It's unlikely that I shall ever play this most tortured of characters given my playing age of 55-70; (In Shakespeare's time most of the people who were my age were dead!). However, I have often thought about how I would deliver this famous piece, and have always held that I would break the opening line three times…
“To be, (pause), or not to be, (pause), that, (pause), is the question.”
I must confess, when I look at what I have just written it appears dreadful, but my idea is that in the pauses, the character is thinking intensely, before going on to speak his thoughts. Well, my Tutor was having none of it! He simply explained that Shakespeare just did not write that way, and that Prince Hamlet is actually ‘thinking out loud’. In other words, the line is not ‘think - speak - think’; but ‘speak as you think’. And I do see his point.
I recently discussed this with another very experienced Shakespearean Actor who tutors me in camera technique, and was told that you: “never breathe on a verse line”; and he reaffirmed what my Central Tutor had said.
Ever since Ug the caveman decided on a sound which meant ‘stick’, and all the other cavemen agreed on it, language has been absolutely central to human existence, and is one of the major things that defines us from the animals, even though they too have methods of communication. And now, in this day and age of social media, we communicate with each other like never before. Websites, platforms like Twitter and Facebook, and a host of other mediums bring people together from all over the world to discuss every imaginable subject. The media has never been more powerful, or influential, at any time in the history of mankind. All of which brings me to my question: Is it right, or even possible, for anyone to try to define what is ‘correct’ language?
People like myself, who lean towards the arts, and in particular, expression of self through the spoken and written word, have almost certainly encountered that modern phenomenon known, (rather less than affectionately), as the ‘Grammar Nazi’. Yes, we have all seen them, posting memes and giving lectures when we fail to write using the more proper grammar like what they all do! In describing them as a ‘modern phenomena’, I should perhaps qualify that that is only in the realms of the Internet, since there is actually nothing new about them. We Star Trek Fans will long remember being admonished for that most famous of opening lines: “To boldly go where no man has gone before”. Because even though every English speaker understood it, the grammar puritans said we had split the sacred infinitive; (we could “go boldly”, but not “boldly go”). The irony of that is that English infinitives are split anyway! (To Go; To Speak; To Fly etc.). Well eventually, the Oxford English people relented, and now we Trekkies can boldly go wherever we like. Interestingly, over time “no man” was changed to “no one”, to emphasize that ‘boldly going’ was not a gender-specific issue; and this latter point, an example of language changing with the times, leads me precisely to the crux of my argument… Language EVOLVES.
The English language, in common no doubt with all others, changes over time. It evolves as society changes its complexion, attitudes and beliefs. It changes as populations migrate. The changes may be subtle, but they occur constantly. Shakespeare undoubtedly sounded very different 400 years ago than it does at The Globe today; and in 400 years time, it may have changed beyond all recognition from the original text. Language varies between different geographic regions; words which exist in Yorkshire would never be heard, or perhaps even be understood, in East London. And for this ‘Essex Boy’, Geordie may as well be a different language altogether! (I was once shown an ‘Official Geordie Dictionary’ by a man from the North East of England. I thought it was a joke at first, but it did actually contain hundreds of dialectic words with their origins).
I remember once reading a piece by an American Lady describing her life in the 1940s or possibly 1950s. She wrote: ‘There were times when I felt melancholy, and other times when I was the gayest of the gay’. In our time we still understand what she meant, but we would not write it that way any more. People who were once called ‘Negroes’ became ‘Coloured’, and are now ‘Black’; (although ‘Negro’ is actually the Spanish word for ‘Black’). And in the King James Bible of 1611: ‘Thomas saith unto him, “Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way”.’ (John 14:5). I remember my late Mother told me it was incorrect to begin a sentence with: ‘And’, ‘But’, ‘So’ or ‘Because’; but I do so quite often, and see it done by others also.
Another interesting example of the evolution of language is... the profanity. In times when religion had much greater influence, it was religious words and phrases which were considered ‘bad language’. My Mum again, told me not to use the Cockney: “Cor Blimey!” Since it is actually an invocation to the Almighty to take your sight; (“Oh God Blind Me”). And the most famous line ever spoken on the silver screen almost never made it past the censors when Rhett Butler said: “Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn!” (Gone With The Wind - 1939). The word ‘damn’ implies damnation to Hell and was a real source of trouble in the fiercely religious American South. Language however moved on, and as religion became less influential these words were replaced by the swear words we hear today, which not surprisingly in a society saturated with sexual imagery and discussion, are almost exclusively sexual in nature.
In conclusion then, can anyone have the right to determine what ‘correct language’ actually is? What is ‘Queen’s English’? What is a neutral dialect or ‘Received Pronunciation’? If language is constantly in a state of flux, how can we, at any given moment say with certainty what is correct grammar, spelling or pronunciation? What about the online acronyms like ‘LOL’, ‘IMHO’, ‘TBH’; do they count, or do the puritans want to slap our wrists for them too? I will leave you to make up your own mind, and express yourself in whatever language you see fit.
But I shall continue to boldly go where no Grammar Nazi has gone before… (Sorry Mum).