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How to improvise in the style of William Shakespeare

First of all, my fellow improv actors, this isn't the way to master improvising entire Shakespeare Plays. If you are planning on becoming a full fledged Improv Shakespearean, reading his plays, studying his works, practicing with others, performing his plays, reading 'Shakespeare for Dummies', 'Playing Shakespeare', and 'The Secrets of Acting Shakespeare', and taking a few classes in improvising Shakespeare is in order. You need to know his works inside and out. You need to know how and why he structures his sentences the way he does. You need to know the stereotypes of his plots, characters, and situations. Now, if you haven't done any of these things, but you are still going to try and tackle improvising Shakespeare, the following is an emergency crash course in improvising Shakespeare, and will hopefully make your life easier and more fun.

The Secret to Acting Shakespearean and the reason improvising Shakespeare is fun is because you aren't just coming up with neat sentences, you are also coming up with Shakespearean Characters and Situations. In order to make it feel like Shakespeare, you need to have your characters act the way Shakespeare would have made his characters act. So make all your choices life-and-death committed. Everything going on inside you should be over the top. You love so much you feel like you could just die. You hate so much you could brutally dismember. You open doors as if that action was the most powerful action in the whole world. Let every action have huge power behind it. Let your emotions go over the top. This style of acting really works well for making your scene feel Shakespearean. Shakespeare had amazingly powerful characters and stories, so you need to emulate that in your work. It's really fun, the scene you do will be great, and let me tell you, the audience will love you for your level of passion.

The Secret to Speaking in Elizabethan English is to get your brain into to swing of doing so. The only real way to do that is with a little practice. So step one would be go over to and pick any scene from any act from any play and read it. Just one scene will do for a cram session, even though the more you do the better, but you need to read it out loud. Just reading it in your head won't cut it, you have to get your body to remember what it feels like to move your mouth that way. If you want you can whisper it out loud, but you have to make your mouth, lips, and tongue move with air passing by them for it to work.

Once you've practiced a bit, you're ready for the stage, but once you're out there you will still need a little help getting your brain to think in Shakespearean. The best way to do this is to learn a few vocabulary words, but especially ones which can go at the beginning of sentences.

Words like:
Me thinks - (I think) "Me thinks, good sir, that upon this day that you should tell lady Elizabeth that you love her."

Mayhaps - (maybe) "Mayhaps today would be a good day to tell lady Elizabeth that you love her."

Perchance - (perhaps) "Perchance your good lordship would be good enough to grace our company with a poem. Indeed we are amused by such things." [Note: When playing a King or Queen always refer to yourself "us" and "we". Also because you are the highest status of everyone you will come in contact with, you get to be condescending towards people who would normally be out of bounds, like the person in this last one who they keep referring to as "lordship" (someone who you would assume by their title has status). Remember: If you are King or Queen always refer to your self as a group of people.]

Prithee - (pray thee) "Prithee tell me young lad, wherefore did'st you come by such a fine animal as your horse?" [Note: "prithee" can be usually used in places where "please" can be used, but remember, it holds a lot more weight than "please" does. If you're able to say "please I beg you" in your sentence, then "prithee" will fit in for sure. Also, it works well at the front of sentences, but not really at the end and almost never works as a Noun. So don't say: "Don't kill him! I say to you once again, prithee!" It's just so wrong. Does that make sense? Just use it to start your sentences and you'll be fine.]

Did'st - (did) "Did'st you see me with that sword? I was most skilled was I not?"

Wherefore - (Why) [this is a great word but the audience is going to think you are asking where not why, so use it (use it! use it! use it!) but clarify to the audience so they know what you're saying.] Example... "Wherefore would you leave me like this Elizabeth? Why? I implore you! Tell me now your reason for abandoning me as such."

As such - (like this) [Oooo! "As such" is a great vocab word to have under your belt.] Example... "As such? As such?? As such??? Well how then should I hold my self if I am ever to pass my self off as a man?"

Doth - (does) "It doth seem to me that she does love you sir. Indeed, I say, go back to her!" [This one is hard to use correctly so stay away from it. If you can use it buried towards the middle of a sentence you have a chance of using it in the right way, but don't say "Doth this dress make me look fat?" cuz it's so wrong that Shakespeare is rolling over right now for me typing it. If you use "doth" after an "it" everything will usually work out fine. I say for right now only use it after an "it" as a rule and all will be good. If you want to branch out, I think using it after nouns and subjects is your safest way to go. So some examples would be: "I know'est not Mother, for the cow doth look most sickly." And "Oh Brother Thomas, I can'st but continue on without her, for my love doth burn inside me like a fire, raging not but out of control." But remember, if you want to be safe I think "it"s are the best way to go. After all, "It does seem that way" is a normal thing to say, so "It doth seem that way" is an easy thing to squeeze into a scene. Just make sure you don't end with a "doth" cuz that sounds wrong too. Don't say "It doth". Add something to the end and you'll be fine. Like: "It doth your lordship."]

Indeed - (indeed) [You can put indeed in front of almost any sentence and it works. I knew a guy a Renaissance Fair who put it in front of every sentence and it became who his character was.] "And indeed we walked up the hill. And indeed we drank the potion. And indeed I picked up a dead rat and swung it over my head." [That's an actual quote of something he said in a play we were doing.]

In Sooth - hmmm that's a good question, but I do know how it's used. You use it when your sort of fed up with what's going on. Sort or like when you'd say "my god". So an example would be... "In sooth, I do not! For as I came home to find my door broken down and my house ransacked, the culprits had already left and they were nowhere to be found." [Note: Since I wrote this I realized that "In Sooth" really does equate to "In Truth" but it's used in situations in which you feel like like saying "By God" or "My God". It's not exactly a precise comparison, but it's close. If your character is wanting to punctuate his/her thought or is frustrated, "In Sooth" is a good phrase to look too.]

Swounds - (By Gods Wounds) [The original swear word. You can swear by anything. By gods blood = Sblud; Teeth = Sweeth; Testicle = Swesticle; etc.] Example... "Swounds man, what calls at such a late hour that my sleep needs thus to be disturbed (des-tur-bedd)"

Fie - similar to fu*k when you are impatient or hold contempt "Fie upon it I say! Wherefore should I be treated with such rudeness!?!" (Fie upon stuff is a great way to use the word) or when used with insults "Fie you yeasty toadspotted lightskirt!" - That insult means a slut with a VD. Just thought you should know...

Aye' indeed - (Yes indeed) "Aye' indeed, I did'st but see them walk past this way my lord"

But - that word which can be used almost anywhere to make your sentences sound good "I was but saying not but two minutes ago that we were not but most skilled (skill-ed) at our tending of the ship while'st the captain was but away."

If you can learn a few useful vocabulary words you can shove them into sentences and then justify why you put them in there. This makes for strangely structured sentences, but that's exactly what you're looking for. For not only did Shakespeare talk with funny words, he also had a tendency to put the subject and verbs in his sentences in different places than we do today. Forcing you to restructure your sentences to use a few vocab words can often times accidentally create sentences which Shakespeare himself would approve of.

So go read some Shakespeare out loud and practice using some of these words in sentences. I'm telling you, it makes playing Shakespeare scenes on stage much more fun.

-Christian -

PS: DO NOT put "ith's" at the end of words. They were almost never used and it sounds totally fake. The Shakespeare police will come on stage an strangle you to death in the middle of the show if you go out and say "I shall walkith to the storeith and getith some milkith." It sucks. It's not funny. And the reality of the scene will be destroyed. Instead say "In sooth, me thinks I shall't but walk down to the store where upon I shall't but make a purchase of which doth consist of a bucket of milk".

PPS: Tip: Try not having Kings in your scenes. Kings have the highest status in society in the 1500's, and as a result they have the tendency to kill improv scenes. They either have so much status that they make it really hard to get stuff done in scenes, or they don't get a enough respect and they end up not being believable as Kings. I suggest using Dukes or Earls instead. That way they can be a King-like character, and you can save the King role for when you really need it, like bailing out your scene if it starts floundering. Just look at the story of Robin Hood. The story needed an ending, so the King came in and pulled it all together. That's a great technique to have under your belt when improvising Shakespeare. Also, by not having your characters be at the top of the food chain, it gives you some place to go. You can attack their status without the fear of death, and the option is always there to bring in a character above them too change the entire social dynamic. I'm not saying you can't do Shakespeare scenes with Kings, I'm just saying that scenes without them have a tendency to be more fun and are easier to do well.

About the improvisor Christian Utzman

Information about improv classes taught by Christian Utzman

Improv style - Improvised theatre vs. improv comedy

How the human brain is able to improvise live theater

How the skills you learn as an improvisor can help your dating life

Tips on how to audition for the Un-Scripted Theater Company
Information about the Un-Scripted Theater Company in San Francisco

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