Let’s see if I remember how to do one of these . . .
I know I’ve voiced opinions about Shakespeare around here before—hard to avoid it, really—though looking at past posts, I’ve mostly just complained about how it seems like every member of the Association of Gorgeously Voiced British Actors appears to be contractually obligated to recite the same five summers-day-beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-besotted sonnets, which completely ignores the other hundred and a half.*
What’s worse, it seems to me that even when someone’s secretary accidentally transposes numbers and an AGVBA member records a surprise (#103, anyone?), it still tends to sound the same: carefully pronounced and enunciated in exactly the same sonorous, soothing way, Modern English rhyme clunkers and all.**
You could argue that while Shakespeare’s plays are meant to be performed to be fully understood—which is why high school students can have such a tough time slogging through a reading of Hamlet—the sonnets aren’t, unless one is pitching woo at a potential lover who has the fortitude to be the focus of a point-blank recitation of #18 without gigglesnorting or the self-esteem to be compared, falsely or otherwise, to the subject of #130 without being vaguely insulted.***
But just as watching a performance of a Shakespearean play doesn’t magically grant understanding of every line, reading Shakespeare’s poetry silently to oneself doesn’t fix those rhyme clunkers—or solve my little ennui problem.
Luckily, linguist David Crystal and his son, actor and writer Ben Crystal, have at least a partial solution.
According to them, it’s all in the pronunciation:
How cool is that?
It doesn’t solve all the cultural references, of course but it does clear a lot of the contextual static; all those fuzzy puns and definitions, all those off-kilter rhyme schemes and scansions suddenly start harmonizing just by tuning one’s inner ear to a different key.
And to this lover of language and staunch defender of Chaucer, it’s a fascinating key.
For those language nuts among us who want to know more about of Original Pronunciation, or for those who just want to hear more of Ben Crystal’s voice in its OP register,^ he gave a terrific lecture on the subject (and in that pronunciation) a few years ago. It’s an hour and a half long, but Mr. Crystal is a wonderful speaker and likes to make his audience laugh, so it’s well worth it.
If you need a little more convincing to spend that much time on historical accents, however earthy, here’s a teaser:
I don’t know about y’all, but the next time I encounter a Shakespearean sonnet, I’m gonna read it in pirate.^^
*Which isn’t to say that I wouldn’t welcome any member of AGVBA to visit any time they like and recite anything they wish in my living room for as long as
I can keep the doors lock and the duct tape secure they see fit.
** Sonnet #116 has several of ’em:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
***Don’t start with that one, gentlemen—it’s not as reassuring as you’ve been told it is.
^Which totally makes him eligible for the AGVBA—who’s with me?
^^Though I’m sure my favorite performance of the St. Crispin’s Day speech (Henry V) will always be in pure, unapologetic Bronx:
8 thoughts on “Poetry Wednesday: Shakespeare Made Crystal Clear”
Very. Cool. Nice post.
Thanks, John! 🙂
A bit wary about making this comment, because I know you’re a big Shakespeare fan! But studying his plays at school was a real source of irritation to me. So much so, that I refused point blank to study his plays for exams. This left me with having to choose the option of doing an interpretation on an unseen poem or prose piece – no revision possible! Shakespeare felt irrelevant because of the language. I thought there was more of a range of literature open to us. I preferred to read American plays. However, I do quite like Chaucer! That’s a different language challenge, and says more to me.
Poetry is so subjective that I wouldn’t dare tell anyone who they should or shouldn’t like or what should and shouldn’t resonate! 🙂
Do you like Shakespeare in the original accent any better?
Also, the sound of it was very much an Irish quality. Listen to Patrick Bergen read Amergin or Gavin Friday read The Ballad of Reading Gaol, and tell me you don’t hear the same inflections.
I thought Irish, but it sounded generally Northern to my American ear.
But Patrick Bergen is now a member of the AGVBA. Thanks! 🙂