When I counsel clients on Shakespeare, my students often ask me, “Where can I find information about what a particular word means in a monologue?” Or they will say to me, “I read the play but really didn’t understand it. Is there anywhere I can find a synopsis?” Here are some essential resources that can help you understand a character or game, as well as break down a monologue:
Shakespeare’s Lexicon and Quotation Dictionary. This resource comes in two volumes and contains a definition of all the words and phrases that Shakespeare wrote. It is an invaluable resource for discovering exactly what Shakespeare meant word for word. For example, you are working on Richard III’s Lady Anne and you want to search for the word “avaunt” on the line:
Avaunt, terrible minister of hell!
You will find the word “avaunt” in the Lexicon and a list of all the times Shakespeare wrote the word “avaunt” and exactly what he intended in each case.
Shakespeare: the invention of the human being. 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 does not focus on Shakespeare’s language or poetry, but on the characters he created. I find it a valuable resource when auditioning or playing the iconic Shakespearean roles. It’s important to bring your own ideas to a party, but this helps you start from an informed and down-to-earth place.
Shakespeare AZ. This enormous volume is a compendium of everything related to Shakespeare. It includes detailed synopses of each of Shakespeare’s plays, breakdowns of all the bardic characters, and short biographies of the historical figures on which some of them were based. It also includes announcements about actors who rose to fame in Shakespeare’s time, as well as information about Shakespeare’s contemporaries and descriptions of places that are important to his plays. This is perhaps the most comprehensive Shakespeare resource and it 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 the transformation of Anthony Sher into the role of Richard III. It is the diary of an actor, full of drawings that he himself created as the infamous ruler. He goes into detail about how he researched the role, as well as personal experiences working with the Royal Shakespeare Company. It gives a great insight into Sher’s acting process. Perhaps most inspiring is Sher’s deep 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 dedicates a chapter to each and every Shakespearean sonnet. Present each sonnet with the original text along with the modern translation. This book sheds new light on the form and content of each of these beautiful poems.
There are trillions of books devoted to The Bard’s scholarship. But these five are an essential part of any young actor’s library. Did I miss any of your favorites? Let me know in the comments!