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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  • 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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