When I coach clients on Shakespeare my students often ask me, “Where can I find information on what a particular word means in a monologue?” Or they’ll say to me, “I read the play but I didn’t really understand it. Is there somewhere I could find a synopsis?” Below are some indispensable resources that can help you understand a character or play as well as breakdown a monologue:
Shakespeare Lexicon and Quotation Dictionary. This resource comes in two volumes and contains a definition of all the words and phrases that Shakespeare wrote. It’s an invaluable resource for uncovering exactly what Shakespeare meant word for word. For instance, you’re working on Lady Anne from Richard III and you want to look up the word “avaunt” in the line:
“Avaunt, thou dreadful minister of hell!”
You will find the word “avaunt” in the Lexicon and a list of every single time Shakespeare wrote the word “avaunt” and exactly what he intended in each instance!
Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. This is a masterful book by scholar Harold Bloom, in which he argues that Shakespeare essentially invented the idea of character in literature. The book focuses not on Shakespeare’s language or poetry, but on the characters he created. I find it a valuable resource when auditioning for or playing Shakespeare’s iconic roles. It’s important to bring your own ideas to a part, but this helps you to start from an informed and grounded place.
Shakespeare A-Z. This huge volume is a compendium of everything Shakespeare. It includes detailed synopses of every single one of Shakespeare’s plays, breakdowns of all of the Bard’s characters, and short biographies on the historical figures on whom some of them were based. It also includes blurbs about actors who achieved fame in Shakespeare’s day, as well as information about Shakespeare’s contemporaries, and descriptions of locations that are important to his plays. This is perhaps the most exhaustive Shakespearean resource and truly lives up to its title.
Year of the King. This is one of my favorite books on the art of acting. This slim volume recounts Anthony Sher’s transformation into the role of Richard III. It’s an actor’s diary, filled with drawings that he created of himself as the infamous ruler. He goes into detail on how he researched the role as well as personal experiences on working with the Royal Shakespeare Company. It gives great insight into Sher’s acting process. Perhaps most inspiring is Sher’s depth of commitment and obvious love for the craft.
The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. A beautiful volume written by scholar Helen Vendler on Shakespeare’s poetry devotes a chapter to each and every one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. It lays out each sonnet with the original text next to the modern translation. This book sheds new light on the form and content of each of these beautiful poems.
There are zillions of books dedicated to the scholarship of The Bard. But these five are an indispensable part of any young actor’s library. Did I miss any of your favorites? Let me know in the comments!