Pronouncing English as Shakespeare Did

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 16

When Shakespeare wrote his lines, and actors first spoke them, how did they say the words—and what does that tell us?

Rebecca Sheir, host of the Shakespeare Unlimited series, talks original pronunciation (OP) with Shakespearean actor Ben Crystal and his father, linguist David Crystal, one of the world's foremost researchers on how English was spoken in Shakespeare's time.

Filled with lively banter as well as familiar lines spoken in OP, the conversation offers a different perspective on the plays, from the puns and rhymes hidden by modern pronunciation to added meanings and the opportunity for quicker speech.

Ben Crystal is a Shakespearean actor who has appeared through Great Britain and the United States.

David Crystal, Ben Crystal's father, is a linguist, editor, lecturer, and author of more than 100 books, including The Stories of English, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, and The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language.

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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. © December 3, 2014. Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, "Speak the Speech, I Pray You, as I Pronounced It to You," was written and produced for the Folger Shakespeare Library by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. Edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Esther French at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Geoff Oliver at the Sound Company in London, and Jonathan Charry at WAMU radio in Washington, DC.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I'm Michael Witmore, the Folger's director. This podcast is called "Speak the Speech, I Pray You, as I Pronounced It to You."

It's about a trend that's become popular among some performers of Shakespeare, the movement toward so-called "original pronunciation," or OP for short. OP practitioners try to pronounce the words in Shakespeare's plays the way they would have been spoken in the Elizabethan period. There are those, principally people in theater marketing, who will tell you that OP brings audiences closer to Shakespeare's original meaning. Whatever the veracity of that claim, there are some things that are true about OP. For one, it's a fascinating challenge for actors. Second, it's an academic pursuit that has been given an interesting boost in recent years as technology has enabled researchers to understand better how the English language was likely spoken in the 1600s.

To talk about these two elements of the OP experience, we've brought together a father and son team who are uniquely qualified to discuss it. Ben Crystal is a Shakespearean actor who has appeared throughout Great Britain and the United States. David Crystal is Ben's father. He's a linguist, writer, editor, and lecturer known for his many books, including The Stories of English and The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Since the 1960s, he's been one of the world's foremost researchers on the way English was spoken in Shakespeare's time. Ben and David are interviewed by Rebecca Sheir.


REBECCA SHEIR: David, there's something you mentioned in an article you wrote that I want to ask you about first. You were writing about the most significant early researchers in this field, and you said, "They were all careful to stress the tentative nature of many of their findings." Now, you and Ben have been much less tentative. Why is that?

DAVID CRYSTAL: I think it's because the first people who started to study original pronunciation were over a century ago. We're talking about the 1860s here, the 1870s, and this is before the development of modern linguistics, modern phonetics, even. You know, when you're studying pronunciation, one of the things you've got to do, to be able to do, is write down the sounds in some sort of phonetic alphabet. Well, in the 1860s, there was no such thing. We now know so much more about not just linguistics, but about Shakespeare and the events that took place in Elizabethan England, and all of this means that you can start making statements that are much more confident than the scholars were a century ago.

SHEIR: Let's talk about spelling. You use spelling to determine pronunciation. When you do that, where are you looking, and what are you looking for?

DAVID: Spelling is one of the pieces of evidence you use when you're reconstructing an earlier system of a language. Sometimes, it's the only source of evidence, if you go back to Anglo-Saxon times, for instance, or Chaucer. But in spelling, what you're doing is you're looking at a period of the language when the spelling wasn't standardized. And so, we wouldn't be able to work out an individual accent very easily from the way the language is spelled now. But in Shakespeare's time, it was very, very different. Spelling had not been standardized, it was still evolving, and so people were still spelling more or less as they spoke. And so, you can use those spellings as an indication of what's going on.

For example, if one typesetter or one author spells a word with the letter e, as "eh," and another author or typesetter spells the same word with a letter i, as "ih," it shows that there was a pronunciation somewhere between the "ih" and the "eh." And that means that when you get a word like yet or "I'm doing something yet," "y-e-t," and it's spelled "y-i-t," it shows you that that pronunciation was something like "yit."

Imagine those guys a hundred years ago. They had to work through a written text by hand, letter by letter, to work out all these spellings and things like that. Inevitably, they didn't do the job in a very thorough way, they couldn't do it, take a lifetime to collate all the spellings from all these places. They were inevitably being very tentative in what they found. Now, with a computer, if I want to find out exactly how many words in Shakespeare, in an electronic version of Shakespeare, are spelt with an i or an e or whatever, I can do that with a press of a button and get the data in half an hour or so, and spend the rest of the day happily sorting out what's going on. And so, all of these things, you know, together, make for a much more confident state of affairs.

SHEIR: So, is it true that you've gone through the entire First Folio, David, and collated every spelling variation that's in there online?

DAVID: It's... almost true. I'm halfway through at the moment.

BEN CRYSTAL: It's worse than that, Rebecca. What he's doing right now, what I saw him doing last weekend, and this is when he wasn't looking through a hundred years' worth of Punch annuals for accented language jokes, and this is a hobby, this is what he does in his spare time. What he's doing as a job, and this is a book that's only been vaguely commissioned, I think. No, it has been commissioned, but still, he is going, he's making a dictionary of original pronunciation. And it took him, how long did it take you to get through letter a?

DAVID: Well, quite a while.

BEN: How long did it take you?


DAVID: I'm not saying. But it does take quite a while.

BEN: But you're up to letter f now, I think?

DAVID: I'm up to, coming up to letter g, you know? This is not going at all.

BEN: Well done. Nearly a third of the way through the alphabet, Dad. Steady on.

DAVID: This is all very well, saying, we use the rhymes, we use the spellings, and use the puns, and things of that kind, but if you're going to really convince people that you've done a good job, you've got to put all the evidence in front of everybody. And that means, for example, collecting all the rhymes that are in Shakespeare, and the only way of making that concept of "all" work, is through the medium of a dictionary.

SHEIR: But here's the thing, David, I mean, the Folger has more than 80 copies of the First Folio. And, as you know, you're going to find wide variations and spellings from book to book. I mean, they were printed in different print shops, sometimes one book would be printed in multiple shops. So, if you're looking at that one First Folio, how do you know that you're getting the definitive spelling?

DAVID: Oh, it wouldn't be definitive. Never use the word "definitive," ever.


DAVID: Ever. Nor do I ever use the word "authentic" when we're talking about original pronunciation. You know, when you're reconstructing an earlier period of the language, you can never get that kind of "definitive authenticity" that we're all, you know, looking for in an ideal world. It can't be authentic because, for a start, the period is different.

You know, it's like going to Shakespeare's Globe. Do you see an authentic reproduction of Shakespeare's Globe? No, you don't, because there are helicopters going overhead, and 747s going by, and the noises from the River Thames are different and so on. So, what you can get at the Globe is a plausible reconstruction that makes you feel you're as close as you can possibly get to how it was in those days. And it's the same with pronunciation. Ideally, I'd like to look at every edition of the First Folio that's around and if you'd like to, Folger would like to lend them to me at some point, I'd be very, very happy to do that. But...

BEN: It's all right, Dad, I'm going to be there in a month or two. I'll have a look for you.

DAVID: Thanks very much, Ben. You watch his pockets on the way out, Rebecca. [LAUGH]

SHEIR: We will, we will.

DAVID: Yeah. But you've got to start somewhere. And where do you start? You start with a First Folio. And so what I did was, I took the electronic version that's widely available online, and I've used that as the starting point.

SHEIR: When you first took the concept of OP to the actors at Shakespeare's Globe, as I understand it, they asked you if they were going to have to alter their accents. Is that what happened?

DAVID: Yeah, let me chip in there first.

BEN: That's right.

DAVID: Because Ben can follow this point up very clearly in relation to the activities he's been doing since. But the basic point is this, and that is that original pronunciation is a reconstruction of the sound system of Elizabethan English. Now, what do I mean by that? Technically, it's called a "phonology." You and I, all three of us talking now, are using the same sound system of modern English, but we're speaking in slightly different accents.

Now it was the same in Shakespeare's day. Everybody today says words like invention, musician, salvation. That's how we pronounce them, even though we might vary them slightly, depending upon our regional background. In Shakespeare's time, in the 1580s and 90s, people said "musecion," "invencion," "salvacion." By 20, 30 years later, that accent was shifting into "musi-cian," rather than "musecion," "inven-cian," "salva-cian," and then 50 or so years later, it would have become close to the modern pronunciation.

So, in Shakespeare's time, the phonological system, that is the sound system representing these words, was fundamentally different from the way in which we present them today, even though there might have been many variations of regional accent at the time. The actors who performed on the stage came from various parts of the country, we know where some of those Globe actors came from, and they would have brought their local accents with them.

And so, when we were reconstructing Romeo and Juliet for the 2004 Globe production, that was indeed one of the first questions that the actors came up with, you know? "Do we keep our original accents or not? Are we all supposed to forget our accents and learn this OP, which is a bit like learning to speak a Shakespeare play in Received Pronunciation?" The answer was "No, no, no. Learn OP, but allow it to be colored by your local accent." And so, we had a Scottish Juliet, a cockney nurse, we had a Northern Ireland Peter, we had an RP Romeo. And I think you, Ben, in your work with Hamlet and everything, you found exactly the same variation, didn't you?

BEN: I think, you know, this is where my interest in original pronunciation really started to percolate. I've been looking at ways of making Shakespeare more accessible, and through my work with my company and in schools and as an author, I've understood that working in as similar a spatial dynamic as you can, to the dynamic that Shakespeare's actors and company worked in, so, something like the Globe is going to teach us so much more about acting Shakespeare than it would if we were in a regular modern proscenium arch theater.

And exactly the same way, I'm fascinated by original pronunciation, because drama schools over here still tell their students that they have to speak Shakespeare in Received Pronunciation. When I went to audition for the Globe, I auditioned in Received Pronunciation and I sounded very beautiful, and the director looked at me and said, "Where are you from?" And I said, "I'm from North Wales," and she said, "Can you do a North Wales accent?" And I said "Yes, of course, whenever I go home, I start talking a bit like this, you know," and she said, "Can you do the speech in that accent?" And I did, and she gave me the job, because it released something in me.

There's something about acting in Received Pronunciation that doesn't... It's an unnatural accent for Shakespeare in a similar sort of way that a modern theater with its proscenium arch is so different from the Globe-like dynamic. The accent of original pronunciation opens up your body and your voice and your approach to the text in a way that a more modern accent doesn't.

SHEIR: An interesting point you both make in a lot of interviews is that understanding the original pronunciation is going to help you understand the play's meaning in a much deeper way. And I want to talk about some of the ways that that happens, for instance, puns. There's a great one that deals with the word "oars." Can one of you address that?

DAVID: Well, I'll start off. Because puns are indeed one of the most important sort of pieces of evidence. When people hear OP for the first time, what they notice is the rhyming. If something rhymes in modern English, or doesn't work in modern English and does in Shakespeare's time, they notice that. But more important than that, because of its dramatic potential, is they notice when a pun really works and comes across on the stage, which simply would not work because the pronunciation has changed, and in modern English, you just don't get it.

One of the famous examples comes from this word "oar." It was used for words like, today, we would say hour, h-o-u-r. That was pronounced "oar." And it was also used for words for a prostitute, a whore. So any time you get the word hour turning up in a Shakespeare play, there's always a possibility that it might be a pun there. And so, the most famous case, I suppose, is the one in As You Like It, Ben, isn't it?

[CLIP of Jacques in As You Like It, in OP:]

A fool, a fool, I met a fool i' the forest,
A motley fool. A miserable world!
As I do live by food, I met a fool,
Who laid him down and basked him in the sun
And railed on Lady Fortune in good terms,
In good set terms, and yet a motley fool.
"Good morrow, fool," quoth I. "No, sir," quoth he,
"Call me not 'fool' till heaven hath sent me fortune."

DAVID: Yeah, okay. Well, the piece in As You Like It where Duke Senior meets Jacques in the forest.

SHEIR: One of my professors in college always pronounced it "Ja-quees."

DAVID: "Ja-quees" is very much a 19th century pronunciation that developed and became very, very popular. But there's no basis for that pronunciation in Shakespeare's time. There are several books which actually explicitly say this and say there is a pun on the word because of its overlap with the word "jakes," meaning a lavatory, a toilet, or ****house. And of course, we know from examples like Touchstone in As You Like It, who actually refers to Monsieur Jacques, he actually calls him at one point, "Monsieur What-you-call-'t." Why does he say that? Well, because he's embarrassed to say the word. It has got that kind of rude connotation. So, that's the background to this part of As You Like It, where Jacques comes in from having heard Touchstone in the forest and reports with great mirth about what he heard there.

[CLIP of Ben Crystal as Jacques in As You Like It, still in OP]:

And then he drew a dial from his poke
And, looking on it with lack-luster eye,
Says very wisely "It is ten o'clock.
Thus we may see," quoth he, "how the world wags.
'Tis but an hour ago since it were nine,
And after one hour more 'twill be eleven.
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."

SHEIR: Wow. That changes everything.

BEN: And then he says, when I heard the fool tell this joke, I laughed, I made a laugh "like chanticleer." Chanticleer was the cockerel from "The Nun's Priest's Tale" by Old Father Chaucer. And Chanticleer had the most beautiful, you know, "err-err-err-err" [rooster crowing sound] in all the land. And Jacques said, the melancholy Jacques, of course, said that he made this noise, he laughed so hard, like this way, for "an hour."

And it only becomes funny when you hear it in OP, because hour, as you say, is pronounced "oar" and the word for prostitute, whore, is pronounced "oar." So he's making the rudest sex joke. He's talking about spending time with prostitutes, a different prostitute from hour to hour, and then getting a sexually transmitted disease of some sort and rotting away.

DAVID: These puns cover every conceivable word in the canon. I mean, you're always on the lookout for them. I mean, most of the time there isn't a pun there, but, you know, often even quite obvious examples are missed, like in the Prologue for Romeo and Juliet, where it says in the middle, "From forth the fatal loins of these two foes / A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life."

Well, loins, we know about loins are, they're the way in which you generate children, and so on. But when you know that loins was pronounced "loynes" and that the word lines, l-i-n-e-s, was also pronounced "loynes," then "From forth the fatal 'loynes' of these two foes," it means not just from their bodily loins, but also from their genealogical lines. Now, it doesn't make a major dramatic difference, but it does add that little bit more to our total knowledge of the playfulness with which Shakespeare's using language.

BEN: Well, and after all, you know, I mean, everybody thinks that everything has been said about Shakespeare. We're, you know, constantly looking for a new angle to shed new light and what have you. The little one that you gave me when I did Hamlet, from his first soliloquy from "too too solid flesh," it's "solid," "sullied," or "sallied." And wonderfully, all three words are pronounced the same in OP. And so the audience is left to decide which one you mean.

DAVID: Yeah, and the liveliness comes not just from discovering new meanings or dramaturgical effects, but also from the general aesthetic of the way in which the lines sound.

BEN: Absolutely.

DAVID: I mean this is so important. Do you remember, what does Hamlet mean when he says, "Speak the speech... trippingly upon the tongue"? Well, whatever he means, it means, you know, speak faster than the town crier does, who speaks very slowly and full of articulation. And speaking faster immediately produces a kind of bouncy rhythm and effect that is often missed when modern actors are "told to articulate. Are they not, dear boy?" [in exaggerated articulation]

BEN: "Absolutely." [similar articulation] I mean, and that rapidity, you get used to speaking faster but still clearly, so you still have to articulate. You... it ties in with the idea that poetry is harder to understand if you slow down. It makes you move faster and a combination of that brings, accelerates the speed at which you think, and Shakespeare's characters think so much more quickly than we do. It allows you to keep with the underlying rhythm of the poetry, and thereby all of this generates an energy onstage that is unusual in most productions. It makes for much faster productions, and it makes for much more active, if you understand what I mean by that, choices.

DAVID: It's the same thing happened with the Romeo at the Globe in 2004.

BEN: Absolutely.

DAVID: The Nurse, the Juliet said that... The thing about that production was, it was the first time the Globe had done it, so they were doing the run mainly in modern English, and then in the middle of the run, they did a weekend in OP. And Juliet, one of the things she said, was that when she was in modern English, she found it much more difficult to stand up to her father or to the Nurse when she's being harangued by them. But in OP, she felt firmer, she felt more ready to take them on, as it were, and it altered the way she moved, it altered her facial expressions, as well as the speed at which she spoke.

And this point about speed is very important. I mean, there's a world of difference between Romeo looking up at the balcony and saying, "It is my lady. O, it is my love! / O, that she knew she were!" [modern pronunciation] and "It is my lady. O, it is my love! / O, that she knew she were!" [original pronunciation]. And when you add all those seconds up, in the course of the play, the Romeo in 2004 in OP was 10 minutes shorter than the modern English version.

SHEIR: So, Ben, going back to, you know, finding the deeper meaning with the words, we were talking about puns and how, if you do OP, you catch more of the puns and therefore there's more humor, there's more meaning in the text. What about rhymes, can you give us some examples of rhymes that wouldn't come out, unless the words were pronounced in original pronunciation?

BEN: Sure. They're... the classic example from the end of one of his most famous sonnets:

[CLIP of Ben Crystal reading Sonnet 116 in OP:]

Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
     If this be error, and upon me proved,
     I never write, nor no man every loved.

"If this be error and upon me proved, / I never writ, nor no man ever loved" is a kind of a damp squib ending to a beautiful piece of work. We know that it had to have been "moved" and "proved," or "loved" and "proved" [rhyming with "loved"]. And very few people elongate the vowel of love to "loove" or "lerve." I think Elvis actually does, pretty much. [LAUGH]

DAVID: Well, you know, 96 of the sonnets don't have rhymes that work in modern English, and, as a result, you suddenly find that these sonnets start jumping off the page in a way that modern English doesn't allow them to do.

BEN: Same in A Midsummer Night's Dream or indeed any of the rhyming plays. When I was working in Reno, I went over there to give them an introductory workshop and they were working on Dream.

And the guy playing Oberon said, "I'm having a real problem with this speech when he puts the juice on Demetrius's eye. He says:
            Flower of this purple dye,
            Hit with Cupid's archery,
            Sink in apple of his eye.

And it doesn't rhyme anymore."

And I said, "Well, it does in OP:
            Flower of this purple dye,
            Hit with Cupid's archery,
            Sink in apple of his eye."

And he said, "Yeah, but I don't know OP yet." And I said, "Well, you know, and this is the thing, you know. It's about speaking in an accent that works, that lets the rhymes work. And I said to him, look, can you do a Southern American accent, do it in Southern American:
            Flower of this purple dye,
            Hit with Cupid's archery,
            Sink in apple of his eye."

You know, whatever works.

SHEIR: And I'm wondering about something else when it comes to performing in OP. Does an actor have to make distinctions about when he or she is playing a royal or a servant? I mean, did Shakespeare write it differently, can you tell by reading it that this person is being a king, this person's a commoner? Is there any difference with OP?

DAVID: No, the accent that signals upper class-ness, this didn't develop as an accent until round the year 1800. Regional accents didn't prevent you from becoming some of the highest people in the kingdom, and the evidence comes from people like Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake, both of whom were strong Devonshire men and preserved their Devonshire accents to their dying day, according to a local commentator.

And so, there was no real way in which you would associate being upper class or being noble or being aristocratic or anything like that with any particular accent. So is there any way at all of showing that you're different? So, just one way, and it was this, that you could show that you were literate, that you knew how to write, read and write. But that wouldn't affect most of the characterizations that you see in a typical play.

And we had this problem, actually, at the Globe in 2004. That was one of the first questions, if we're all sounding a bit "oo-ah," you know, we're all sounding a bit rural, because of that's one of the kind of stereotypical associations of the OP, how do we tell the audience that we are upper class, and we're different from the servants and everybody? We're using the same sort of accent. And the director, Tim Carroll, looked them all straight in the eye and said, "Act." And all the actors in the room went, "Oh, yeah." In other words, you don't need the accent in order to show your class.

BEN: The man who is king wears a crown and walks into a room, and everybody else falls to their knees.

SHEIR: You've made the point in articles that the sound system of Elizabethan English has been "remarkably neglected," that's what you say, as a field of study. And considering how meticulous the study of Shakespeare is, why do you think that the study of the phonology isn't deeper, isn't richer?

DAVID: I think it's because the concept of phonology is a relatively recent one in linguistics. I mean, it's been known, of course, since the 1930s and 1940s, but purely as a linguistic phenomenon, a way of describing the sound systems of the languages of the world. The people who are interested in literature, and in Shakespeare in particular, there are very few linguists actually who have done this, you know. I've been looking for soul mates, as it were, around the world, linguists who are equally interested in applying their knowledge to Shakespeare, and I haven't found anybody. You know, there's hardly anybody out there. So, all right. You know, there are probably others out there, but I think this is one of the reasons why so little work has been done.

SHEIR: So, this series has been ongoing. We've been doing a lot of different highlighting of different aspects of Shakespeare. And we did a podcast earlier on that spent a lot of time talking about Ben Greet. A lot of people don't know who he is, but he also claimed to be doing a type of OP, but in his case, it was original costumes, original set changes, and performing outdoors, just like they did in Elizabethan times. So, a lot of the "original" in his "original practice" was basically marketing, more than anything else. But what we're talking about today, the three of us, it's so much more than that, isn't it?

DAVID: Well, I think it is. I think one of the fallacies about OP is that, it... one of the wrong associations with OP is that if you do a play in OP, it's the OP that counts. No, wrong. As Hamlet says, you know, "The play's the thing." If you leave a performance in OP, and as you're leaving the theater, you're saying to everybody else, "Wasn't the OP great? Oh, it was lovely to hear it." Then we've failed. [LAUGHTER]

SHEIR: Yeah.

DAVID: The director's failed, the actors have failed, everybody's failed. When you look at a play in OP, the OP is one of the elements, along with the movement, the costume, the music, everything else that gives you a heightened sense of the drama that is part of the production.

SHEIR: Ben, as an actor, can you talk more about that?

BEN: It's a wonderful tool to gain ownership over something that is often being touted or sold to you as something that is for the few and the privileged. Anything that is going to enable you to access the heart of what Shakespeare is talking about and act it better is a brilliant tool for me.

DAVID: You know, when you go from RP to OP, you hunker down, don't you?

BEN: Absolutely. It drops your center. It becomes much lower. I mean, with RP, it's often up towards your throat. With OP, it comes down towards your stomach and your groin. It changes the way you move. I go from speaking in a very, in a much sort of higher quality of my voice, and I get down more into the gravelly part of my resonance. It has tremendous ramifications, from male to female, old to young, anybody that I've seen use OP, the effect's the same.

SHEIR: All right, so at this point, I guess we will have to wrap up. But David, Ben, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today from across the sea.

DAVID: It's been a real pleasure. Thanks so much for your interest.


WITMORE: Actor Ben Crystal and linguist David Crystal are father and son. David is the author of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, and nearly 100 other books. The Crystals were interviewed by Rebecca Sheir.

"Speak the Speech, I Pray You, as I Pronounced It to You" was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Esther French, from Geoff Oliver at the Sound Company in London, and Jonathan Charry at WAMU radio in Washington.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world's largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find out more about the Folger at our website For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I'm Folger Director Michael Witmore.