Hear What Hamlet, Richard III & King Lear Sounded Like in Shakespeare’s Original Pronunciation

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Dis­cov­er What Shakespeare’s Hand­writ­ing Looked Like, and How It Solved a Mys­tery of Author­ship

A 68 Hour Playlist of Shakespeare’s Plays Being Per­formed by Great Actors: Giel­gud, McK­ellen & More

Free Online Shake­speare Cours­es: Primers on the Bard from Oxford, Har­vard, Berke­ley & More

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

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Comments (5)
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  • Bill Hallahan says:

    I just vis­it­ed Ire­land last week, and the accent that is sup­posed to be close to Shake­spear’s accent sound very much like some peo­ple I heard speak­ing in the South­ern part of Ire­land.

  • Colin says:

    I very much doubt it. The idea that a Lon­don accent of the 16th Cen­tu­ry sound­ed some­thing like a Cor­nish accent of the past cen­tu­ry, is a bit of a stretch.

    The West Mid­lands accent of Shake­speare, and the Ken­tish accent of Christo­pher Mar­lowe — the two promi­nent play­wrights — would have sound­ed noth­ing like that pro­posed.

    And, as for oth­ers in and around Lon­don at the time, the Lon­don Estu­ary accent had already become promi­nent and was already tak­ing hold: this accent had start­ed in the late Mid­dle Ages when the speech of the cap­i­tal began to influ­ence the Court and from there changed the form of the Received Pro­nun­ci­a­tion of the day.

  • Colin says:

    Fur­ther, if it had come from some sort of West Coun­try dialect, how is it that it trans­mo­gri­fied from a thick pro­nun­ci­a­tion replete with the rhot­ic “r” and oth­er idio­syn­crasies of that speech into the Estu­ary English/Receive Pro­nun­ci­a­tion promi­nent in Lon­don and South East Eng­land short­ly there­after that con­tains no rhot­ic “r” and a great deal of very dif­fer­ent vow­el sounds…?

  • Terry Walsh says:

    I am not con­vinced, and, while inter­est­ing, the the­sis is sim­plis­tic. Even if Shake­speare had a West Mid­lands twang or a West Coun­ty burr in his own speech, this would not have affect­ed the way his fel­low-actors spoke. Where did these actors come from? More impor­tant­ly, for which audi­ence were they play­ing? A Lon­don audi­ence. So,an ear­li­er type of Cock­ney might have been the dom­i­nant accent. Yes, the influ­ence of Lon­don was already start­ing to spread a pro­to-Estu­ary Eng­lish out­side the city, but local accents would have been dom­i­nant even close to Lon­don, as they were until the radio age. The ‘RP’ of the time might have been a cul­tured Oxford/London hybrid.

  • Lucy Briand says:

    Very inter­est­ing. I am sur­prised that whilst Dorset and Ire­land are strong­ly rep­re­sent­ed there is no trace what­so­ev­er of a mod­ern West Mid­lands accent, such as one would hear in mod­ern Stratford/Birmingham. What hap­pened here? Where did the ‘Brum­mie’ accent come from, if it was not around in Shake­speare’s day?

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