Self-help Shakespeare

Lauren Rollins (University of Massachusetts-Amherst)

At a recent lunch with one of my oldest and best friends—a very established, corporate executive-type at a major bank—she shared that she’d recently thought of me when she had a brush with Shakespeare courtesy of the internet. She went on to say that in a recent professional performance evaluation, she’d received some constructive feedback from her superiors: “I have a tendency to “upspeak,” she explained (more formally known as the ‘high rising terminal’). “I deliver statements with an elevated pitch at the end. So, they sound too much like questions—like I’m unsure, even though I’m not. Apparently it has the effect of diminishing my authority. They told me to work on it.”

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet in 1948, during his “To be or not to be” soliloquy

So, like most of us would if tasked with such a nebulous assignment, she turned to Google, typing in “ways to correct upspeak.” She was intrigued when the Internet’s first hit suggested that she read aloud passages of Shakespeare in order to practice sounding more authoritative. As a lover of Shakespeare, I exclaimed, “That’s excellent advice!” Then, my scholarly curiosity followed up with, “Do you happen to remember which passages it suggested?” “Actually yes,” she replied, “there were a couple but the very first one was Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech.” The absurd irony must have spread involuntarily across my face as I burst into laughter. “What?” she asked, “What’s wrong with that one?” “Well,” I answered, “that entire speech is basically a question—about being uncertain. So essentially, in all of Shakespeare’s canon, it’s the last one you’d want.” She rolled her eyes and laughed, “I thought it was weird when I read it.” After a good chuckle together, I recommended Antony’s funeral oration and Claudius’s first address to the Danish court. “As far as I’m concerned, these are two of the most brilliantly persuasive and authoritative speeches in Shakespeare,” I told her. “You’ll instantly hear the difference.” “And this is why we need Shakespeare professors,” she replied—without even a hint of upspeak.


Categories: Reflections

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