Language and Theatre

Language of Shakespeare’s Actors (Thursday Thoughts, March 29th 2012)

Once again, NPR has come to my rescue with this little gem of a story: Shakespeare’s Accent: How Did The Bard Really Sound?

I hope you’ll both read the story AND listen to the interview (along with the other two sound bites: Sonnet 116 and a bit of Romeo and Juliet)

The article covers a few concepts, not all of which make it onto the audio recording. I want to touch on a few of them here:

On the trend towards speaking Shakespeare’s words more carefully: speaking as a theater person, in my personal experience Shakespeare is usually approached with this idea of reverence. His words are full of descriptive terms and often complicated phrases, and I think the thought that goes through an actor’s head is the fear that “the audience won’t  knows what I’m saying unless I slow down.” But here, as in conversation, it’s often the prosodic cues that help us determine meaning: the words we choose to stress, the overall pitch or changes in pitch. These can tell our audience more than the vocabulary we use, and combine that with an effective stage picture (aka, the physical actions and positions of the actors on the stage), and the story will come through.

On figuring out the pronunciation of certain words: much like last week’s post about Jessie Little Doe using the pronunciation and sound conversion clues from other languages in the same language family to figure out words in Wampanoag, here they’re using the idea of rhymes to figure out pronunciations. The audio specifically mentions that the documentation shows very few examples of the “o” in loved being pronounced as “oo,” (or [u] for those familiar with IPA), therefore they determined that it’s the pronunciation of the word”proved” that should match our current pronunciation of “loved”

On class distinctions and changes in pronunciation: often, accents are used as shortcuts, to encourage the audience to make as snap judgement based on an individual’s use of non-standard pronunciation (this is a deliberate linguistic choice, that operates by combining their previous knowledge of, or the assumptions they make about, people who speak a certain way).

For example: in the musical version of Les Miserables, there is a character, a young boy named Gavroche, who is always performed with a “cockney” accent. This musical is based on a book by Victor Hugo, and is set in France, so why this choice for this character?

Based on the idea of accent as a shortcut, I could say that this was their way of demonstrating that this boy is lower class. But it’s rather redundant, since the character is introduced at a point in the show that is set in the slums of Paris, where the people singing right before his introduction are either residents of the slum or the students hoping to incite rebellion to change their situation, and where the character himself sings a line calling his home a slum.

There are other possible reasons of course, but for my point here it should highlight the ways that people can make snap judgements about others based on how they talk, and how this fact can be manipulated by performers. For Shakespeare’s actors, this doesn’t appear to be a tactic they used; they spoke onstage how they spoke in their daily life, using personal history, interactions, and current trends as their guidelines. And it worked–audiences still managed to understand the stories the were seeing and hearing.

Today we’re left with some of the greatest stories ever committed to paper and performed by people all over the world. And thanks to actors and linguists, we’re able to recreate with reasonable accuracy how they would have sounded on opening night.

Gives me (good) chills just thinking about it!


2 thoughts on “Language of Shakespeare’s Actors (Thursday Thoughts, March 29th 2012)

  1. Kind of off topic, but you should read the one act play, “Universal Language” by David Ives; if you haven’t already. It might make good blog fodder. 🙂

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