How to Speak Shakespeare

How to Speak Shakespeare
Cal Pritner and Louis Colaianni
September 2001

In How to Speak Shakespeare, authors Cal Pritner and Louis Colaianni teach readers how to make sound and sense out of the Bard. Their methods have taught thousands of people—from high school students to English literature and theater arts graduate students, from beginning actors to professional actors—how to understand and effectively communicate the poetry of Shakespeare.
In order to make the book user-friendly, the authors have organized it around passages from Romeo and Juliet. The material has been tested successfully with high school students, graduate students, amateur actors, and professional actors. The authors' teaching method is essentially a simple three step process: Test Your Understanding, Stress for Meaning, and Celebrate the Poetry. Classroom and rehearsal-tested exercises are included along with additional background on Shakespeare and his work.

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This book is the culmination of over twenty years of teaching and research into the challenge of how to speak Shakespeare. We have dedicated ourselves to a basic challenge: how to help actors communicate Shakespeare’s ideas and stories clearly for audiences. How to Speak Shakespeare features a step-by-step process for speaking Shakespeare clearly and intelligently, using only one Shakespeare play for its examples: Romeo and Juliet.
Our process is based on sound yet simple principles that have proven effective for a wide range of students: from eighth graders to undergraduate theatre majors to MFA students to professional actors. It’s been “classroom-tested” and “rehearsal-tested” in schools and theatres from coast to coast including: Illinois State University, the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, the Missouri Repertory Theatre, the California Institute of the Arts, the University of Missouri-Kansas City, the California State Summer School for the Arts, and the American Conservatory Theatre. It has also been taught to faculty leaders of the International Thespian Society from across America.
In our effort to make How to Speak Shakespeare as accessible as possible, we make no assumptions about what you “know” about Shakespeare. We offer “Additional Background” in case you’ve forgotten the difference between Elizabethan and Jacobean, or between a “First Folio” and a “Quarto.” Except for a copy of Romeo and Juliet, no “accessories” are required.
So, let’s get to work! It’s Shakespeare and it’s worth the effort.
Cal Pritner
Louis Colaianni

The Basic Sequence
Step One: Test Your Understanding.

Shakespeare’s words are 400 years old, and they often don’t have the same meaning today as they did back then. How do you deal with this?
a) Look it up in the dictionary.
Eventually you’ll want to check some words out in the Oxford English Dictionary (your local college, high school, or public library should have the OED in print or on cd-rom), but for our demonstration exercises, you won’t have to.
b) Paraphrase.
Try saying it in your own words, as closely to the text’s meaning as you can get; that’s the way to make sure you’re understanding what you’re saying.
Step Two: Stress for Meaning.
a) Find the rhythms. Most of Shakespeare is written in verse. We’ll help you find the verse’s rhythm.
b) Syncopate for meaning.
We’ll show you how to vary the rhythm of the verse, or “syncopate” it, for meaning and communication.
Step Three: Celebrate the Poetry.
Shakespeare wrote poetically. In order to give full expression to Shakespeare’s poetry, the actor/character must be aware of basic expressive tools that the text employs.
a) Use the Punctuation.
Understanding Shakespeare’s punctuation helps the actor speak the text meaningfully. Carefully followed, Shakespeare’s punctuation provides a roadmap for the organization of characters’ thoughts. In many cases it also dictates rhythmic shifts in the text.
b) Repeated Sounds.
The characters play with repeated sounds. Repeated sounds, including “rhyme,” “assonance,” and “alliteration” are clues for meaning and expression.
c) Connecting the Key Words and Phrases.
Key words include:
1) Action words (usually verbs).
2) Naming words (usually nouns)
3) Amplifying, explaining, and contrasting words, such as “auncient” and “new” or “civill hands” and civill bloud”

© 2001 Cal Pritner and Louis Colaianni

Author Information
Cal Pritner, Ph.D

The co-author of How to Speak Shakespeare has chaired theatre departments at Illinois State University and the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and served as the founding artistic director of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival. Dr. Pritner has been inducted into the College of Fellows of the American Theatre. He lives in New York City.

Louis Colaianni

The co-author of How to Speak Shakespeare is an authority in Voice, Speech and Shakespeare Performance. His innovative approach to phonetics and stage accents is used by dozens of theatre schools throughout the United States. He is an Associate Professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and has served on the faculties of the American Conservatory Theatre, Ohio University, and Hunter College among others. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri.


“Eminently readable and understandable, this book is best described as a workshop guide for a class in reading Shakespeare. The authors’ attack the problems of acting Shakespeare, speaking the language, through the use of only one play, Romeo and Juliet. They employ extensive explanations and exercises, noting comparisons and exceptions with standard rules and emphasizing the Oxford English Dictionary for definition of unfamiliar vocabulary. A fine resource for college students just beginning to explore the vicissitudes of dealing with iambic pentameter in all its variety, this book is recommended for lower-division undergraduate acting classes.”

“Cal Pritner and Louis Colaianni have produced a tool for any student or teacher to utilize when performing Shakespeare. How to Speak Shakespeare is a ‘how-to’ book with suggestions about ways to come to a truce, if not an understanding, with a four-hundred-year-old version of the English language. . . .
Analysis and performance of dramatic literature can and should be used in English classrooms. English teachers could use this book in a poetry unit to cover the structure of Shakespeare’s poetry, to show examples of blank verse, to look at how punctuation is used in poetry, and to provide an introduction to rhyme scheme, while also emphasizing that Shakespeare’s poetry is meant to be spoken and heard, rather than coldly analyzed on the printed page. One of the many reasons English teachers might want to use this book as a tool in their classroom is that it tries to involve students in the process of discovering the poetry. Even though this book is a highly technical breakdown of Shakespearean text, Pritner and Colaianni do not forget to include the pleasure of the sheer beauty of the language. . . .
“It is clear that How to Speak Shakespeare is not only for drama classes, but it can also be easily integrated into an English literature class. It provides a step-by-step guide to cracking the code of Shakespearean language and structure. Shakespeare was not just a poet. He was a playwright whose plays took their form in flights of poetry. This book takes something that can be very daunting and makes it easier to understand. All it takes is a copy of Romeo and Juliet (or any other Shakespearean play) and a few pencilsÑand the stage of a student’s imagination.”
English Journal

“This one won’t sit long on the shelves after students and teachers discover it. Presented in the most simple—but not condescending—terms, Pritner and Colaianni teach readers how to understand and speak Shakespearean plays. First on the praise list is their decision to use only one, familiar play for illustration, Romeo and Juliet. One cannot learn classical acting from reading a book alone, so the authors include both written and suggested oral exercises. But the book isn’t only for young actors. It’s superb for high school students facing a mandatory Shakespeare unit who still think Juliet is asking “where” Romeo is. As the authors explain—better than many English teachers—”Wherefore art thou Romeo?” means “Why are you ‘Romeo’?” The lessons are easy to follow and written with a friendly hand. Thankfully, there are no synopses or critical interpretations, just excellent tutelage in Shakespeare’s word usage, punctuation and poetry.”
Today’s Librarian

“The serious student of Shakespeare, regardless of background and age, will find this text indispensable for many reasons. First and foremost it is clear and to the point in its approach to presenting, analyzing, and ultimately explicating not only Shakespeare’s words, but the intent, meaning and sound that must be interwoven to bring the Bard’s true genius to life. From explanations to actual exercises that help the reader apply the principles set forth, Pritner and Colaianni have designed a college course that lacks the intimidating qualities as well as the expense of enrolling at your local university. Granted, a background in Shakespearian literature, or a minimum of familiarity with Romeo and Juliet, is essential, nevertheless, even a novice can till this volume and expect a good harvest . . . . The intent and structure, not to mention the overall concept of the text, are sound and will make this book a must have for most students of Shakespeare, regardless of their background or motivation.”
ForeWord Magazine

How to Speak Shakespeare is an invaluable, entertaining and informative book. This is the most accessible and unintimidating work on this subject I have read. It will be of equal interest to actors, scholars and lay people.”
Vivian Matalon, Tony Award-winning Director

“The technique necessary for the speaking of classical texts on stage is dying in this country. What’s required is a profound connection to language and an alacrity and surety of speech; all of which comes from an intricate technique. This is why I’m pleased to find that Mr. Colaianni and Mr. Pritner have created this important book devoted to the technique for speaking heightened texts on the stage. By studying the fundamentals Colaianni and Pritner here provide, the serious actor can begin a lifelong commitment to this important, and all too often ignored, essential part of the actor’s tools.”
Marco Baricelli, Artistic Associate, American Conservatory Theatre; Leading Actor, Oregon Shakespeare Festival