Shakespeare's Accent: How Did The Bard Really Sound?

Mar 24, 2012
Originally published on March 24, 2012 4:45 pm

"To be or not to be" may be the question, but there's another question that's been nagging Shakespeare scholars for a long time: What did Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio, Portia or Puck really sound like when Shakespeare was first performed more than four centuries ago?

The British Library has completed a new recording of 75 minutes of The Bard's most famous scenes, speeches and sonnets, all performed in the original pronunciation of Shakespeare's time.

That accent sounds a little more Edinburgh — and sometimes even more Appalachia — than you might expect. Actor Ben Crystal, director of the new recordings, joins NPR's Scott Simon to talk about the effort to perform Shakespeare's works authentically.


Interview Highlights

On the gradual shift in pronunciation and performance

"There's definitely been a change over the last 50 to 60 years of Shakespeare performance. The trend I think has been to speak the words very beautifully ... and carefully — and some might say stoically — and it's very, very different than how it would have been 400 years ago."

On how researchers study what people sounded like four centuries ago

"We've got three different types of data we can mine — one is the rhymes. Two-thirds of Shakespeare's 154 sonnets don't rhyme anymore. We know that the final couplet in ... Sonnet 116 ... you know it's:

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

"You can extrapolate those kind of rhyme schemes across the sonnets, and indeed some of the plays rhyme. That's one set of data.

"They used to spell a lot more like they used to speak, so a word like film in Mercutio's Queen Mab speech is spelled philom in the folio, and we know that's a two syllable word like phi-lom. And if you go over to Northern Ireland, and they invite you to the cinema, they'll invite you to see the 'fi-lm.' That's an Elizabethan pronunciation that's stayed with us. ...

"There were linguists at the time and they very kindly wrote books saying how they pronounced different words. And all of that data brings us to 90-95 percent right, which isn't bad for 400 years."

On how this accent feels familiar

"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."

On Shakespeare being for young people

"I gave a workshop at a school recently with a bunch of 13- and 14-year-old kids. And their idea of Shakespeare, having never studied it or even really read it, was that it would be difficult to understand and it wasn't for them, and I was like: No, listen, he's written a play about two 13-year-olds or 14-year-olds meeting and discovering life and love and everything for the first time. It's a play for you."

On class distinctions and changes in pronunciation

"You can't distinguish a character by putting on let's say a posh accent, for want of a better word, or a more common accent. How do you do it? The accent was pretty much the same. The accent was changing over Shakespeare's time.

When King James came to the throne after Queen Elizabeth — he was the Scottish King James VI — and everyone in court started speaking with a Scottish twang."

On connecting with the true meaning of the words

"One of the most famous sonnets ... Sonnet 116 ... everybody has [it] in their weddings because it has the word marriage in it: Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments. When I started speaking this sonnet, it changed from something highfalutin and careful and about marriage and it became a real testament of love."

Audio extracts from Shakespeare's Original Pronunciation courtesy of the British Library Board.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

If there's a definitive way to play Hamlet, surely Sir Laurence Olivier would have known.

(SOUNDBITE OF, MOVIE, "HAMLET")

LAURENCE OLIVIER: (as Hamlet) To be, or not to be? That is the question.

SIMON: But a question remains today: What did Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio, Portia, or Puck really sound like when Shakespeare was first performed more than four centuries ago?

The British Library has completed a new recording of 75 minutes of the Bard's most famous scenes, speeches and sonnets, all performed in the original pronunciation of Shakespeare's time. That accent sound a little more Edinburgh, sometimes even Appalachia, than Lord Olivier.

We're joined now from the studios of the BBC in London by the director of those new recordings, Ben Crystal. Mr. Crystal, thanks very much for being with us.

BEN CRYSTAL: It's a real pleasure. Or perhaps I should say a real pleasure.

SIMON: Oh, well, zounds.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Dame Judi Dench, Lord Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, they've all had it wrong?

CRYSTAL: I don't know about had it wrong. And there's definitely been a change over the last 50 to 60 years of Shakespeare performance. And the trend I think has been to speak the words very beautifully and carefully - and it's very, very different from how it would have been 400 years ago.

SIMON: Well, give us - you're one of the actors on this recording. Can you give us a for instance?

CRYSTAL: Sure. (Reciting) To be, or not to be? That is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?

SIMON: Wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: That's breathtaking.

CRYSTAL: Isn't it? And might I add as well, you in the time it took Larry Olivier to do it is to be or not to be? That is the question - which was about 10 seconds by my count, I think I rattled through about three or four more lines.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: So how do we know this was the accent four centuries ago?

CRYSTAL: Well we've got three different types of data that we can mine. One, is the rhymes. Two-thirds of Shakespeare's 154 sonnets don't rhyme anymore. We know that the final couplet in, for example, one of the most famous ones, "Sonnet 116," would have been, you know, (Reciting) If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

And we know it would have been either proved and loved or proved and looved.

There aren't very many examples of people elongating the vowel of love apart from maybe Elvis - saying loorve(ph), and so we worked it out that it was proved and loved, and then they used to spell a lot more like they used to speak. So a word like film in Mercutio's Queen Mab speech is spelled P-h-i-l-o-m, and we know that's a two syllable word, like phi-lom. And if you go over to Northern Ireland, and they invite you to the cinema, they'll invite you to see the fil-um.

And then there were linguists at the time and they very kindly wrote books saying how they pronounced different words. And all of that data brings us to 90-95 percent right, which isn't bad for 400 years.

SIMON: Let's listen to another famous scene if we can.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHAKESPEARE'S PLAY "ROMEO AND JULIET")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (as Juliet) O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? Deny thy father and refuse thy name; Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love and I'll no longer be a Capulet.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (as Romeo) Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (as Juliet) 'Tis but thy name that is my enemy. Thou art thyself, though not a Montague. What's Montague? It is nor hand nor foot, nor arm nor face, nor any other part belonging to a man. O be some other name.

SIMON: Oh, be still my heaving bodice.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: But I see what you mean. The more colloquial - I mean this could be a conversation between two teenagers.

CRYSTAL: As indeed, you know, it should be. I gave a workshop at a school recently with a bunch of 13- and 14-year-old kids. And, you know, their idea of Shakespeare, having never studied it or even really read it, was that it would be difficult to understand and it wasn't for them, and I was like: No, listen, he's written a play about two 13-year-olds or 14-year-olds meeting and discovering life and love and everything for the first time. It's a play for you.

SIMON: Ben Crystal actor, Shakespeare. He directed the first-ever audio recording of Shakespeare's work in the original dialect. And the University of Chicago Press is releasing the recording "Shakespeare's original Pronunciation" in the U.S.

Ben Crystal, thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks.

CRYSTAL: Thank you. It's been a real pleasure. Pleasure to talk to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: You can hear more Shakespeare spoken as the Bard himself would have heard it on our website NPR.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.