Shakespeare DIDN’T write in Warwickshire dialect, new research shows

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There is no strong evidence to back up claims that Shakespeare used Warwickshire, Midlands or Cotswold dialect, according to new research from Goldsmiths, University of London.

Scene from Immersion Theatre's Romeo & Juliet at the Brockley Jack, 2015, Dir. James Tobias Clifford ( Photograph by Adam Trigg.

Read more from Ros Barber on The Conversation

Based on supposed evidence found in 18th and 19th century dialect dictionaries, other scholars have argued that the Bard used these regional dialects in his writing.

But in a new research paper Dr Ros Barber explains that these dictionaries were written too long after Shakespeare’s life to be reliable: not only would language have evolved considerably over 200 or 300 years, it would have been influenced by Shakespeare himself.

She argues that the continuing academic taboo surrounding the authorship question – whether or not Shakespeare penned his own work – has meant that dialect claims often go unchallenged, even though they’re fairly easy to refute. Dr Barber’s PhD, awarded in 2011, was the first doctoral thesis in the UK to address the question.

“When defending the traditional authorship, the normal diligence a scholar would use in checking their sources is easily suspended,” Dr Barber says.

“Many of the words claimed as Cotswold dialect were also widely used across the country: ‘mazzard’, ‘breeze’, ‘kecksies’ and ‘plash’, for example,” she adds.

“Searches of the Oxford English Dictionary and digitised texts on Early English Books Online demonstrate that many supposedly regional words were also used in London, Bath, Yorkshire, or the Isle of Wight. In one instance, expressions that are said to have only been used in Warwickshire arose from a mid-twentieth century fabrication.

“In the 1970s Hugh Kenner claimed that ‘golden lads’ and ‘chimney sweepers’ in the lines from Cymbeline, ‘Golden lads and girls all must / As chimney-sweepers, come to dust’, came from Warwickshire dialect because in that part of the country yellow dandelions were called ‘golden lads’ and dandelions ready to be blown to the wind were ‘chimney sweepers’.

“But that certainly wouldn’t have been the case in Shakespeare’s era – for a start, the typical chimney sweep’s brush Kenner alludes to wasn’t invented until 1805! Kenner’s anecdote has been widely adopted, even appearing in the notes of the RSC’s edition of Cymbeline, but it’s just a fictitious idea.

“Michael Wood claimed in 2003 that Shakespeare was using Cotswold dialect when he wrote ‘twit’ to mean ‘blab’ in Henry VI but it’s clear in the quotations that ‘twit’ can’t be substituted for ‘blab’. Shakespeare was using ‘twit’ in the sense of ‘to taunt’ or ‘to blame’, and that was an expression used widely across England at the time.”

“Modern scholars should be wary of relying on dialect lists compiled by early antiquarians, who did not have access to a wide range of texts, used Shakespeare as a key source, and did not in any case claim that such words were not used elsewhere.”

Dr Rosalind Barber is Lecturer in Creative and Life Writing in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Shakespeare and Warwickshire Dialect is published in the Journal of Early Modern Studies.

Media coverage appeared in The Birmingham Mail and Western Daily Press.