July: The Tempest and American English

When William Shakespeare wrote The Tempest in 1610 or 1611, he was in his mid-forties and he may have considered himself entering old age. The Tempest is a mellow, magical play. It has an old man as its hero. That old man is a magus. His name is Prospero. He controls the action of The Tempest as a playwright does a play. His final deeds are to set his world to rights, abjure his magic, return to his homeland and prepare for death.

After The Tempest, Shakespeare settled his London business affairs, finished up his play writing, returned to Stratford, and got ready to die. That he did in 1616. It is critically naïve to read The Tempest biographically. It is humanly impossible not to do so.

The Tempest may not have been the last play that Shakespeare wrote before he left London, and he almost certainly collaborated with John Fletcher in the writing of Henry VIII. But that play, too, sounded a final note. A canon fired in the course of its staging set light to the roof of The Globe, and it burnt to the ground.  Shakespeare’s greatest stage did not outlast him. Today, the plays remain.

In The Tempest, we may sense impending death, but it is a play as much about renewing life as ending it. Its heroine, Miranda, strikes that note in the last act of the play. She begins to realise what lies beyond the island that is all of the world that she knows. She glimpses a ‘brave, new world’. Ironies surround her vision. Where she sees ‘goodly creatures’ and ‘beauteous mankind’, her father, Prospero, sees villains and cheats. But Miranda sees as much of the truth as does her father.

The Tempest is about new worlds, and it may be said to be about the New World, the novum mundum of Renaissance discovery.  Ariel, ‘an airy Spirit’, tells his master that a royal ship made to founder in a tempest raised by Prospero has been made safe:

                       Safely in harbour

          Is the king's ship; in the deep nook, where once
          Thou call'dst me up at midnight to fetch dew
          From the still-vex'd Bermoothes, there she's hid:
          The mariners all under hatches stow'd;
          Who, with a charm join'd to their suffer'd labour,
          I have left asleep; and for the rest o' the fleet
          Which I dispersed, they all have met again
          And are upon the Mediterranean flote,
          Bound sadly home for Naples,
          Supposing that they saw the king's ship wreck'd
          And his great person perish.

(The Tempest Act 1 ,Scene 2)

‘Bermoothes’ is a beautiful word, and ‘the still-vex'd Bermoothes’, a still more beautiful phrase. In that phrase, some scholars see an allusion to Bermondsey. Most scholars see an allusion to Bermuda.

Bermuda was in the news at the time that The Tempest was being written. In 1609, a party of London merchant adventurers had been shipwrecked on the island before rebuilding their ship and setting sail again for a settlement the English called Jamestown in a territory the English called Virginia. Barely surviving themselves, the adventurers reached the settlement that was barely surviving itself.

Nonetheless, Jamestown did survive, and, in the next hundred years, Englishmen and women moved to Virginia in such numbers that, by 1710, there were 250,000 of them. If The Tempest is about new life and new worlds, it is also about colonisation and enslavement. But Virginia too was a place of colonisation and enslavement. Whether Shakespeare intended it or not, The Tempest has become his American play.

British North American settlements and subsequent colonies became in time two nations: the Dominion of Canada and the United States of America. New forms of English developed as colonies, provinces and states developed, and everywhere English settlers took with them Shakespeare once his plays had appeared in their First Folio form in 1623.  That First Folio is a founding text of North American English.

Today, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington holds eighty-two copies of the First Folio Shakespeare, ‘by far the largest collection in the world and more than a third of the 235 known copies in the world’, ten per cent of the original first run of 750 copies. If a First Folio ever comes on the market, it is likely to cost $5,000,000.00. That makes eighty-two of them worth an appreciable sum, but the Folger Folios will never come on the market. The Folger is as much a temple as a library, and its Folios are preserved with a reverence only elsewhere matched in the National Archives of the United States. There are housed originals of the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, and the American Constitution.

Canada’s tribute to Shakespeare is to be found at a Stratford on a River Avon, a city founded in Ontario in 1832. The Swan is the city’s civic beast and symbol. In 1953, the city established a Shakespeare Festival that today runs from April to October every year, celebrating the world’s dramatists in four theatres. In the great Anglophone region that stretches from the Arctic Circle to the Rio Grande, the language of Shakespeare has evolved into the distinct forms that we know as American and Canadian English.

Migration patterns meant that West Country English became Southern English, East Anglian English became New England English, Midlands English became Midland American English and Scots-Irish English became Southern Highland English. Those speech patterns were established as early as the 1750s, and only two major patterns developed after that.

In 1783, the Treaty of Paris ended the war between Great Britain and the United States and led to a large displacement of British Loyalists from Southern and Midland colonies (now become states) through New England into Canada to create the distinctive patterns of Canadian English.  Few New Englanders joined them so Virginia and Pennsylvania gave Ontario its speech.

A later mass movement, called the Great Migration, led African Americans to leave southern states in huge numbers between 1910 and 1960. Black communities developed in northern and western cities from Boston to Los Angeles. African American English, sometimes called Ebonics, is a variety of American Southern English with distinctive elements attributed to West African languages.

When English men and women from the English Midlands began to migrate to North America in the mid seventeenth century, the Virginias and New England were filling up. As a result, Midland counties migrants moved to and through the Midland colonies, principally Pennsylvania. That led to the first large-scale migration across the great barrier of the Allegheny Mountains.

In due course the American Midland English became the speech of the Midwest and the basis of Received Standard American. This speech area contains the largest homogenous group of native English speakers in the world. It has been suggested that, if English spelling reform is ever seriously attempted, it would be the rational thing to base the new spellings on the pronunciation of this group of speakers. That would be spellings based on the speech of Henry Fonda.

William Shakespeare’s childhood speech was a version of British Midlands English so a spelling reform based on Henry Fonda’s phonemes would have the merit of a Shakespearian ancestry. That is not to say that Henry Fonda sounded like William Shakespeare. Though we know what Fonda sounded like, we can only guess at what Shakespeare sounded like. Nonetheless, it is very probable that Henry Fonda’s accent is closer to that of William Shakespeare than, say, the accent of David Cameron and Boris Johnson.



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