William Shakespeare is rightly considered as one of the greatest writers (and dramatists) in the English language. But we in our present-era only get to perceive, comprehend and enjoy ‘modified’ renditions of his original plays. In essence, while these plays are conducted in the actual language that the ‘Bard of Avon’ himself wrote, the pronunciation used during the speeches doesn’t really account for the original historicity of Shakespeare’s time-period. To that end, some of the ingeniously-crafted puns, word-plays and innuendos are lost in their modern variation, as opposed what Shakespeare intended during his lifetime – tailored for his audience during the 1600s. But the good news is, scholars and linguists are already on the case of the original pronunciation (OP) of Shakespearean English (or rather Early Modern English); and after the jump we have presented some of the results of these studies that ‘translate’ few of the famous play passages into their actual historical versions.
To start off the proceedings, you can take a gander at the video below where linguist David Crystal, and his son, actor Ben Crystal, present a solid case for OP of Early Modern English.
The scope of the OP during the 1600s (with its rhyming effects and subtle word-plays) can be condensed into three primary factors. The first factor relates directly to historicity, and how the English speakers during Shakespeare didn’t finch from pronouncing the ‘R’, much like modern typical Irish and Scottish. This feature known as ‘rhoticity’, was actually observed by Ben Jonson, the renowned English playwright, poet, and literary critic who was the contemporary of Shakespeare.
The second ambit relates to how Early Modern English was actually more phonetic in nature, with the spellings tending to reflect the pronunciation of the spoken words. Simply put, as opposed to modern English (or Received Pronunciation), where words and their intended pronunciations can be confusing at times, Shakespearean English was more ‘easy’ with its recognizable affiliation between diction and spelling. And thirdly and most importantly, the difference in OP of Early Modern English really stands out when it comes to some puns and rhymes. One of the pertinent examples (presented in the video), talks about the words ‘lines’ and ‘loins’ – that could be used as puns (due to their similar pronunciation) in Shakespearean English, but not so in modern English. In that regard, according to Ben Crystal, almost two-thirds of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets don’t rhyme anymore when rendered in modern English.
Now it should be noted that OP (of Early Modern English) was not of a singular nature, with various dialects, accents and jargon spoken across England and Britain in 16-17th century. Interestingly enough, experts are also divided on the OP of Shakespearean English, with few (like renowned Shakespeare director Trevor Nunn) tending to characterize it with the scope of American English. In essence, according to this hypothesis, the emigrants who made their way across to New World, retained more of the ‘olde‘ Elizabethan language than the ones remaining behind. The audio extract from Romeo and Juliet (below) puts forth this example –
On the other hand, conventional conjectures suggest that OP of Early Modern English would have sounded more like the pronunciations made in modern Irish, Yorkshire, and West Country. We should also understand that Shakespeare’s works correspond to the later phase of Early Modern English, and thus are more ‘familiar’ to the modern English speaker, as opposed to the nascent phase of Early Modern English (that included the works of Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland). The conventional theory is outlined by the pronunciations made in the reading of Macbeth below.
In any case, there is no denying the ‘familiar’ essence of Early Modern English that was in many ways more intrinsic to the casual listener. As Ben Crystal said (in an interview given to NPR) –
If there’s something about this accent, rather than it being difficult or more difficult for people to understand…it has flecks of nearly every regional U.K. English accent, and indeed American and in fact Australian, too. It’s a sound that makes people — it reminds people of the accent of their home — and so they tend to listen more with their heart than their head.