Shakespeare on original instruments

Lingua Franca is usually a teriffic little program, yet another hidden gem on our great national broadcaster. Being in bed with a nasty wog (so to speak) I taped and then listened to this week’s episode at some time in the wee small hours. It really has to be heard so if you want to, put aside 15 minutes some time and click here.

It’s odd isn’t it that with the craze for ‘original instruments’ in music, it’s taken so long for the idea of doing Shakespeare in the kind of accent current at his time to take hold. I guess one important reason is a commercial one – anxiety about people being able to decipher what’s being said on stage.

I was sceptical that this kind of thing could be done – how can you know how things were pronounced then? And also of course there were lots of accents then as now presumably, so which one is one talking about?

In any event, this subject was discussed, and with the explanation given about what evidence was used I was happy with the ‘expert’s’ assertion that they reckoned they were 80% accurate – or 80% sure of being accurate or some such.

Apart from the intrinsic (if you like antiquarian) interest in this this, the new method allows the uncovering of puns long missed and allows for the recovery of characters. The British have been very unkind to their greatest playwright by inventing in the 19th Century various absurd accents to convey the notion that respectability is the higest of all virtues – and possibly the only one. These are the accents that the British now do Shakespeare in. Now there are many themes in Shakespeare but respectability is fairly well towards the bottom of the list.

Sure enough the actors report that new interpretations of characters become possible in the new accents.

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Helen
2022 years ago

The guy they interviewed on early music said he had started his experimentation with original instruments in the early 70s. I don’t know if it was the same group, but in 1975 or thereabouts I was at Uni checking out this and that as you do, and went to a performance by a group called Ars Nova. (OK Sedgwick, no need, we’re already thinkin’ it…) They had sackbuts and a thing called a Serpent, which was kind of like an early sousaphone and really did look a bit like a serpent.

I have to say the sound quality wasn’t the best I have ever heard, but it was interesting.

Rex
Rex
2022 years ago

“Being in bed with a nasty wog.”

Five km hikes in 4 degrees chill can do that.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

Amazing! The Romeo and Juliet prologue sounds as if it’s done in Pirate – “arr, arr, uncivil blood
arr, arr.” I’m not sure I can see Juliet with an eyepatch and a peg-leg……

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Great post, Nicholas. Fascinating program. I’m no expert, but the boffin (Sterling?) seems to have a point about puns being lost in the in-authentic renderings. A jakes as opposed to Ajax!

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Also, I’ve been to the Globe and would have absolutely loved to have seen that performance in the reconstructed Elizabethan setting.

Nicholas Gruen
2022 years ago

Yes, I thought of pirates. It’s Cornish I guess. Accents mean much more than they are generally taken to – they convey a lot of meaning.

I’d like to do a post on that theme one day – but the number of posts I’d like to do is growing compared with the ones I’ve actually done.

Yobbo
Yobbo
2022 years ago

Why are you inviting nasty wogs into your bed when there are so many nice ones out there?

blank
blank
2022 years ago

I heard the lingua franca program, and thought that if Shakespeare is to be done truly with “original instruments”, then all the actors should be men.
No women on the stage in Bill’s day.

Regarding 19th century accents, the current standard pronunciation of German derives from “stage pronunciation” (B

David Tiley
2022 years ago

Agree about the boy/girl thing. Particularly since some of the classic comedies depend on gender switching.

BTW – A brisk walk by the beach never did anyone any harm. Gets the blood flowing, clears residual alcohol. Mind you, a knuckle sandwich for singing loudly in the middle of the night would ruin your whole experience. And I think there might have been some very frisky trudging.

Nicholas Gruen
2022 years ago

Yes Yobbo,

My wife would agree.

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

Great tip, Nicholas. I remain a bit sceptical about the ‘eighty percent’, but it’s clear that a lot more can be done to unearth past pronunciations than I had previously thought. Melvin Bragg (who probably consulted Crystal) went even further back in time in his magnificent TV series, giving lots of examples of Danish and Dutch-sounding English from the tenth century and so on. Those older pronunciations were barely intelligible, and I suspect that the success of Crystal’s play with the actors and audiences was due to relief when the Shakespearean accent turned out to be nothing like that Beowuld era accent. It was interesting that, while various regional British accents came through, there wasn’t a trace of Cockney (as he pointed out).

One gripe: where the bloody hell did he get the idea that we say ‘yis’ and ‘yit’?

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

“One gripe: where the bloody hell did he get the idea that we say ‘yis’ and ‘yit’?”

By listening to New Zealanders, probably.

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

If I can tell a Manchester accent from a Liverpool one without having been to either place, you’d think the world’s greatest authority on Englishes could distinguish Strine from Kiwi.

blank
blank
2022 years ago

“It was interesting that, while various regional British accents came through, there wasn’t a trace of Cockney (as he pointed out).”

Makes me wonder how ‘authentic’ it was.
I’m sure I read somewhere that Pepys, (born 17 years after Shakespeare died) shows “f” for “th” in some places, which is reminiscent of the Cockney “fink” for “think”, &c.

TimT
2022 years ago

Unfortunately I can’t hear the episode, but how did they reconstruct the ‘original accent’? Did they go back in time with a tape deck…?