Ruth E. Walker
In my workshops, I often remind writers that their voice is unlike anyone else’s. No one has their life experience, no one thinks with the same brain or writes with the same heart. Writers may share the same topic or scenario or even characters, but none will produce the same story in the same voice.
The voice with which we write is unique to each of us. It’s found in the types of words we prefer to use, the kinds of sentence structure that fits our imagination, the things we choose to include or exclude, the punctuation, verbs and metaphors. Our writing is full of signposts for readers: This is a story by…Margaret Atwood, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Alice Munro…
At the same time, a writer’s voice is not exactly a static quality. As we experience life, our deepening well of compost combines with new material and alters our perspective and thus, affects our writing. But essentially, the core of our voice—the beating heart of our motivation and the words that flow from that core—that doesn’t change.
So what does that change in perspective bring us if it doesn’t affect our voice?
Tone is the mood of our writing
It’s in the email we fire off to a company to complain about a faulty product. My preferred tone in those emails is more like I’m disappointed but giving you a chance to fix it versus You people suck and I’m never buying a thing from you again. We may be using our writer’s voice with word choice and punctuation but a complaint email is not the same tone one uses to invite friends and family to a party, right?
A recent trip to the Stratford Festival in Ontario got me thinking about the difference between a writer’s voice and tone.
Our playbill included a matinee performance of William Shakespeare’s Henry VIII (a history play that should appear on the stage more often, especially if Martha Henry directs it) and an evening spent chortling away during The Merry Wives of Windsor (a comedy both hilarious and uncannily fit for our times.)
Same author (I thought) on the playbill. Same iambic pentameter. Only…I thought Henry VIII‘s prologue sounded off to me. It all seemed a bit “loud” and “instructive” in tone. Same with the epilogue.
Will didn’t write it all!
A bit of research revealed that a collaborator, playwright John Fletcher, worked with Shakespeare on Henry VIII and likely contributed the prologue and epilogue, as well as nearly half of the play. Admittedly, I didn’t notice the change in voice elsewhere, but I think my reaction to the prologue and epilogue relates to how non-Shakespeare they felt.
Is that because I like Shakespeare’s work so much that I noticed when the featured lines didn’t quite deliver The Bard to my ear? I’m not sure. This is not the only play on which he had a collaborator. But it was a revelation to discover that someone else contributed both prologue and epilogue to Henry VIII, along with full scenes including the last four scenes of the final act.
Nonetheless, the production at the Stratford Festival is outstanding: high moments of drama, tender pathos and a healthy dollop of pageantry is expertly delivered. Of course, Shakespeare’s trademark irony brings occasional smiles, but the tone of the play is serious and reflective, with a shift into pomp and ceremony at the end at the baptism of the infant Princess Elizabeth.
The Merry Wives of Windsor could not be more opposite with “pomp” placed squarely in over-amorous Falstaff’s pompous conceit and “ceremony” delivered through weddings—only one of which was real. Farcical and staged with plenty of visual hilarity, the tone of this play is decidedly different from the serious historical Henry VIII.
And yet. There is an undercurrent that suggests the mistaken conclusions of a jealous husband could have unhappy consequences. And how very modern to have two women as central characters, devising a plot to shame a lecher. Thrice. (Falstaff is not the brightest bulb in the chandelier.) And to have a daughter choose her husband, instead of the choices of her parents, is likewise a modern twist in a time when marriages were driven by economics and social standing.
Tone can’t hide voice
Despite the collaboration in Henry VIII, both plays held the trademarks of Shakespeare’s voice: iambic pentameter in free verse, rhyming couplets to emphasize dramatic moments, themes of love, betrayal, confused identities. His metaphors and similes enrich meaning in a language that is almost foreign to contemporary audiences. And his invented words—nouns and verbs—remain in current use.
For more on his wordsmithing, See Grammarly’s 15 words invented by Shakespeare. But more than inventing words, the worlds Shakespeare invented were stories that hold lessons for our world today.
Not born a genius; he worked for it
As he honed his craft, the sometimes stilted structure of Shakespeare’s earlier plays gave way to more natural breaks and punctuation. His characters moved from near-stereotypes to more nuanced humans with flaws that made them shine. Like all of us, he learned to make language work for what he wanted to achieve on the page…and, on the stage. And his voice remained, naturally, his.
Shakespeare’s plays hold different tones: from sombre and heartbreaking tragedies to hilarious near-slapstick antics and imaginings. But they carry the same voice, one that keeps us coming back to productions since the 1590s. And that is a track record any of us would long to have.