A couple of years ago we published a post on “what Shakespeare sounded like to Shakespeare” which highlighted some prominent linguists’ attempts to recreate the Elizabethan speech patterns and accents of the playwright’s day. There may be some small debate about whether or not they succeeded, but we’ll never know for certain since his day is long behind us.
In some ways, the nature of Shakespeare’s language may have been more French, or more Latinate, or more Saxon, than the English we speak today—depending on the proportion of regionalisms commingling in any given play, like characters in a national bazaar. Our current version of the language may have absorbed another four hundred years of global influence, but in the process it has also become more homogenized and standardized. Shakespeare’s language was both more provincial and more riotously diverse–in spelling and pronunciation–than many kinds of English we speak today.
Perhaps this is one reason we think of Shakespeare as a universal poet—the heterodoxy of his speech, and hence a variability of characters found in few other literatures. Even his stock types seem to have individual voices. The degree of interplay between high and low speech—city and country, comic and tragic, lyric and prosaic—may be why nearly every world language has found a way to adapt his work, accenting some qualities and muting others. You don’t have to take my word for it. You can see for yourself at the MIT Global Shakespeare’s Video & Performance Archive, which hosts dozens of Shakespeare stagings in dozens of languages, like the mesmerizing Japanese Lear above, or the heartracingly intense one-woman clip from the Argentine Hamlet la metamorphosis at the top, a melodramatic production that would thrill David Lynch. Additionally, the database aggregates “essays and metadata provided by scholars and educators in the field” of international Shakespeare studies.
Even among the thousands of English-language adaptations of Shakespeare’s work we find an international diversity of speech. The Spotify playlist above, brought to us by Ulysses Classical (makers of the Stanley Kubrick Playlist), presents a huge collection of recorded Shakespeare plays and poems, as well as the scores and incidental music for English-language productions. The actors represented–Sirs Gielgud, Olivier, and McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Edith Evans–are mostly English stage royalty, but we also have Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and actor Richard Burton, and Americans Paul Robeson, Rosalind Russell, and Orson Welles. The value of such a collection is inestimable–68 hours of Shakespeare read and performed by some of the world’s finest actors. But it is indeed a specific slice of the world. Even in English it feels (forgive the puns) that all the world could be represented here, doing Shakespeare in every kind of English around the globe. Perhaps such a global approach to teaching Shakespeare in English would add nuance to debates about whether his work is still relevant in American high school and college classrooms. In any case, there seem to be few barriers to actors and directors for approaching Shakespeare with new translations and with fresh eyes, ears, and costumes, again and again.
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