This is Peter's ninth blog entry for the 2005 production of The Winter's Tale, in which he talks about problems arising, Original Pronunciation and Pandarus' character.
Transcript of Podcast
David who plays Florizel has been off recently with a virus. He fell ill during a last performance last week; as there are no understudies at the Globe, various people took the lords’ lines in the first half, and then David himself did the second half but he looked pretty green by the end of the play. Tom Padden stepped in as Florizel for the next performance and did an incredible job: he managed to learn some of Florizel's lines in a couple of hours around Troilus rehearsals (normally people just go on with the book, which is scary enough). He went on stage and barely looked at the book! We had to cut the odd line because Tom can’t really be Florizel and come on as the Servant, for instance, to say that Autolycus is at the door. But he's done such a brilliant job that we haven’t had to make many changes. He seems terribly calm about it all – I’m sure he's like jelly inside! David's on the mend and will be back soon.
We also started rehearsing in Original Pronunciation last week. David Crystal came in to talk to us about OP and gave us transcripts of the play which has been cleverly done so there's the actual script on one page and on the facing page there are lines with phonetic symbols in them to indicate the OP differences. David ran through the main differences with us and enthused us all, really. He's such an enthusiast that you can’t help but be swept along by him. I was excited about Troilus before, but now I’m really excited and, having had a go at OP, it doesn’t feel as daunting...
You can come unstuck if you just treat it as another accent because when you first learn an accent what you tend to pick up is the tune, the melody. If you’re doing an Irish accent, for example, you try to find a lilt in your voice. That tune is the thing you recognize first of all and then you get a bit more specific: ‘Well, actually it's a Dublin accent or a Belfast accent.’ But with OP, the tune is the one thing that nobody knows, because obviously there are no native speakers of early modern English! It's like trying to reconstruct a dead language in that sense.
What we do have is a lot of evidence about how specific sounds would have been pronounced. Most of the evidence comes from the plays themselves and poetry where you can see a rhyme was intended. Previously you might have thought well, Shakespeare only wanted a half-rhyme. Or he couldn’t quite find that exact rhyme so he made do – which makes him look like a bit of a klutz. In fact when you examine those sounds, you realize that they should sound the same. Although that doesn’t necessarily tell you what they should sound like, it means that they’re similar and you can cross reference that with other instances of those words elsewhere. Gradually you put together a picture for the sound.
Apparently there was also a huge amount written by Shakespeare's contemporaries about how language was spoken in the 16th and 17th centuries because it was a time when people were becoming interested in that area. Printing was really taking off and more books were being produced and circulated, so there was an increased interest in the written language. Literacy had increased tenfold since Chaucer's time: by now 10% of the population could read (a relatively substantial proportion of the population). Of course most of those people were people in positions of power and influence. Mastery of the language began to emerge as a class weapon – ‘The way we speak is the right way and the way we write is the right way: anybody who can’t do that is plainly not one of us’ – although it wasn’t really until the 18th century that it became a class indicator. In fact, David reckons that in Shakespeare's time there would have been very little difference in the way a lord and a peasant spoke. The accent might be stronger in a peasant, but at the same time Sir Walter Raleigh was at Queen Elizabeth's court and spoke with a very thick Devonshire accent (apparently so thick that people sometimes couldn’t understand what he was saying). So you had knights of the realm who spoke very broadly.
There was a huge variety of ways in which people spoke and lots of Shakespeare's contemporaries wrote about this. The playwright Ben Jonson wrote a Grammar of English including a description of how certain sounds were pronounced. For example, the ‘r’ sound: where you would say ‘here’ or ‘there’ in Standard English today, in early modern English you’d say, ‘heerre’ or ‘theerre.’ Jonson actually describes it as the ‘doggie’ sound… it's ‘err, err’, quite far back in your throat like a dog growling. So the articulation moves a bit further back in the throat and mouth, the opposite of what we’re told to do as actors in terms of projection (which is to bring everything forward into the mask of the face).
Shakespeare makes fun of the way certain people use language in his plays. One of those people is Holofernes who has a speech in Love's Labour's Lost [5.1]* about how appalled he is that people don’t pronounce each sound as it is spelt in a word… the punch line is basically the pronunciation of the word ‘neighbour’, which is spelt ‘n-e-i-g-h-b-o-u-r’ and if you try to pronounce every single letter as a distinct sound it would come out as nonsense: ‘neeyguhurbouurr’ or something that. Holofernes is pedantic about pronouncing English as its written; Shakespeare is obviously making fun of him and his views, which suggests that he's modelled on people who actually were like that and were ridiculously particular about the way words were spoken. In a lot of documents from Shakespeare's time, the same word (even Shakespeare's name) is spelt in lots of different ways. The English language was hugely flexible – people were just beginning to say ‘Well, maybe we should actually put the ‘b’ in ‘debt’ because that shows it comes from the Latin route ‘debit’. It's a way of displaying their learning – the fact that they were educated in the classics and understood Latin. Then people who came along and suggested maybe the ‘b’ in ‘debt’ should be pronounced too… there was no standardisation as such and lots of debate about the way language was used. It makes it easier to see how Shakespeare was able to be so inventive, making up new words and pushing words together in rather the same way that Dylan Thomas or Gerard Manley Hopkins did. They all use words in a way that makes the language incredibly exciting. It's like a box of fireworks going off in your head when you hear it. I think that's the joy of the Original Pronunciation experiment as well; you suddenly hear rhymes and meanings that you didn’t realise were there.
OP reveals elaborate word play on several levels that just doesn’t work unless two words sound exactly the same. We were looking at a great one today in Troilus and Cressida, when Pandarus is trying to persuade Cressida to take Troilus as her lover: ‘You are such a woman! One knows not at what ward you lie’ [1.2]. Now, ‘ward’ is a defensive position in fencing; Pandarus is saying ‘I don’t know what style of defence you’re putting up.’ But in OP ‘ward’ would be pronounced exactly like ‘word,’ so he's also saying ‘I don’t know at what ‘word’ you lie.’ She's lying with words… creating a defence with wards/ words. In turn that opens up a huge conceit about ‘lying’ – Cressida responds by listing her defences and ends up by saying ‘I lie all these wards,’ in other words ‘I’m lying to you now and you don’t even know it.’ The words and their meanings are flexible, slippery… it leads to fantastic banter. Footnotes in a lot of modern Shakespeare editions are based on readings in modern English; I think the great value of the OP experiment is that we get to rediscover the some of the fireworks in the language. Now I use something verging on OP in the sheep-shearing scene for The Winter's Tale. Perdita's dancing with Florizel, and I’m the king in disguise; I say to her supposed father the Old Shepherd ‘she dances featly.’ ‘Featly’ means prettily or daintily or well. In OP, ‘featly’ would be pronounced ‘fate-lie’ which sounds like ‘fatally’: it's a pun on ‘featly.’ She's dancing fatally because she's dancing with a disguised Prince and in a minute that's going to cause Polixenes to sentence her father to death, have her whipped and bar her lover from succession. So ‘featly’ is Polixenes’ grim joke… the Old Shepherd underlines it when he says ‘so she does everything.’ I never used to understand why that line was there: ‘She dances featly,’ why would Polixenes say just then ‘Well, she dances very well’? There's no dramatic point in it. But there is a huge dramatic point in him saying it if he means ‘Well she dances fatally as well as featly’ – it is portentous. Because ‘featly’ is a word that doesn’t exist in the language anymore and the audience probably wouldn’t know what it meant, I now say ‘She dances fate-ly’. On the ear it sounds like ‘fatal’. So going back to original pronunciation can bring different elements of the play to life. It's revitalising.
OP also removes the idea that developed between the 18th and early 20th century that there was a ‘right’ way to speak Shakespeare. We look back at actors who in turn have been influenced by previous generations – right back to Garrick in the 18th century – and the mode of speech that has been deemed to be the ‘correct’ one for doing Shakespeare is RP [Received Pronunciation] Standard English, which in itself is a class dialect. It associates Shakespeare and the experience of Shakespeare with something that is appropriate to people who are highly educated from a particular socio-economic class: it alienates the vast majority of the population. When they began the OP experiment last year with Romeo and Juliet, David said he spoke to some young students in the audience and asked them what they thought of it - they said it was fantastic. When he asked them ‘Why?’ they said ‘Well, they’re talking like us, they’re not talking posh’. If that can make a difference to the kind of people who come to hear Shakespeare, than that's revolutionary to me. I’m already so excited about it that I might explode, but as we continue the work with Troilus and Cressida, I think more and more that I’m going to find it very difficult to move back out of OP the next time I do a Shakespeare play. I’m already hearing my lines from The Winter's Tale in OP. There's such a richness to it.
I think OP both opens up possibilities in characters that you didn’t know were there. I had a discussion with the costume designer before we started Troilus rehearsals and before I really looked at the OP… we’re doing the production in a more modern kind of dress and I had a mental image of Pandarus as somebody who takes great vicarious delight in all the filth of life but who is himself distanced from it. He's immaculate, smells gorgeous and loves exquisite things, very like Oscar Wilde. He takes great pleasure in other people's sensuality and the sensuality of their lives. It makes sense of his enjoyment of the moment when he succeeds in bringing Troilus and Cressida together: he's a voyeur. At one point he says of Cressida ‘Oh that my heart were in her body’ – she wouldn’t refuse Troilus if she was inclined to the flesh like Pandarus is. But he doesn’t actually partake.
By the end of the play Pandarus is obviously suffering from some awful degenerative disease (he talks about an ache in his bones and I think that's meant to imply syphilis). I have a theory that he contracted a sexually-transmitted disease in his youth, and he's forsworn sexual activity ever since. The disease is rotting him from within, so the only way he can enjoy the sensuality of life is through somebody else: he’ll woo Cressida for Troilus and enjoy the consummation of their affair from afar. It's a slightly tragic image, like the image at the end of the play when he's left on the battlefield and tells the audience ‘Some two months hence my will shall be made’ – I’m going to die and I bequeath to you my gifts of disease and sexual depravity.
That was my image of Pandarus to begin with and I associated that with a particular way of talking. If we weren’t doing the play in OP, I’d probably develop a very clear-cut, crystal diction and then use that to play against. But when you actually start talking in OP and strip away that class context, you find yourself speaking in an accent that, to our ear, sounds very earthy. There are lots of ‘rural’ sounds and, because there's much more elision, it's a more colloquial kind of speech as well. You can be less careful about articulating each sound. Instead of saying ‘she is my lady, she is my love’ [Romeo and Juliet], you would say ‘she's mi lady, she's mi love’. It's faster and much more direct. Within that earthier style, I’m finding that Shakespeare gives Pandarus his own vocal tricks and mannerisms – like repetition of certain things, for example. In a scene with Helen and Paris, I keep repeating ‘oh swuet quen, most swuet quen, mi honey swuet quen’ (which is ‘sweet queen’). There's something about the sound of ‘swuet quen’ that lends it a lushness and brings a different character to it as well. Acting is about putting yourself inside somebody else's skin – part of the process is taking on the physicality and that can come with what you wear, but it can also come with the way you speak.
The more I think about the play, the more I think it's a brilliant piece of work. Stories and characters from the Iliad and the fall of Troy would have been more familiar to Shakespeare's audience. Watching Troilus and Cressida, they would have seen famous heroes placed totally amoral framework. I think that's fascinating – almost as if Shakespeare is saying ‘Ok, what happens if you take away the rules?’ What you get is terribly modern: the idea that warfare is not a glorious thing at all. Actually it's a corrupting influence on all of life (particularly the Trojan War which was basically brought about in the name of lust). Shakespeare ridicules the inflated grandeur of the characters and opens up the underbelly of what's going on, especially with the character of Thersites. I think he shows us the guts; ‘this is what it's really all about’.
Although our Troilus and Cressida is OP, it won’t be ‘original practices’. Romeo and Juliet was an original practices production initially spoken in a modern style which they then replaced with OP. I expected the next step would be an original practices production rehearsed in OP from the start, because then you’d get to see what happens when actors take on the language before the costumes – using the previous year as a kind of ‘control’ experiment for comparison. With Troilus we’ve changed two elements of the control: we’re rehearsing in OP from the start, so we can’t make comparisons in the same way, and the production has a modern twist which will presumably inform the movement and characterization in a different way. It may be that it supports OP… Shakespeare's audience would have seen people speaking like them and dressed like them. What our audience will see is a group of people speaking, not like them but not like they’d expect Shakespearean actors to speak either. And they’ll see them dressed in a way that is more recognizably modern than they would expect to see on that stage. So maybe a modern practices production will actually marry up the language with the look and the physicality of the play.
I really don’t know what it will be like. To some extent I think the pronunciation will just become another part of painting this other world that isn’t quite like ours but at the same time is like ours. That's what Shakespeare did; he brought people into a theatre and told them stories in a language that was like theirs but also slightly different. We’re doing that too: we’re going to bake the same cake, but with slightly different ingredients, so it will rise in a slightly different way.
* Love's Labour's Lost Act 5, scene 1: Holofernes on Don Armado's speech:
He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument. I abhor such fantatical phantasimes, such insociable and point-devise companions, such rackers of orthography, as to speak “dout,” fine, when he should say “doubt”: “det,” when he should pronounce “debt” – d,e,b,t, not, d,e,t: he clepeth a calf, “cauf”: half, “hauf”; neighbour vocatur nebor”; neigh abbreviated “ne.” This is abhominable – which he would call “abominable”; it insinuateth me of insanie: ne intelligis, domine? To make frantic, lunatic.
These comments are the actor's thoughts or ideas about the part as s/he goes through the rehearsal process – they are simply his/her own interpretations and frequently change as the rehearsal process progresses.