Are you in a toxic relationship with Shakespeare?

Tom O Brien Acting and Performance Coach
Date: 22 April 2021
Author: Tom O'Brien

Are you in a toxic relationship with Shakespeare?

5 ways to create a life of love, intimacy & passion with the man himself.

Shakespeare. I love him. I really do. But I get that not everyone feels the same.

Are you in the “I find him quite boring, stuck up, pretentious, difficult to understand, frustrating, unrelateable, goes on a bit” camp?

If you are, you definitely aren’t alone. There are many actors who are fearful, dread classical auditions, or just don’t get excited about his work.

Maybe you’ve just got off to a bad start? First impressions can be deceiving!

Stay with me. Think back to your first date with Mr S… Really, think…

Where were you? Who else was there? How did you feel? Was it awkward? Did someone put you off before you were introduced?

Were you told some unhelpful untruths?

I was lucky (and young) when I got to work on a Shakespeare play for the first time! The local drama group teacher in my small home-town had trained in London at the Central School of Speech & Drama before moving back to open her own Saturday school. She brought her enthusiasm, knowledge & passion for his work back with her and it got me very excited!

As an 8-year-old with a HUGE imagination, a short attention span (un-diagnosed ADHD) the colourful world of magical forests, tempests, voyages, battles, love, death, revenge & adventure got me fired up.

I played Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. My Hermia was 10 (we were really pushing boundaries!!).

I still remember ‘the lovers’ fight scene & the joy of being… well… horrid!

As kids, our first interaction with anything can determine how we feel about it for the rest of our lives! This is why I love going into primary schools & running Shakespeare workshops. No matter what character or gender they are playing, most children adore physicalising the characters & speaking the “funny language” out loud.

So, what was your first experience like?

A dry version of Hamlet that nearly bored you to death?

An uninspiring English teacher who sucked the creativity & humanity out of Macbeth?

Maybe it was at drama school when you were overloaded with so much work, that taking the time to get beneath the language & keeping track of the many ‘Dukes of such & such’ in the ‘history plays’ was just too much!

I believe it is never too late to get down, dirty & intimate with one the world’s greatest story tellers & explorers of the human condition.

5 ways to start again:


If preparing a speech, don’t read the whole play first! (Not my usual advice on prepping for plays!) But you want to get stuck into the story & fall for the characters. We can’t expect our attention spans to be ‘Elizabethan’.

I love the ‘Lambs Tales For Shakespeare’ book as it is a clear & gorgeous way of reading the stories.


There are so many ‘Kenneth Branagh’ films of the plays, OR if you want an easier start, watch a contemporary reimagination such as:

The Lion King (Hamlet), Bette Midler’s Big Business (The Comedy of Errors), O (Othello)!

And I never need an excuse to watch the late Heath Ledger in 10 things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew)!


Sounds an obvious one, but get a dictionary, or a version of the play with modern translations & get familiar early on!

WE THINK IN PICTURES, so we need to understand what the words mean to us, to awaken our feelings, awaken our senses & feed our imagination.

Say the speech out loud in your own words, improvised, in your OWN ACCENT!

This is when you will find the characters wants/desires/objectives! The character will start to come alive in you!


Get the text into your body. He wrote the plays to be physical, he wrote them for actors with the actors.


Action the complicated words. Be bold physically. The words should be a workout for your mouth & body.

Use movement to separate thought changes. Get specific!


The fact the characters are a Lords, Lady, Duke or Princess or Petruchio doesn’t make them less HUMAN.

They wanted the same things as we humans do now. Money, power, love, joy, adventure, SEX! Perhaps more so, as it was literal life or death!

Focus on the desires of the character, their guttural wants. How can you relate? Keep them human. Think of people you know that they remind you of.

You need to be primal, animalistic when exploring these characters. This will stop you feeling like you need to ‘PRESENT’ them so you can ‘BECOME’ them.


Don’t worry about the iambic pentameter. If that works for you, great. But if not, do whatever you can to blow away the dust & bring the text to life!

Shakespeare was radical. HE BROKE THE RULES!

He tested what was possible of human beings, putting them in extreme situations. He was brave. Provocative. (Twelfth Night is one of the QUEEREST plays I’ve read).

Remove any preconceived ideas and limitations. There is no right or wrong way to play Shakespeare. No character is off the table whatever your identity – no choice is too strong!

To me Shakespeare was a punk, a revolutionary! If he was making the work today, I think he would be using every new bit technology, his finger would be on the pulse, he would be at the forefront of pop culture! I’m sure he would be ‘Real Housewives’ fan!

You don’t NEED to fall for Shakespeare, he will always have a lover. BUT…

…if you are curious and want to give him another chance, get to know him more… get intimate. Jump out of your comfort zone, allow yourself to be vulnerable, have fun & enjoy the ride!

In my experience, with Shakespeare it is a two-way interdependent relationship that you can keep returning to & he will always give back!


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