Understanding the Text

William Shakespeare is one of the most celebrated playwrights of all time, the most performed playwright of all time. Yet despite the beauty of his text, the words are difficult to understand.

In some Shakespeare productions, Meier said some actors convey the Elizabethan lines perfectly, while others are hard to understand. Pauses and inflection help convey meaning.

David Morden, one of Rogue Theatre’s Artistic Associates, will play Polixines. Morden teaches Acting and Shakespeare at Pima Community College. Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter is a rhythm similar to the beating of a heart; da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM. Changes to this rhythm are significant and can hint to where a character is psychologically.

Morden said, “450 years later Shakespeare left us clues in his text so we could better understand him.”

Meier mentioned one method of Morden’s they’ll use to understand Shakespeare’s words. It’s called “Tarzaning” where the actors look at the skeleton of the text. They pick the words that lift the essential meaning out of the text. “Me Tarzan. You Jane.” Meier demonstrated.

The rest of the cast tried this method, among others, to learn how to approach Shakespeare’s text so it’s more understandable. One of the very first steps in the rehearsal process was to have a text rehearsal.

In a conference room on the side of the theatre, Morden leads the cast through Sonnet 121.


‘Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed,

When not to be receives reproach of being,

And the just pleasure lost which is so deemed

Not by our feeling but by others’ seeing.

For why should others’ false adulterate eyes

Give salutation to my sportive blood?

Or on my frailties why are frailer spies,

Which in their wills count bad what I think good?

No, I am that I am, and they that level

At my abuses reckon up their own;

I may be straight, though they themselves be bevel.

By their rank thoughts my deeds must not be shown,

  Unless this general evil they maintain:

  All men are bad, and in their badness reign.

Below are the basic steps the actors used gain a clearer understanding.
Step One: Look up all the words you don’t know.
Step Two: Figure out the different thoughts, the separate beats by putting in punctuation.
Step Three: Paraphrase.
Step Four: Look at the scancion, the rhythm.
Step Five: Find irregulars and exceptions to emphasize.
Step Six: Tarzan.
Throughout their crash course on Shakespearean verse, the cast didn’t allow themselves to become frusterated. They were laughing and smiling, making jokes despite the difficulty of the material before them. At the end, they had a better understanding of what it was they needed to do to prepare themselves for the production.
For Morden, one of his favorite parts is when the meaning finally comes together. “I love this moment, when it’s clear and makes sense.”