The Original Pronunciation Movement: KJV and Shakespeare
The pox of such antic, lisping, affecting fantasticoes—these new tuners of accent! “By Jesu, a very good blade! a very tall man! a very good whore!” Why, is not this a lamentable thing, grandsir, that we should be thus afflicted with these strange flies, these fashion-mongers, these pardona-me’s, who stand so much on the new form that they cannot sit at ease on the old bench? O, their bones, their bones!
Romeo and Juliet Act 2 Scene IV, Mercutio
There is a growing movement to perform Elizabethan and Jacobean works in original pronunciation:
- The British Library has released a recording of Shakespearean excerpts in original pronunciation (sample tracks are available here).
- Chandos releases next week a new recording of William Byrd’s “The Great Service in the Chapel Royal” in original pronunciation
- David Crystal has up a large web site on original pronunciation
- David Crystal also has a short book out entitled Pronouncing Shakesepare: The Globe Experiment
- The Shakespeare OP Company is devoted to pronouncing Shakespeare in original pronunciation
- Hilary Crystal is selling online extracts of the KJV in original pronunciation (unfortunately, my attempt to purchase an extract resulted in me being charged $1.45 and then being sent a link to a file that did not exist!)
- Kansas University has a free video of excerpts of its original pronunciation performance of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, and an mp3 recording for sale.
- University of Nevada is reportedly releasing a DVD of its original pronunciation performance of Hamlet later this year.
- There are over a dozen performances in original pronunciation in the last eight years
What does original pronunciation sound like? Well, here is an mp3 file of the Lord’s Prayer in Original Pronunciation, here is Hamlet’s soliloquy (“to be or not to be”), and you can find more examples here.
Here is Open University’s video introducing original pronunciation
Advocates of original pronunciation say that it allows us to capture original rhyming passages which do not today rhyme in modern English. The British Library recording gives us the following examples from Shakespeare’s sonnets:
- Sonnet 71: moan/gone
- Sonnet 116: love/remove, come/doom, proved/loved
- Sonnet 154: warmed/disarmed, thrall/perpetual, by/remedy, prove/love
Indeed, the claim is made that 96 of the original 154 sonnets have couplets that fail to rhyme in modern English.
Advocates also claim that original pronunciation allows us to recapture original wordplay. Some examples:
- In As You Like It, Jacque gives the following speech (emphasis added), leaving open the question of why Jacque laughs for an hour. One possibility: “hour” and “whore” are homonyms in original pronunciation, so this is a pun:
A fool, a fool! I met a fool in the forest,
A motley fool; a miserable world!
As I do live by food, I met a fool
Who laid him down and bask’d him in the sun,
And rail’d on Lady Fortune in good terms,
In good set terms and, yet, a motley fool.
‘Good morrow, fool,’ quoth I. ‘No, sir,’ quoth he,
‘Call me not fool till heaven hath sent me fortune:’
And then he drew a dial from his poke,
And, looking on it with lack-lustre eye,
Says very wisely, ‘It is ten o’clock:
Thus we may see,’ quoth he, ‘how the world wags:
‘Tis but an hour ago since it was nine,
And after one hour more ’twill be eleven;
And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot;
And thereby hangs a tale.’ When I did hear
The motley fool thus moral on the time,
My lungs began to crow like chanticleer,
That fools should be so deep-contemplative,
And I did laugh sans intermission
An hour by his dial. O noble fool!
A worthy fool! Motley’s the only wear.
- In Henry V’s “Once More Unto the Breach” speech, there is a reference to “mettle of your pasture” – but this may be a pun in original pronunciation playing on pasture/pastor.
- In Comedy of Errors Act 3 Scene 2 when Dromio says “I am an ass, I am a woman’s man and besides myself,” there may be an original pronunciation pun on woman/woe-man.
Original pronunciation advocates claim that trying to understand Shakespeare in original pronunciation is no more difficult than trying to understand Shakespeare in a regional dialect. I have to say that I am not entirely convinced – for audience members who hear Shakespeare for the first time, it may be difficult to follow Shakespeare’s intricate wordplay and linguistic structures even in contemporary English pronunciation. I am not sure that they can track original pronunciation in real time and both capture the puns and perform the mental translation of original pronunciation. I wonder if original pronunciation is not perhaps best for those who are following along with a written script.
After hearing the examples above, what do you think? Does original pronunciation unlock new layers of meaning for you? Or does it add a new layer of complexity in understanding Shakespeare?