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Lee Jamieson

Americans Canít Do Shakespeare!

By October 6, 2009

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Actor, Nicolas Cage, recently said that he was distrustful of Americans attempting Shakespeare because it doesn't sound right. He said:

I'm one of those people that feels Americans should not do Shakespeare. There is something about it. I feel the rhythm of the English language and manner of English speech seem to work effectively with William Shakespeare but when Americans do it, something seems stuck.

But hold on! In England, we don't go around spouting Shakespearean verse. It's a learned thing - something that requires training. Both modern English and American are equally as divorced from the rhythmic, verbal culture of Elizabethan England - and solid actor training is required to reconnect the performer with Shakespeare's language.

I recently interviewed the RSC's voice coach, Lyn Darnley, who noted that "we're much less engaged with language now. Speech is less engaged. We don't speak with the same muscularity, energy or dynamic like people did before there was a visual back up for communication."

What do you think? Do you agree with Cage? Should American's steer clear of Shakespeare?

Photo © Getty Images / Malcolm Taylor


October 7, 2009 at 8:50 am
(1) Laura says:

Mr. Cage is incorrect.

October 7, 2009 at 10:24 am
(2) volker says:

Shakespeare can be performed only by a native English speaker. Insofar, it is possible for an American to do it if he/she speaks English like a Briton.

October 7, 2009 at 10:25 am
(3) Bill Moen says:

NICHOLAS CAGE can’t do Shakespeare. John Barrymore COULD! Dustin Hoffman CAN! Paul Robeson COULD! Etc etc etc

October 7, 2009 at 10:45 am
(4) Lady G says:

I’m an American actor, and I do Shakespeare pretty well, if I do say so myself! Just because some American actors are uncomfortable with the language, doesn’t mean no American should attempt Shakespeare!

Oh, and the word “Americans” does not require an apostrophe, unless you’re using it as a possessive.

October 7, 2009 at 10:52 am
(5) Dave says:

I will second Bill’s comment.

October 7, 2009 at 2:11 pm
(6) Irene Meckfessel says:

The much-respected, Shakespeare-trained English actor, Charles Laughton, attended four plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival about 1960.

He was so impressed that he proclaimed all four the best performances of Shakespeare that he had ever attended. He arranged with management to schedule King Lear, with him playing the lead, for the season two years later.

Unfortunately, he died before he could live that dream.

October 7, 2009 at 3:06 pm
(7) Jim De Young says:

Barbara Gaines’ just opened production of Richard III at Chicago Shakespeare might go a long way toward convincing Mr. Cage that Americans can indeed do justice to Shakespeare.

October 7, 2009 at 4:02 pm
(8) herc_takes_five says:

most (americans) can’t. a few can. i’ll take orson’s macbeth over larry’s richard 3, even though that’s a little bit apples and oranges, since the latter seemed to be played as a comedy.

October 7, 2009 at 4:56 pm
(9) GregRobin Smith says:

“A Poet for the World and Every Heart”

If Shakespeare had this lesson learned in youth:
That “Glover’s sons should never write a play.”
What loss to all of us – his beautied truth.
And Shakespeare Festivals would do what, pray?

“No actor from the States should quote The Bard?”
No Booths, Pachino’s, Paltrows, Barrymores?
No Ashland, or Joe Papp in Central Park?
Deny ‘us’ speeches that define our core?

What failure would we bear to leave alone
Those things called “hard” or “needs to be re-worked”?
’tis Labor grabbed us stars where once grasped stone.
’tis Worth that effort earns, not effort shirked.

The Actor’s Task: Portrayal of our Hearts.
No Country owns the best of William’s Parts.

– GregRobin

October 7, 2009 at 5:05 pm
(10) toot says:

Mr. Cage is neither experientially nor intellectually qualified to comment about something so undeniably beyond his cerebral capacity. Have him stick to brainless, comic-book action figures that appeal to teenie-bops. The man’s incapacious. And there’s an end.

October 7, 2009 at 5:28 pm
(11) Scott Rogers says:

I completely agree with Toot. I would only add that in reality the dialect used in Shakespeare’s day was, according to the experts, much closer to the dialect of the American South than it is to modern day British. Just because Shakespeare is beyond Mr. Cage’s ability doesn’t mean it is beyond other actors abilities. No, Mr. Cage, ego isn’t everything. Some actors train and some actors become famous because they are related to Francis Ford Coppola (even though they change their name!). The latter type of actor should probably not attempt Shakespeare…

October 7, 2009 at 6:48 pm
(12) Suzanne says:

As much as I respect the work of Mr. Cage, I do not agree with him. When Shakespeare was writing his work, the “new world” was being explored. We were colonized by the people who were speaking in Elizabethan English. In some areas of the eastern seaboard, our speech has not changed a great deal since that time. (Example, Manteo, NC and Tidewater dialect) However, England has had much more of a diversity of cultures and languages to affect the speech since that time. So in some areas on the Eastern seaboard we may speak more like people did during the time of Shakespeare than the people of England.

October 7, 2009 at 7:04 pm
(13) Kumud Biswas says:

It is really very pesumptuous to say that Americans can’t do it. I have a copy of the live recording of New York Central Park production of King Lear. It is very good and I enjoy it greatly. Englishmen should no longer consider the dramatist as their exclusive property – he is universal. I would advise them to read Tagore’s famous sonnet on Shakespeare – poem number 39 in his collection Purabi. Unfortunately I don’t have its English translation to post it here.

October 7, 2009 at 7:09 pm
(14) Kumud Biswas says:

Here is a correction – the name of the collection in which Tagore’s sonnet on Shakespeare is included is Balaka and not Purabi. Sorry for the mistake.

October 8, 2009 at 11:24 am
(15) Peter Clark says:

I am an American actor and have been in numerous Shakespeare plays, including title roles in Macbeth and King Lear. I have little regard for Nicholas Cage’s opinion on Americans doing Shakespeare, as I’m not a fan of his acting.

October 9, 2009 at 3:54 pm
(16) Robert Mounts says:

Nick Cage reminds me of the Frenchman who once told me:

“An American speaking French is like a horse walking on its hind legs. It’s wonderful — not because he does it well, but because he can do it at all!”

Some folks are born Shakespearean, some achieve Bardness, and some have iambic pentameter thrust upon them. That’s true in the British Isles as well as the New World.

October 14, 2009 at 12:20 am
(17) susan says:

I totally disagree. I just came home from seeing Jude Law in Hamlet and it was brilliant! However, is Jude Law American or English?

October 15, 2009 at 3:58 am
(18) samer says:

I think art does not belong to certain people or nationalities . It is something universal , and those who love it will, for sure , live it and consequently perform it properly. Thank you all.

November 15, 2009 at 8:29 pm
(19) animal-monday says:

Doing Shakespeare well does indeed have everything to do with engagement with language–and nothing to do with national accent. But it’s not straightforward actor training that will help someone engage with poetic verse; it is a kind of right-brain epiphany that comes with awakening a poetic sense about words, a disengagement from the “meaning” of a word and a connection to its texture, sound, associations, and yes, even color and scent. Words are fully formed entities–and those who “get” this will perform Shakespeare exceptionally.

But here’s where nationality enters in: American culture is even farther removed from engaging with the meat of language than other Western cultures. Americans who have not had a chance to escape their culture are typically fearful of beauty, even in language, as beauty demands surrender. And as we all know, Americans are taught to NEVER surrender. So we Americans may indeed have more trouble with Shakespeare, at least typically–but not due to our accents! And yes, there are those who seem to process language in a right-brained manner from birth, despite being steeped in a culture that denies and denigrates right-brain thinking. These are the “born Shakespearians.”

March 30, 2010 at 4:56 am
(20) sshinar1 says:

I completely agree. I am an english actor and when i watch Shakespeare in england it just seems to flow a lot better and seems right, whereas in America they seem to not quite understand what they are saying and they don’t have the rythem that shakespeare intended it to have. It’s just my opinion but i strongly believe that americans just should not be alowed to do Shakespeare.

July 15, 2010 at 1:22 pm
(21) Mr. Annonymous says:

All you Americans getting offended…don’t. I think anyone American can, but obviously, you must get the pronunciation correct (no offence).

July 18, 2013 at 8:52 pm
(22) Harvey says:

This is a bit old, but I have to get this across:

Most American dialects tend to preserve many phonological characteristics which were present in Shakespeare’s language. American English un-rounds certain vowels and is rhotic, which was how Shakespeare’s language was spoken. Although American English does not have the rhythm of Elizabethan English (Early Modern English), Shakespeare’s rhymes and dialogues do sound more pleasing when read by American. The belief that Shakespeare sounds better when performed in English dialects is based on the assumption that just because Shakespeare was English, he had to have spoken with a British RP accent.

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