Shakespeare the Way It Was Meant to Be Spoken

Performed using the "original pronunciation," the Bard's work takes on new depth and meaning

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Last week, an intriguing video on Shakespeare became a mini viral hit. Emailed and forwarded and tweeted around was a recording of father and son, linguist David Crystal  and actor Ben Crystal, reading Shakespeare side-by-side in a manner they call “original pronunciation.”

Studying clues in poetry, variations in spellings (think shew instead of show in Jane Austen novels), as well as other historical linguistic remnants, the  pair have come up with what they believe is English pronunciation as it was spoken in Shakespeare’s England—in other words, how some of literature’s most famous verses might have been originally heard.


TIME managed to catch up with the ever-busy Ben, who—right before he was off to catch a production of Much Ado About Nothing—shared these thoughts on the topic:

THAT ACCENT Crystal has found in his US workshops that many Americans are reluctant to do Shakespeare because they haven’t got that “posh accent” often associated with the text. Original pronunciation offers an easier entry point for non-Brits.

WE HEAR WHAT WE ARE  The spread of the English language has left nations united by a single tongue, but divided by accents. Original pronunciation retains those traces of linguistic branching that would become American and Australian forms of English. OP, as Crystal calls it, allows us to hear in it the accent we ourselves speak. It not only feels more personal, but it’s easier to understand.

LINGUISTIC BAGGAGE  OP might be compared to the pages of a passport—it carries traces of who we are, what we speak, who we speak with, and where we live. Everyone’s OP is slightly different, so Crystal’s has “some Welsh, because I grew up in Wales; Cockney, because I’ve been living in London; transatlantic, because I have so many friends in the US. “

A TITLE WITH A TITLE Crystal pointed out that the title Much Ado About Nothing, may sound simple enough, but in original pronunciation, nothing begins to sound like noting, which is a term for eavesdropping. Which is what the whole play is about. We lose the coy household game  in the title when we say it in modern English.

OP IS FASTER… Original pronunciation falls from tongue at a faster rate. Crystal was able to do Hamlet in two-and-a-half hours—shaving off more than 30 minutes from a typical production.  

…AND FUNNIER Turns out the quicker pace of OP makes the plays seem less dramatised. When poetry is read like prose instead of as verses, it becomes more intelligible. Treating Shakespeare similarly means that jokes and puns become more apparent. The text, “less stately,” says Crystal, “And you can laugh at it. And that’s Hamlet. Make them laugh first, and you’re more likely to make them cry”

SPEAKING OF FUNNY  Crystal’s video points out a gag that is lost in modern English. In Act II of As You Like it, one character delivers the line “And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe.” The elongated syllable of hour makes it less apparent in modern English that the original would have sounded like or, which, with the extra breath given by an unspoken H sounds an awful like from whore to whore.

DOUBLE YOUR ENTENDRE.  Similarly, in Sonnet 116, the famous sonnet that begins “Let me not to the marriage of true minds,” the phrase that has cemented countless marriage vows, has a line “Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks.” The poem (and its pun), explains Crystal, suggests that love “isn’t just about  the physical, it’s more than that, but there’s maybe a sex gag in there, too.”

POTTY HUMOR In Troilus and Cressida, the strangely comic character Thersites announces Ajax by saying “for, whosoever you take him to be, he is Ajax.” It seems innocuous, but in original pronunciation, it may have sounded like, he is a jakes, which is a toilet. It’s the little things you miss.

A ‘WINTER’ TALE  Another fascinating idea Crystal shared with us is this tidbit from the opening speech of Richard III (“Now is the winter of our discontent…”), Richard speaks the line “Cheated of feature by dissembling nature.” Performed in contemporary English, it maintains the rhythm we are most familiar with when listening to Shakespeare, and it fits in with the rest of the speech. But as spoken in original pronunciation, the repetition of the double vowel sound breaks the famous rhythm.  “It may have been a signal to the players that this line is somehow important.,” says Crystal, “Indeed it is, and it can hardly be a coincidence: that very line tells us all we need to know about Shakespeare’s greatest villain.”