Studying for my GCSEs at school in Bingley, I remember an English lesson in which we were shown the film of Roman Polanski’s Macbeth.
Video lessons were always seen as a ‘doss’ and tended to be a bit of a free-forall where learning was concerned, but in this case our teacher, Mr Birbeck, tricked us into paying closer attention than usual by telling us to look out for a young Keith Chegwin in the role of Fleance (Chegwin, aged 15, is on screen for all of around ten seconds). Cheggersspotting kept us focused for a time but it couldn’t rival the rapt attention we’d given to a showing of Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet the previous year, when a lad called Craig had managed to surreptitiously pause the vid with his secret agent-style remote control watch just as Juliet was taking her top off.
Those of us who wanted to, Mr Birbeck added after the film, could stay in over lunch and watch a recorded version of the same play performed by a local am-dram group. This proposal met with a rousing cry of “Give up my dinner break for extra Shakespeare, sir? Hell yes!” from his class of enthusiastic Year 11s. Well no, obviously it didn’t, but El Swotto here and a couple of reluctant
cronies decided that watching a video while munching our sandwiches wasn’t the worst way to spend a soggy breaktime and stayed behind.
What we saw was not like the Polanski version. In fact it wasn’t like any Shakespeare we’d ever seen, because unlike the professional productions it was performed in our very own Yorkshire brogue. Of course, many of Britain’s foremost thesps hail from God’s own county – Ben Kingsley, Judi Dench, Patrick Stewart, Richard Griffiths and the inimitable Brian Blessed, to name a few. But they spent years honing their ‘posh’ (or RP – Received Pronunciation – as it’s known in linguistic circles) before treading the boards with the Bard.
There was something humorous, yet prideworthy too, in hearing Macbeth ask “Is this t’dagger ah see befoor me?” At 15 we weren’t what you’d call prolific theatre-goers, and it was a new experience to hear Shakespeare done in our own vernacular. But perhaps we would have been shocked to discover this may not have been too far from how the work would have sounded when originally performed.
OK, Stratford-born Shakespeare didn’t exactly sport a Yorkshire accent, yet language purists will weep to learn that his speech and that of his acting troupe, The Chamberlain’s Men, would have been a far cry from the RP Queen’s English we associate with modern productions of his plays. (In an ironic twist, it was Shakespeare himself who popularised the phrase ‘the King’s English’, using it in The Merry Wives of Windsor in 1600.) In fact, claims Shakespeare expert and RSC founder John Barton, the late Elizabethan-period London accent would have sounded to modern ears much like a cross between Yorkshire, West Country and Irish, with the accent of North American Appalachian mountain-dwellers being the closest current match.
Finding out how Shakespeare would have sounded in the early 17th century is a combination of known linguistic facts and detective work based on his writing. In the first place, we know that
he would have been a rhotic speaker – that is, he would have pronounced words like ‘card’ and ‘word’ with the curled-tongue hard ‘R’ of contemporary West Country, Irish and Scottish accents. (Say “arrrr”. Now say it like a pirate. That’s the one!) The non-rhotic accent, with its soft ‘R’, didn’t develop until later on – and after the colonisation of America, which accounts for US accents having retained the hard ‘R’ sound.
Shakespeare was also writing at a time of linguistic evolution known as the Great Vowel Shift; not an embarrassing medical complaint but rather a drastic change in the standard English pronunciation of vowels which took place between the 14th century and around 1700. This centuries-long shift coincided with the standardisation of spelling, so it’s responsible for many of
the idiosyncrasies much loathed by schoolchildren learning English as a foreign language today – like the fact that words with similar spellings, such as ‘wind’ and ‘blind’, aren’t pronounced in the same way. As spelling was not standardised during the period in which Shakespeare was writing, words were usually written as they would have been said – one clue to the original pronunciation.
Rhyming is another major clue. When we have a couplet which pairs ‘where’ and ‘near’, for example, we know that the two words would have had a similar sound – as they do in some Lancastrian,
Yorkshire and North-East accents today. Shakespeare and his contemporaries would also have used the clipped ‘A’s of the modern North – “last” rather than ‘larst’. The elongated ‘A’ drawl didn’t
develop until much later.
A further clue to pronunciation is in the wordplay Shakespeare uses (and as any literature student will tell you, he was a man who liked his puns). In Henry IV Part I, for example, Prince Hal asks
Falstaff to give his reasons for the tale he has just told. “If reasons were as plentiful as blackberries,” answers Falstaff, “I would give no man a reason upon compulsion.” At the time the play was written, ‘reason’ was pronounced like ‘raisin’ – hence the fruity witticism.
Hearing Shakespeare read as intended allows us to reclaim many lost puns, some of which are fruity in more respects than raisins and blackberries. At this stage of the Great Vowel Shift, the ‘i’
sound we now pronounce as ‘eye’ would have sounded like ‘oi’ (again, retained in contemporary West Country and Irish), so ‘lines’ would have been pronounced ‘loins’. Similarly, ‘hour’ would have
sounded very like ‘whore’.
Productions of Shakespeare’s work using the authentic Elizabethan pronunciation are, sadly, rather rare (although they do exist). However, the British Library last year produced an audio CD
containing extracts from the playwright’s work, read as they would have been pronounced at the time. The CD of Shakespeare’s original pronunciation, unimaginatively but accurately titled ‘Shakespeare’s Original Pronunciation’, is described on the British Library website as ‘speeches and scenes performed as Shakespeare would have heard them’ and can be purchased from their online shop.
Extracts are also freely available to listen to on the worldwide interweb (Google ‘Shakespeare’s Original Pronunciation clips’).