‘Speak … as I Pronounced It to You, Trippingly on the Tongue’

It was in Robert MacNeil’s TV series The Story of English that I first heard the rumor of Shakespearean English being alive and well on certain islands off the coast of the southeastern United States. MacNeil went there, as I recall, and several locals declaimed in the Bard’s language, all of them sounding fairly colorful and convincing—and a whole lot less respectable than the upper-class accents we had cultivated for my high-school production of The Taming of the Shrew.

Now the estimable British Library has released a set of scenes and speeches on CD that claim to be performed as Shakespeare would have intended. How do they know? To learn the answer, I had to work my way past the clips from the CD release that can be found on the Web or downloaded from the British Library—for instance, this snippet from Macbeth.

To me, this audio sounds, first, like someone whose jaw has been wired shut, turning ahs and ays into ehs and ees; and, second, like someone standing very close to a finely tuned microphone, which I doubt was available at the Globe back then.

But let’s not get fussy, let’s get the facts. Lacking sufficient patience to order the physical CD set from England and thus obtain the accompanying essay by David Crystal (father of the actor Ben Crystal, who curated the series for the British Library), I found my way to Professor Crystal’s Web site. There, sure enough, he has a page titled “How do you know?” and by following its links I learned the following.

• The so-called “eye rhymes” that most of us assign to Shakespeare’s sonnets (rhyming “love” with “prove” for instance) were likely auditory rhymes, since Benedick of Much Ado About Nothing (among others) asserts that “good rhymes are prerequisites for romantic success” and most of the half-rhymes in the sonnets are not eye rhymes. How do we know which pronunciation should change? From orthography of the time and from puns. “Tongues” sounds like “songs,” for instance, because there’s a joke mixing up “tongues” and “tongs.”

• Class differences would come through in pronunciation, but not in the same way as they do today. The final “g” in “-ing” was probably dropped by all classes, since the orthography frequently indicates an ending in “n.”

• Folks like Ben Jonson actually took time out to comment on pronunciation, so we get some clues from contemporary writers. Jonson describes, for example, a “liquid r,” a sound that was beginning to change into the almost nonexistent “r” in use today among British upper classes. So Crystal drops a slightly harsher “r” into the accents of Shakespeare’s commoner characters, as well as a “sh” sound for “musician,” which princes and dukes would have pronounced “mu-si-sian.”

• When in doubt, Crystal and the folks behind the British Library recordings are taking an educated guess. In the lines from Romeo & Juliet

ROMEO: O let us hence! I stand on sudden haste.

FRIAR: Wisely and slow. They stumble that run fast.

—the performers hit a vowel sound somewhere between the two with which we’re familiar. Perhaps not the ideal solution, but the couplet sure works a lot better when it actually rhymes.

To get a take on Crystal’s “OP” argument, I contacted Dennis Krausnick, director of training at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass. He is less interested in proximity to Shakespeare than in proximity to today’s audience. “I think it wisest,” he told me, “to speak our language as distinctly and clearly as possible without trying to distance our audiences by sounding different from them. We do not try to remove actors’ regionalisms unless they are so strong that they draw attention to themselves. … It is my own prejudice that what we now refer to as ‘original pronunciation’ is an academic exercise that puts more of a barrier between the actor and the audience than already exists.”

The Bard, of course, foresaw all this. As Cassius put it in Julius Caesar,

How many ages hence

Shall this our lofty scene be acted o’er,

In states unborn and accents yet unknown!


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