The Tongue that Shakespeare Spoke

This week I was excited to attend a lecture by Professor David Crystal (the Justin Bieber of linguistics, according to some students), to hear about ‘original pronunciation’ or OP, of Shakespearean language. We usually hear Shakespeare’s plays performed in Received Pronunciation, carefully enunciated and projected, with plummy vowels and clipped consonants, but this, Professor Crystal explained, is not how they would once have been performed. There is a growing interest in authenticity in the theatre – not only the theatre itself, such as the Globe Theatre, but also in costumes, music, etc. Of course authenticity is impossible in any area, but a striving for origins, for something close to the experience of Shakespeare’s contemporaries when visiting the theatre, is something which clearly has a growing appeal. In the case of reconstructing original pronunciation, Professor Crystal aims for ‘plausibility’ but cannot, he says, hope for ‘authenticity’. Since the Globe began working on original pronunciation in 2004 it has sparked a wider interest, not just for Shakespeare’s works but for other plays too.

The lecture was entertainingly delivered, but thoroughly answered two questions: how can original pronunciation be reconstructed, and why is it important?  We were given a rendition of the prologue from Romeo and Juliet in both RP and OP, which was helpful: it accustomed the ear, and yet the sound of OP is somehow unaccountably familiar. We home in on what sounds recognisable depending on our own regional accents, apparently, which means it can sound equally familiar to someone from Yorkshire and someone from the East End. So, apparently the pronunciation can be established in four ways: through the rhymes (many of which don’t work in Modern English, such as love/remove – the latter rhyming with the former, apparently), and contemporary commentaries, such as those by Ben Jonson, which helpfully provide a clear guide and were popular at the time with a growing movement for spelling reform. Then there are the puns, like but less helpful than the rhymes: again, many don’t work in Modern English, and we were given some great and entertaining examples of this. Finally, there is the spelling – not much of a guide to pronunciation in Modern English but, with the idiosyncratic spelling of the sixteenth century, more helpful then.

David Crystal suggests that we want to hear this original pronunciation as an antidote to the modern dress, fantasy set, imaginative takes  on Shakespeare which abound (parodied by him as ‘Hamlet in an ice-cream parlour’). In fact, OP brings the play much closer to the audience – we were given anecdotes about the range of playgoers who felt much more comfortable with this informal, rapidly spoken, colloquial approach that with the traditional actorly delivery. RP is, after all, spoken by relatively few, and is thus often unfamiliar and thus off-putting. Particularly for Americans, he suggests, OP allows them to feel closer to the text, to claim Shakespeare, in a way; American English is closer to OP than RP. Moreover, the use of this different pronunciation shifts the whole performance into a different register; actors move differently because they are speaking from the gut not the upper body; they use different intonation, and find that it brings new meaning to their lines. The lecture was fascinating from a linguistic point of view, but it also highlights a narrative about our relationship with Shakespeare’s work, both academic and as members of the theatre-going public. We want to relate, to feel that the characters are somehow one of us, that there is an immediate connection between us and the writer of these plays, and this relationship is mediated through the words of the actors on stage.


  1. great article, I also saw this lecture at University of Leicester, thoroughly enjoyed his talk

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