As we highlighted a few days ago, recent findings by South African scientists suggest that William Shakespeare may have smoked pot, possibly composing some of his celebrated plays while under the influence. Their research is sure to spark controversy among Shakespeare scholars and historians alike, but it’s certainly a more interesting controversy than the tired debate about whether Shakespeare wrote his plays at all. Perhaps even more interesting than Shakespeare’s drug of choice for lovers of his language are debates about what Shakespeare’s plays might have sounded like to his original audiences. In other words, high or not, what might Shakespeare, his actors, and his audience have sounded like when they spoke the language we call English.
Of course they called the language English as well, but we might not recognize some words as such when hearing Shakespeare’s accent aloud. On the other hand, it might be surprising just how much the Bard’s original pronunciation sounds like so many other kinds of English we know today.
In a post two years ago, we quoted Shakespearean actor, director, and writer Ben Crystal on Shakespeare’s original pronunciation, which, he says, “has flecks of nearly every regional U.K. English accent, and indeed American and in fact Australian, too.” Hearing Shakespeare’s English spoken aloud, Crystal remarks, is hearing a sound that “reminds people of the accent of their home.” You can test this theory, and hear for yourself the sound of Shakespeare’s English with the video and audio highlighted here, showcasing Crystal’s performance of the plays in original pronunciation (OP).
At the top, see Crystal recite an excerpt of Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech in a video promotion for a 2011 Kickstarter campaign to fund a film version of Hamlet in OP. And above, we have two audio clips of Richard III and King Lear, respectively, both from an OP Shakespeare CD Crystal recorded with several other actors. Crystal came by his version of original pronunciation honestly, and from a very reputable source, who also happens to be his father, David. The elder Crystal is perhaps the most highly-regarded linguist and scholar of the English language alive today, and in addition to publishing several books both scholarly and popular, he has worked with the Globe Theatre on producing plays in OP since 1994. Learn more about Crystal’s process at our previous post on his work. Below, in an excerpt from a much longer talk, see Ben Crystal describe and demonstrate the differences between “Received Pronunciation”—the “proper,” generic form of British English—and Shakespeare’s pronunciation. He then discusses with his audience the ways Shakespeare’s English seems to roam all over the map, hewing to no particular British region or class.