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The Bath Literature Festival is well underway, attracting hordes of word-lovers and writers to the Georgian city. While poetry aficionados and perplexed tourists crowded into the innovative Poetry Taxi outside Bath Abbey, others, including EssentialWriters.com spent a lively lunchtime feasting on Shakespeare on Toast in the enthusiastic company of author and Shakespearean actor Ben Crystal.

Ben opened the presentation with a reading that began in the stilted voice of an eleven-year-old, before exploding into a passion and fervour than made some audience members choke on their complimentary glass of Highland Park malt whisky.

The son of language expert Professor David Crystal, Ben runs workshops for actors encouraging them to glean more meaning and power from the Bard’s words by using his original accent.

Ben demonstrated this to his Bath Lit Fest audience, proclaiming a passage first with a posh Laurence-Olivier-esque delivery, and then in Shakespeare’s traditional voice – a peculiar blend of English West Country and Cockney with a trace of Irish.

The result was astonishingly different, both de-sanitising the words and speeding them up. Indeed, according to Ben, through altering the pronunciation of many words, we’ve lost much of the meaning.
He gave the example of a speech in As You Like It, in which a joke about ‘hours’ has lost its lewd undertones as the word no longer rhymes with ‘whores’.

Context was just as important, as he described the setting of the Globe Theatre in London – the space the majority of the plays were written for.

“The plays were performed at 2 O’clock in the afternoon – broad daylight – as it was too expensive to light the theatre with candles. This meant the actors could see the audience as clearly as they could be seen, and could share sections of the play with a single person. The plays were intended to be heard more than seen, however, as much of the stage was obstructed.”

These elements influenced Shakespeare’s words as much as the playwriting conventions of the day, the main of which was the iambic pentameter, demonstrated by Ben and two talented volunteers, who he encouraged with all the skill of a conductor.

“I just don’t want anybody to not have the chance to appreciate Shakespeare,” Ben said, making some of us wish he would give up writing to become a full time lecturer – if only all teachers could convey a love of literature so contagiously!
Judy Darley

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