The original pronunciation of Shakespeare

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First aired on As It Happens (26/03/12)


The plays of William Shakespeare don't just give actors a chance to become conflicted Danes or the murderous wives of Scottish nobleman, they also provide actors a wonderful opportunity to display their elocution: big round "O"s, rolling "R"s, and some of the greatest phrases in the English language pronounced with exquisite diction.

But all that fancy talk might not actually be authentic. This segment begins with a recording from MacBeth that might sound a little unusual, but it is the result of careful research that has examined what Shakespeare's plays would have sounded like when the playwright was still around.

Ben Crystal, an actor, director, and author, spoke with As It Happens about his latest project for the British Library -- an audio CD that uses Shakespearean-era pronunciation. "Shakespeare performance and production has changed an awful lot since Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud's days," Crystal told As it Happens host Carol Off. "It's become a lot more colloquial in recent years, but it's still very far away from how it would have sounded to Shakespeare's audience."

So how did we get the idea that Olivier's articulation was how Shakespeare should be performed? "Around the mid-19th century, the literary establishment sort of claimed Shakespeare, he became thought of as high art and classic literature," Crystal said. "This is the way I was taught him in school, and the way schools still teach the course of his plays being thought more of as literature, people like to make it beautiful as they think it is, and in order to do that you need to speak it carefully and musically and stoically, if you will."

But Shakespeare's plays are beautiful because of what he wrote about, not just how he wrote it. "He's writing about the human heart and the human condition, that's what makes it beautiful," said Crystal. "The characters speak very rawly, I suppose."

So what accent is that, exactly, that you can hear in the clip above? "Whenever I get a chance to speak with high school students, I always give them a blast of original pronunciation, and I ask them what they think it sounds like," said Crystal. "They say Irish and Welsh and Scottish...there's usually one kid who'll say 'Pirates of the Caribbean, Johnny Depp!'"

And they're not wrong, necessarily. "The accent of Shakespeare's time was all of those accents -- people came from all over the United Kingdom and their accents would all fuse together, and later of course they got on the boats and went over to America and Australia," he said. "And that's where the accent really comes from. The wonderful thing about this is that when people listen to Shakespeare in original pronunciation, rather than hearing the sound of the elite... the normal reaction is that people say, 'oh, it reminds me of the accent of my home.'

"And if people say that Shakespeare is a universal writer...this is a universal sound that we've re-found." Still, how can Crystal and his colleagues be sure that they've found the authentic voice? "We think we're about 90 to 95 per cent right -- which isn't bad for 400 years."

Crystal's father was the director of pronunciation at Shakespeare's Globe, and has done a significant amount of linguistic research, which Crystal drew on in recording this cd for the British Library. One hint at how things should be pronounced is in the rhymes. "Two thirds of Shakespeare's sonnets don't rhyme anymore, and we know that they used to," said Crystal. So don't blame Shakespeare when you're reading his sonnets and come across a rhyming couplet that doesn't. "It's the language that's shifted over the last 400 years."