Shakespeare must have had a brilliant memory. Educated until the age of fourteen at the King Edward VI Grammar school in Stratford, Shakespeare would have been made to translate and memorise hundreds of lines from set texts of Latin, and perhaps Greek, philosophy and literature, and converse exclusively in Latin from a young age. Many educated and uneducated people were able to recall specific Biblical passages word for word. Shakespeare was an actor as well as a playwright, and players could often perform extempore from a portfolio of dozens of plays – Elizabethan acting troupes even did requests! Shakespeare’s Hamlet, himself a student at the University of Wittenberg, confronted by the ghost of his murdered father, promises not to forget him.
Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee?
Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix’d with baser matter. (I.v.833-842)
Hamlet was a crammer. Here he promises to forget all he has learned at university, rubbing out the contents of his schoolbooks (‘all saws of books’) and the memories of his experiences (‘all pressures past / That youth and observation copied there’) from the book of his brain, and replacing it all with only with his father’s terrifying injunction – ‘Remember me’. But when it comes to learning lines of Shakespeare for exams, what’s the best way of copying quotations from the set texts, and cramming them into the ‘book and volume’ of the mind?
First of all, leave it all to the last minute! Most of the work of revision involves understanding your text, knowing what happens, when, to whom, and why, and getting to grips with the key themes and contexts for the text. Only then can you decide which quotations are going to be useful for your argument, let alone learn them. Make lists, group quotations by subject, by theme, by character. Organise your short quotations clearly, and remember to put them into context in your notes – particularly, make note of who says the words. Perhaps something like this:
Hamlet, upset at the death of his father, promises to remember him, and forget his schoolwork:
HAM Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe all trivial fond records
Spend 95% of your revision time working on your arguments and organising your quotations – as quotations are stored in your short-term memory, they are best learned only days, or even hours, before your exam! Also, don’t learn too many! Think about the most important points you want to make about theme, or character, etc., and learn only a few of the most impactful quotations for each point.
So you have neat pages of killer quotations. In making them stick, there is no substitute for writing them, or, better, speaking them aloud, over and over. And over again. This, unsurprisingly, can be rather boring. For variety, get a friend or relative to speak lines to you from a piece of paper, and repeat them. Try making an audio recording of yourself speaking the lines, and listen to yourself over. If you can’t stand the sound of your own voice, try using free Text-to-Speech software like Balabolka, or listen to audiobooks. Many texts on the syllabus are available, for free, as audio recordings on websites like Librivox. Be careful though that you listen to recordings based on accurate and unabridged versions of texts (and remember that film versions are only very occasionally true to the editions you’ll be using). There are free apps for Librivox in the Apple and Android app stores. Other apps, like Songify and AutoRap, will autotune your quotations into catchy melodies. Otherwise, try reading your lines in silly voices, or accompanying each quotation with funny gestures. When associated with unusual events and actions, mere words on a page are imprinted more indelibly on the mind.
Ever notice how easily song lyrics stick in your brain? Everyone knows hundreds, probably thousands, of songs. We can sing them word for word even if we haven’t heard them in years and years. In learning your lines, channel the adhesive power of music. Set your quotations to little tunes, or download karaoke tracks of your favourite songs and recite lines of text over them in time. If you’re learning verse, try to get in touch with the rhythm. Try to learn lines, of Shakespeare for example, in full – you can test the accuracy of your quotations in the exam room against the five iambs of the pentameter.
Make associations – link words with mental pictures. Since the times of the Greek and Roman philosophers, students and thinkers have used a device called the memory palace technique. Take a building layout that you know back to front, that of your house or school for example. Associate an image or section of text with each room or landmark in the building. When you want to recall the information, mentally ‘walk’ through these places. Give it a try.
Revise in comfortable, distraction-free places. Don’t learn quotations in bed. Being warm and relaxed also aids memory, being unconscious doesn’t! Instead, try learning quotations in the bath. Most bathrooms are not the most distracting and stimulating of environments, and bathrooms have great acoustics for booming out those monologues! Try learning while exercising. Not during a rugby match, obviously, but you can prop your notes on the treadmill stand and use the rhythm of your running to help you get in touch with the rhythm of the text.
Though different techniques work for different people, and you should experiment with a number of methods to see what is effective for you, the golden rule is to make sure you understand your quotation, every word, before committing it to memory. Particularly when dealing archaic language, it can be easy to gloss over hard bits, but don’t. If it makes sense to you, it will be better recorded in your book of memory when you get in the exam room.