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How Did Actors Learn Their Lines?

In the fourth episode of Let's Talk Shakespeare we ask "How did actors learn their lines?"

If you were an actor in the King's Men, your rehearsal process would have been very different from today's! In this episode I talk to my guests about cue scripts, rehearsal time, where acting companies got their costumes and sets, and who exactly would have gone to the theatre. 

Image: SBT 1996-28 An Elizabethan earthenware money pot

This week's guests include:

- Ben Crystal, Actor, Director and producer
- Professor Michael Dobson, Director of the Shakespeare Institute
- Dr Elizabeth Dollimore, Outreach and Primary Learning Manager at the SBT
- Dr Anjna Chouhan, Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at the SBT

Narrator: Jennifer Reid


REID: Hello, and welcome to the fourth episode of “Let’s Talk Shakespeare”, a podcast brought to you from Stratford-upon-Avon by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. I’m Jennifer Reid, and today I’m asking the question, “How did actors learn their lines?” We’re going to look at this question, but also at some wider questions about how plays were staged, and what the experience of going to an Elizabethan theatre was like.

The first person I spoke to was Ben Crystal, and Ben's acting company have been exploring Elizabethan theatre practice for the last few years, so he’s going to give us a good introduction about how they would have learned the plays. I’m sorry about the quality of this clip; we recorded it in a park in Central London, so there’s a wee bit of background noise.

CRYSTAL: Well, um, this is something that my company have been exploring for the past couple of years. We know that they used cue scripts—and a cue script is a roll of paper with the lines that you say and the three or four cue words of who speaks before you, so you know when to say what you have to say, and that’s it! So it’s your cues, and then what you say, and then your cue, and then what you say, and so on and so forth.

Now this is all that we’ve pieced together, and it is filled with as much of opinion as fact. Shakespeare would have drafted his play and his foul papers. There’s a very good chance that a scribe would have written them up, or he would have spoken the play to his actors for the first time, but there would have been a “booke” with the full play in it. And a tradition that’s lasted all the way through to the mid-20th century is that there’s one copy of the booke of the play, and that copy is handed over to the lead actor who then writes out his lines, and then passes it on to the next, and passes it on to the next, and so on and so forth, until you’re right down to the spear-carriers. If you’re playing Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, and you die halfway through the play, there’s no point in writing out the second half of the play. It’s a waste of paper, it’s a waste of ink, it’s a waste of time. And from what we know from Henslow’s diaries, they had very little time from one performance to the other. Rehearsal time was incredibly precious. So if there's no point in writing out the second half of the play, there’s equally no point in writing out the scenes you’re not in; that’s someone else’s task. Come to the scene that you’re in, there’s little to no point writing out the speeches that you don’t say. So that’s where the cue script idea sort of comes from: you need what you need—your role—and it is your part; you look after your part. Some of the plays, we know, were pieced back together from the actors’ parts.

Now the act of writing out your lines is, in itself, it’s a terrific aid memoir. Then combine that with the style that Shakespeare wrote in for the most part—this style of poetry that has a rhythm to it, which is the same style as the spoken English that we still speak today—that, with this regular rhythm, gives you a very good understanding and a very good idea about whether or not you might be missing a word or a line when you’re learning it, the type of poetry or rhythm that naturally fills the human lungs, that is designed to be spoken out loud, you could say—and all of these things come together—and combine that with the fact that these actors were putting on plays pretty much every day of the week—Sundays aside—for, let’s say, 340 days of the year for 20 years, and then muscles—their memory muscles, like any muscle you work at and exercise every day—must have been incredibly lively and incredibly strong. And all of these techniques combined—as we have found in our explorations recently—can enable you to pick up a play and put it on very very quickly, which is what they had to do.

REID: In an earlier podcast, we talked about the type of education that Elizabethan boys would have gotten at school, and this idea of learning great swaithes of text off by heart or by rote. Michael Dobson, the director of the Shakespeare Institute, told me about how this type of education would have been of great benefit to the actors.

DOBSON: I think how they learned their lines isn’t such a problem—they learned their lines by having to transcribe them, because they hadn’t invented the photocopier yet and printing was too expensive, so, you know, there’s a mass copy of the play, and if you have to transcribe every word you’re gonna say as a fellow you’re probably going to remember quite a lot of it. And since the education system; you know, anybody who had been taught to read and write was taught to memorise great chunks of text, because, again, you couldn’t carry the books around if you could afford them. Memory is a great skill that Elizabethans had, and if you hit little boys often enough, they get really good at remembering things, so I don’t think they had too much trouble learning the lines. They had limited time for rehearsal—they’ve got a huge turnover of plays—you can’t rehearse the next play while you’re still performing the current one, so it’s got to be in the mornings and evenings since they’re mainly performing in the afternoons, I mean that’s when the playhouse might be available, and probably mornings because you don’t want to have to pay for artificial lighting, so, and quite often they would still be kind of improvising the blocking when it came to the performance. There are some pictures from the period that actually show somebody on stage kind of telling people where to go. That was a sort of style in some forms of Italian theatre.

REID: Both Ben and Michael mentioned the short rehearsal process and the ability to recall a great deal of lines, but how did this translate into the experience of going to the theater? Liz Dollimore, who is the Outreach and Primary Learning Manager at the SBT, told me a really good anecdote about Samuel Pepys attending a production of Romeo and Juliet on the first night.

DOLLIMORE: So you would then be given that, as the actor, and told to go away and learn it in your own time—and so you went away, you conned or learnt your lines and you came back and, having learnt them, there was no sort of going around with a book in hand for a bit, and were expected to go into a very, very short rehearsal period—potentially only one private rehearsal before public performance—with those lines in your head. Bear in mind, though, what I said earlier about how Shakespeare was trained at school, and that would have been common to most people, so learning things by rote was something which people had embedded in them from a very early age. So, it may not have been as challenging as it might seem for us. However, I do suspect that, you know, if you had gone to see something on the first night, there would have been a lot of mistakes. In fact, a nice little story about Samuel Pepys—you’ve probably heard of Pepys because he’s famous for writing the Diary of the Fire of London—and it’s a little bit later in the time period than Shakespeare’s fame, but nonetheless, he once went to go see a production of Romeo and Juliet on the first night, and he wrote in his diary that he was “resolved never to go again upon the first night, for they were all, more or less, out of their parts”. So I think you’d imagine that, you know, early performances of a play were a little bit shoddy by our standards.

REID: Anjna Chouhan is our lecturer in Shakespeare studies at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and she expanded upon the process of learning lots and lots of plays at one time, rehearsing lots of plays at one time, and the idea of ad-libbing and what would happen if you forgot your lines in the Elizabethan theater.

CHOUHAN: We know that obviously if actors had their roll of text, they are supposed to be learning their lines, and they had a phenomenal capacity for retaining lots and lots and lots of lines, so they wouldn’t just be learning one play at a time—I mean, in the same year that Shakespeare wrote Measure for Measure, he also wrote Othello, and it’s likely that the company, having to balance both of those plays, and possibly even more (the Lord Chamberlain’s Men didn’t just perform Shakespeare’s works, they performed other people’s as well) and if the play is totally unsuccessful, they have to ditch it and move to another one, so the company’s expected to work on their feet and to be flexible, so learning lines is the most fundamental need, really, for an actor.

In terms of extemporising, it is indeed very likely that actors ad-libbed; just made things up onstage—I mean, why wouldn’t it be? It’d be ludicrous to assume that if somebody forgot something or if an audience member yelled something out, that they wouldn’t, they wouldn’t feel the need to respond to that or to deal with the situation—it’s human, and there were actors like William Kent for example, and Robert Armen, who were known as the company clowns, and you don’t develop a reputation as a clown just by sticking to your lines. You are, by definition—I suppose, like stand up comedians—you play off your audience; you play with what you’ve got. And you do, you are expected, to certain degree, to extemporise.

REID: OK, so we get the point that actors had to learn a lot of lines and they were good at it. But what about all the stage directions and the props and costumes and so forth? How on earth is an actor supposed to remember all that at the same time?

CHOUHAN: So Shakespeare was really, really clever as a writer because he knew that he hasn’t got time to waste trying to sort of organise his actors—I mean the idea of a director; we don’t even know if that was a thing back in the 16th century—so what he does is introduce lots of instruction within the texts themselves, so you’ll often have characters saying, “Sit there,” or, you know, “Bind his hands”, or “Take this letter”, or “Look through yonder window”, “Don’t the stars look lovely”, and, you know, and the reality is it’s an open air theatre at 2 o’clock in the afternoon in the middle of London, so you’ve got instructions to the actors, so even if they don’t necessarily know or remember what it is they’re meant to be doing, you’re always constantly being reminded. If an actor’s coming towards you saying, “Take this letter”, you’re going to take the letter, whether or not you remember your lines.

REID: So, what was the experience of going to the theatre like in those days, and how did it differ from our experience today? First, let’s have a think about the length of plays, and the idea of cuts and scenes and acts. Certainly now when I go to the theatre, I expect to see a production of around three hours; it’s got clear scenes and acts, with a twenty minute break in the middle so I get some ice cream, but what would the audience at the Globe have expected when they went to the theatre?

CHOUHAN: So in terms of a play’s length; this is a really interesting question, and I think what we have to do in order to understand it is start thinking about where the plays were performed. So, for example, in public theatres—so in a theatre like The Theatre, or the Rose, or the Swan, or even the Globe—you have a more eclectic kind of audience. They have a kind of cheaper, well, a very cheap base entry rate, going up to something fairly expensive. In those spaces, we know that performances often ran straight through with no kind of interval, no kind of awareness of at least act/scene/breaks, no, it just went bam-bam-bam, three hours, get out the theatre now, we’re done. However, when plays were performed in private spaces—so, for example, like the Blackfriars Theatre, in which the King’s Men performed quite frequently after 1608—in that theatre, you have a more elite kind of audience, an audience that’s able to afford a higher entry price, entry ticket. In those spaces, we know that those were candle-lit, and because of the candles, there needed to be frequent breaks, in order to trim, to relight, to make sure the audience is OK—properly fed and watered, you know. If you’ve got a wealthy audience, you need to pander to their needs. So, in order for the audiences to get up and move around, and the candles to be relit, you end up with plays that were designed, that were written, to be performed in fragments almost. Which is sometimes why you can get plays that feel a little bit disjointed in a way, because they were designed for a space like that. And of course that would take much more time. It would be longer. You can perform a play maybe in about 2 ½ to 3 hours in a public theatre. It might take you a bit longer than that in an indoor space.

REID: So now, what was the acting style like? If we were to compare it to the style of acting we would expect to see down at the RSC or at the theatre today, what would we think of it? Would we notice a difference? Back to Liz Dollimore who can tell us a bit about this.

DOLLIMORE: That’s a really interesting question. Some things are known about acting styles, which is interesting. Some of the evidence for acting styles comes from Hamlet, where in the story of Hamlet, some visiting players show up at Elsinore, and Hamlet gives them some advice on how to act well. He says various things; he says “speak the speech trippingly on the tongue”, or in other words, brusquely, he says that otherwise it’s like listening to the town crier do it. So I guess that they felt that what they were doing was natural, quick speech. Whether or not we would feel that is quite a different question. And then Hamlet also asked the actors not to “saw the air too much” with their hands and to act with moderation, because in moderation we often feel more than something which is over the top. So all of that suggests that there was a leaning toward a fairly naturalistic acting style. However the next generation of theatre practice after 1660 involved much more stylised acting, so there are definite accounts of people kind of striking a pose and then declaiming the lines. Now, I think if we could go back and time and see Shakespeare’s plays in their original performance that we would probably find the acting stylized, even though compared to what went before, they felt it was relatively naturalised.

REID: Now, there are a lot of foreigners in Shakespeare’s plays and now, when we them performed, we expect to see actors with relevant accents, real or fake, at the theatre in these parts. Would they have done this in Shakespeare’s school? Would the audience have expected them to have had accents? Or would that sort of detail just completely be lost to them if they were not accustomed to hearing these accents? Back to Ben Crystal for these questions, and he’s been studying Shakespeare in original pronunciation, so has some interesting things to say on the subject.

CRYSTAL: So would Macbeth, for example, and the actors in it have had a Scottish twang and would the French in Henry V have had a French twang, and that kind of thing? We don’t know. We have no idea. Certainly when we’ve been exploring Shakespeare with original pronunciation, there is a very very different quality to the Shakespeare than you get with the twentieth century accent of received pronunciation, the accent you associate with Olivier. And, even more certainly, when we have toyed around with accents in Macbeth or the French or what have you, it almost seems to fit the rhythm of the writing. The question I suppose really is would Shakespeare’s actors have been able to—would it have been one of their skill sets? There isn’t much evidence in the text to suggest a particular accent over another in various different plays, but what we can see is that there’s a speed of delivery from the elisions, you know the “o’th’” for “of the” and, yeah, there’s no reason why not. They would have made whatever choice would best help them tell the story they wanted to tell, and if that included putting on an accent, if they could then they probably would have. You know, London was a melting pot at the time with people all over the world and accents would have flowed in and out of each other. The chorus of Henry V says to use your imagination, paint the pictures for us of the images we can’t paint for you, and you the audience has to work as hard as we do. So would the Elizabethan audience have needed the accent? Well they probably wouldn’t have heard a Scottish accent before, so maybe not.

REID: Okay so that’s what plays would have sounded like, but what did they look like? What sort of scenery would you expect to see at the theatre, and where would they have gotten their props and costumes from? Ben Crystal can tell us about them too.

CRYSTAL: Anywhere they could lay their hands on them. The thing that we know they spent the most money on from Henslowe’s diaries was costuming, beautiful cloaks and that kind of thing. There’s a picture of Titus Andronicus, a sketch from the time, and there are characters there in Greek costume and Elizabethan costume and all sorts of different costumes. It looks like what they could get their hands on, they seemed to have spent on the things that they really absolutely needed. If you look at the props that are mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays, there are only two maybe three or four props in each play that are actually demanded—like in Henry V, death warrants, a scaling ladder, a cloak—you know these very specific things. So we worked in that same attitude and say, “Look, we have this space, a beautiful space, we have the words, we have a company of actors, and anything else that you need on top of that is minimal to the plot.

REID: So let’s have a wee think about how the theatre was received by audiences: what the public thought of it, how it was enjoyed by audiences, and who actually would have gone. First up, Michael Dobson on this one.

DOBSON: They [the actors] didn’t have comfortable resources, they had rotten working conditions—but then so do actors now. They didn’t have much rehearsal time compared to what actors have now. The audiences were completely delighted, nobody seemed to have gone away saying “Yeah he didn’t know his lines well enough, I want my money back”, or “That was really scruffy.” It’s an oratorical theatre; if the actors were speaking well and with good gesture, it registers with the audiences. Modern audiences have totally different criteria for evaluating the performances they see to Elizabethan ones. If we saw an Elizabethan performance, we’d probably think it was rubbish. We wouldn’t understand the emphases, and we wouldn’t know what the gestures were supposed to mean. We’d find the pronunciation difficult to understand. But, the main thing we know is that it worked for about a seventh of the population of London every week. This was compelling mass entertainment that was also courtly entertainment—the same shows  done in public as were done in court—so it worked for a remarkable range of people. People at the time seemed to think it was good, and we just have to take their word for it, I think.

REID: But what exactly was it like being at the theatre? Again, today, if one goes to see a play we would expect to stay seated for the entire performance, to stay quiet, to have no interruptions or conversations while the play was going on, and if we do get disturbed, we’re extremely annoyed about it. But that was not the case in Elizabethan theatre, as Liz Dollimore tells us a bit about what the atmosphere in the theatre would have been like.

DOLLIMORE: Lively, I imagine. There are certainly accounts of frustrated theatre-goers saying that they wished the audience would content itself with soft smiling—not loud laughing—so I imagine that there was interaction vocally, possibly physically, so I think definitely a lively audience. There was no sense in which you stayed in one spot throughout the performance, as we would today. So you didn’t get seat 28 and you went and sat there and woe betide you if you moved. In Shakespeare’s day, you could pay depending on the area you wanted to sit or stand in, but once you were within that area, you could jostle around for a better position, you could move to the back, find someone who was selling refreshments during the performance and buy some refreshments, argue with the person next to you who may or may not have picked your pocket, and if it started to rain and you had another penny in your pocket, you could probably pay another penny to go and sit in the galleries. So I think you should consider it a mobile, fluid audience. It’s also thought that people didn’t necessarily go at the beginning, stay the whole way through, and leave at the end. Rather more patchwork, they’d go several times to see the same play, but they’d see one bit of it one time and another bit at another time and piece it together in that sense.

REID: So we’ve ascertained that people went to the theatre and they enjoyed it, but what I’ve always wondered with the theatres being open-air and the distinct lack of electric lighting, plays obviously had to be performed in the day in daylight. So who on earth went to the theatre and why weren’t they at work?

DOLLIMORE: Oh somebody else asked me that questions the other day and I don’t know the answer. It’s a blooming good question because we know they performed the plays at about two o’clock in the afternoon. I mean, it’s certainly said that the Globe probably only played about half-full unless it was a public holiday, so I think you should perhaps have a sense that not all that many people did go unless it was a public holiday. And then you think about the people who could have gone, I mean, bear in mind that if you were a tradesman, your job was much more fluid than the standard 9 to 5. So if you’d gone to market and sold some stuff and you had some money, well, you could go to the theatre. The question I’m curious about is the people like apprentices who presumably would have had kind of working hours. Although, I’m not clear about how predetermined that would have been. Did they work kind of like a school day, something like 7 in the morning until 6 at night and they were kind of bound to be working there that whole time? Or could they say to their trainer or tutor and say, “I want to go to the theatre this afternoon” and would that have been allowed? All of those questions I don’t really know the answer to, but it does seem like there was a very kind of mobile public a lot of the time.

I just guess that maybe people didn’t have such, I mean, most shops would have been privately owned, rather than a whole team of people doing something, so if you wanted to go to the theatre instead of sit in your shop that day, you just put up the CLOSED sign and off you went. Today we have such a fixed idea, you know, that we’re all working 9 to 5. So, I guess, it was just a more mobile society.

REID: OK and that leads me on to my final clip quite nicely: from Michael Dobson who istalking about the size of the crowds at the theatre.  

DOBSON: So I don’t think overfilling was a problem, but they certainly counted very carefully. The takings are very carefully measured, and it’s done by a very simple but effective system: you have to pay with the right money and it’s put into one of those china custom-made little piggy banks and they’re all taken around to the back afterward and smashed and then you count how many pennies you’ve got. That way, the gatherers who are taking the money can’t pocket it. If it’s got to go straight into the slot, you’re not going to be able to smuggle that out so easily, this heavy, nearly spherical china thing. And it’s been one of the interesting things about the excavations at theatres in London like Shoreditch. When they excavated the theatre at Shoreditch, which is where the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were before The Globe, they found this area around the back of the stage where this was all this broken china in the ground because it was clearly the counting house. It was where they’d smashed all the little piggy banks and counted out the money. And we know exactly to the penny how much was taken at different plays at the Admiral’s Men from Philip Henslowe’s notes of it all. You can see, yeah well that one’s dropping off a bit, we’d better put a new play in the repertoire. You can count quite accurately or calculate how many people must have been in, particularly The Rose, on given nights and it could be very full or it could be pretty empty.

REID: And they still played?

DOBSON: Yeah, I don’t know if they already had the custom that if you outnumber the audience you don’t bother to go on, but certainly it was unsustainable below a certain level. There just wouldn’t be enough money for people to eat.

REID: So that’s all we’ve got time for on today’s podcast. Thanks for joining us today and thank you to all the people who I spoke to for this podcast—that’s Anjna, Liz, Ben, and Michael—and a huge thanks to the friends at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, without whom this podcast would not be possible.

And don’t forget to join us next Monday when we’ll be asking “Where Did Shakespeare Live?

Related Posts:

– Shakespeare’s Merrymakers
– How did they (rehearse) for Merry Wives of Windsor
– How did they (learn their lines) in Timon of Athens
– How did they (make a storm) in King Lear

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