What Shakespeare Sounded Like to Shakespeare: Reconstructing the Bard’s Original Pronunciation

What did Shakespeare’s English sound like to Shakespeare? To his audience? And how can we know such a thing as the phonetic character of the language spoken 400 years ago? These questions and more are addressed in the video above, which profiles a very popular experiment at London’s Globe Theatre, the 1994 reconstruction of Shakespeare’s theatrical home. As linguist David Crystal explains, the theater’s purpose has always been to recapture as much as possible the original look and feel of a Shakespearean production—costuming, music, movement, etc. But until recently, the Globe felt that attempting a play in the original pronunciation would alienate audiences. The opposite proved to be true, and people clamored for more. Above, Crystal and his son, actor Ben Crystal, demonstrate to us what certain Shakespearean passages would have sounded like to their first audiences, and in so doing draw out some subtle wordplay that gets lost on modern tongues.

Shakespeare’s English is called by scholars Early Modern English (not, as many students say, “Old English,” an entirely different, and much older language). Crystal dates his Shakespearean early modern to around 1600. (In his excellent textbook on the subject, linguist Charles Barber bookends the period roughly between 1500 and 1700.) David Crystal cites three important kinds of evidence that guide us toward recovering early modern’s original pronunciation (or “OP”).

1. Observations made by people writing on the language at the time, commenting on how words sounded, which words rhyme, etc. Shakespeare contemporary Ben Jonson tells us, for example, that speakers of English in his time and place pronounced the “R” (a feature known as “rhoticity”). Since, as Crystal points out, the language was evolving rapidly, and there wasn’t only one kind of OP, there is a great deal of contemporary commentary on this evolution, which early modern writers like Jonson had the chance to observe firsthand.

2. Spellings. Unlike today’s very frustrating tension between spelling and pronunciation, Early Modern English tended to be much more phonetic and words were pronounced much more like they were spelled, or vice versa (though spelling was very irregular, a clue to the wide variety of regional accents).

3. Rhymes and puns which only work in OP. The Crystals demonstrate the important pun between “loins” and “lines” (as in genealogical lines) in Romeo and Juliet, which is completely lost in so-called “Received Pronunciation” (or “proper” British English). Two-thirds of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the father and son team claim, have rhymes that only work in OP.


Not everyone agrees on what Shakespeare’s OP might have sounded like. Eminent Shakespeare director Trevor Nunn claims that it might have sounded more like American English does today, suggesting that the language that migrated across the pond retained more Elizabethan characteristics than the one that stayed home. You can hear an example of this kind of OP in the recording from Romeo and Juliet above. Shakespeare scholar John Barton suggests that OP would have sounded more like modern Irish, Yorkshire, and West Country pronunciations, an accent that the Crystals seem to favor in their interpretations of OP and is much more evident in the reading from Macbeth below (both audio examples are from a CD curated by Ben Crystal).

Whatever the conjecture, scholars tend to use the same set of criteria David Crystal outlines. I recall my own experience with Early Modern English pronunciation in an intensive graduate course on the history of the English language. Hearing a class of amateur linguists read familiar Shakespeare passages in what we perceived as OP—using our phonological knowledge and David Crystal’s criteria—had exactly the effect Ben Crystal described in an NPR interview:

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.

In other words, despite the strangeness of the accent, the language can sometimes feel more immediate, more universal, and more of the moment, even, than the sometimes stilted, pretentious ways of reading Shakespeare in the accent of a modern London stage actor or BBC news anchor.

via 22 Words

Related Content:

Salvador Dalí’s 1946 Illustrated Edition of Shakespeare’s Macbeth

Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour Sings Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18

A Survey of Shakespeare’s Plays (Free Course) 

Shakespeare’s Satirical Sonnet 130, As Read By Stephen Fry

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness



Make knowledge free & open. Share our posts with friends on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms:

by | Permalink | Comments (17) |

  • Sander46

    Fascinating! Thank you. One question not related to the language: In the photos of performances, women are playing female roles. If the Globe is committed to historical authenticy, why are the female roles not played by males? Or is it not true that men played all roles in Shakespeare’s day?

  • Josh Jones

    It is true, Sander, that men and boys played female roles in Shakespeare’s time. I think this is one area where the Globe declines to be authentic.

  • SR

    I’ve seen an all-male production of Edward II there – they do it sometimes!

  • M.R. Stringer

    Marvellous stuff! I’m left wondering why it is that whilst the theatre can continue without boredom to deal with the Bard, the operatic theatre feels itself impelled to come up with new ‘music’ all the time …

  • Alexov1954

    However, the reason women did not play the female roles in the Bard’s time was most likely because a woman’s place was not in the theatre and the overwhelming majority of women were not allowed an education, kind of like the way women are seen by members of some religions even today.

  • Carole Di Tosti

    I also would love to hear this father and son combo discuss Chaucer and run through some of the prologue.

  • Carole Di Tosti

    Have to get to the Globe. I truly miss being in London, Oxford and want to see the Lake Country.

  • https://twitter.com/PsychoStuey Scott Webb

    So… 400 years ago they sounded like Hagrid ;)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1406355649 Lydia Gaebe Bishop

    The OP has a slightly “Scottish” sound to it. Very interesting. I’ve heard reconstructed Anglo Saxon too.

  • psmitty2

    I was hoping they’d settle the question:nnIn French, for you we say “tu”nIn German, for you we say “du”nIn Spanish, for you we say “tu”nBut in Shakespeare, we say “thow”nRather than “thou.”nOr would one prefer we say “yow”nRather than “you?”

  • Shmoyko

    So, the OP is basically the Dorset accent :)

  • sab

    marvellous stuff! the modern reader will face certain difficulties ; these difficulties consist not so much in the strangeness of the words or the structure of the sentences,as in grasping quickly the purposes for which the language is used as it is.The Elizabethan English were as adventourous in their use of words as they were phisicallyWilliam Shakespeare too, delighted in playing about with words.He aimed to delight his audience by clever manipulation of the language.

  • K. Kelly Meine

    Originally, the singular second person was u00feu016b (pronounced kinda like thoo, “you” was the plural second person).nnBTW, if you aren’t familiar with it, I suggest reading up on the T-V distinction. It’s pretty fascinating reading on how we lost u00feu016b/thou, and why so many European languages have a formal/informal you.

  • Plantagenet King

    No, I think Shmoyko’s post has it; it sounds much more like a Dorset accent…!

  • Roland Scales

    I grew up alongside very similar articulation and intonation in Gloucestershire in the 1960s (Americans would probably call it “pirate English”). This approach to Shakespeare’s texts actually reminds me of many of the old people whom I knew in childhood – and the rendition even feels more natural, less stilted.

  • Mick

    Did anyone notice that the father’s accent modulated between accents as he spoke? One sentence he sounds like a lecturer , the next a west country farmer.

  • Terence

    Sounds like rural Somerset to me.

Quantcast