Shakespearean Talk

This year, 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare, the Bodleian Libraries are taking part in Oxford’s year-long celebration Shakespeare Oxford 2016.

On the 18th of March, David Crystal and his actor/director son Ben Crystal gave the second of a series of fifteen free talks on Shakespeare that will be held at the Weston Library. The lecture, ‘How To Talk Like Shakespeare’, focused on the inspirations and evidence for David’s soon to be published book, the Oxford Dictionary of Original Shakespearean Pronunciation, which is the first full description of the way that Shakespeare and his cohort actually spoke in the 16th-17th centuries. The talk featured short performances by David and Ben to demonstrate the differences between the usual modern ‘received’ pronunciation of Shakespeare’s work and the way the plays would have sounded in their original pronunciation (OP).

You can see them in action for yourself in this Open University video.

Friday’s lecture beautifully illustrated the case David makes on originalpronunciation.com for why we should be care about how Shakespeare and his actors spoke:

  • Rhymes that don’t work in modern English suddenly work.

  • Puns missed in modern English become clear.

  • New assonances and rhythms give lines a fresh impact.

  • Original pronunciation illustrates what is meant by speaking ‘trippingly upon the tongue’ (Hamlet).

  • Original pronunciation suggests new contrasts in speech style, such as between young and old, court and commoners, literate and illiterate.

  • OP motivates fresh possibilities of character interpretation.

As archivists, we get to add that OP makes us consider our early manuscripts in a new light! In the Q&A session after the talk, Mike Webb, the Curator of Early Modern Manuscripts here at the Weston Library, mentioned the 1645-1649 account book of Mary Gofton (described online here). Spelling wasn’t fully fixed in this period and Mary often writes phonetically. It would have been easy to overlook this or perhaps even to mark the author as badly educated, or just a poor speller, but this phonetic spelling turns out to be a fantastic gift. Reading the account book aloud and doing your best impression of OP, Mary’s voice jumps out of the text. You can see a sample of the account book below: the perfectly OP-sounding ‘Lettell Mall’ and ‘Lettell Neck’ [Nick] are her grandchildren.

Gofton account book (MS. Eng. e. 3651)

Gofton account book (MS. Eng. e. 3651) – Click to enlarge

David Crystal also discussed the effect that OP has on audiences and actors. One outcome of using OP is that the plays become more engaging to people who are put off by, or find difficult to understand, the ‘posh’ received pronunciation (RP) that we have all come to associate with Shakespeare. (Interestingly, there was nothing like received pronunciation in Shakespeare’s day – distinct class-based accents seem to be a product of the nineteenth century.)

Another advantage is that actors who would normally fake RP don’t have to hide their native accents because OP wasn’t itself an accent, more of a dialect, and it underlay many distinctive regional accents in the early modern period. So, for example (with apologies to all linguists!) ‘temptation’ and any other word ending in ‘tion’ was pronounced something like ‘temp-tay-see-on’ in OP, whether the speaker came from Devon or London, while today it’s pronounced something like ‘temp-tay-shun’ by most English speakers, wherever you come from. And for that majority of modern English-speaking people who don’t use RP, whether they’re from the UK or other English-speaking countries, OP can sound more familiar and intelligible than RP – not surprising, as it was the foundation accent for so many English-speaking countries.

If you want to hear more OP in action, there are plenty of demonstrations and transcriptions online. Why not start with Ben Crystal performing Hamlet’s ‘To Be, or not to be?’.

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