My God, is that my voice?" cried Sir Henry Irving when he heard himself played back through the great conical horn of Edison's phonograph in 1888. Listeners more than 100 years later will be as stunned by this collection of great Shakespearian actors and actresses spanning the 60 years between the 1880s and 1940s: Lewis Waller's quavering, triumphant "For England and St George!"; Beerbohm Tree's grandiose oratory; and the mature, elevated tragedy and high manic laugh of Ellen Terry at the age of 63 playing crazed Ophelia. Her great-nephew, John Gielgud, here is only 23 but his delivery iscloser to his 19th-century aunt than the 20th century, while Laurence Olivier's later 1940s recording is closer to modern times. In his rendering, we hear a much more natural Hamlet "thinking" rather than an actor speaking.
The recordings will certainly make fascinating listening for AS English students raised on wall-to-wall high quality sound, and they would be a very valuable introduction to "understanding of the contexts in which texts are written and understood", the double-weighted Assessment Objective 5i. For students to hear these grand but unnaturalistic speeches is to experience interpretations of Shakespeare entirely different from those of the present day.
Rachel Redford is principal examiner for AQA GCSE English