A Shakespearean Accent

It is not very uncommon here in the USA for people without much experience with Shakespeare, when asked to speak his text, will attempt to do so with an English Accent. Usually a bad one, by that’s a different story for another blog (if I feel so inclined to start a new blog about my experience as a dialect coach… which isn’t likely).

What is it about Shakespeare that warrants so many – both young and old – to attempt to do away with their normal pronunciation and adopt another for reading this author? Simple. Shakespeare was British. Okay, maybe not so simple.

The fact is that most Americans hear Shakespeare’s words spoken by our friends across the pond. I have previously mentioned this problem but I feel that I should bring it up again a little differently. If you didnt know before reading this post… now you know not to speak Shakespeare in an English dialect just because you think it sounds more correct. If you’re Amerian.

But wait! Many of the plays – all of the histories – mainly take place in England! That’s really up to the director to decide. Maybe they’re not even setting their production in England. Let’s move on.

So how are Shakespeare’s words to be given life? What accent is best? There’s no real answer to that question. It is disputed by scholars, actors, directors, and especially teachers. Some say whatever dialect the actor has. Some want the region-neutral General American dialect. Other prefer an older, upper-class, east coast pronunciation… which sounds rather British. Before starting rehearsals as an actor, be sure to ask the director what he/she expects of you in this area. A range of accents can sound bad to an audience in certain situations.

Any range of accents can work, depending on where the director sets the production. It should match, if at all possible. Before I end this post I feel that I should mention that this isn’t just an American issue. In the UK it was required for some time for actors to only use Standard British/Recieved Pronunciation. As an auditor to one of the History plays, I enjoy hearing the corresponding modern accent of the historical figure, based on where he is from. I learned of a recent production of Richard III whose title character, who is from the house of York, spoke with a Yorkshire accent. Cool!

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  1. A.K.Farrar May 23, 2008

    I think the craziest thing about the recent ‘Othello’ film was the mix of accents – Italian accented (and almost incomprehensible) Desdemona vs Ever so Posh Iago (who did the English Accent although he happens to be Northern Irish!).

    Of course, the “original” Shakespeare was most likely something like this:


    A word of warning over English Aristocratic names – maybe Richard of York is linked to York – but that doesn’t mean anything other than he got a lot of money from there (The present Queen is Duke of Lancaster – one son Prince of Wales, another Duke of York: They’ve all got funny accents that have nothing to do with their titles).

  2. Craig May 23, 2008

    Of course there’s the cultural inferiority complex at work, and the fact that so many of the great performances are done by English actors–look at the greatest Shakespeare films, for instance. It’s regrettable, because American accents are perfectly capable of doing great Shakespeare–may even expose qualities in the language which the Received Pronunciation in the UK now tends to cover up. But the fact is that even I catch myself doing it–a hard habit to break.

    The one thing I really hate is when the clown actors try to do English yokel accents by way of Monty Python!

  3. David Jun 6, 2008

    According to linguists, it may be more historically correct to use Standard American or even Southern American than it is to use modern British Received Pronunciation.
    According to http://www.geocities.com/yvain.geo/dialects.html:
    “American English has retained more elements of the Elizabethan English spoken in the time of Shakespeare than modern British English has” (not the most authoritative source, but the one that says it the simplest).
    Consider the Thames river: you must know that it is only pronounced /tems/ because King George I (a German) couldn’t pronounce it properly, and everyone else modified their speech to avoid insulting him. British english has changed considerably since Shakespeare’s time.
    That is not to say that American hasn’t changed! Of course it has… it just happens to be closer to Elizabethan at this point.

  4. Gedaly Jun 6, 2008

    The clown thing is a big problem Craig! And it’s not just in Shakespeare. Similar problems exist for such shows as Les Miserables where the most famous recordings are of a British cast.

    You’re right David, that many say that Standard American is closer to the English spoken in London 1600, but that doesn’t make it more accurate to use. The actor should speak in a dialect appropriate to the setting of the play. If the show is set in Texas, I expect the characters native to that setting to speak with the corresponding accent. If set in Britain, let’s hear a British accent. Some production of plays are a little hazy on their exact location; some characters’ hometown is sometimes irrelevant. What does make a little more of a difference is the character’s place in society. It’s not uncommon for the kings and royals in the plays to have somewhat affected pronunciation.

    In all other cases it’s fine if the actor uses their own accent or something close to the standard speech of where they are.

  5. m1ngle Oct 27, 2008

    I know this is old news, but I just saw your blog entry. I’m an actor doing some research to get ready to perform “Hamlet”. The author of this post and the commentators may be unaware that there exists a dialect called “American Shakespeare” which is used by American actors, and is taught in the drama programs at almost all American acting universities. It is considered the standard way of pronouncing the Bard’s work. If you were to audition at a Shakespeare festival with a flat American accent you would never be cast. It is not technically a British accent, although it does sound a little like one. I just thought you might like to know.

  6. Gedaly Oct 29, 2008

    The dialects you may speaking of are commonly known as Standard American, or possibly Trans-Atlantic. There isn’t, in fact, a standard way of pronouncing the Bard’s work in America. Directors and vocal coaches across the country have varied opinions on which dialect – if any – is “correct.” You would have an easier time to convince someone to change religious beliefs. But Standard American and Trans-Atlantic are two major contenders in the fight for pronouncing Shakespeare in the US.

  7. Iago as a nice guy Jan 28, 2009

    The mutiple accents in one production thing can actually be really cool, if the audience is likely to be used to that in their daily lives. In Miami, where there are Jamaicans, Barbadians, Cubans, New Yorkers, Mid Westerners, etc., the actors reflect that diveristy of dialects. So, I saw a Jamaican Othello and Cuban accented Iago that was really cool. A recent Scottish Play had a standard American Mr. M, but Mrs. M was Brazilian, and it was awesome (aside from how cool it was that a non native English speaker could actually rock Shakespeare).

  8. thane Dec 9, 2009

    Three points:
    - Shakespeare was not ‘British’. The kingdom of Great Britain was not created until 1707. He was English.’English’ and ‘British’ are not, in any event, synonymous.
    - there is no single ‘British’ accent: there are hundreds of them.
    - the author and some contributors wrongly use the term ‘dialect’ when they really mean ‘accent’.

  9. Gedaly Dec 14, 2009

    Thanks Thane.
    Is British not generally accepted for someone/thing, regardless of time, from that region? I know the named ‘Britain’ goes back further than the Kingdom of Great Britain’s foundation.

    To Clarify, in my original post when I refer to an English accent, I’m speaking of what is commonly known as “Recieved Pronunciation” or “BBC English” which is the dialect that Americans are most commonly exposed to.

    As for the dialect/accent distinction, we could have a great semantic debate, but I believe it is possible that the words be used interchangeably when referring specifically to pronunciation. Dialect includes accent (pronunciation), vocabulary, syntax, and other features of regional speech.

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  12. Ariane Wohlenhaus Oct 28, 2010

    To tell the truth, I’am voiceless. The Shawshank Redemption is exceptional. I’am a young film fan, as a matter of fact, this film is realised whenI was born, and thus I am more used to films with marvelous special effects, edge-of-your-seat action, et cetera. This movie has no of that, and nevertheless, it appeals so closely . The way Frank Darabont uses the narration of Red to drive on the tale, the beauty of the music applied (note the mouth harp used merely earlier Red getting the letter at the end). The whole film, from start to finish, from actions to sound, is a lighthouse of hope, judgment, and redemption. The cast is perfect, Morgan Freeman(Red) really brings about a fresh feel to the story, and that’s precisely what the film is, what a film should be. Highly recommended for each and everyone.

  13. Dolly Nov 6, 2010

    Actually David that is incorrect, Shakespeare who was originally from Warwickshire had the accent in that region. the english accent has changed over the years, and the american one has changed even more dramaticaly so. Remember that many white americans are originally britsh, and came from england, scotland or ireland. Yet America has so money accents, ranging from north to south and shares no similarities with any english, irish or scotish one. It is safer to assume that it is the american accent that has changed since, people migrating from the same place have different accents in america. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4761275 here shakespearean experts show how the elizabethan accent was truly spoken. obviously mostly spoken by those familiar to that area, it sounds more british country.

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