There’s not a student who hasn’t studied him and we all owe him major props for his contribution to both theatre and the English language itself, but what we don’t often think about is how the words of William Shakespeare were pronounced. Contrary to assumed belief that Shakespeare was to be pronounced in the haughtiest of accents an actor could muster, the original pronunciation is something a lot more akin to regional English varieties – especially ‘West Country’ accents.
The globe started doing original productions of Shakespeare in 1994 with original instruments ,costumes and sets but remained hesitant to also work with the original pronunciation (known as OP). Finally in 2004, a performance of Romeo & Juliet in OP was done to grand acclaim and a large turnout.
In this incredibly engaging video interview with David Crystal – a leading Linguist – and his son Ben Crystal, the pair discuss the secrets that reveal themselves when Shakespearean verse is performed in its original accent. During Shakespeare’s lifetime, the English language (now referred to as Early Modern English) was going through a rapid period of change.
For example, in earlier Shakespearean plays, the word ‘musician’ was pronounced /muːzɪsjæn/ (moo-zih-see-an) and then transformed to /muːzɪʃjæn/ ‘moo-zih-shee-an) and then finally arriving at the recognisable /muːzɪʃjæn ‘moo-zih-shan).
Hidden puns and rhymes that remain undetected in a Modern English accent emerge once you perform them in OP. For example, in Sonnet 116 ‘Let Me Not To The Marriage of True Minds’, there’s a couplet lov’d/prov’d that in Modern English are pronounced ‘loved’ and ‘proved’, with the vowel sounds having diverged from each other, which in OP are both pronounced with the vowel /ʌ/ meaning that ‘proved’ sounded like ‘loved’.
If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.
But if there was no way of recording all those centuries ago, how can we be certain in our estimates of original pronunciation? David Crystal lays out 3 sources of evidence;
Check out the full video by the Open University here!
This topic is a great stepping stone into the enthralling world of language change and it’s something that would look great on a Linguistics or English Literature personal statement!
Scientists have conducted an experiment to understand why people have such strong aversions to words like ‘moist’.
Linguistics applicants should be interested to know that there were three clear hypotheses as to why people have an aversion to words. The first was the sound of the word, the second, the word’s connotations and finally, social transmission of the idea that the word is disgusting. In the first point, scientists were trying to understand if it was the phonetics and rhythms of the word itself which had an internally structured element of ‘disgust’ – if words in and of themselves can cause repulsion.
Paul Thibodeau, a cognitive Psychologist from Oberlin College and researcher on this topic, asked people’s opinions on words like moist, as well as words linked to bodily function such as phlegm and puke. He then asked people’s opinions on words with a similar sound to moist, like foist, hoist and rejoiced. The study found that people averse to the word moist were much more averse to words related to bodily function than they were to similarly sounding words, suggesting the meaning behind moist is what gives rise to its unpopularity.
Additionally, the researchers found a social component, as was part of their initial hypotheses. Participants in the study watched two videos – one where people were saying the word moist without relation to a particular object, and the second of people using the word to describe cake. Overwhelmingly, people who watched the first video had much more disgust for the word. Modern Languages and English Literature applicants should consider how the social transmission of language throughout history has also transmitted the weight and context of those words; for example, why slang comes in and out of fashion.
A recent article by ‘Quartz’ online has stated that ‘Archaeologists have found the tomb of China’s Shakespeare.’
Archaeologists in the south eastern region of China have released a statement that they have been able to identify the tomb of a man called Tang Xianzu. He was a renowned late 16th Century playwright who is often dubbed the country’s Shakespeare. Student’s wanting to apply for HSPS and Archaeology and Anthropology can explore concepts such as cultural imperialism and the arguments surrounding imposing western figures on other cultures. Does comparing Tang Xianzu to Shakespeare detract from his own relevance within Chinese culture?
Students wanting to apply for Archaeology or Oriental Studies may then want to look into the discovery of his remains as a prompt to explore the context behind many of his plays. Tang Xianzu was known for his defiance of nobles in the Ming Dynasty. His plays explored controversial themes like the triumph of humanity over hierarchy and authority.
The remains of Tang’s tomb are filled with stories, and other parts of China’s history even after Tang’s death. The tomb suffered devastating destruction in the Cultural Revolution, a decade long political movement that began in 1966. This period plunged the country into a chaotic turmoil which saw various historic sited ransacked and destroyed. Students that are applying for History may use the discovery of Tang’s tomb as a reminder that the discovery of such objects are useful to build a more intricate and concrete picture of the past and highlight the linear path of history.
In recent years, there has been a huge surge in the publication of feminist children’s books. These titles have been hitting the shelves in waves with novels, such as the girl-power-filled Children of Blood and Bone, and non-fiction titles about empowered real women, like Women in Science, making huge hits in the book charts.
However, one of the most iconic rebel girls was brought to life on the page three decades ago. Matilda by Roald Dahl, which currently celebrating its thirty-year anniversary, has an eponymous heroine who outwits her parents and stands up to the terrifying antagonist Trunchbull. Matilda not only refuses to believe her parent’s doctrine that little girls should be seen and not heard, but also lives an independent life. However, Matilda is not the only confident and capable female in the book, with Miss Honey showing what it takes fight her childhood demons and how to be a good single (adoptive) parent.
Dahl who grew up in a house full of women was clear advocate of female power and this is clear in his written work. Tales of the Unexpected breaks down the gender stereotypes of the 60s and The Witches explores the perception that women must be beautiful to be successful.
The thirtieth celebrations have included a new series of drawings by Quentin Blake, the book’s original illustrator, of what Matilda might be doing now that she is in her thirties, including depictions of Matilda travelling the world, working as an astrophysics professor, or heading up the British Library.
A thirtieth anniversary statue of Matilda has been erected outside the Roald Dahl museum in Buckinghamshire of the female protagonist facing a modern-day nemesis, Donald Trump. The new rival for Matilda was chosen by poll with 42% picking Trump, 21% selecting Theresa May, and 16% opting for Piers Morgan. Bernie Hall, from The Roald Dahl Story Company, commented that ‘Matilda demonstrates that it’s possible for anyone, no matter how small and powerless they feel, to defeat the Trunchbulls in their own lives – a message that feels more relevant today than it did 30 years ago.’
Students applying to study the HSPS tripos might like to explore the ‘taboo’ of female protest in politics in preparation for their interviews. Applicants for English could dive deeper into feminist heroines in literature.
A ‘new’ book by the late J.R.R Tolkien, published on the 30th of August, may well be his last. The Fall of Gondolin tells the story of the beautiful Elven city of Gondolin and its eventual destruction by Morgoth, the original Dark Lord and source of all evil in Middle Earth; Sauron, the main antagonist of The Lord of the Rings, was originally his lieutenant. Despite its very recent publication date, the book has been in the works for a very long time—Tolkien wrote it while in hospital recovering from his time at the Somme in World War One. The work was edited by Tolkien’s son Christopher Lee and illustrated by Alan Lee, the same artist who worked on The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
John Garth, a Tolkien biographer and author of Tolkien and the Great War, describes the book as “a quest story with a reluctant hero who turns into a genuine hero – it’s a template for everything Tolkien wrote afterwards […] it’s really Tolkien limbering up for what he would be doing later.” Richard Ovenden, the current Bodley’s Librarian (head of the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford), says of Tolkien, “he was a genius with a unique approach to literature […] his imagined world was created through a combination of his deep scholarship, his rich imagination and powerful creative talent, and informed by his own lived experiences”.
Tolkien is undeniably one of the greats of the fantasy genre. But others, partly influenced by him, have forged their own paths. Ursula Le Guin, who died earlier this year, made a name for herself in the male-dominated genre of fantasy and science fiction; literary critic Harold Bloom wrote, “Le Guin, more than Tolkien, has raised fantasy into high literature, for our time”. As a left-wing feminist with interests in anarchism, environmentalism, and Taoism, Le Guin’s work consciously addresses issues of race, class, gender, state, and society. For her, fantasy presented the opportunity to explore not only impossible alternate realities but also possible ones—to give a voice to images of what society could look like. Famously, she commented that “we live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art – the art of words.”
Applicants for English Literature might like to explore the history of fantasy and science fiction, examining Tolkien’s legacy and the themes he introduced to fantasy literature in particular. Students may also be interested in the socio-political aspect; do these genres have a prophetic voice in society? Do you agree with Isaac Asimov that “science fiction […] serves the good of humanity”?
Reality TV shows, such as the hugely popular ‘Love Island’ or the fading favourite ‘Big Brother’, often exploit the human reactions created when a group of people are kept in close quarters for a long period of time. This process of incarceration often engenders extreme reactions that would often take more provocation in the outside world.
Following a recent episode of Love Island, Women’s Aid issued a warning about psychological abuse, urging viewers to ‘recognise unhealthy behaviour in relationships’. This comment was released after one of the male contestants showed some potentially worrying actions that were perceived to border on emotional abuse. The ‘islander’ in question was also deemed by the online community to be ‘gaslighting’ his fellow contestant – a modern term meaning a malicious process by which an abuser manipulates a victim’s perception of reality. The perceived emotional abuse doesn’t just extend to interactions between the personalities on the show, but also to the actions of the producers when dealing with contestants. Ofcom received over 2,600 complaints from fans of the show who regarded the treatment of a contestant by the show’s organisers to be distressing after the participant seemed visibly upset.
So why, if these kinds of television programmes do show such extreme behaviour, do these shows continue to have millions of viewers? In the first instance, it may be due our need for drama as fuel to our otherwise bland lives. In the second, it could be born out of our innate desire to be story tellers and to find highly-charged common talking points. Psychology applicants might be interested investigating the concept of schadenfreude in relation to reality TV. Students hoping to study HSPS or English could explore the concept of escapism from real-world life via different media.
Developed by the American TV channel CW, Batwoman, a new superhero programme, could soon be hitting our screens. This hero comes with a difference – that she is the DC universe’s first lesbian.
Should the pilots of show get picked up, Kate Kane (under her alterego as Batwoman) is set swoop into Gotham in December, battling for social justice, whilst also battling her own demons. Kane is described by the show’s writers as an outspoken individual who has strong views. Our new Batwoman has also been branded as expert crime fighter set to squash the city’s criminal resurgance.
Though these may seem like strong attributes to bestow on a character that is likely to be come a fictional role model to many, her original conception was very different. Initially, when she was introduced in the 1950s, Batwoman was designed as a romantic partner for Batman, to dispel ideas that Batman himself might be gay. It wasn’t until 2006 that Batwoman was remade as lesbian Kate Kane. Whilst the news has been filled with positive comments about the work of DC, to many Batwoman seems a strange character to rework into a LGBT champion.
DC, however, has recently done more work to increase the profile of LGBT characters with Midnighter and Apollo becoming their first gay couple. It has also been announced that there will be a transgender character in their new season.
Students aspiring to study English at Oxbridge may wish to investigate the development of characters from classics in modern remakes. HSPS applicants might like to explore the notions of ‘the hero’ and ‘the role model’.
Superhero films have been a popular form of film entertainment for decades; however, there is a fear that current snobbery means that they, and the artists involved, are being undervalued and even mocked.
Various news sources have been talking to Avengers cast members about this. Zoe Saldana spoke to ‘Net-a-Porter’ about ‘elitists’ who claim that the cast of Marvell Movies ‘sell out’ by taking roles in the films; Josh Brolin has additionally claimed that many actors themselves look down on superhero roles. This suggests that the snobbery around superhero films may be generated within the industry – stemming from actors and directors rather than the obviously quite large audience pool.
The concern has never been, however, that superhero films lack a ready and willing audience; it is rather that they may be pure money-making entertainment without artistic value, creating poor value content that is immediately gratifying to its watchers, but has nothing to add to the world: no inspiration, no innovation, no ‘meaning’.
There are, however, new superhero films which defy this: Black Panther, for example, a superhero film with a black cast, innovating representation in cinema. This film shows that having ‘entertaining’ content doesn’t necessarily negate the possibility of having something to say. Black Panther may not be presenting a straight-forward ‘message’, but it raises the issue of representation and so makes us reflect on our society.
English Literature and History of Art students might consider how and why we attribute value to art. They might think about whether commercial value is automatically linked – fairly or unfairly – to a lack of artistic value, and why. English students in particular could reflect on how genre makes us assume attributes across mediums without addressing a text/piece on work in isolation, and whether this is useful and/or leads to unfair critique.
Recent scholarship has added to the conversation about Shakespeare’s originality—or lack thereof. Published in the mid-20th century, Geoffrey Bullough’s Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare detailed the stories that Britain’s most famous playwright has used and altered, for example how he brought two separate stories together to make The Merchant of Venice. However John Kerrigan, professor of English at the University of Cambridge and a leading Shakespeare scholar, has recently argued that the bard’s creative borrowing far exceeds previous estimates. Delving far deeper than Shakespeare’s obvious sources, he uncovers a web of allusions, references, and imitation.
In his book Shakespeare’s Originality, he discusses the very meaning of originality and plagiarism, which is largely a modern concept. Rather, before the late 18th century, imitation of established models was the sign of a work’s merit, whereas we now hold innovation in far greater esteem. Even in the last century Picasso famously stated that “art is theft”, and T.S Eliot quipped, “immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” In fact, Kerrigan actually concludes that Shakespeare differs from his contemporaries in that he doesn’t boast about his literary knowledge through his writing or rely heavily on recognisable plots. Instead, he demonstrates a more nuanced and subtle use of older material, and his references would have gone unnoticed by the majority of his audience.
Applicants for English Literature should think about the concept of originality, what it means for readers and audiences today and what it meant in the past. Along with students wishing to study History of Art they should consider what in their opinion distinguishes a good work from an average one, and how value judgements on literature and other art forms are influenced by culture and change over time with the changing demands and expectations of audiences. This may lead to a discussion on what constitutes “art”, and whether or not it is a useful category.