way with minimum of fuss and effort but making maximum impact of the meaning, wit and emotion of the piece.

Try reading Shakespeare using your own voice

Shakespeare wrote verse which easily lends itself to natural speech rhythms, and his prose is actually written in natural speech rhythms. Yes, they were written for the speech patterns of yester-year but they still can match our speech patterns today.
Just look at Shylock’s speeches and lines – they are written with in such a way that they work today with modern Jewish cadences. Any actors reading Shylock today will find it easy to slip into this manner of delivery just by reading the words as they are written with the grammar and sentence structure used.
For a great example of how Shakespeare can work with our own voices and accents in today’s modern world look at Rory Kinnear in Hamlet. He used his own voice and accent and brought such depth and heart to Hamlet that one reviewer said he was:
“the first Hamlet ever to move me emotionally as much as he did intellectually.”

Play with Shakespeare’s plays – just get comfy and have fun!

The more you can play with Shakespeare the better you will get at it, and less afraid.
Treat it like you would a modern screenplay or theatre play. Read it aloud with a group of actors, switch roles, switch emotions, try out a scene a few different ways – think of a new intention for the characters and just give it a go.
The more comfortable you can get at reading Shakespeare aloud, in your own voice, the more natural it will start sounding and you will approach it from a wonderful starting point where a director can begin to work with you.

Shakespeare can and should be both relevant and understandable to today’s audience