Olivier Had it Wrong: Shakespeare’s Original Pronunciation

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William Shakespeare's "Sonnet 116"
From and

We’ve learned to understand Shakespeare from the likes of Lawrence Olivier (or perhaps the likes of Ethan Hawke). To our ears, Olivier seems to define the sound of Shakespeare, but he was probably way off. For 400 years, the pronunciation of English has changed so much that we’re not getting the full flavor, or full meaning, of Shakespeare.

David and Ben Crystal, a father and son team, have recreated what they say is the original pronunciation — OP, they call it: how Shakespeare’s plays would have been sounded around 1600. How did they achieve this Jurassic Park-like resurrection of a long-dead accent? David, the elder Crystal, is a linguistic scholar, and he starts with the sonnets. Of the 154 known, 96 don't rhyme perfectly, "and why is that?” he asks. “Was Shakespeare not a very good poet then?" "You can't get out of it by saying, ‘these were eye rhymes’ — rhymes that looked right even if they didn't sound right — because that wasn't the fashion of speaking in those days." Crystal looks in the works of 17th-century grammarians, who explained which words rhymed and which didn't. "Proved" and "loved" don’t rhyme to us, but Shakespeare, it turns out, would have said "pruvved" and "luvved." When the rhymes are reset, ancient puns surface — some of them fairly dirty.

The OP accent that emerges from the Crystals’ research sounds closer to Northern England or even some American accents. “Received pronunciation,” the very proper, clipped speech we associate with fine actors or BBC news anchors, didn't develop until the early 1800s, when the upper classes wanted to distinguish themselves audibly from the burgeoning middle class.

Ben Crystal is an actor and director who works with theater companies — from London to Reno, Nevada — to teach the OP. He says the more colloquial speech loosens up actors and transforms the way they speak the lines. Just as in early 17th century productions, "they talked to the audience … ‘What do you think I should do? Do you think I should kill Claudius? Do you think I should believe the ghost?’" OP also moves much faster, shaving minutes off the production.

The Crystals say they are 90% certain of their reconstruction of OP. "Dad obviously from an academic point of view sort of hates that final 10%," says Ben. He sees it as an opportunity for the actors to incorporate their own accents and experiences, and to make the language their own. He even enjoys doing workshops in cowboy country like Texas, where "it works brilliantly in Southern American." 


Bonus Track: Kurt’s extended conversation with David and Ben Crystal

Some highlights:

  • 7:30 — Shakespeare’s “real” accent: Given that Shakespeare's actors all spoke in their own regional dialects, Kurt wonders if the Crystals actually unearthed the playwright’s own accent. "No, we'll never know that," David responds. What they are reconstructing is the "sound system" that allowed people of different accents to understand each other. For example in 1600, all the English pronounced "invention" as "in-ven-see-UN" whether they were Welsh or Londoners.
  • 18:10 — “Speaking like us”: David remembers meeting a group of teens from London's grittier neighborhoods during one of their productions at the Globe Theater. "And I said, how are you finding the play guys?" "Oh it's great!” they told him. “Normally when we go to theater, it sounds all posh, whereas these people, they're speaking like us!"  
  • 23:30 — On punning: Their research into Original Pronunciation unearthed many long forgotten puns. When performing Romeo and Juliet, the Crystals discovered that "lines" and "loins" rhymed. "Their bodily loins and their genealogical lines — there's a pun here," David says, "which until the OP production, nobody had never noticed before!"
  • 21:30 — Shakespeare NSFW: Yes, the Crystals also discovered dirty jokes as well. The character Touchstone in As You Like It recounts a joke that made him laugh for an hour. "And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe / And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot / And thereby hangs a tale." In modern English, it's not funny. It's actually a depressing commentary on human mortality. But in OP, hour is pronounced "ore" — the same pronunciation of the word "whore." Suddenly, ripe and rot take on a whole new meaning.  

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