Shakespeare, as he spoke it

Shakespeare‘s words, as few Americans have heard them, are being spoken this week at the University of Kansas, where “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is being performed in Original Pronunciation (helpful subtitles added).

“When most people imagine how Shakespeare sounded, they probably think of Laurence Olivier’s British-accented performance in Hamlet or Marlon Brando’s crisp, trilling delivery of Mark Antony’s funeral speech in Julius Caesar,” The Atlantic reported in anticipation of last Friday night’s opening. But they’d be wrong.

UK theater professor Paul Meier says Shakespeare hewed closer to casual American speech than might have been imagined — and what better place to give this voice a stage than middle America. It’s the first time there’s been a full Original Pronunciation performance in North America.

“American audiences will hear an accent and style surprisingly like their own in its informality and strong r-colored vowels,” Meier says in the Atlantic.

Let’s listen (this clip is from a rehearsal):

“Actors innately love to do accents,” Meier says on the next video. “To be able to switch from one accent to another is just a wonderful party trick and a very important credential for an actor.”

Meier discusses the process of reconstructing Shakespeare’s original accent:

“People didn’t spell correctly until the mid-17th center. So people spelled just anyway they wished. Shakespeare spelled his own name seven different ways. And so when you got a letter from someone you could hear their accent; when we get a letter from someone, we cannot hear their accent because spelling has been regularized.”

Which leads us to the rhymes. Without the correct (original) pronunciation, words that Shakespeare clearly meant to rhyme, don’t appear to rhyme.


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