Are you lucky you tuned in today! Probably not, but as usual: you should be. I have found a great short lecture (Okay! It’s 58 minutes, but the time flies.) by David Timson:
David Timson Speak the Speech
If you know who Timson is you are doing better than I am. He is certainly a guy who reads books on tape (or CD now). He has done a lot of Shakespeare and Sherlock Holms. He also seems to have done some film acting; and lots of radio broadcasts. As you will see—if you take the time to listen to the lecture, and you should—he has a great voice.
In this lecture, Timson discusses the changing style of Shakespearean performance since the invention of audio recording. Unfortunately, he is not terribly insightful, but this may be because he feels his wonderful examples speak for themselves. And largely they do. He plays very early recordings of Edwin “Am I My Brother’s Keeper” Booth (the unfortunate brother of John “Et tu, Brute?” Wilkes)—check out this great John Singer Sargent painting on him, Sir Henry “Big Hank” Irving (just kidding about the “Big Hank” moniker), and Lewis “Sugar Ray” Waller (not kidding about the “Sugar Ray”; no, just kidding; I was).
I have been fascinated with Edwin Booth for a long time, because I wonder what it would be like to be the brother of a famous murderer (I used to live with Melvin Simpson). But I have never heard his voice. In fact, since he died in 1893, I didn’t even think there was a recording. Not surprising, he has an excellent voice (so does Melvin). He actually sounds a bit like Orson Welles (so does Melvin; no, just kidding). If that doesn’t get you to listen, little will.
The point of the lecture is that Shakespearean acting has moved from a highly musical or operatic style to a more conversational and (to our ears) natural one. We could extrapolate backwards and conclude that acting during the Elizabethan period would be unintelligible to us. This is not unreasonable (but I don’t know how reasonable it is, and that’s why I put it that way). According to the iconoclastic Shakespearean scholar Gary Taylor, the sounds of the words themselves have changed so much that we would likely get little meaning from them. In effect, Shakespeare—written in (more or less) modern English—has to be translated for modern readers every bit as much as Aristophanes—written in (more or less) ancient Greek.