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Shakespeare’s Accent: How Did The Bard Really Sound?

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
March 24, 2012

“To be or not to be” may be the question, but there’s another question that’s been nagging Shakespeare scholars for a long time: What did Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio, Portia or Puck really sound like when Shakespeare was first performed more than four centuries ago?

The British Library has completed a new recording of 75 minutes of The Bard’s most famous scenes, speeches and sonnets, all performed in the original pronunciation of Shakespeare’s time.

That accent sounds a little more Edinburgh — and sometimes even more Appalachia — than you might expect. Actor Ben Crystal, director of the new recordings, joins NPR’s Scott Simon to talk about the effort to perform Shakespeare’s works authentically.

Interview Highlights

On the gradual shift in pronunciation and performance

“There’s definitely been a change over the last 50 to 60 years of Shakespeare performance. The trend I think has been to speak the words very beautifully … and carefully — and some might say stoically — and it’s very, very different than how it would have been 400 years ago.”

On how researchers study what people sounded like four centuries ago

“We’ve got three different types of data we can mine — one is the rhymes. Two-thirds of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets don’t rhyme anymore. We know that the final couplet in … Sonnet 116 … you know it’s:

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

“You can extrapolate those kind of rhyme schemes across the sonnets, and indeed some of the plays rhyme. That’s one set of data.

“They used to spell a lot more like they used to speak, so a word like film in Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech is spelled philom in the folio, and we know that’s a two syllable word like phi-lom. And if you go over to Northern Ireland, and they invite you to the cinema, they’ll invite you to see the ‘fi-lm.’ That’s an Elizabethan pronunciation that’s stayed with us. …

“There were linguists at the time and they very kindly wrote books saying how they pronounced different words. And all of that data brings us to 90-95 percent right, which isn’t bad for 400 years.”

On how this accent feels familiar

“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.”

On Shakespeare being for young people

“I gave a workshop at a school recently with a bunch of 13- and 14-year-old kids. And their idea of Shakespeare, having never studied it or even really read it, was that it would be difficult to understand and it wasn’t for them, and I was like: No, listen, he’s written a play about two 13-year-olds or 14-year-olds meeting and discovering life and love and everything for the first time. It’s a play for you.”

On class distinctions and changes in pronunciation

“You can’t distinguish a character by putting on let’s say a posh accent, for want of a better word, or a more common accent. How do you do it? The accent was pretty much the same. The accent was changing over Shakespeare’s time.

When King James came to the throne after Queen Elizabeth — he was the Scottish King James VI — and everyone in court started speaking with a Scottish twang.”

On connecting with the true meaning of the words

“One of the most famous sonnets … Sonnet 116 … everybody has [it] in their weddings because it has the word marriage in it: Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments. When I started speaking this sonnet, it changed from something highfalutin and careful and about marriage and it became a real testament of love.”

Audio extracts from Shakespeare’s Original Pronunciation courtesy of the British Library Board. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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