Doing Shakespeare as Shakespeare Would Have Heard It


Over the course of the last few centuries, Shakespeare producers have gone to great lengths to get as close to The Bard as humanly possible. His famed Globe Theater was even rebuilt some 20 years ago and its productions have sought to bring the goods when it comes to the costuming, music, movements, and lighting that audiences would have experienced 400 years ago. For many years though, one element remained as elusive as the man himself: pronunciation.

It’s not that we’re entirely unclear of how the original performances would have sounded, though they are of a period in which language was undergoing rapid transformation. For years it was simply assumed that Early Modern English would be too difficult for 21st century ears to understand. Thus, in productions with meticulous loyalty to original details, perhaps the most elemental was left out.

Then in 2004, the Globe in London did a production of Romeo and Juliet in original pronunciation (the hip kids call it OP), and it went so well that an OP production of Troilus and Cressida soon followed.

In the video above, linguist David Crystal and his son Ben discuss the specifics of how the speech of 1600 is different, and spout a few lines in the way good William intended. Ben calls it an “earthier” accent, which for him means that he tends to speak in a lower register and with more of his body. It’s faster too—the production of Romeo and Juliet clocked in a whole 10 minutes shorter with OP than modern English. Back then, words were pronounced more phonetically too, and while the initial concern with OP had been that audiences would be left feeling alienated, in many ways the Early Modern English pronunciation actually helps to illuminate the texts. Puns and wordplay are aided by the subtleties of the time and we all know the Shakespeare loved a good (dirty) pun.

As Crystal told NPR in 2012, “If there's something about this accent, rather than it being difficult or more difficult for people to understand ... it has flecks of nearly every regional U.K. English accent, and indeed American and in fact Australian, too. It's a sound that makes people—it reminds people of the accent of their home—and so they tend to listen more with their heart than their head."

[h/t Open Culture]