(To the casual reader of Shakespeare: this might not apply to you directly, but remember that to enjoy these works you have to know what they mean too. And when you are an audience member who has done some research, seeing an actor who has done his share as well will make the experience all the more rewarding)
Shakespeare’s use of language can be a little daunting. The words often mean different things than you think, there can be words you’ve never heard before, and the grammar isn’t always what you’d expect. You will often hear that an audience at a good production of a Shakespeare play will only really grasp a third (ish) of what is really being said.
Actors/Directors – THIS DOES NOT GIVE YOU PERMISSION TO GET LAZY!!!
To the actors: just because the audience doesn’t always know what you’re talking about NEVER means that you don’t always have to know. You don’t spout off words and facts on a usual basis that you have no idea what they mean, do you? Don’t get smart here. Even if you do, you are trying to achieve a certain effect by using those words and you know what effect that is. Maybe YOU don’t know what Shakespeare is saying, but the CHARACTER knows exactly what s/he’s trying to say. And since YOU are playing the CHARACTER it is essential that you find out what everything means. And not just your own lines. You need to know what is being said to you, and about you. If you are playing off someone else’s line but you haven’t bothered to realize that then you’ll be missing something! Not that you have to do all this work alone. Ask your scene partner what it is that they’re saying to you.
Directors: it would be absolutely insane of me to suggest that you look up what everything means in the entire play for all the characters… so I will. It’s a gargantuan task, but you as a director most likely have had something to do with the cuts made to the script and you need to know exactly what is being said and why and what significance those cuts you made have to the story/characters. In addition to that, the more familiar you are with the text itself will give you a better feel for what the actors are doing, or what they should be doing. And if they haven’t done their homework, you will most certainly know. Then you can call them out on it. Busted!
When working on one of the Bard’s plays, you can expect to do a lot of research. What do these words mean? What is this place he’s talking about? What is this reference to Greek mythology? All these and many more are things you need to answer, and it can’t all be done in the rehearsal room. Plan to spend plenty of extra time trying to figure this puzzle out. And remember that it is a puzzle! Not some boring research report. It’s a journey full of surprises, discoveries, and edumacation. It can even be a good way to bond with your cast. Research party! Chips, Dip, Dictionary and Script!