Memorizing Poetry (Shakespeare) Using the Method of Loci

I’ve been experimenting with methods for memorizing poetry. Here are examples of the mnemonic images I used to memorize Hamlet’s famous soliloquy.

The Method of Loci

The method of loci is a mnemonic technique that goes back at least 2,500 years to the ancient Greeks. If you aren’t familiar with the method of loci yet, this post might not make a lot of sense. I recommend reading one of the memory books on my reading list or asking questions about it in the memory forum. A great book to start with is Dominic O’Brien’s How to Develop a Brilliant Memory Week by Week.

To quickly summarize the method: a mental journey is created, and the data to be memorized is converted into bizarre, exaggerated, visual images that are then placed along the imaginary journey, fooling the mind into believing that it has traveled along the journey. To recall the information, one mentally walks back through the journey, converting the visual images back into the original information that was memorized.

If you’ve never tried the method of loci, it may sound strange, but it’s the same basic concept that people use to memorize thousands of random digits. The key is to convert everything to visual images. Visual memory is incredibly powerful.

The Text to Be Memorized (from Hamlet)

Here is the text to be memorized as written in the book, By Heart: 101 Poems to Remember:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and, by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of dispriz’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
The patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

It’s blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) which helped me figure out the correct word at points. Here is an example of iambic pentameter–five beats of da-DUM rhythm:

For IN that SLEEP of DEATH what DREAMS may COME

During recall, if you notice that the words don’t fit iambic pentameter, it may be that you are recalling the wrong word. Not every line follows strict iambic pentameter, so it helps to pay attention to the meter when memorizing.

The Memory Journey

I was memorizing the second half of the text as I was waiting for the subway in the Berkeley, California BART station, so I made up a journey on the spot, starting at the main entrance and going down into the station.

The Mnemonic Images

Here are the images I placed in the BART station:

Locus 1: Station Entrance

TEXT: For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

IMAGES: A giant, angry grizzly bear is blocking the entrance to the station, while an hourglass (time) is whipping some acorns (scorns).

Locus 2: Escalator Down 

Aesop

Aesop (09)

TEXT: The oppressor‘s wrong, the proud man‘s contumely,

IMAGES: In my phonetic number system, the sound “op” is the same as the image for 09 (Aesop), but encased in a block of ice (an image modifier that reverses the way 09 is read, from “suh” to “op”). Aesop is encased in a block of ice and pressing a button: op-press (oppressor). Someone name Ron (wrong) is in front of the block of ice. In front of them is a man with his held held in an arrogant way wearing a nobleman’s costume (proud man). I don’t have a specific costume in mind, but just a vague impression of fluffy, colorful sleeves and chin held high. Contumely is a strange word and was easy for me to remember without an image.

[EDIT: For a longer description of how my mnemonic system for sounds works, see this post.]

Locus 3: In Front of Peet’s Coffee Stand

TEXT: The pangs of dispriz’d love, the law‘s delay,

IMAGES: A heart (love) with sharp fangs (pangs) is holding a carnival prize (dispriz’d) and standing to the left of Judge Dredd (“I am the Law“) who is holding an hourglass (delay).

Locus 4: The Ticket Gates

TEXT: The insolence of office and the spurns

IMAGES: In my phonetic system, the sound, “in,” is the image for the number 62 encased in a block of ice — in this case Obi Wan Kenobi. The block of ice is held up by a soldier — the image for 005, pronounced “SOL.” In-sol is enough to trigger the memory of insolence. I placed some cubicles (office) around the in-sol image. On the other side of the ticket gates is a cowboy with giant spurs (spurns).

Locus 5: In Front of the Agent Booth 

Icon of Mary

Icon of Mary

TEXT: The patient merit of the unworthy takes,

IMAGES: A patient on a stretcher is next to a Byzantine icon of Mary on the back of a mare (merit). The two “mer” images reinforce the sound and prevent me from decoding the image of the mare as a synonym like “horse.” Next to the mare and icon, Wayne and Garth are saying “We’re not worthy!” (unworthy).

Locus 6: In Front of the Stairs Down to the Tracks

TEXT: When he himself might his quietus make

IMAGES: The mighty (might) He-Man (he) is looking at himself in a mirror (himself). Quietus is another intriguing word that stuck in my head without the need for an image.

Locus 7: Bottom of Stairs

TEXT: With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,

IMAGES: A woman’s bare body (bare bod-kin). She is holding an arm behind her back, concealing a bare bodkin (dagger). The rest of this line didn’t need an image because of the strange sentence structure that caused me to read it quite a few times and look up the definition of the word fardels. Translation into modern English: “who would bear burdens.”

Locus 8: Stepping onto the Train

TEXT: To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

IMAGES: A pig is grunting and sweating under a strange compound image of a giant lifesaver candy (life) that, together with a werewolf, is wearing a single coat. Wearing and werewolf together reinforce the word weary.

Locus 9: Down the Aisle of the Train 

Death

Death

TEXT: But that the dread of something after death,

IMAGES: A goat is butting (but that) Judge Dredd (the dread) who bumps into the Grim Reaper (death)–they are both looking behind death (after death). The thing they are looking at is in the next locus.

The method of encoding the images involves reading the words in the text with alternate meanings. The line, “But that the dread of something after death,” is read something like, “[the goat] Butt that: the [Judge] Dredd [bumps into Death himself as they peer at] something after [physically behind] Death.” It involves hacking the grammar interpretation a bit.

Reading two or more unrelated parallel meanings into a line of text at the same time makes neurons go crazy. (In a good way.) After time, the mnemonic images fade from the front of consciousness, and it’s possible to focus completely on the real meaning of the text.

Locus 10: In a Seat in the Right Side of the Train

TEXT: The undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveller returns,

IMAGES: Death (see previous locus) is peering into the seat area and sees a paper with a new undiscover’d country mapped on it. Hiding under the seat is Matt Damon as Jason Bourne (bourn).

Locus 11: Rear Door of Train Car, Right Side

TEXT:puzzles the will

IMAGES: This image appears as a  three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. The last pieces of the puzzle are completing an image of someone named Will. The word “puzzles” becomes a verb meaning to convert into a jigsaw puzzle (puzzles the will).

Phrases like,”The Dredd,” and “The Will,” referring to persons, sound weird in English, but many languages use a definite article like “the” before personal names, so the phrasing is memorable to me if I stretch the interpretation a little.

Locus 12: Seat at the Back Left of the Train Car

TEXT: And makes us rather bear those ills we have

IMAGES: This is a weird one. First, Will is transforming “us” into Dan Rather (makes us rather). Bear becomes a noun-transformed-into-a-new-verb: a grizzly bear is “bearing” (clawing) those ills. In my mnemonic system, the sound ill is represented by the image for number 65 (pot of boiling water) encased in a block of ice. So, the bear is clawing a giant block of ice that contains a chamber with several pots of boiling water (bear those ills). On the other side of the ice block, we are halving a bagel (we have). Whew…

Locus 13: Through a Window of the Train

TEXT: Than fly to others that we know not of?

IMAGES: The previously-mentioned bagel halves go flying through the window in an explosion of shattered glass towards Ben Linus, the leader of The Others, from the TV show Lost (fly to others).

Locus 14: Back on the Platform outside the Window

TEXT: Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;

IMAGES: The image for the sound “con” is the same as for the number 742—Khan from the Star Trek movie The Wrath of Khan (con-science). Khan is directing some crazy female deer (does) who are wildly prancing around on their hind legs, holding magic wands with their forelegs, turning all of “us” into cows (make cow-ards of us all).

Locus 15: Still on the Platform

TEXT: And thus the native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,

IMAGES: A hunter-gatherer (the native) with a stone ax hews (hue) an old Apple 2gs computer with dithered resolution. The dithered image on the screen is a sickly-looking, anthropomorphized oar (sicklied o’er). Above the computer is a face, looking down, beaming a pale light on the computer (the pale cast of thought). The forehead has a fishing rod sticking out of it, fishing for the hacked up pieces of the computer (reinforcing the word, cast).

Put together in a weird new sentence with a hacked parallel meaning it reads something like:
“the native’s hew of [the computer’s] resolution …”

and:
”[the computer’s] resolution is [a] sicklied oar …”

I remembered the pattern of “thus” by comparing two lines:

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution

Locus 16: Still on the Platform

TEXT: And enterprises of great pith and moment

IMAGES: Just beyond the previous scene are a couple of Star Trek Enterprises made out of the pith of giant mullien stalks.

Locus 17: Still on the Platform

TEXT: With this regard their currents turn awry, / And lose the name of action.

IMAGES: Exiting from one of the Enterprise ships, on a ramp similar to the one on the Millennium Falcon, is a Buckingham Palace guard—the changing of the guard becomes re-guard (regard). Also flowing out of the exit ramp is a current of currants (image reinforcement) which are turning into loaves of rye bread: “their currants turn a-rye” (currents turn awry).

I was getting confused about how the line starts. Was it “In this regard?” (No.) I turned “With this” into width-hiss—a ridiculously fat snake poking its head out of the spaceship, and the problem was solved.

I didn’t need an image to remember the last line.

It Works!

This is just an early attempt at using the method of loci for memorizing poetry, but it seemed to be very effective. Between reading the lines several times and key images placed along the memory journey, I was able to quickly memorize the verse.

One other interesting outcome is that, now, every time I pass through the Berkeley BART station, the location triggers a word-for-word memory of some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines.

If anyone has any suggestions on poetry memorization technique, or questions about what I’ve written above, please leave a comment below.

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    17 comments

    • I had to memorize this for English class. Took me about 2 days to do it. Even though I know it by heart right now, too bad i didn’t stumble onto this post earlier…

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    • Hi, Im very new at mnemology and I was wondering how you remeber the words inbetween words like “the” and “was” “to” etc? For me those are the hardest to assign images to with getting repetative images in my room.

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    • Job, you don’t make images for words like “the” and “was” and “to”.

    • While nothing stops you from making images for the “in between words”, a lot of the time they seem to be recalled automatically.

      That being said, Eisher simply doesn’t understand that there are NO RULES as to whether images are or are not required for certain words. I mean, who is he to say “you don’t make images….”? Who made him Chief of the Mnemonic Police? While I don’t always do it, I certainly do make images for those words from time to time if it seems to me that the particular situation/line calls for it. If I can get the thing memorized without doing it, I will. If I can’t, I’ll create the necessary image for those in-between words. ANYTHING is good if it works. And if it works, it’s above criticism. Good luck.

    • A few months ago, I completed a memory project that was a goal in the back of my mind for decades, but only in recent years did it crystallize into a conscious endeavor. I now know Hamlet by heart, the entire play, all 4000-some lines, all 30,000 (approx.) words.

      When I started, the first page took more than a month, rather frustratingly. What helped to remove the roadblocks were the ideas from this dedicated website http://www.memorizeshakespeare.com/. In brief, I began to think of poetry as a form of music, and the Hamlet play as a very long poem. I downloaded a superb dramatic production of Hamlet by Arkangel Shakespeare onto my mp3 player, and essentially supplemented reading/memorizing the text with frequent playbacks of the recording, much like listening to my favorite music over and over.

      This project, however, took 18 months. I’m wondering whether a loci method would have been faster, but I rather doubt it. One of the articles in the above quoted website (http://www.memorizeshakespeare.com/) titled “Why the Palace Method Doesn’t Work for Shakespeare” probably did most to dissuade me from using your loci method. To recite the play with speed (“trippingly on the tongue” as Hamlet would put it) with any method would inevitably require continuous review and repetition.

      But I might experiment with alternative mnemonic techniques if I decide to tackle more Shakespeare.

    • Thanks… I read his article about the method of loci here and will look at it more closely:
      http://www.memorizeshakespeare.com/articles/why-the-palace-method-doesnt-work-for-shakespeare/

      I think that the article is mistaken where it writes that a person would have to encode every word in an image. For a longer piece, it might help to use a memory palace to keep sections in order. I haven’t tried it with a really long text, but I will try to post something about that soon from someone who has done it…

      It’s after 1am here and can’t write as much about it now as I would like to, so I’ll post more about it in another blog post soon.

    • In the chapter on how to memorize poems in Joshua Foer’s book, Gunther Karsten’s method is briefly described, in which a specific image is assigned to each of the 200 common “filler” or “connector” words (like “the,” “and,” etc.), and that Karsten’s encodes for every single word. Ed Cooke, in the same chapter, uses a palace method (if I recall correctly), perhaps very similar to your described method. Finally, the woman who actually won that poetry section in the championship (her name escapes me) first reads the poetry and gets a feel of the emotions before she does any encoding, and certainly doesn’t encode for every single word.

      So it may come down to a subjective preference depending on the individual. I’d like to consider and try them all, to see which is the best for me. One thing is certain: any method requires a hell of a lot of work, either to come up with a system, applying that system, or both. Whatever the method, I’d like to adopt one that is the most efficient, fast, and reliable. Then, like Ed Cooke, I’d like to memorize a little (or a lot) of something every day, and , like the ancients or medievals, and actually improve and enable my mind and soul. Shakespeare, and other classics, would be my preferential use for mnemotechnics.

    • Hey Hamlet Hafiz,

      Congratulations on your feat!

      I have often thought it would be a great thing to memorize Shakespeare’s works. I wondered if there were people in the world who had actually memorized all of his major plays, every single part plus stage directions.
      I’m curious if you found the result worth the effort in the sense that it enriched your life in unexpected ways — or not.

      My own ideas and experiences with regard to memorizing poetry is that using image-based methods such as loci completely defeats the purpose!
      Poetry is about absorbing and submitting ones imagination to the poem — the images must come from the language and be instilled by the poet. If you are implanting your own outlandish images in order to remember lines you will spoil the poets metaphors and interfere with the enjoyment and understanding of them. You won’t be able to think of the poem without marring them with crazy images . . . That’s just my two cents.

      When I was a kid, I memorized some Coleridge and it’s still with me today . .
      In Xanadau did Kubla Khan a sacred pleasure dome decree/ Where Alph the sacred river ran/ Down to a sunless sea . . .

      I used the simple method of reciting line one until I could say it perfectly three times in a row; then I would recite line one plus two until I could recite them three times in a row without making a mistake; then I would recite line one and two and three until I could do them perfectly three times in a row; and then onto lines one, two, three and four . . . and so on, always going back to the beginning, until I had worked my way through the whole poem. By that time you’ve been over and over the first lines so many times that they are ingrained in order, and with the right rhythm. This way, you’ll never lose them.

    • Thanks, Joe Green.

      The effort was definitely worth it. The analogy is that it is like a piece of music, which I can call up at any timeand play in my head. I don’t ever have to be bored anywhere where I am standing in line waiting, etc. One gets a deeper appreciation for Shakespeare and for this particular play in particular – every time I play it back, I see and hear something new. It truly is an inexhaustible work of genius.

      I am memorizing other parts of Shakespeare, and I do sometimes use mnemonic tricks to supplement occasional difficult lines or sequences, similar to the method Josh described above. I think it does speed up the process, but to be able to recite fluently requires practice and repetition. Such “rote work” might be denigrated as drudgery, but it is dreadfully boring only to those who (for no fault of their own) haven’t developed an aesthetic appreciation for what it is they are memorizing. The obvious example is school children required to memorize for their literature classes – undoubtedly a major factor in why many students end up hating Shakespeare.

      Your method is perfectly fine, and one extraordinary fellow made an awesome achievement, for which Josh started a thread on the forum page http://www.paradiselostperformances.com/history.html. But again, mnemonic devices can be useful to speed up the process. Once the material is mastered, the devices and mnemonic images fade away. Perhaps if school children learned some mnemotechnic principles, they could convert the drudgery of poetry memorization into some fun, without having to force themselves to develop an aesthetic appreciation.

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    • I think a number of people who are rejecting a mnemonic method out of hand here have a fundamental misunderstanding. Whether you use a loci method or just link imaged keywords to each other directy in a chain, the mnemonic is just a means to take you through the poetry until the poetry is as directly accessible in memory as anything else you know. Your brain knows that it is the poetry you want, not the images; if the poetry is something you genuinely desire to know and rehearse pretty often, at least the first year, it sinks in and the mnemonic fades out — precisely because you will want to have it trippingly and with emotion and comprehension. The mnemonic is just a ladder you can throw away once you get where you’re going.

    • Hey I found your site because I’m very interested in memory mnemonics and happen to have my own reasons for memorizing poetry and ended up stumbling upon your website and I’ve bookmarked your main page because your blog is very interesting and it’s inspired me to work on my memory skills.

      I’m wondering how effective you find this to be in comparison to traditional single letter memorization technique? (writing the first letter of each word)

      Did you/Should I also use the read/recall technique with this?

      How important is walking through the different sections of an area/house/etc when using the mnemonics?

      Should I make an image for each SOUND specifically, or would each word work as well? And If I make a picture for each WORD, then should I choose an image that represents the SOUND of the entire word, or the MEANING of the word?

      I think that last question is the most important but if you can answer them all I will love you.

      This reads confusing to me and I’m going to re-read it. I’ll post a link to your blog on mine if you answer this question and help me out. If I find your post more helpful the second time through though I will of course still link to your website as it can help my readers (if I even have any yet) as well.

      Thanks a lot for putting your time into making this post.

    • In my experience, it’s important that every word be accounted for or I get lost. As a poet myself, I know there’s no such thing as a filler word in any poem worth reading, let alone memorizing. Each word serves a purpose. This, of course, gives us a huge and difficult task in memorizing. I’m thinking I need to perfect my mnemonics using the most common words in English as a start for what my symbols will be. The problem, of course, is memorizing that list first so I can memorize poems and books. No easy task, but I think it’s worth a try. Inventing as I go has worked okay, but not so well in terms of how well I retain it.

      I’ve also found that it’s much easier for me to memorize and retain poems that draw powerful, primal emotions out of me. Poems about sex and parenthood seem to stick better than other subjects, for instance.

    • Just finished reading Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art… by Joshua Foer, one of those life altering reads that I actually broke down and bought. I’m so cheap.
      It has got me to using mnemonics again. I was first exposed to them in a psychology class about 35 years and we were remembering names. Pam White still sticks to this day (wearing a white dress) and I can still see her face whereas the other names and faces didn’t stick (also other females so I don’t think it was a sexual thing) but I think it was because the association I used for her was so simple yet visual.
      Anyway, I teach these to my ESL kids now and then and it makes for a fun class.

    • Well, my favorite Shakespeare lines are – “O! she doth teach the torches to burn bright”. – (Act I, Scene V).

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