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WE RECOGNIZE the sounds of Shakespearean English, that regal, full and slightly plummy resonance of the language. But this is modern theatrical English; it’s not the language as she was spoke back in Elizabethan times.
Scholars have looked into the matter of Original Pronunciation, and it turns out that good ol’ ’Merican—or maybe Australian—isn’t far from the pronunciation of Shakespeare’s time. An excellent discussion of this at the Open University website is given by David Crystal, Honorary Professor of Linguistics, the University of Wales, and his son, actor Ben Crystal.
Smithsonian.com’s “Hear Shakespeare As It Was Meant To Be Heard” is a portal to this and related video and sound bites (http://goo.gl/vnA3Ep).
Prof. Crystal observes that such linguistic detective work depends on three aspects. First, there were writing analyses of the language at the time. Elizabethan playwright Ben Jonson, for instance, wrote about the final r in words needing a proper “grr” hardness. Contrast this with today’s “rathah” different way of treating the letter.
Second, spelling in Elizabethan times was in flux, in a sense better reflecting actual pronunciation than today’s spelling. For instance, our word “film” was spelled “philome,” suggesting that it was pronounced, as some persist today, “filum.”
Third, and particularly fascinating, Prof. Crystal says pronunciation of the era can be deduced from puns and intended rhymes. In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, the rhymes make more sense in the dialect of the Liverpool Beatles, rather than that of the Old Vic’s Lawrence Olivier. “Come” and “doom”? And, at the poem’s ending couplet, “If this be error and upon me proved/I never writ, nor man ever loved.” (Hear these with a Beatles’ “coom” and “luvved”.)
In “Romeo and Juliet,” the words “loins” (of the lower anatomy) and “lines” (as in genealogical lines) have little resonance in modern English. However, in Shakespeare’s time, there was an intended pun with both words pronounced “loyns.”
In “As You Like It,” there’s a line, “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.”
This would have raised a howl of ribald laughter, especially from the Globe Theatre’s groundlings, the cheap-ticket types standing immediately in front of the stage. Why?
In Elizabethan times, the word “hour” lost its “h” and became “ore,” a perfect homonym at the time with the word “whore.” As Ben Crystal notes of this bawdiness, the entire passage is racy. There’s even a reference to “the King’s Evil.”
The Crystals have cooperated with the British Library to produce an audio guide. The CD “Shakespeare’s Original Pronunciation” contains 75 minutes of sonnets, speeches and scenes. For details, see http://goo.gl/vVZf1H; it’s available as well at www.amazon.com.
With the help of the Crystals, the acting company of the modern Shakespeare’s Globe performed dual productions of “Romeo and Juliet,” one in modern English and the other in Original Pronunciation. Ben observed that actors following the OP style inherently reacted with an earthier, less reverential delivery.
They found themselves speaking more rapidly as well. The OP “Romeo and Juliet” running time was 10 minutes shorter than the one in modern English.
What a magical production this must have been: Witnessing Elizabethan theater in a carefully crafted modern equivalent of “this wooden O”—and even in the vernacular of the era. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013.