Many moons ago when I was contemplating taking a course on the performance aspect of Shakespeare’s plays, prospective students were advised to see as many versions of the plays as we possibly could. Somewhat easier to do if you live near a large city than in the provinces of course. But even then, it would have been almost impossible to see some plays since they seldom get staged. There are any number of Romeo & Juliet productions, or Macbeth, King Lear andTam ing of the Shrew but when was the last time you heard of a theatre company staging Two Gentlemen of Verona or Anthony and Cleopatra?
Which is why I began working my way through DVDs of The Shakespeare Collection, a set of 34 dramatisations produced by the BBC in the late 1970s. This was a time when the Beeb knew how to stage a good costume drama. The programmes featured the cream of the acting profession like John Gielgud and Derek Jacobi, and some actors who would go on to greater things like Helen Mirren and Anthony Hopkins. They lack the drama of a live stage performance of course since all except two were shot in the BBC Studios but the production values are what you would expect from the BBC.
Watching these and then the more cinematic approaches of recent years (the superb Hollow Crown series for example or Kenneth Brannagh’s Hamlet ), you see clearly how advances in technology have changed the way Shakespeare is presented. The settings may be more realistic, the costumes more lavish but what hasn’t changed very much is the way the words are articulated. With the exception of a few examples of regional accents, the Bard’s language is rendered essentially in what’s called Received Pronounciation.
That focus on ‘standard English’ helps with clarity of the spoken word but according to one of our most eminent linguistic experts, David Crystal, but it’s a million miles away from how the original audiences of the plays would have heard Shakespeare’s language. Listen to some of the famous soliliquays in what’s called Original Pronounciation and the meaning is completely changed says Crystal. Puns become more evident and many more line endings will sound as rhymes – so for example, you might hear an actor today say water and matter and the two words seem to bear little sound relation to each other. But say them in original pronounciation and water sounds more like watter, hence completing a rhyming couplet. Understand that ‘loins’ would have been pronounced as ‘lions’ andpart of the Romeo and Juliet prologue takes on a different interpretation.
Crystal and his actor son, Ben, put their theory to the test in 2004 when they worked with The Globe Theatre in London for a performance of Troilus and Cressida, the first time a theatre company had staged an entire production in original pronounciation. They talk about this experience and their work in a short film made for the Open University – listening to them read alternate lines in received pronounciation and then original pronounciation is fascinating. Now I understand why so often when I heard Shakespeare in my school days the so-called comedy completely passed me by. If only my teachers could have read it as it was meant to be heard, I might just have understood it better.