An earful of brown ale

Pronouncing Shakespeare
October 28, 2005

Having recently attended a performance of Troilus and Cressida in "original pronunciation" (OP) at the Globe, I can vouch for the value of the experience. Indeed, since the production was as humdrum as Globe productions too often are, the actors' delivery of their lines in Elizabethan English was its most compelling feature.

My fears of drowning in a stew of stagy Mummerset and implausible brogue proved groundless. What I heard was a fluent fusion of diverse accents, at once strange and familiar, that bore the unmistakable stamp of living speech.

The lion's share of the credit for this achievement must go to David Crystal, author of the superb glossary Shakespeare's Words . Crystal was recruited as the Globe's adviser on OP in 2004, when the company decided to extend its experiments with original practice into the one area it had so far avoided. For three days in June last year, Romeo and Juliet was performed in the closest the cast could get to early modern English. It was the first attempt in four centuries to mount such a production on the professional London stage. Pronouncing Shakespeare is Crystal's account of how that landmark production came about.

In an engaging, unbuttoned style, the book takes us from first inklings, through planning and rehearsals, to the performances, quoting liberally from the director, the actors and their audience. But at its core is a masterclass in the rudiments of OP, a potentially dull topic that Crystal makes absorbing. The key question he addresses is the obvious one: how can we know what Shakespeare's actors sounded like when the earliest recorded voices date only from the 1870s? Historical phoneticians and philologists rely on three main sources of evidence.

The first is spelling, which - before it was standardised in the 18th century - often reflected the way words were spoken. Hence, we find the word "film" spelt "philome" in the 1623 Folio, which suggests that it was a two-syllable word for Shakespeare, as it still is in modern Irish. The second source is contemporary accounts of pronunciation given by works such as John Hart's Orthographie (1569), which confirm, for example, that the letter "r" was pronounced after vowels, as in West Country or North American accents today. The third kind of evidence is found in the rhymes and puns Shakespeare used. Thus the pronunciation of "Rosaline" in As You Like It can be inferred from its rhymes with "mine", "brine" and "thine".

The timbre and intonation of Elizabethan voices can never be recaptured.

But it is possible to reconstruct not only the pronunciation of vowels, consonants and syllables, but also the pace and texture of idiomatic stage speech. That speech "occupies a unique dialect space", Crystal concludes, "resonating with several modern accents and yet at a distance from all of them". In the restored dialect of Shakespeare's plays, we hear the same vital dialogue between his time and ours that animates their dramatic vision.

Above all, as actors and audiences have found, the demotic, homespun feel of OP "reduces the psychological distance between speaker and listener"

that the cultivated enunciation of modern productions can create.

Elizabethan Shakespeare has, in the splendid phrase of one actor, "the sound of brown ale", and with any luck more audiences will soon be intoxicated by it.

Kiernan Ryan is professor of English, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Pronouncing Shakespeare

Author - David Crystal
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 188
Price - £12.99
ISBN - 0 521 85213 7

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