Why the “Palace Method” doesn’t work for Shakespeare

Proponents of the Palace Method of memorization say that it’s great for not only lists, but also for speeches.

If your speech is a list of points to talk about, then that’s true. But if you have to deliver Shakespeare’s words in exactly the order he wrote them, it’s less than useless: it will harm your performance.

The Palace Method or the Method of Loci (“loci” means “locations”) is described in WikiHow: Build_a_Memory_Palace and in Wikipedia: Method_of_Loci, and in most books on memory augmentation. The concept is this: you associate each item of your list with a specific item you see as you walk through a place you remember in vivid detail. A lot of people choose their house because they can remember it easily, so if I want to remember a grocery list, I associate “juice” with the front door-knob (the first thing I’ll notice as I walk through my house), then I associate “lettuce” with the rug in the hallway… and so on. I’ll remember my list well, and I’ll remember everything in order. In fact, I don’t even have to start at the beginning. You can ask “what comes after bread?” and I just remember that “bread” is my bedside lamp, next to that is my alarm-clock, which I’ve associated with “butter”. It’s weird, but it works.

It can work for speeches, if you only need to remember your outline. In many public-speaking engagements, that’s all you need:

  1. Doorknob: Thank the person who introduced me.
  2. Rug: Tell joke about organizer.

and so on. Since it’s a good idea not to write every word of a casual speech (you’ll sound robotic), all you need is the outline. The Palace Method will allow you to give a long but structured speech with no index cards.

But Shakespeare is a very different matter. How would you use the Method of Loci to recall these lines:

This guest of summer,
The temple-haunting martlet, does approve,
By his loved mansionry, that the heaven’s breath
Smells wooingly here: no jutty, frieze,
Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird
Hath made his pendent bed and procreant cradle:
Where they most breed and haunt, I have observed,
The air is delicate.

It’s a line from Banquo in Macbeth. Would you make associations for every word? You couldn’t even skip a syllable or else lose the flow of the line, because how would you recall that there must be “the” before “heaven’s breath”?

And at a normal speaking pace, your mind would be running through your Palace, quite out of delicate air.

One thing that advocates of the Method of Loci suggest is that you must have vivid images in your mind of both the items in your Palace AND the items in your list. Are you going to spend a lot of time inventing a good mental image of the word “the”?

It’s not only a handicap of the Palace Method… a lot of mnemonic strategies rely on visualization, and it just won’t work when you have to recite Shakespearean dialogue in character. You get a song stuck in your head from hearing it, not by reading the lyrics sheet or imagining the topics of the song. That’s why Memorize Shakespeare was invented!

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