“Strange Accents or Ill Shapen Sounds”: Dialect in Early Modern Drama

© Erin Reynolds 2008

1. Introduction: The Development of Dialectal Awareness in Early Modern England

William Caxton, The Description of Britain (1480):

Hit semeth a grete wonder that englissh haue so grete diuersite in their owne langage in soune and in spekyng of it/ whiche is all in one jlonde/ […] men of the eest with men of the west accorde better in sownyng of their speche / than men of the north with men of the south / Therefore it is that men of mercij that ben of myddell England as it were partners with the endes / vnderstande better the side langages northern & southern than northern & southern vnderstande eyther othir. (Görlach Introduction 215-16)

George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie (1589)

This part in our maker or Poet muſt be heedyly looked vnto, that [his language] be naturall, pure, and the moſt vſuall of all his countrey: and for the ſame purpoſe rather that which is ſpoken in the kings Court, or in the good townes and Cities within the land, then in the marches and frontiers, or in port townes, […] or yet in the Vniverſities where Schollers vſe much peeviſh affectation […] or finally, in any vplandiſh village or corner of a Realme, where is no reſort but of poore ruſticall or vnciuill people: neither ſhall he follow the ſpeach of a craftes man or carter, or other of the inferiour ſort, though he be inhabitant or bred in the beſt towne and Citie in this Realme, for ſuch perſons doe abuſe good ſpeaches by ſtrange accents or ill ſhapen ſoundes, and falſe ortographie. (Görlach Introduction 237)

            English has always comprised various dialects, but, as the above passages from Caxton and Puttenham demonstrate, the emergence of a supra-regional written standard of English in the early modern period resulted in a shift in attitudes towards this linguistic diversity. While we may assume that English, as a living language, has always reflected the regional, social, and political diversity of its speakers, in the century between Caxton and Puttenham’s writings, the debate over exactly whose English should be considered “standard” brought concerns over the diversity of the language to the fore. As Pierre Bourdieu argues in his Language and Symbolic Power, the “imposition of an official language establish[es] relations between the different uses of the same language” (53). Within this system of linguistic power relations, “the linguistic differences between people from different regions cease to be incommensurable particularisms” of the type described by Caxton, but are instead relegated to the “outer darkness of regionalisms, the ‘corrupt expressions and mispronunciations’ that schoolmasters decry” (53). This latter system is exemplified in Puttenham’s account, which promotes the “language which is spoken in the king’s Court” to the position of a standard against which all other varieties should be measured.

            Significantly, Puttenham’s description of the varieties of English is not solely based on regional differentiation, but also exposes the sociopolitical concerns involved in the process of adopting a standard English language. Cautioning the poet not to use the language spoken “in the marches and frontiers,” but also not to “follow the speach of a craftes man or carter” even though he is “bred in the best towne and Citie in this realme,” Puttenham delineates the varieties of English along the lines of class and occupation as well as region. As the “realme” of England’s political and linguistic influence widened to include territory in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, the sociopolitical factors at play in the relationship between standard English and dialectal variation became increasingly complex, raising questions about the role of language in religious and cultural identity, as well as political authority.

2. Dialect and Dramatists

Early modern dramatists occupy a unique position in the development and promotion of standard English. As Richard Foster Jones argues in The Triumph of the English Language, their work was essential to the elevation of English to the status of a language capable of performing the literary functions previously reserved for Latin. Moreover, as the above Puttenham excerpt demonstrates, poetic and linguistic thinking were closely linked in the early modern period. The prescriptions for poetic language doubled as linguistic guidelines in the development of a standard English, (Blank 29) while the dissemination of literature outward from the London printing-houses greatly expedited the spread of the standard throughout England (Görlach CHEL 459). And yet literary authors, particularly dramatists, were limited in their linguistic creativity by economic and political concerns. Many dramatists came from the middle classes and were dependant upon the patronage of the court for their living. Thus while their use of language had an influence on the development of a standard English, they were not totally free in the creative potential of their contributions, but were compelled to cater to the standards of upper-class London society, as well as to the political concerns of the court and the censors.

            The connection between early modern drama and the Elizabethan and Jacobean courts also meant that dramatists of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century were more self-consciously invested in the concept of a “national” language and literature than English society as a whole. Historians are divided on whether or not early modern England experienced “nationalism” as we currently understand the term,[1] but critics like Richard Helgerson and Andrew Hadfield have argued convincingly for the heightened awareness of England as a nation in early modern literature.[2] While this literary drive towards the creation of a national identity no doubt extended from the political desires of the Tudor government that acted as patron to early modern writers and dramatists, the social and cultural differences between the court and the stage meant that the question of national identity these playwrights tackled was often wrought with social and political tension.

            It is therefore unsurprising that the increasing awareness of sociopolitical concerns in sixteenth-century linguistic theory has a parallel in early modern drama. As England began a process of increasing political and linguistic imperialism, English dramatists moved beyond the use of stage dialect as a means by which to create regional stereotypes and began instead to use dialect in order to explore more complex questions of linguistic identity and the power relations inherent to language itself. The fact that drama is an oral medium makes it particularly well-suited to this type of exploration, in that it allows the audience to actually hear different modes of speech enacted in relation to each other. Thus while the dialect spoken on the early modern stage is not an accurate reflection of actual early modern dialects as they were spoken, the work of these dramatists is a crucial contribution to the ideological associations behind the concept of a standard English language and the debate over who truly holds linguistic authority.

            Having outlined some of the historical context for the use of dialect in early modern drama, we can now explore some concrete examples of its increasingly sophisticated use in the plays of the period. These will be broken down firstly in terms of stage dialects representing regional variation within England, and secondly, in terms of the subsequent development of representations of Welsh, Scottish, and Irish dialects. Finally, we will explore Shakespeare’s Henry V in relation to other plays involving dialect in order to demonstrate the increasing sophistication of dialect use as practiced by Shakespeare in this play. In all cases, we will keep in mind the connections between sociopolitical and regional associations.

3. Dialect on the Stage: Representations of Dialect within England

In contrast to the widely varied dialectal landscape of early modern England, the dramatic representation of regional dialects within England tended to break down in broad terms between “northern” and “southern” accents that combined a variety of dialectal features in an over-exaggerated parody of actual speech.

3a. Southern Stage Dialect

            General Characteristics:

            The use of southern dialects in early modern drama has some precedence in medieval morality plays, which use language with the above characteristics. These medieval stage dialects were not specifically regional, however, but were used to denote class (Blake 66). By the early modern period, these linguistic features had developed into a stock literary dialect that was generally used humourously in conjunction with malapropisms to denote rusticity and stupidity. At this point, we can see regional and class identities beginning to blur in the dialectal association between “rustics” who live outside of the urban centre of London and lower-class urban dwellers who live in London but do not speak the language of upper-class London society.

            Examples of the use of southern stage dialect for the purposes of humour are extensive, particularly in the early and mid-sixteenth century. In one characteristic example, John Redford’s Wit and Science (c. 1550) involves a character allegorically named “Ignorance” who speaks in a southern dialect. His allegorical counterpart, Idleness, attempts to teach him his name one syllable at a time:

Idle.: Where was thou born?

Ingn.: Chwas i-bore in England.

Idle.: In Ingland?

Ingn.: Yea!

Idle.: And what’s half Ingland? Here’s Ing; and here’s land. What’s ’tis?

Ingn.: What’s ’tis?

Idle.: What’s ’tis? whoreson! Here’s Ing; and here’s land. What’s ’tis?

Ingn.: ’Tis my thumb.

Ilde.: Thy thumb? Ing, whoreson! Ing, Ing!

Ingn.: Ing, Ing, Ing, Ing!

Idle.: Forth! Shall I beat thy narse, now?

Ingn.: Um-um-um—

Idle.: Shall I not beat thy narse, now?

Ingn.: Um-um-um—

Idle.: Say no, fool! say no.

Ingn.: Noo, noo, noo, noo, noo!

Idle.: Go to, put together! Ing!

Ingn.: Ing.

Idle.: No!

Ingn.: Noo.

Idle.: Forth now! What saith the dog?

Ingn.: Dog bark.

Idle.: Dog bark? Dog ran, whoreson! dog ran!

Ingn.: Dog ran, whoreson! dog ran, dog ran! (qu. in Blank 83)

While the chief function of this exchange is humour, Idleness’ question as to Ignorance’s place of birth raises more serious questions about his status as an “Englishman.” Although he claims to be born in England, Ignorance’s inability to properly speak standard English ultimately denies him the most basic level of identity when he cannot even pronounce his own name.

            If Redford’s play only implicitly questions the relationship between linguistic authority and identity, later playwrights became more sophisticated in their use of southern stage dialect. Ben Jonson’s A Tale of a Tub is one of the most sustained usages of southern stage dialect in early modern drama. The play’s prologue exploits the established association between “clowns” and southern dialect:

No State-affairs, nor any politick Club,
   Pretend we in our
Tale, here, of a Tub:
But acts of
Clowns and Constables, to day
   Stuff out the
Scenes of our ridiculous Play

[…]We bring you now, to shew what different things
Cotes of Clowns, are from the Courts of Kings. (ll. 1–4, 11–12)

Yet Jonson’s characters, as Blank argues, are not merely two-dimensional stock comedic figures, but are themselves deeply concerned with proper ways of speaking. Throughout the course of the play, they make use of their dialectal “errors” as means to social empowerment. By drawing faulty etymological connections between the words “clowne” and “colonus”, and, perhaps even more subversively, tracing the etymology of the word “Constable” to a combination of “Cyning [King] and Staple” (1.3.1–2, 4.1.55), these characters elevate themselves while satirizing both their political leaders and their contemporaneous linguists who attempted to use etymology in order to connect English to its imperial roots (Blank 96).

            Jonson’s comedies provide us with what is perhaps the most prolific and careful use of dramatic dialect, but the increasing versatility with which early modern dramatists made use of southern stage dialect can be most clearly seen in Shakespeare’s King Lear, when Edgar adopts a southern dialect in his confrontation with Oswald. This is the only time that Shakespeare makes use of a specifically southern dialect in his plays, despite ample opportunity (Blake 81). Significantly, Lear is a tragedy, not a comedy, and there is no apparent comedic impulse behind Shakespeare’s use of dialect in this scene:

Edg. Chill not let go, zir, without vurther [cagion].

Osw. Let go, slave, or thou di’st!

Edg. Good gentleman, go your gait, and let poor voke pass. And chud ha’ bin zo long as ‘tis by a vortnight. Nay, come not near th’ old man; keep out, che vor’ye, or Ice try wither your costard or my ballow be the harder. Chill be plain with you.

Osw. Out, dunghill! [They fight.]

Edg. Chill pick your teeth, zir. Come, no matter vor your foins. (4.6.235–45)

Understandably, critics have been somewhat baffled by why Shakespeare would choose to make use of what is essentially a comedic dialect in a tragedy and, furthermore, why these lines are given to an upper-class character without provincial associations. This choice is all the more strange when we consider that Edgar is not the only character to adopt an “accent” in the play. When Kent assumes the disguise of Caius, he indicates that he will also “other accents borrow” (1.4.1). But while Kent claims to have “go[ne] out of [his] dialect” (2.2.109), the text does not explicitly indicate whether or not Kent speaks with an actual accent. Instead, Kent’s speech is notable for its “bluntness” and lack of “flatter[y]” that suggest “he must speak truth!” (2.2.96-99). Edgar, on the other hand, does not only speak differently than other characters, but he sounds different. More particularly, he sounds like the “rustic clowns” that audiences would have expected to hear using this particular stage dialect. The formulation “che vor’ye,” to provide one example of the resonances of Edgar’s speech, “enjoyed a certain popularity as a shibboleth of rusticity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” (Kökeritz 99), appearing in anonymous morality play The Contention between Liberality and Prodigality (1600) (“Cha vore thee, sonne, do rid me quickly hence (ll.355)), The London Prodigall (1605) (“chill make him for capyring any more, chy vor thee”(2.4.57-8)), and Jonson’s A Tale of a Tub (1633) (And Masters too, another day. Che vore ‘hun (2.2)). (qu. in Kökeritz 99)

            In order to understand why Shakespeare would use this jarring discrepancy between character and speech, Blank suggests that we need to read Edgar’s use of dialect in the context of the play’s broader concerns with language and political unity and authority. She sees Edgar’s temporary adoption of a lower-class dialect as one of several points in the play in which aristocratic characters attempt to connect with the lower classes without ultimately ceding their political power (92). Whether or not we concur with Blank’s conclusion, that Shakespeare chooses to make use of a southern stage dialect in such a striking fashion in a play that is deeply concerned with questions of identity and authority is indicative of an increasing sophistication in his use of stage dialect over that of earlier dramatists. Rather than being used to mark Edgar as a character of a particular region or class, it seems fair to argue that dialect in this instance is operating thematically alongside other adopted “accents” in the play, with Edgar’s ability to make use of multiple dialects granting him increased rhetorical power. We will see more of this thematic use of dialect when we return to Shakespeare in our discussion of Henry V below.

3b. Northern Stage Dialect

            General Characteristics:

·                replacing o with a, ae or ea

·                replacing a with o when before an n

·                replacing oo with u

·                metathesis of r in brast (burst), brunt (burnt)

·                velarization of ch (ie: sic for such, whilke for which, kirk for church)

·                shifting l to u in fause (false), caud (cold)

·                loss of final consonants

·                use of I is/I’se or thou is/thou’s

·                using “northern” words like barn (child), bonny, deft, gang (to go), mickle (much),      mun (must), dight (prepare, arrange) (adapted from Blank 105, Blake 75–6)

            Stage dialect with northern features developed later than the broad southern dialect discussed above, and while it too was most often used to denote rusticity and ignorance in a comedic context, there were some significant differences between the two dialects. Unlike southern dialects, northern dialects could carry a sense of linguistic purity derived from a perceived belief that northern “archaisms” preserved a native English language (Blank 100). Furthermore, northern stage dialect did not have the same historical precedence as a stock comedic literary device as southern stage dialect, and could be used to set a specifically regional scene rather than a generic “rural” or “low class” one.

            More often than not, multiple literary purposes worked hand in hand in the use of northern stage dialect. Blake gives several examples of plays that use northern dialect to create a northern setting: Munday’s Sir John Oldcastle (1600), Richard Brome’s The Northern Lass, and Brome and Thomas Heywood’s The Late Lancashire Witches (1634) (75-6). But while Blake contends that these plays “use northern forms more for local colour then for comedy,” (76) Blank finds the use of northern dialect here to be more complicated. In The Late Lancashire Witches, social roles are reversed through witchcraft. Significantly, the only dialect speakers in the play are peasants who usurp the authority of their employers. As Blank argues, the use of dialect in this situation is not solely for the purposes of setting, but makes a specific association between northern dialect speakers and the lower classes, and the fact that these renegade servants speak in dialect makes their presumption towards social power all the more preposterous:

I jaum thee not nor flam thee not, ’tis all as true as booke, here’s both our Masters have consented and concloyded, and our Mistresses mun yield toyt, to put aw house and lond and aw they have into our hands […]. And we mun marry and be master and dame of aw. (1.1)

In the case of The Northern Lass, on the other hand, Blank identifies an impulse on Brome’s part to “sell the novelty of “northernness” itself to its audience” (111) by equating northern dialect with purity and plainness of character. She cites Brome’s dedicatory letter as evidence of this impulse:

A Countrey Lass I present you […]. Shee came out of the cold North, thinly clad, but wit had pity on her, Action apparrell’d her […]. She is honest, and modest, though she speake broad; And though Art never strung her tongue; yet once it yeelded a delightful sound. 

            These examples are suggestive of the sometimes conflicting strains at work in the use of northern stage dialect that are somewhat different than those involved in the use of southern stage dialect. Northern stage dialect was also unique from southern in that it tended to be associated with Scots. As these Scottish associations are most interesting when examined in connection with the political relations between England and Scotland, we will return to them in our discussion of stage Scots below.

4. Dialect on the Stage: Representations of Dialect from Outside of England

In the beginning of the early modern period, concerns over dialectal variation within English were largely confined to England (Görlach CHEL 467-8). But with the increasing drive towards the annexation of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, English began to spread to the peripheries of England and beyond, and dramatists began to include Scottish, Welsh, and Irish stage dialects in their work. In their most basic use, these dialects were used to provide characters with a specific regional background. As is the case with northern and southern stage dialects, however, dramatists also made use of the sociopolitical currents involved in the relationship between these various dialects and standard English in order to explore questions of identity and authority. After providing some brief examples of these dialects as they operate on a more simplistic, humourous level, we will turn to a longer exploration of Shakespeare’s Henry V as an example of a more sophisticated dramatic attempt to bring these various elements together thematically.

4a. Scots Stage Dialect

There continues to be debate over whether or not Scots should be considered an autonomous language in the early modern period, or whether it should be considered as a subsection of northern English (Görlach CHEL 468-9). As represented in early modern drama, the two are usually indistinguishable unless we are given an indication of the character’s Scottish background. Initially, Scots stage dialect was used primarily to create a Scottish setting, as in the case of Robert Greene’s The Scottish History of James IV (c. 1600) (Blake 76). Dependant upon England’s changing political relationship with Scotland, however, Scots stage dialect acquired different layers of association. When England was experiencing a threat of a Catholic invasion, Scots often carried the negative association of Catholicism, and Scottish characters were differentiated from “English” ones. In Nathaniel Woodes’ The Conflict of Conscience (1581), the crux of the action involves a character who converts to Protestantism. Caconos, the main Catholic character in the play, speaks in a language that is marked as northern, if not specifically Scottish:

In gude feth, sir, this newis de gar me lope,

Ay is as light as ay me wend, gif that yo wol me troth,

Far new ayen within awer lond installed is the Pope,

Whese legat with authoritie tharawawt awr cuntry goth,

And charge befare him far te com us priests end leman bath,

Far te spay awt, gif that he mea, these new-spang arataykes,

Whilk de disturb awr hally Kirk, laik a sart of saysmataykes,

Awr gilden Gods ar brought ayen intea awr kirks illwhare,

That unte tham awr parishioner ma affer thar gude-will. (3.4, qu. in Blake 75)

The associations that Woodes draws between Catholicism and northern dialects is no doubt a reflection on the current threat posed to Protestant England by her northern neighbour and, specifically, Mary Queen of Scots. As Blake notes, Woodes’ deliberate use of malapropisms (“arataykes” for “heretics,” “saysmataykes” for “schismatics”) makes his use of dialect here comedic and disparaging, rather than solely regional (75). In dramatizing the Catholic threat through the use of a comedic dialect form, Woodes thus simultaneously deflates this threat by denying Caconos any linguistic authority, and, furthermore, marks him as a character that is to be strictly differentiated from the “proper” English speaking Protestant characters in the play.

            With the ascension of the Scottish James VI to the English throne, the Catholic threat to England was largely subdued, and Scots as a language became further assimilated to standard English. The increasing familiarity of Scots under James’ rule meant that Scots stage dialect lost some of its political impact, while the presence of a Scottish king on the throne no doubt meant that dramatists had to be more careful in their representation of Scottish characters. These two factors combined resulted in the decline in the use of Scots stage dialect after James’ ascension in 1603 (Blank 161). When it was used, it was more often than not relegated to the realm of dialect comedy alongside northern stage dialect.

4b. Welsh Stage Dialect

General Characteristics:

·                    shifting b, d, and g, when at the beginning of a word, to p, t, and k respectively

·                    shifting p, t, and k, when in the middle of a word, to b, d, and g respectively

·                    devoicing v and medial z

·                    pronouncing sh, ch, and j as s

·                    pronouncing ch and j as sh

·                    dropping the initial w on words

·                    using plural forms of singular nouns

·                    use of her as a universal pronoun

·                    use of the tags look you, mark you, great deal, out of cry (adopted from Blank 134)

Wales was the first of England’s neighbours to be brought into its political sphere when it was incorporated into England in 1536. In the same year, the Act of the Union made it illegal for Welsh speakers to pursue justice or run for office in their native tongue. Yet Welsh continued to be spoken, even in the courts where it was officially prohibited, and the language policies forbidding the use of Welsh were later loosened, largely due to the spread of Protestantism and subsequent officially-sanctioned vernacular translations of the bible (Blank 133, Brennan Power 84-5). In fact, Wales remained predominantly Welsh-speaking into the nineteenth century, with Cornish dialects surviving as well until the eighteenth century (Görlach CHEL 468). The political union of England and Wales did, however, raise questions about the linguistic authority of Welsh, particularly with respect to its relation to standard English and the possibility of a “British” language that could combine the two in the same way that Scots was assimilated to northern English.

Blank provides William Salesbury’s Welsh pronunciation guide as an example of this drive towards assimilation. Salesbury, a Welsh grammarian and linguist, refers to his language as the “British” tongue in order to exploit the Tudor’s claim to Welsh ancestry and thereby to elevate the status of Welsh in relation to English (133). While Salesbury was only one of many Welsh linguists that stressed the commonality of Welsh and English, these attempts were not ultimately successful:

Although the native vernacular retained a stronghold within Wales, Welsh claims for the nobility and prestige of the “British” tongue only gained limited acceptance, even among Welshmen. English clearly remained a cultural standard, and the “broken English” spoken by Welshmen confirmed, for some, their inferiority as a people. (Blank 134)

The “inferiority” of Welsh speakers is at the heart of many representations of Welsh on the early modern stage, in which Welsh characters are often lampooned as mock-scholars whose linguistic incompetence exposes their ignorance. Thomas Dekker’s The Welsh Embassador (1624) features an Englishman in disguise whose dialect gives his words an ironic bent: “Welse tongue I can tell you is lofty tongue / And prave sentill men as are in the urld tawge it” (3.2.117–18, qu. in Blank 134). Similarly, Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor pits the dialect of Hugh Evans, a Welsh parson who claims to be a scholar, against the tavern speech of Falstaff:

Fal. Am I ridden with a Welsh goat too? Shall I have a coxcomb of frieze? ‘Tis time I were chok’d with a piece of toasted cheese.

Evans. Seese is not good to give putter; your belly is all putter.

Fal. “Seese” and “putter”! Have I liv’d to stand at the taunt of one that makes fritters of English? (5.5.137-43)

Significantly, Evans is being brought down a notch by Falstaff, who is himself a speaker of a lower-class literary dialect, and the fact that the two are able to verbally spar attests to the dramatic tendency towards the collapse between regional and class dialects. But Falstaff’s claim to linguistic authority also places a stress on the cultural differences between the two characters, as evinced by his derogatory reference to Evans as a “Welsh goat” with a presumed fondness for “toasted cheese.” The stereotype of the Welshman addicted to toasted cheese was a popular one in early modern literature, most likely derived from a story in A Hundred Merry Talys (1526) in which St. Peter tricks the Welsh out of heaven by placing toasted cheese on the outside of the gates (Brennan Cheese 53). Thus Falstaff’s uses the metaphor of food to create a differentiation that is two-fold: Evans not only eats a “foreign” food, but he also cannot properly pronounce this food without “mak[ing] fritters of English.” While both characters are marked as “low-class” by their speech, then, Evans is even further removed from “Englishness” by his regional dialect than Falstaff and his fellow tavern dwellers.

4c. Irish Stage Dialect

            General Characteristics:

·                    use of archaisms/”Chaucerisms”

·                    using v or f (sometimes spelled ph) for wh

·                    using sh for s, z, and ch

·                    using t for th and also th for t or d

·                    using p for b (adapted from Blank 149)

Of the three dialects discussed in this section, Irish is unique. While the population of Scotland and Wales spoke other languages in addition to Scots and Welsh (Gaelic, Norn, Cornish), Ireland not only had a Gaelic-speaking population, but also an English-speaking one, which had settled there in the medieval period. This population, centred on “the Pale” around Dublin, spoke an English that was closer to Old English, but had also developed in relation to the various dialects spoken by subsequent settlers in the region (Görlach CHEL 469). While some viewed this English to be “purer” than standard English in a similar manner to other northern dialects, there was also a certain amount of fear that the English living in Ireland would “go native,” and this fear was extended into linguistic concerns over the possibility for their “pure” English to become “tainted” by its proximity to native Gaelic speakers (Neill 346–7).

England’s relationship to Ireland was a sensitive political topic throughout the early modern period as England’s attempts to exert control over Ireland were repeatedly and violently resisted. In response to these political sensitivities, dramatists tended to avoid the representation of the Irish on stage (Neill 349). When the Irish are represented, it is Anglo-Irish rather than the native Gaelic speakers, and they are most often represented as submitting to England’s linguistic and political authority. Jonson’s Irish Masque at Court (1616) is a particularly blatant example of the desire to assimilate or “regenerate” both the native Irish and the Anglo-Irish populations to an English ideal (Blank 152). Emphasizing their willing subjection to the English crown, Jonson’s Irish footmen hesitate to speak before the King, citing their linguistic incompetence:

Patrick: Her’sh Dermock vill shpeak better ten eder oder on’em.

Dermock: No fait, shweet heart, tou liesht. Phatrick here ish te vesht man of hish tongue of all de four; pre tee now hear him.

Patrick: By Chreesh shave me, tou liesht. I have te vorsht tongue in te company at thy shervish. Vill shomebody shpeak?

Donnell: By my fayt, I vill not.

Dermock: By my goship’s hand, I vill not.

Patrick: Speake, Dennish, ten.

Dennice: If I speake, te divel take me! I vill giue tee leave to cram my mout phit shamrocks ant butter, and vaytercreshes, in stead of pearsh and peepsh. (qu. in Blank 150)

Ultimately, the Irish in Jonson’s play fall silent and undergo a magical transformation into “newborn creatures” (qu. in Blank 152) under the benevolent presence of the king. Their silence, Blank argues, is prudent, given that the “silencing of Irish speech” in favour of the King’s English was a crucial part of the attempt to assimilate the Irish into the sphere of England’s political and linguistic authority (152).

            In contrast to Jonson’s Irish footmen, we will presently turn in our final example of dramatic dialect to an Irish soldier who is not silent on the topics of nation and identity. These two issues are at the heart of what critics variously interpret to be among Shakespeare’s most or least nationalistic play, Henry V, and they are deeply connected to questions of linguistic authority.

5. Henry V – English’s “Native Garb”

There has been tremendous critical debate over how we are to interpret Shakespeare’s Henry V: do we sympathize with Henry as a heroic national hero that restores England to a position of glory, or do we read him as a ruthless Machiavelli who disposes of his friends without hesitation and enters into an unjust war at the expense of the common man? Does the victory of Henry’s “band of brothers” (4.3.60) signal a new, unified England, or merely expose the fractures within this vision?[3] More recently, critics have begun to consider the linguistic elements at work in the play in relation to these themes. In keeping with England’s foreign policy as discussed above, Neill argues that the play differentiates between the dialect spoken by the Irish Macmorris and that spoken by the Welsh Fluellen by associating the former with the “subversive dialect” of Eastcheap that must be expunged from Henry’s empire (362) while the latter is brought in line with the King’s English through a “strategy of translation and incorporation” (358-9). Paola Pugliatti adopts a similar stance, arguing that the subversive dialect spoken by Pistol is passed over in favour of Fluellen’s dialect, which contains the possibility for a more conservative, unified English “condition” (247-8). Pugliatti also emphasizes the “polyphony” of languages at work in the play, which serve to create multiple, conflicting perspectives (239). Elyssa Cheng and P.K. Ayers, meanwhile, see the process of linguistic incorporation in the play in a more violent light wherein Henry’s linguistic authority ultimately stifles all voices of resistance within the play.

            While these critics differ in the positions they take on the use of dialect in Henry V, their arguments share a common thread, in that they recognize Shakespeare’s use of dialect in this play to be thematic rather than strictly comical or a means of marking characterization. As in the example of his use of southern stage dialect in King Lear, Shakespeare is able to exploit the conventional associations that his contemporary audience would have with respect to these dialects in order to raise questions about the sociopolitical tensions inherent within these very associations. If we compare the use of dialect in Henry V to parallel instances elsewhere in Shakespeare’s own work and that of his contemporaries, the seriousness of these sociopolitical implications in relation to their relatively innocuous exploration in comedy becomes clearer.

            One obvious resonance hinges on the characters of Falstaff, Bardolf, Pistol and Nym, who appear alongside a Welsh character both in Henry V and the Merry Wives of Windsor. In our earlier discussion of the latter example, we saw how Falstaff used Evans’ Welsh dialect alongside cultural stereotypes to deflate his claims to authority. Henry V sets up a similar joke at the conclusion of the play:

Pist. Hence! I am qualmish at the smell of leek.

Flu. I perseech you heartily, scurvy, lousy knave, at my desires, and my requests, and my petitions, to eat, look you, this leek; because, look you, you do not love it, not your affections, and you appetites, and your disgestions doo’s not agree with it, I would desire you to eat it.

Pist. Not for Cadwaller and all his goats.

Flu. There is one goat for you. (Strikes him) (5.2.21-9)

Pistol’s use of the familiar stereotypes of Welsh “leeks” and “goats” echoes Falstaff’s insults of “Welsh goat” and “toasted cheese,” but this time the joke is reversed. Fluellen’s dialect does not hamper him here; indeed, he gets the linguistic upper hand when he turns Pistol’s joke against him and delivers him a “goat” in the form of a strike. As the scene progress, Pistol’s linguistic ability is increasingly diminished, until he assumes the place traditionally reserved for the stereotypical Welsh character when he is forced to eat Fluellen’s leek (5.2.52). Furthermore, Pistol is admonished by the English officer Gower for having “mock[ed] an ancient tradition,” (5.2.70) suggesting that although he does not “speak English in the native garb,” (5.5.75-6) there is a certain amount of worth to Fluellen’s Welsh culture that Pistol, as a base “Englishman,” has hailed to recognize.

            This is not the only instance in which Fluellen is able to use his dialect to his advantage. In an scene that parallels the etymological twists of Jonson’s small-town constable in A Tale of a Tub, Fluellen compares Henry to “Alexander the Pig,” replacing the b in “big” with a Welsh p and thereby satirizing Henry’s political power. He does not stop here, however, but continues his comparison in a means that has particular relevance to the suppression of the subversive dialects spoken in the play:

As Alexander kill’d his friend Clytus, being in his ales and cups; so also Harry Monmouth, being in his right wits and good judgments, turn’d away the fat knight with the great belly doublet. He was full of jests, and gripes, and knaveries, and mocks. (4.7.44-9)

Whether or not we agree that Henry exercises “good judgmen[t]” in turning away from the “jests” and “mocks” that he engaged in with Falstaff in the Henry IV plays, Fluellen’s emphasis on the style of Falstaff’s speech at this point reminds us of the marginalized position of these other literary dialects within the web of linguistic authority in the play, and anticipates the “mocking” that will lead to Pistol’s expulsion from both the stage and his contemporary English society at the end of the play.

            Yet Fluellen’s dialectal savvy does not entirely negate the comedic effects of his speech. While he may get the upper hand in some conversations, his exaggerated tendency towards repetition and heavy reliance on the “Welsh” interjection of “look you,” as demonstrated in the exchange with Pistol, retain elements of dialect humour that we see in the Merry Wives of Windsor or The Welsh Embassador. But the scene in which Shakespeare comes closest to a conventional portrayal of this sort of dialect humour is also the scene in which questions of nation and identity are most strongly foregrounded. Act 3, scene 2 brings together the divergent dialects of the Welsh Fluellen, the Scottish Jamy, and the Irish Macmorris in a debate over Macmorris’ mismanagement of the mines. As these dialects begin to dissolve into incoherent arguing, Fluellen and Macmorris get into a heated exchange over Macmorris’ “nation”:

Flu. Captain Macmorris, I think, look you, under your correction, there is not many of your nation—

Mac. Of my nation? What ish my nation? Ish a villain, and a basterd, and a knave, and a rascal. What ish my nation? Who talks of my nation?

Flu. Look you, if you take the matter otherwise than is meant, Captain Macmorris, peradventure I shall think you do not use me with that affability as in discretion you ought to use me (3.2.120-28)

Eventually, the English Gower has to break up the fight, claiming, “Gentleman both, you will mistake each other” (3.3.134-5). But, as Chris Hassel argues, it is more likely that these two characters “understand each other all too well,” (353) given their similar “national” position as somewhere in between “English” and “other.” Furthermore, Hassel continues, the similarity of their dialects, punctuated by the parallel exclamations of “by Chrish” and “by Cheshu” ultimately brings the two characters closer together rather than making them linguistically distinct (353), and Macmorris’ emphasis on the connection between his nation and “villainry” and “basterdry” rings equally true for Fluellen, as we have seen in the examples of representations of Welsh in the plays discussed above. Held against the conventional representation of Irish stage dialect, in which the characters stumble even to “shpeak,” Macmorris’ angry and ultimately unanswered question continues to resonate within Henry V long after Macmorris himself has left the scene.

6. Conclusion: “So Grete Diversity in their Owne Language”

Realistically, the dramatists of the early modern period spent very little “talk” on either Macmorris or Fluellen’s “nation,” but rather made use of these regional characters as a foil for other more “English” characters, be they upper- or lower-class, or to explore the sociopolitical power dynamics inherent in the use of different types of the same language. This concern over language, class, and power no doubt came naturally to early modern dramatists, due to their own complicated position in the changing linguistic landscape that developed out of the standardization of English. In fact, poetic language was itself often considered to be a “dialect” in the early modern period, alongside the regional dialects of the north, south, east and west (Blank 30), and many of the questions raised in connection to the use of these dialects on the stage have implications for the role of literature within the framework of a standard English as well.

By the latter half of the seventeenth century, the use of stock dialect forms in drama had declined significantly. With the lessening prestige of the court and the rise of a middle-class eager to see themselves represented on the stage, dramatists shifted their focus towards the particularities of urban, middle-class speech (McIntosh 67), and subsequent “regional” dialect literature would be written by dialect speakers themselves, raising different critical and linguistic concerns. Dialect use in early modern drama thus presents us a unique style of literature, and a crucial point of insight into the ideology behind the notion of a “standard” English during the process of its formation and dissemination.


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[1] For a recent and thorough overview of this debate, see the introduction to Gillian E. Brennan, Patriotism, Power and Print: National Consciousness in Tudor England, Pittsburgh: Duquesne, 2003.

[2] See Helgerson, Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England, Chicago and London: Chicago UP, 1992, and Hadfield, Literature, Politics and National Identity: Reformation to Renaissance, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. Graham Holderness’ discussion of Henry IV and V (see especially pp. 118-23) in his Shakespeare Recycled: The Making of Historical Drama, Lanham, MD: Barnes and Nobles, 1992 also addresses the connection between the Tudor state and a “national” drama.

[3] In addition to the critical positions discussed here, Claire McEachern provides a concise summary of the critical debate surrounding Henry V in her discussion of the play in The Poetics of English Nationhood, 1590-1612, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996, 84-5.