Monday 1 November 2010

On Shakespeare being Irish

A correspondent writes to ask what I think of Rod Liddle's piece in this week's Sunday Times. It was headed 'Irish bard? You're taking the mick'. I'd put a link in here, except that the paper now charges you a pound for the opportunity to read something you've missed. I can't believe their journalists are happy with that, as it must lose them so much readership, but that's another story...

Anyway, Rod says that 'A brilliant American academic called Paul Meier has decided that William Shakespeare spoke with an Irish accent', and he then develops the theme in his inimitable way, referring to earlier claims that Shakespeare 'had initially entitled his plays As You Like It, To Be Sure, To Be Sure; A Midsummer Night's Craic; O'Thello; and The Merry Wives of Windsor Park. Not to mention the famous Merchant of Ennis'. I love it.

But I don't love the new myth that's developing here. Paul Meier hasn't said any such thing. I know, because I've just returned from Kansas University, where I've been working with Paul on a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in OP ('original pronunciation') - a reconstruction, as close as we can make it, of how the play would have been pronounced in Shakespeare's time. I've posted earlier about this (see 2 January 2010), and you'll find some of the relevant history of OP in my post of 10 January 2007, as well as articles on my website, such as in Around the Globe, which is where you'll get answers to the usual questions that arise in relation to this topic - like 'how do we know?'.

Note, first, that this isn't anything to do with how Shakespeare himself spoke. I speak with a British English accent, like millions of others do. It's possible to describe the main features of this accent without saying anything at all about the idiosyncrasies of one of its speakers. When foreigners learn, say, Received Pronunciation, they are learning a system of sounds. They aren't learning to speak like any one individual RP speaker. In technical terms, they're learning the phonology of English.

It's the same when we work on OP. It's Early Modern English phonology, and it allows all kinds of phonetic variations, reflecting the individual speakers who must have used it. Shakespeare probably spoke it with a mixed Warwickshire/London accent. Robert Armin, one of his fellow-actors, probably spoke with a mixed Norfolk/London accent. When we did an OP Romeo and Juliet at Shakespeare's Globe in 2004, the actors came from various parts of the UK. All were taught OP, but this was tinged with their regional backgrounds. So you could hear traces of Scots in Juliet, Northern Irish in Peter, Cockney in the Nurse, and so on. It would have been like that in Shakespeare's day.

So where has the Irish myth come from? Mainly from YouTube. A clip of the OP production and its background has been receiving thousands of hits. You can see it here. Several people who have watched this have said that in their opinion it sounds like Irish. And before we know where we are, this cluster of opinions has become a fact.

Certainly there are some features of OP which are like modern Irish (such as the pronunciation of any like Anny), but there are also features of OP which remind the listener of the West Country of England, or Scotland, or Virginia, or virtually anywhere. When we were doing the Globe production, I used to walk around the audience in the interval and ask people what they thought of the accent, and everyone, without exception, said 'We speak like that where I come from'. There are echoes of most modern accent phonologies in OP - which is hardly surprising, as this is the phonology that lies behind them. It went across the Atlantic in the Mayflower, and to Australia, and elsewhere. If you asked me which modern accent is closest to OP, I'd have some difficulty saying. It's easier to identify the differences. No modern English accent, for example, says words like musician as 'mjooziseean'.

If you don't get your OP exactly right, then it's easy to slip into a modern accent. This is one of the things I have to focus on, when working with a company. The word for 'I', for example, is pronounced with a central opening to the diphthong - with the vowel sound of the word the. If you inadvertently lip-round that vowel, it comes out as 'oi', which is a classic feature of Irish English, often spelled that way in representations of Irish speakers ('Oi'm sure'). I think a lot of the YouTube listeners are reading that in.

OP isn't Irish. If you use or are familiar with Irish accents, you'll notice the bits that remind you of Ireland. If your background is Scottish, you'll notice the bits that remind you of Scotland. An Australian homed in on the pronunciation of yet as 'yit'. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder? If so, OP is partly in the ears. But not entirely, as the many examples like musician illustrate.

I'm delighted to see that the Kansas OP project has generated such interest. It's the first full-length production of a Shakespeare play in OP since the Globe experiments of 2004 (Romeo) and 2005 (Troilus). I hope there will be more. Each time a play is done in OP, I discover fresh insights into it - new puns, new rhythms, new possibilities of expression. In Dream, for example, suddenly all the rhymes work. We've all been used to such painful modern dissonances as here, where the lines by Puck don't rhyme any longer:

Thou coward, art thou bragging to the stars
Telling the bushes that thou look'st for wars,
And wilt not come.

But they did in Shakespeare's day. The vowel in wars sounded like that of stars. Multiply this by the dozens of cases in the play where lines now rhyme, and you can begin to sense the cumulative auditory effect of an OP production.

Paul Meier is planning to make recordings of the production in due course (its first night is 11 November at the university theatre in Lawrence, Kansas), which will add immensely to the still rather limited database of OP available online (at Pronouncing Shakespeare). There may also be a live stream of a performance. I'll keep readers of this blog posted.


Cecily said...

I found this very interesting and look forward hearing clips of the OP production.

What surprised me most was the result of your audience survey. I would have expected people to be more attuned to differences than similarities, but clearly I was wrong.

Phillip Minden said...

The word for 'I', for example, is pronounced with a central opening to the diphthong - with the vowel sound of the word the. If you inadvertently lip-round that vowel, it comes out as 'oi', which is a classic feature of Irish English

You don't even need that; the [əɪ] itself is less graspable to many, but subconsciously even more stereotypically Irish, also because "oi" is so much associated with Cockney.

Anyway, I think one problem is the association of OP features with colloquial pronunciation, sometimes not only in the audience but also with the actors.

marc said...

As I posted on the comments for the video, it's true that it isn't Irish, but what's the harm in saying that it sounds a lot like Irish?

DC said...

No harm at all - as long as you also acknowledge that it sounds a lot like West Country, etc etc.

DC said...

I now learn that the Kansas people aren't able to fix up a live stream, but they will be making quality audio and video versions in due course. I'll post on this when the details are finalized.

Sarah said...

I'd be interested to know how Juliet would have been pronounced then, given the increasingly popular pronunciation now with the emphasis on the last syllable as in Juliette.

DC said...

Pretty well the same as now, I think, though possibly with a shorter first vowel. There's no evidence from the 69 instances of the name in the plays (Measure for Measure and Romeo and Juliet) of the name being stressed on the second syllable. In almost every poetic instance, the metre forces a stress on the first syllable, such as in RJ II.chorus.4 'With tender Juliet matched, is now not fair' or RJ II.ii.3 'It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!' In just one case, there is a final stress: RJ III.i.113. 'Hath been my cousin. O sweet Juliet', but this seems to be motivated by the emotion of the line - in much the same way as someone might say 'Da - vid' with two equal stresses, if David has caused some exasperation.

Phillip Minden said...

ósweet júliet isn't possible there?

DC said...

Yes of course it is. Metre is only a guide, not a restriction.

Frances said...

First, a note to Sarah: My college Shakespeare professor explained that her name had to be pronounced "JOOL-yet" to fit the iambic pentameter meter.
Second, to David Crystal: I drove to Lawrence, Kansas, on Sunday (Nov. 21) just to see the O.P. production of Midsummer Night's Dream. (I live only 5 hours' drive from KU; how could I not go?). Not only was the O.P. version fascinating, enlightening and enjoyable, but this student production was one of the most charming performances of Dream I've ever seen. Congratulations to you, to Paul Meier, and to everyone else
involved in this production!

DC said...

Thank you. All the comments I've heard have been very positive. I'm looking forward to seeing the DVD.

Unknown said...

"On Shakespeare being Irish"?

When I grew up it would have been
On Shakespeare's being Irish?
analogous to:
On his being Irish,
On him being Irish.
Has the grammar changed or just usage?

DC said...

This is off topic here. I'll deal with it in a separate post.

Phillip Minden said...

When I grew up it would have been
On Shakespeare's being Irish?

part. coni.

Anyway, when (and where) I grew up one wouldn't have ended a statement with a question mark.

EDIT: The word verifications seems to agree with you, though: it's "unsoph".

Holly C said...

Interesting that you say:

"If you use or are familiar with Irish accents, you'll notice the bits that remind you of Ireland. If your background is Scottish, you'll notice the bits that remind you of Scotland. An Australian homed in on the pronunciation of yet as 'yit'. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder? If so, OP is partly in the ears."

If a large number of Youtube comments are identifying it as Irish is this because Youtube users who view OP Shakespeare videos are disproportionately drawn from Irish communities, or that once one user had said it everyone else went along with it? Were they influenced by the masses?

Without viewing the comments, I heard Irish quite strongly and I have one Irish parent. I didn't hear much in the way of Scouse (the other parent) or Manchester (where I myself grew up), although I've frequently heard that those two accents are strongly influenced by Irish anyway.

Accents are fascinating. Love the blog.

DC said...

I suspect it was a rapport wave - bit like when someone sees something in a painting, and then everyone does, ignoring other features. My experience, having worked on OP with three companies now, is that the initial impression wears off very quickly, once people really get into the accent.

Anonymous said...

If you read Ben Jonson's 'The Irish Masque at court.' you can see how unusual and distinctive the Irish accent was to the English theatre audience of the day - which of coure is contemporary to Shakespeare. They are kind of laughing at the Irish accent in that Play, and they are not going to be laughing at their own accent.

The truth is that the Irish accent is not like a west country english accent either then or now - as many commentators wrote on the youtube video - yet the original pronunciation is authentic I think. The fact is that it was an Irish accent because I think Shakespeare was Irish. (You needn't be too sceptical, the Irish tend to be rather good at poetry and playwriting!) About a week ago I was listening to RTE, Irish radio, and they were interviewing an actor that toured Ireland with Anew McMaster putting on plays in the 40s and 50s. He was quite clear that the reason why McMaster liked doing rural Irish audiences was because they seemed to follow Shakespeare much better than they did anywhere else. This was to an incredible degree, if you listen to the interview.

Anyway if you are interested in this you should read the book 'Shakespeare was Irish!' Its subtitled 'did you ever hear the like', from Pericles, which is pure Irish....

Anonymous said...

Good write up here on Shakepeare's view of Ireland and the Irish:

michelle said...

I really liked this article and I searched for its topic for a reason. I watched some of the OP items on youtube and, like many, there was a cadence and a commonality of language that reminded me of how my Mom spoke. She was born and raised in N Ireland. I don't know a lot about her family's history except part of them lived and worked in Belfast City and others came up from Dublin. She went to 'public school.' When I watched the segments, the word that struck me the most was 'philome,' for the word film. My gosh, my Mom pronounced it the very same! "Oh, I enjoyed that filum (film)!" We used to delight in gently teasing her about it. But she always said with a smile, "Well, that's how we say it at 'home.' What a joy to find it in Shakespeare! My thought though, after reading this and the comment about Shakespeare being notably very well received in Ireland led me to remember that, in school in her day, she was born in 1929, they had elocution and recitation, basically the rote memorization of poems, passages and the like. (They called it something specific and if I remember exactly what it is I will post it here.) When she immigrated to America, she brought with her a small book of Shakespeare's Sonnets which she had used at school and kept afterward. Now I would suppose that this may have been something prevalent in Ireland in a great many schools of the time. I think it's fair to note a great many Irish folk, including my uncle Johnny, moved to Australia, so perhaps people in that generation brought their school-based experiences with Shakespeare with them. So this may be the reason why Shakespeare's phrases, idioms, and words brightly color the Irish language as they do. I am a big fan of OP and feel a viseral connection with it. As to many, it feels marvelously familiar!

DC said...

NIce story. Thank you.