Shakespeare’s Accents: Voicing Identity in Performance

April 26, 2020
By Sonia Masai

The focus of my book

My book is about voices and how the voicing of Shakespeare on stage has traditionally privileged some accents over others, thereby leading to an alignment of English Shakespeare in performance with the speech of elitism.

This alignment, I found, dates as far back as the second half of the seventeenth-century. The sound of Shakespeare in performance has since been closely related to questions of ownership: who, in other words, has the financial means, the legal right (which was severely restricted for nearly two hundred years!) or the motivation to revive Shakespeare on stage? And to what extent do their target audiences constitute acoustic communities simultaneously defined by access to education, economic privilege as well as the way in which they speak and the way in which they like their Shakespeare to be spoken on stage?

This alignment, though, has not gone unchallenged. My book identifies and contrasts periods of relative acoustic standardization to periods of comparably intense change, thus offering the first systematic account of the acoustic production and reception of Shakespeare on the English stage.

I start by showing how the rise in the number of foreign-language productions of Shakespeare on the English stage since the late twentieth century has stimulated debate over the desirability of greater acoustic diversity. The traditional perception that Shakespeare becomes “lost in translation” has slowly been replaced by an appreciation of how differently Shakespeare signifies on stage when performed “without his language” or when liberated from the straightjacket of Standard English Pronunciation (StE).

I then move on to consider the earliest Original Pronunciation (OP) programmes produced in the 1930s and 1940s for the BBC by Mary Hope Allen, a pioneering radio producer who popularized an acoustically diverse Shakespeare at a time of otherwise absolute and uncontested acoustic normativity.

Working my way further back in time, I found that the alignment between Shakespeare and the speech of elitism predated the rise of Received Pronunciation (RP) in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. This long-established alignment reaches as far back as the mid- to late-seventeenth century, when Shakespeare became firmly associated with court culture and aristocratic patronage, as a result of the introduction of the monopoly on spoken drama that regulated the reopening of the theatres after the Civil Wars in 1660. The most important catalyst for acoustic change over the long eighteenth-century and well into the nineteenth century was David Garrick. His naturalistic style of acting has often been discussed within the wider context of the Enlightenment and the privileging of reason and the observation of nature over tradition and prescriptive conventions. I focus instead on the impact of his voice, which was notoriously marked by regional inflections, on reform movements aimed to widen access to Shakespeare and to spoken drama more generally.

Finally I consider the sound of Shakespeare’s language as originally performed before the closure of the theatres in 1642. Especially helpful are comments by those who opposed the theatre and complained about the actors’ ability not only to look but also to sound like their social superiors, which in turn suggest how, even in Shakespeare’s time, his language was pronounced according to emerging standard of acoustic decorum and distinction. Additionally, I argue that the phonetic spelling preserved in the early modern printed playbooks can help us understand how regional and national accents were used to modulate characterization and to achieve specific and nuanced dramatic effects.

In all in, I was quite surprised to find that the sound of Shakespeare in performance has always mattered and has unfailingly affected not only how we hear and interpret his characters but also how we understand the role of Shakespeare, and of spoken drama more generally, in society.

Why this book now?

The need to diversify Shakespeare in performance has led to an increase in unconventional gender and race casting. But voices need to be just as diverse if we want Shakespeare to be more accessible and more relevant to the wider audiences that live and digital performance can now reach.

I hope that, by providing a fresh, historical perspective on why Shakespeare has always sounded so “posh” on the English stage, my book will encourage theatre artists to become more alert to the importance of the voice and to curate accents as carefully as any other aspect of theatrical performance. Accents, as much as gender and race, are fluid constructs. More acoustic variety on stage will help us all understand accents not as static markers of identity but as dynamic acts of identity, through which speakers, on and off the stage, define and redefine themselves by consciously selecting specific acoustic variants from a wider pool of other available variants.

Would Shakespeare by any accent other than Standard Pronunciation sound the same? Most definitively not! My book, above all else, is a celebration of sonic revolutions, past and yet to come, which have challenged and will challenge how we understand Shakespeare and, through Shakespeare, ourselves.

Due to the ongoing travel restrictions and disruption caused by Covid-19, a number of book launches and other events of interest to our members have been cancelled or postponed. In what the SRS hopes will become a regular series, we have invited Sonia Massai, author of Shakespeare’s Accents: Voicing Identities in Performance to discuss her work with friends, colleagues and well-wishers. The online book launch will take place on 28 April at 4.00pm BST. Do join us by registering for the book launch, if you can! If you are unable to make the live event, you may watch it on catch up.

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