Memorizing and Reading Shakespeare

An article appeared in The New York Times Magazine several months ago called, “How to Memorize Shakespeare.” It’s very short and sweet and has some good tips, but does include a derogatory reference to reading: “the worst way to learn [lines] is sitting down and reading them in your head.”

Dr. Kristin Bundesen, a strong supporter of Shakespeare reading groups, had some interesting comments on this:

I agree to an extent.

Reading comprehension improves with muscle movement. In the process of writing notes manually as you read, you engage hand and arm muscles, which helps readers retain information. The more muscles engaged in the reading process, the more one ‘“gets it.”

(Highlighting, by the way, does nothing for reading comprehension—it just draws attention to spots when one needs to reread because you didn’t get it the first time around.)

Sometimes, I think that the false mandate that you can’t understand Shakespeare by reading it—the insistence that you have to act it—is simply a reaction to not understanding the reading process well enough. Reading should be muscular. For the disinterested student (thinking high school), the more muscles the better. But that doesn’t mean they have to “see” it on the stage or “act” it out to get it.

The imaging bit described in the article works well and engraves the imagery (which some consider superfluous to understanding the plot) in comprehension. As a first step in the reading process, it can make reading the rest of the play simpler. Images are painted in the mind’s eye first.

Of course, community reading groups read aloud. And when memorizing, it obviously helps to speak the words aloud. As we get older, it naturally becomes more difficult to memorize, but speaking and moving helps a lot.

I memorized several Shakespearean sonnets while living in London—I walked to the iambic pentameter beat (ba BUM, ba BUM, ba BUM, ba BUM, ba BUM) through those lovely Victorian graveyards. But because I don’t retain things very well when I just hear them, I wrote them out on paper and read them as I walked, getting the best of both visual and physical memory. Out loud.  :-)

Have you memorized any Shakespeare? What are your tips for doing it?