At a recent gathering of Rhinebeck writers, I had the privilege of meeting Daniel Spector, who teaches at the Tisch School of the Arts and has directed or coached actors in 35 productions of 25 Shakespeare plays. He generously shared his insights into memorization of the Bard’s work.
Brent: In Shakespeare’s time, committing vast troves of literature to memory was quite common. Is that right?
Daniel: I can tell you that Shakespeare and his contemporaries would have had hundreds of pages of material in their heads by the time they left grammar school.
Brent: How did they retain it?
Daniel: One of the major reasons why this was possible…and why it stuck…was because of rhythm: much of the literature studied was in some sort of poetic verse form. Rhythm helps; it’s why we remember song and not prose passages.
Brent: No question that rhythm and music serve as a memory aid. That’s why children learn to sing their ABCs, and anyone who’s seen Mary Poppins can remember a long word like “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” by recalling the tune. But our memories are not perfect, as anyone who’s ever argued with a friend over song lyrics knows.
Daniel: Correct. In fact, there are “bootleg” copies of plays by Shakespeare and others because people would go to the theater and then run home and transcribe what they could remember, which usually wasn’t perfect but also wasn’t always bad.
Brent: You mentioned that Shakespeare references this phenomenon in one of his best-known works.
Daniel: Yes. There’s a great moment in Hamlet where the actors arrive at Elsinore and Hamlet gushes to one of them about how he had seen him perform a while back. Hamlet then proceeds to recite the entire speech—which he'd heard once—from memory.
One of Daniel’s most treasured resources on this subject is The Art of Memory by Frances Yates, written in 1966. It begins with the Ancient Greek orators, who handed their memorization methods down to the Romans, and continues through to the transformations applied by the Europeans—mystics in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and scientific philosophers in the seventeenth century. You will find it and many other recommendations for further reading at this link.