08 Sep 2013

Shakespeare in Original Pronunciation

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The Awl describes an originalist approach to Shakespearian performance.

The language of Queen Elizabeth I’s England is often described as the most beautiful English ever spoken. It is an idealized tongue, synonymous with a golden age that followed the barbarism of the Middle Ages, preceded the chaos of the English Civil Wars, and shaped our understanding of what came after. As the historian Jack Lynch details in The Age of Elizabeth in the Age of Johnson, this idealization caught on during the 1700s, when writers and other thinkers were stricken with unprecedented self-consciousness about their native tongue. The language, Jonathan Swift wrote in 1712, had fallen victim to such evils as “Enthusiastick Jargon” and “Licentiousness”; Samuel Johnson denounced its “Gallick structure and phraseology.” The British sought pure linguistic ancestors to emulate and found them in the Elizabethans—especially Shakespeare. “In our Halls is hung / Armoury of the invincible knights of old,” William Wordsworth wrote. “We must be free or die, who speak the tongue / That Shakespeare spake.”

A fixation on Shakespeare’s English also emerged, later but no less fervently, in the United States. As interest in his plays surged throughout the 1800s, “American writers emphasized the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ roots of American culture and celebrated ‘our Shakespeare’ as a figurehead behind which a nation made increasingly diverse by immigration could unite,” the scholar Helen Hackett has written. “In particular, American English was claimed to be purer and closer to the English of Shakespeare’s time than was the language spoken in Victorian Britain.”

Still, professional directors and producers didn’t embrace what became known as Original Pronunciation, even as they sometimes resurrected other aspects of historical performances. Perhaps they considered it an archaic curiosity—but it is more likely that they didn’t know of it at all, or feared, as London’s reconstructed Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre did, that it would sound so primitive that people wouldn’t understand it.

That all changed in late 2003, when a linguist named David Crystal offered to help the Globe put on three OP performances of Romeo and Juliet. A white-bearded Irishman who retired from the University of Reading in 1985 to lead a life of independent scholarship, Crystal, the preeminent detective of the modern OP community, is the author of more than 100 books—enough, and in enough editions, that even he has lost track of exactly how many—including The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language.



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