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  • Reading beyond Words:Sound and Gesture in The Winter’s Tale
  • Ros King (bio)

Speaking and listening have been part of the British National Curriculum since its inception in 1992, but because of the priority given to reading and writing, only in the last two years has any serious attempt been made by the Department for Education and Skills to encourage teaching in this area—and then only in primary schools. The result is that the students we currently teach in higher education have little or no formal education in the aural aspects of language.

It is not, however, a new problem. Twenty years ago, in an "open letter" to Terry Hands concerning the work of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), theater critic Michael Billington (1987) was deploring the "general decline of verbal culture," suggesting that actors were "losing the ability to handle Shakespeare's language with a witty, confident intelligence that used to be an RSC hallmark." A year earlier, I had been telling a company of young actors that I wanted us to get away from what I heard as the intoning "this is poetry" voice, not the wit, of much traditional Shakespeare speaking, in order better to interest and engage the young people who were our target audiences. The English Shakespeare Company, founded at about that time with similar aims, adopted a performance style, which, in the interests of clarity in telling the story, deliberately aimed to deliver all verse as prose. A few years later Northern Broadsides bounced onto the scene with a mission to demonstrate that Shakespearean rhythms come to life when spoken in strong regional accents—an assertion that the company still feels bound to repeat emphatically, [End Page 385] even though the energy and enthusiasm of its productions has won it continued critical acclaim.

In realizing that we can, and should, ditch received pronunciation in the performance of Shakespeare, we have been struggling to find ways of describing (and performing) the aural power and significance of the language. This is because we have tended to neglect sound in all aspects of our research and teaching about language. Saussure's widely held dictum that words and therefore their sounds are arbitrary has been only slightly modified by the recognition that there are indeed some word families linked by symbolic sounds (Hinton, Nichols, and Ohala 1994). But more important for my argument are the relations in sound created by an author at the level of the phrase or rhetorical structure. As the composer and music theorist David Lidov (2004: 3) puts it: "Linguists ignore what we might call the musical side of speech—the feeling tones and gestural character of speech. In part the bias is the bias of writing, the prejudice of regarding what can be written as more essential to the medium than what cannot be." This is why the stage-versus-page debate in Shakespeare studies has been so sterile and intractable; the stage proponents have concentrated almost entirely on visual aspects of the plays in performance and have largely ignored the performative potential of the structured language of phrases, speeches, and dialogue. In short, "To judge from contemporary critical vocabularies, most readers have a tin ear for sound in texts" (Morris 1997: 2).

Sound, therefore, is not just the medium in which stories and poems were conveyed before they could be written down; it is an intrinsic feature of literature. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, it was probably the way in which most people (even most educated people) most frequently encountered written language, not just at sermons and play performances, but also while listening to family members reading aloud from books and newspapers. We must assume that authors from all periods up to that date knew this and wrote partly with that in mind. But even now, many writers talk about hearing their writing in their heads and polishing it to get the rhythm right. Knowing this as we do, why do we not all require our students to read their own writing out loud? Very few of them, in my experience, do so. It is, of course, like all reading aloud in our present culture, embarrassing—like talking...


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pp. 385-400
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