"John Gielgud and Shakespeare's Voice on Film"

"John Gielgud and Shakespeare's Voice on Film"
Wes Folkerth
 (English, McGill University) 
Author of The Sound of Shakespeare (Routledge 2002), Folkerth specializes in sound, music and mass media in Shakespeare studies, as well as the critical, social, theatrical, and cinematic history of early modern literature.

John Gielgud and Shakespeare’s Voice on Film

While generations of actors have voiced Shakespeare’s words in accents that were yet unknown to him, their approach to his language has historically been marked by conventional vocal inflections deemed appropriate to the Shakespearean idiom. We intuit that Shakespeare should sound different not simply because of his historical distance from us, but also because alterity is a broadly-generalized feature of his work. Just as he typically set his plays temporally and geographically apart from the present moment and place, so too the very fabric of his language conveys a similar sense of rootlessness and possibility. This obscurity, this difference or alterity, is what Shakespeare sounds like. It is the voice of his work. John Gielgud understood this as well as any Shakespearean actor of the twentieth century. The specific quality of Gielgud’s voice, especially its connection to 19C Shakespearean acting styles, allowed him to lend his reputation as a Shakespearean actor to the medium of film. My point about Gielgud is not that he sounds more like an Elizabethan actor than his contemporaries, but that the difference of his voice, its poetic musicality and exotic archaism, accentuates something intrinsic to the quality of Shakespeare’s language. For Orson Welles, Peter Greenaway and Al Pacino, severing the connection between Gielgud’s visual image and his voice is a technique that allows them to address various issues and problems associated with claiming, enacting, negotiating and allocating authority in Shakespeare on film.