Hear 55 Hours of Shakespeare’s Plays: The Tragedies, Comedies & Histories Performed by Vanessa Redgrave, Sir John Gielgud, Ralph Fiennes & Many More

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.

If you need Spo­ti­fy’s free soft­ware, down­load it here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A 68 Hour Playlist of Shakespeare’s Plays Being Per­formed by Great Actors: Giel­gud, McK­ellen & More

Hear What Shake­speare Sound­ed Like in the Orig­i­nal Pro­nun­ci­a­tion

Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour Sings Shakespeare’s Son­net 18

Hear Beowulf Read In the Orig­i­nal Old Eng­lish: How Many Words Do You Rec­og­nize?

Hear What Shake­speare Sound­ed Like in the Orig­i­nal Pro­nun­ci­a­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Simon T says:

    You would have thought that a Shake­speare project would get the name of the char­ac­ters right in the track list­ings. Benedick not Bene­dict… Poor show!

  • Nigel Carey says:

    Con­sid­er­ing his con­sis­tent­ly incon­sis­tent spelling of his own name I’m sure the Bard won’t be doing a lot of grave spin­ning.

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