How Was Shakespeare Pronounced? Ben Crystal Discusses Original Pronunciation

16.jpgActor Ben Crystal is at the forefront of the original pronunciation (OP) movement, which attempts to recreate the type of accent that was used in Shakespeare’s time. Together with his father, linguist David Crystal[1], Ben has acted in OP performances of Shakespeare plays, and gives workshops on OP. He has recorded a CD for The British Library of excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays and poems in OP.[2] He has also written a number of books, including Shakespeare on Toast[3]. Together with David Crystal, Ben Crystal will be organizing a staged reading of Macbeth in OP at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London, in July.[4] I talked to Ben Crystal recently about original pronunciation.

Kirk McElhearn: I first encountered the idea of Shakespeare’s original pronunciation back in the 1980s. There was a series of documentaries on the US public television stations called The Story of English, and there was a book by Robert McCrum[5], which suggested that the English accent of Shakespeare’s time was still spoken in Appalachia.

Ben Crystal: It’s a lovely idea that the accent did indeed travel on the Mayflower and on the boats down to the Antipodes later on, but the idea that they would have cocooned and stayed frozen in time is just not true. When people have gone to these places and recorded the sounds and compared them with the sounds that they now would have been spoken 400 years ago, [they’ve found that] they’ve changed quite a lot.

Me: When did the idea of performing a play in original pronunciation take hold?

BC: There were lots of dabblings in it in the last century. It wasn’t until 2004 when Shakespeare’s Globe said they were interested in an original practices pronunciation experiment. They wanted to but they were afraid that it wasn’t going to be understood. They were eventually convinced because they were worried that if they didn’t do it, a theatre like in Stratford might have done it first. Under Mark Rylance, the Globe was known for its original practices.

So they did Romeo and Juliet, but they did it in received pronunciation for the most part, but they had three performances over one weekend in original pronunciation.

The following year, in 2005, they did an original pronunciation production of Troilus and Cressida, with one performance a week for six weeks [in original pronunciation].

But there still hasn’t been a full month-long production of a Shakespeare play in OP over here.

KM: What was the reaction from the public?

BC: We got a lot of great feedback from the audience. The main worry was that it wouldn’t be understandable. The sound of Shakespeare’s original pronunciation seems to be built of quite a number of regional accents of Elizabethan Britain. When you speak it, there are natural sounds which are very familiar with you, which probably resonate with your own particular accent, so you get more ownership over the sound you’re creating, much more so than with received pronunciation, which is the accent that most actors are taught.

On the audience side of things, people tend to hear the accent that is most familiar to them. One great response to Romeo and Juliet was a group of kids who said, “They sound like us.” Although they didn’t sound like a 21st century Cockney youth, they had expected Shakespeare to sound like a part of the cultural elite.

KM: To sound posh.[6]

BC: Exactly. And the fact that it didn’t sound like that, that it sounded so familiar, takes down one of the many obstacles that people often find when confronted with Shakespeare: that it’s difficult, hard, that you have to have a certain amount of cultural breeding or intelligence in order to understand it.

Because you’re hearing a sound that seems familiar to you, you listen with your heart more than with your head; you don’t analyze it as much and you become more engaged.

That said, there have been quite a few people who don’t understand it, who say “it’s just academic.”

Because you’re hearing a sound that seems familiar to you, you listen with your heart more than with your head

Would Shakespeare want a four-hour production of Hamlet (which is how long the full text lasts)? He would want the best two hours’ traffic, the best two hours’ entertainment that you can have. Living in the 21st century, would he want all male actors? He could recognize the fact that female actors are allowed to act on stage now and he would probably warmly encourage it. Similarly he’d probably say that some of those jokes, they’re 400 years old, they’re probably not going to be funny any more. And would he want us to be slavishly working to an accent that is equally 400 years old? No.

I’m happy about the fact that we’re 90% right – which is pretty good – as close as possible, and with that, the last 10% is built of the actor’s own accent. So everybody’s OP is the same, but very personal to them.

KM: Shakespeare’s actors all had different accents. So are you saying that there’s a sort of “core pronunciation” that’s technically not an accent on its own?

BC: Original pronunciation is a sound system; a phonology rather than a set of phonetics. What you’ve got is 16th century London, people coming from all over the country. If you and I were to continue talking for an hour in a pub, we would do a natural linguistic phenomenon called “accommodation;” this is a subconscious action to make the person you’re talking to feel more comfortable. Our accents would sort of level out, so you would be pulled toward my accent and I would be pulled toward yours. Our accents would slip into a much more similar sound system temporarily. The longer you spend with a person in that situation, the more of an effect it has.

So when Shakespeare or whoever would go back home, they would slip more into their home accent, and when in London, they’d have more of what was then a London accent.

As far as we can tell, they would be 90% the same, and 10% their home accents.

KM: So your idea is not that this is a monolithic, frozen system, but that each actor makes it live according to the way they speak.

BC: Exactly. And that’s what I’m interested in as a practitioner. It stops being a piece of academic, historical research, and starts becoming something that’s actually terribly useful in a style of theatre where many actors feel excluded from it because they don’t have the right sound. Many actors here think that as long as they create that beautiful, musical, poetic RP sound, then they don’t have to do anything else.

There are a lot of sounds that you need to nail to make this accent work, but all you’re really doing is making sure to make the right sounds to make the rhymes work. The rest of it is giving you room to be yourself.

KM: So how exactly do you determine how things were pronounced in Shakespeare’s time?

BC: The first part is the early linguists. Johnson wrote a bit of a pronouncing dictionary, there’s only the beginning of it. He goes through the sounds of the alphabet and tells us how people in London pronounced particular words. Then there are rhymes; two thirds of the sonnets don’t rhyme any more, and there’s rhymes in various plays. You get a big chunk of data from that. And there’s the spellings of the First Folio, a word like “film” is spelled, in the Folio, “philome,” which is definitely a two-syllable word, and that pronunciation still exists in Northern Ireland.

Those three sets of data take you to the 90%, and, in terms of the meter, then you’re talking about the prosody of the speech, the melody or the delivery system of it, how fast it’s supposed to be.

We’ve got two clues from Shakespeare about how to deliver it. One is in Hamlet, “Speak the speech I pray you as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue,” which seems to suggest a faster way of speaking. But you’ve also got the elisions, in the actual writing. “I’th’” is not “in the” but “ith.” A lot of the spellings, and the ways that words have been elided in the First Folio, [were elided] to fit the meter. These were texts that were supposed to be spoken, so we’ve found that those elisions help the pace of the text.

Sometimes we’ve found that OP changes the meter. In the opening speech of Richard III, there’s a line, “Cheated of feature by dissembling nature.” You can’t say it correctly in received pronunciation.[7]

KM: You’ve said that with original pronunciation the plays are performed more quickly. I’ve read that, in Shakespeare’s time, plays had to be less than two hours and thirty minutes long. Does OP fit some of these longer plays into that duration?

BC: In the Romeo and Juliet chorus, at the end, there’s a line it “is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage.” This means some point between the second bell of the afternoon and the third. The plays were performed at two o’clock in the afternoon, so it meant that the two hours’ traffic could be any time between the four o’clock bell and the five o’clock bell. By that time, you’re losing daylight, and it’s got to be over.

When we did Romeo and Juliet [at the Globe Theatre], it was ten minutes faster in the OP production than in the RP production. When I played Hamlet in Reno in 2011, we did a three-hour text in two and a half hours, including an interval.

A lot of people think the poetry makes more sense if you slow it down. When you’re speaking quicker it forces you to think more quickly. You have to think quickly when you’re playing Shakespeare because his characters think so quickly all the time. Look at any of the great monologues; the thoughts change on a dime. When you’re forced speak quickly, you think quickly, and you move quickly, and suddenly, Hamlet, that seems to be about a depressive becomes much more a fast-moving, quick-thinking action hero in some respects.

You have to think quickly when you’re playing Shakespeare because his characters think so quickly all the time.

KM: How do actors learn a part in OP?

BC: My father reads the whole play out for just the sounds of the play, and he does a transcription. This accounts for each actor’s approach, whether it’s aurally or by phonetics.

KM: We certainly don’t want to say Shakespeare’s plays all performed in OP, but what will it take to see his plays regularly performed that way?

BC: I don’t want to see every play performed in OP. But I like seeing Shakespeare in a space as close as possible to what they were written for, whether that be the Globe, or a play like Twelfth Night, which was written for a traverse space, like the Middle Temple. Like the First Folio, because it’s close to the original text and edited by Shakespeare’s actors.

When I go into production next year, will I use OP? Maybe, if it’s useful. What I like about it is the freedom it gives the actors, in mind, and heart, and movement, and body. But I don’t want to see every play done in a space like the Globe. It’s what the plays were written for, and OP is the sound that the plays were written for. Whatever works.

KM: What does the future hold for this? It was interesting to hear the CD you worked on with the excerpts of Shakespeare plays in OP, but it would be more interesting to hear an entire play like that.

BC: There have been five or six productions in OP in the States in the last couple of years, there’s only been a single one over here. The British Library struggled to get the funding for that single CD, and didn’t manage to get funding for a full play recording.

If I were to put on a production next year OP would only be one facet of many production decisions. I wouldn’t want people saying “Oh, wow, that was an amazing accent.” If they do that, then I’ve lost.

I’m fascinated by [OP]. I think there’s a lot to learn from it. If you’ve got received pronunciation at one extreme and OP at the other, I’m interested in finding the middle ground which basically ends up using the actors’ own voices as much as possible.

Watch this video to hear Ben Crystal and David Crystal demonstrating original pronunciation:

  1. David Crystal discussed this in Pronouncing Shakespeare: The Globe Experiment (, Amazon UK) See Crystal’s web site, Pronouncing Shakespeare for more.  ↩
  2. Shakespeare on Toast (, Amazon UK)  ↩
  3. Shakespeare’s Original Pronunciation: Speeches and Scenes Performed as Shakespeare Would Have Heard Them (, Amazon UK)  ↩
  4. Read not Dead  ↩
  5. The Story of English (, Amazon UK)  ↩
  6. Or, as Americans would say, to sound upper class or snooty.  ↩
  7. Listen to Ben Crystal reading this speech here.  ↩