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Author: Tony Hill
  • Video
  • 5 minutes

Getting to grips with Shakespearian language

Updated Monday, 7th December 2009
Tony Hill of the Royal Shakespeare Company assists young people in accessing Shakespearian language by working through lines from Hamlet and understanding the meaning behind the text.

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Narrator: Working on different scenes in Hamlet, Tony Hill persuaded these New York students to speak out unfamiliar lines as the first step in the production process.

Student: I've seen it but I haven’t read it.

To be, or not to be, or not, that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Tony Hill: Okay, you think you're going slow, I know you're going fast. I want you to go really slow. What's the ‘be’ that he's talking about? To be or not to be, what's the ‘be’?

What I think attracts me is the idea of trying to show youngsters that such a consideration, such an awful thought is something which they can track their way through. Why did he come to this? How is it happening? And that's the beauty of Hamlet. The downside is that if you're to do that and you're to do it without imposing upon them then they've got to access the language. They've actually got to sit there. They've got to take on board how soliloquy works. They've got to take on board how verse works. And that means very often that what you're challenging is stuff that they've been taught in the classroom, and you're challenging their desire to go for fluency, their desire to give a speech, and I'm continually saying to them no, stop, go slower, find the thought, find the process, go from thought to thought.

Student: Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Or to take arms against the sea, sea, sorry, against the sea of troubles and by opposing end them. To die, to sleep; to sleep perchance to dream …

Tony Hill: Right, whoa, no, hold on, no, it’s fine! You read really well but you're pushing too hard.

Student: Okay.

Tony Hill: You're going for a solution. You’re going, you're going, as it were, almost for a performance. Now back off! Shift back down two gears, go back into second or third. Be a little bit less certain. Keep that strength in your voice but just try and ease off the gas pedal a bit so that it sounds to them as though you don’t know where you're going.

Student: To die, to sleep; to sleep perchance to dream.

Tony Hill: No, no, it doesn’t say to sleep perchance, what the hell’s to sleep perchance to dream?

Student: Just like maybe …

Tony Hill: Well, yeah, it’s to sleep, perchance, maybe to dream, but whether it says perchance or whether it says maybe it definitely does not say sleep perchance, or sleep maybe, because there ain’t no such word as sleep maybe or sleep perchance.

Student: Okay.

Tony Hill: Unless it’s a kind of funny little place in England. But it’s to sleep, what does that mean? Perchance to dream.


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