Shakespeare's accent was much more like regional dialects than BBC English

‘To Bay or Not to Bay’: Did Shakespeare Talk Country?

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When I was in college, the drama department at the University of Arkansas wanted to do a bang-up job on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Over the summer, they sent the actor playing the lead role off to study proper enunciation.

He returned with an impeccable rendition, but no one anticipated the disconnect for the audience caused by Hamlet speaking “proper” English and the rest of the cast speaking in their usual Arkansas accents. At times it sounded like a mashup of “Masterpiece Theatre” and the country comedy show “Hee-Haw.”

What’s ironic, though, is that the UA had it backward. Years later, I learned that Shakespearian English was not BBC English—known as the “Received Pronunciation” (RP), as if it had been handed down from God on high. Shakespeare’s English sounds like a regional version of English similar to Scottish and Irish, as well as Southern dialects in America.

Consider these lines from “Henry IV,” as Prince Harry challenges Falstaff for lying about his cowardice when set upon by “robbers”—one of whom was the Prince.

PRINCE: Why, how couldst thou know these men … when it was so dark thou couldst not see thy hand? Come, tell us your reason. …

FALSTAFF: … Give you a reason on compulsion? If reasons were as plentiful as blackberries, I would give no man a reason upon compulsion, I.

This is a pun, shown with my emphasis, that works only if “reason” rhymes with “raisin.” Where does this happen? In a thick American hillbilly accent.

Not convinced? Anthony Burgess, author of “A Clockwork Orange,” linguist, and Shakespeare scholar, describes in his novel “ABBA ABBA”–the rhyme scheme, not the rock band–what must have been his own epiphany about Shakespeare’s dialect.

“ABBA ABBA” is about the life of the poet John Keats as he’s dying of consumption in Rome. Keats receives a present–an English-Italian dictionary from 1611, edited by John Florio, a known friend of the Bard. In explaining the pronunciation of Italian words by comparing them with English, Florio also ends up showing the pronunciation of English words in Shakespeare’s day.  Here is Burgess describing Keats’ reaction:

“He was being given a vision … of how Shakespeare spoke. He spoke like an Irishman. … He said not flea but flay. He pronounced reason as raisin. And now [Keats got] the joke in Falstaff ‘s words: ‘reasons are as plentiful as blackberries.’ Of course, raisins. With awe and something of fear, John felt that he was being instructed by … poets dead and gone.”

That’s not all. According to David Crystal, an expert on the Elizabethan tongue, Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy begins, “To bay or not to bay,” which is straight out of the Appalachians or the Ozarks.

If it seems outlandish to suggest that elements of Shakespeare’s tongue might show up among rustics in the U.S. South, remember that most of the early settlers in that region were English, Scottish, and Irish. A number of them headed into the hills and didn’t talk to anyone outside their small communities for hundreds of years.

The mainstream dialects continued to evolve on both sides of the Atlantic. Many linguists believe England’s English has changed more than American English. In particular, most Americans still pronounce the “r” after a vowel (“rhoticity”), as in “park the car,” whereas RP English tells us to “pahk the cah.” Linguist Gretchen McCulloch flatly states that the majority of British settlers “spoke much more like current Americans than current Brits.”

In short, Shakespeare’s English is not the RP accent Ben Trawick-Smith speaks of as heard “among Oxford professors and in Jane Austen films.” Instead, it is a rich, earthy tongue spoken from the gut rather than the vocal cords. When Shakespeare is performed in “Original Pronunciation” (OP), many more rhymes and puns materialize, the rhythms change—and the play moves faster. “Romeo and Juliet” is ten minutes faster in OP.

Controversy has emerged as to whether Shakespeare should be done in RP or OP. Traditionalists vote for RP because it’s what they know, though it’s a Johnny-come-lately accent. Nor can they get their heads around the idea of doing the glorious Bard’s soaring pentameters in what they perceive as a downhome country twang—Scottish, Irish, American–even Australian.

OP supporters believe it’s important to hear Shakespeare as he spoke it. The Globe theater in London has done several productions both ways. See what David Crystal and his son, Ben Crystal, an actor and writer, have to say about the difference. The main discussion begins three minutes in.

In a separate segment, Ben explains why OP resembles so many varieties of English—including “pirate”!

What are your thoughts? Should Shakespeare be played in modern RP tongue, the language of the aristocrats of our own day, and of the movers and shakers of modern London? Or should we take the Bard back to his roots?

Does Shakespeare belong to the posh or the people? Does democratizing Shakespeare mean dumbing him down?

As for the other famous and proper English author, we’ll talk about Jane Austen and her actual accent next time around. Watch this space!

The history of the English language is rich and varied. Here is just a sampling of information on the topic.

British accents.

How English has changed.

For no reason except fun, here’s actor Robin Williams doing a host of accents.

One thought on “‘To Bay or Not to Bay’: Did Shakespeare Talk Country?

  1. Interesting thought and one I have often had. Since Shakespeare came from the Black Country whose accent is most widely known in Birmingham, I have thought for a long time that he must have spoken with that quite thick regional accent. English itself was not as ‘Oxford’ as all that and regional accents were not frowned upon then – the BBC has a lot to answer for! I like the idea and if it brings out Shakespeare’s humour and wit more readily, why not! Let’s have them all speak with broad Brummie accents – go for it!

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