The so-called “Great Vowel Shift” was a very unusual occurrence. During the period between around 1500 to around 1700, the English language “lost the purer vowel sounds of most European languages, as well as the phonetic pairing between long and short vowel sounds,” writes the site The History of English. Such radical linguistic change seems a "sudden and dramatic shift" historically, and “a peculiarly English phenomenon…. contemporary and neighboring languages like French, German and Spanish were entirely unaffected.” Over a period of around 200 years, in other words, English completely morphed from Chaucer’s melodic, nearly incomprehensible Middle English into the sounds we hear in Damian Lewis’s speech as Antony in Julius Caesar, above.
Shakespeare’s English sounded like neither of these, but somewhat like both. English became more distinctive precisely during the time it became more cosmopolitan, philosophical, and, eventually, global.
It was a period of “a large intake of loanwords from the Romance languages of Europe…, which required a different kind of pronunciation”—and of a great flood of Latinate words from scientific, legal, and medical discourse. “Latin loanwords in Old and Middle English are a mere trickle,” writes Charles Barber in The English Language, “but in Early Modern English,” Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English, “the trickle becomes a river, and by 1600 it is a deluge.”
The English Renaissance sits smack in the middle of the Great Vowel Shift, its literary productions reflecting a riotous and thrilling confluence of speech, a wild field of linguistic play and experimentation, novelty, ingenuity, and controversy. The scholars and writers of the time were themselves very aware of these changes. One “Elizabethan headmaster,” notes Barber, “commented in 1582 on the large number of foreign words being borrowed daily by the English language.” (Emphasis mine.)
Shakespeare’s language revels in such borrowing, and coining, of words, while often preserving the pronunciation and the syntax, of earlier forms of English from all over the UK. All other arguments for reading and listening to Shakespeare aside—and they are too numerous—the richness of the language may be the most robust for centuries to come. As long as there is something called English—though a thousand years hence, our version may sound as alien as the language of Beowulf does today—Shakespeare will still represent some of the wittiest, most adventurous expressions of the most fertile and creative moment in the language’s history.
Luckily for those future English speakers, writers, and appreciators, Shakespeare has also been the most widely adapted, recorded, and performed writer in the English language, and there will never be a shortage of his work in any format. Original Pronunciation Shakespeare has only recently left the academy and made it to regular performances on the stage, giving us a taste of just how different the verbal music of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet sounded to their first audiences. But what’s remarkable is how Shakespeare seems to work in any accent and any setting... almost.
As far as American actors go, Brando may have been more up to the task of playing Mark Antony than Charlton Heston was, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have both, and hundreds more besides. I would argue that there’s no such thing as too much Shakespeare in too many different voices. His plays needn’t be the greatest ever written to nonetheless contain some of the greatest speeches ever performed on any stage. That very much includes the speeches in lesser-known tragedies like Coriolanus, which an ensemble cast of Ralph Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, Elan Eshkeri, and Gerard Butler turned into a 21st-century political barnburner of a movie.
The music and dialogue from that 2011 film adaptation open the playlist of Shakespeare’s tragedies, further up, which also includes a performance from Sir John Gielgud in Hamlet and a recorded performance of American composer Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, a 1966 opera with a libretto by Franco Zeffirelli based exclusively on Shakespeare’s text. This work premiered as “one of the great operatic disasters of all time,” according to one critic who was in its first audience, “at one point the soprano Leontyne Price… found herself trapped inside a pyramid.” The idiosyncratic delivery in these various performances all stress the flexibility of Shakespeare’s language, which can still mesmerize, even under Spinal Tap-like conditions of performance anxiety.
After you’ve worked your way through 18 hours of Shakespeare’s tragedies, listen further up to 19 hours of Comedies, 13 hours of Histories, and, just above, to something we may not have enough of—5 hours of readings of Shakespeare’s poetry, by actors like Gielgud and Sir Anthony Quayle, Richard Burton, Emma Topping, and many more. Another great vowel shift may be coming, along with other world historical changes. These copious recordings preserve for the future the diverse sounds of Late Modern English, speaking the richest literary language of its Early Modern ancestor.
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