CD reveals true sound of Shakespeare

Natalie Woolman

The original pronunciation of some of Shakespeare’s most famous scenes has been captured for the first time on CD.

Speeches on the disc include “To be, or not to be” from Hamlet, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” from Julius Caesar and “Once more unto the breach, dear friends” from Henry V, as well as scenes from Othello and Macbeth and a selection of sonnets.

The CD is being produced by the British Library and its release follows a number of performances using original pronunciation, including attempts at Shakespeare’s Globe in London and at the universities of Kansas and Nevada in the USA.

Ben Crystal, an actor and director who is an expert in original pronunciation, has led the project. He recorded the opening speech of Richard III in original pronunciation for a British Library exhibition entitled Evolving English about a year ago and it “really caught everyone’s imagination”.

Speaking to The Stage, he said: “I think a lot of people feel there is a bit of a barrier between them and Shakespeare. They will go and see a Shakespeare play, especially some younger students, and it will be spoken in received pronunciation – they already have this idea of Shakespeare being literary, difficult to understand, and when it is placed in the accent of the elite it distances them even further.”

Crystal is the son of English language specialist David Crystal, who has written an essay to accompany the CD and transcribed all the speeches into original pronunciation for the cast.

Ben Crystal said the research into what the original pronunciation would have been included looking at the rhymes in the sonnets, “two-thirds of which don’t rhyme in a modern accent but would have done”, the spellings, which are often phonetic, and the work of early linguists such as Ben Jonson.

The CD is available now and the British Library will hold an event to mark its release on May 4.

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