Many have speculated over the years what actors in Shakespeare's time might have sounded like. Some may remember John Barton in the 1979 series Playing Shakespeare reciting a passage from Henry V in original pronunciation (OP). He explains it is an approximation comprising a variety of modern English, Irish, and American accents.
Beyond the obvious historical fascination, the idea of OP has intrigued actors and directors for years because it elongates the words (though it is technically faster than Received Pronunciation) and gives them a more "earthy" feel—and thereby a more grounded connection to the actor's body and emotions. Once the ear is accustomed, it is a more naturalistic style of speaking, albeit somewhat pirate-like ("warrrrr"). In 2004, the Globe Theatre put this notion to the test with their production of Romeo & Juliet. OP experts David Crystal and his son Ben Crystal coached the actors to speak just like they would have done in Elizabethan England in the late 16th century. Audiences expressed concern they might not understand the actors and the dialect would be too "foreign", however the result was a resounding success (so much so that David Crystal wrote Pronouncing Shakespeare, a book detailing the process).
For American audiences, fears were also unfounded. In November 2011, Ben Crystal played the title role in Hamlet at the University of Nevada at Reno (under the guidance of department chair and RSC editor, Eric Rasmussen). He coached the other actors in the OP dialect who, in a post-performance discussion, said it was one of the best experiences they had ever had performing Shakespeare.
So how can a centuries-old dialect be resurrected? It is a painstaking process of collecting observations made by people who wrote about pronunciation at the time, studying the spelling of words, and figuring out what pronunciation was necessary to make rhymes and puns work. The result is a new audio CD from the British Library titled Shakespeare's Original Pronunciation, a collection of scenes, sonnets and soliloquies read by Ben Crystal and a troupe of professional actors.
The recording itself is top-notch. Voices are clear and distinct with a naturalistic tone—a critical element to the success of a spoken audio recording. The actors, under Ben Crystal's tutelage, clearly know what they are doing, hitting the hard "r" and sounding out syllables that are contracted in today's speech. The speech selection of 28 tracks is a well-known one, but broad enough to demonstrate a variety of vowel sounds and rhythms. Natalie Thomas gives a particularly touching reading of sonnet 71 ("No longer mourn for me when I am dead"), and Hilton McRae does a regal turn as King Lear—giving a new level of depth to the text.
The project itself is a remarkable achievement, which is the first of its kind. If you are a student new to Shakespeare, or an accomplished scholar, this CD gives a fresh perspective on the Bard's words. It is so fun to listen to, you will be walking around the rest of the day imitating the sounds and "speaking the speech."
Shakespeare's Original Pronunciation is narrated by Ben Crystal, Philip Bird, Rebecca Pownell, Natalie Thomas, Benjamin O'Mahony, Matthew Mellalieu, Colin Hurley, Hilton McRae, and others.