“Words. Words. Words”

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The Centre has been a hive of activity this week with students from around the country debating all things Shakespearian in our “Great Shakespeare Debate”, run in collaboration with The English Speaking Union.  Our teaching rooms, corridors and stairwells have been humming with the buzz and whistle of racing minds, and tripping tongues. The students showed great flair as they flexed their Shakespearian muscles, and were a great credit to their schools, and the inspirational teachers who bought them here to compete.  The teachers sat silent in the wings – “tongue–tied by authority” – as their students took the limelight.  The students’ wide range of reference, and their often playful engagement with Shakespeare and his works, were signs not only of individual talent and hard work, but also of excellent teaching.

Naturally, I found myself thinking about some of the super teachers who turned me on to Shakespeare (and poetry in general) during my own Sixth Form days.  I came to literature, in part, via song lyrics – I was a teenager armed with a guitar, three chords (and so I believed) the “truth”.  Morrissey, Michael Stipe, and Robert Smith were my poets – their lyrics excited me, and made me hunger for words, words, words.  Recognizing the affinity I felt for songwriters my teachers took the approach of – “if you like that, you’ll love this” – with Shakespeare, and other poets.

My fascination with singer/songwriters did not lie in their words alone – the sound of their voices, accents, intonation, and phrasing were integral to my enjoyment (and, as I came to realize, interpretation) of their work.  As someone who was drawn to performance, I wanted to hear how the artist would give breath to his or her own words.  Sensing this, my teachers pointed me in the direction of audio recordings of some of my favourite poets – Philip Larkin, T. S. Eliot, Ted Hughes. This opened a door for me – put flesh and breath around the words on the page – and gave me a vivid sense of the poet’s sensibility.  As I listened to Eliot http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3tqK5zQlCDQ Larkin http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/philip-larkin/8032508/Philip-Larkin-reads-Lines-On-A-Young-Ladies-Photograph-Album.html and Hughes http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uEUolGiGPgU (as you can by clicking on these links) their voices stuck in my memory, and shaped my response to their works.  I still hear their voices when I think of their poems today – and of course, I’m left wondering how Shakespeare’s words would have sounded when spoken by the man himself.

When John Astington was at the Centre a few weeks ago talking about his book Actors and Acting in Shakespeare’s Time, we tried to imagine the way in which plays would have been ‘rehearsed’ in Shakespeare’s own time.  John felt that actors in the company would have taken their lead from a leading actor such as Richard Burbage. I was curious about Shakespeare’s role in what could loosely be called the ‘rehearsal’ process.  As an actor himself, did Shakespeare offer line readings of his own?  Would he give a steer towards the rhythm or pacing of a particular speech?  And how much did an actor like Richard Burbage have Shakespeare’s voice in his mind as he gave breath to the poet’s words? Writing as a collector of voices it is disappointing that I will never get to hear Shakespeare give shape to his own words.  Having said that, I’ve had the good fortune to hear some brilliant actors breathe life into Shakespeare’s dramatic poetry.  And it is often their voices that I hear when I open up a play today.

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Author:Nick Walton

Nick Walton is a Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
  • Nick Walton

    Thanks Richard – glad you have enjoyed following up the links.

  • Nick Walton

    Thanks Diana. I often ask students whether they’ve listened to any radio drama when I’m talking about the difference between Shakespeare’s audiences talking of ‘hearing’ a play, and audiences going to ‘see’ a show today. The experience is very different, but no less enjoyable.

  • http://twitter.com/DianaJOwen Diana Owen

    Great links, thanks and yes, it does somehow change your response to and sometimes, understanding of a speech or poem or piece of writing to hear it read – and especially by the author. And I often feel that listening to a play on the radio can be as powerful as seeing a play in the theatre, you really engage your own imagination too, then.

  • http://rbc-in-md.blogspot.com/ Richard Baldwin Cook

    Thanks for this thoughtful post and the links to poets reading poetry.

  • Nick Walton

    Either that or “Please, please, please let me get what I want this time – (Lord knows it would be the first time!)”. Thanks Duncan.

  • Duncan

    I think Shakespeare was definitely listening to How Soon Is Now when he wrote some of Juliet’s speeches.

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