9 – Almost every Shakespeare play has been performed in the wrong dialect
“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines.” Hamlet in Hamlet
Shakespeare was always meant to be performed live. That seems fairly obvious – he’s a playwright, after all, and not a novelist – but is often lost in the morass of stuffy school lessons sat trying to decipher Macbeth or Hamlet. Generations of children have been turned off the greatest writer to ever write in the English language because they have been forced to read his scripts in a language that they don’t understand rather than enjoy them as they were intended to be enjoyed. It would be like serving the greatest soup that has ever been made but asking it to be eaten exclusively with a fork. You might get a flavor of it, but you’re certainly going to struggle on the way.
Similarly, if you go to the theatre to watch a Shakespeare play, you’re also very unlikely to get an experience that bears any relation to that which Shakespeare intended. So much modern Shakespeare is performed as serious, ashen-faced literature, with reverential tones and classically-trained actors ploughing through the language while the vast majority of the audience has no idea what is going on. It’s a middle class, expensive pursuit, watching Shakespeare, which is the complete opposite of what going to the Globe Theatre in 1600 was like.
The dialect is a major problem in this. Shakespeare wrote almost everything in a meter, so it rhymed, whereas almost no Shakespeare is currently performed like this. Furthermore, it’s estimated that over half of the rhymes in the Sonnets don’t actually rhyme anymore, because of dialectical changes. As you might imagine from the section about the appearance of Shakespearean texts in the first dictionaries, our primary source on what Shakespearean England spoke like is, of course, Shakespeare. His rhymes, or lack thereof in modern English, provide the biggest insight into the way that words were pronounced in the 1600s in England. When we unpack the dialect, the language comes back to life and new puns are also discovered – Shakespeare is filled with Elizabethan dad jokes – as well as rhyming couplets that make the action easy to follow and understand, even if the words are more difficult to catch.
The dialect of Shakespeare is often claimed (predominantly by Americans) to sound more like modern American than modern Received Pronunciation English. Unless you’re from the small Virginian island of Tangier, where they still speak something approximating Elizabethan English, then that isn’t true. If you’re from the UK, you might identify it as being from the West Country in England – for those from outside the UK, think of what a stereotypical pirate sounds like. As the country changed over the intervening 500 years since Shakespeare was alive, so did the dialect, and perhaps the West Country is the biggest holdout of that form of English. The American colonial period was just beginning – the Mayflower arrived at Cape Cod three years after Shakespeare died – and thus perhaps there is some truth in the formation of American English being based on the English of this time. Similarly, it is often posited that the best way to understand the English of Charles Dickens with a modern ear is to listen to an Australian, as the period of British colonial expansion in New South Wales – and, given the poverty of Dickensian characters, the transportation of convicts – was occurring as he wrote his novels. As Australia English is a calcified mid-18th century English, perhaps American English is too a calcified 17th century version of the language. Or maybe it lies in Cornwall.
The transition from Middle English – that of say, Chaucer, which is very difficult for anyone who doesn’t also speak French and German to read – into Early Modern English – the language of Shakespeare, which is largely readable to a modern audience – was in full swing in Elizabethan England. As we know, there was no regulated spelling, but the pronunciations also varied wildly: the French that had come in with the Normans 500 years previously had been mashed with the Germanic languages of the Anglo-Saxons, producing a hybrid that often took French words and applied German pronunciation rules. The Great Vowel Shift, which is way too complicated to go into in this small piece, but is the reason why Germans say “schiesse” with a long “ayy” sound when we say “shit” with a short “i”, was a major factor, while the practice of saying every syllable – that means the k at the start of knight and the e at the end of words, Frenchies – was also still a thing. The Norse þ was still in use: that’s “th” as in there and then, and most importantly in thou, which was the informal version of “you” that was still very much in existence, similar to tu in French or du in German. German speakers will also note the “-st” and “-th” at the end of verbs – “Those friends thou hast,” or “the lady doth protest” as Hamlet would say – is maintained.
Without this sounding like a grammar lesson, it was vital to the way that most people enjoyed and experienced Shakespeare, and indeed, says a lot about how Shakespeare is now enjoyed (or isn’t). Crucially, Shakespearean plays were not meant to be alienating or revered, as it can often seem today, but were meant to be rollicking, bawdy, ribald fun. The story lines have a level of sex, violence, drugs, debauchery, swearing and intrigue that would put most TV soap operas to shame. And with good reason – in Shakespeare’s time, the theatre was the equivalent of television and Hollywood, all rolled into one.