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Accent reveals Shakespeare’s meanings

Monday, 17 July 2017 9:21am

Ben Crystal.

Author, actor, producer and director Ben Crystal visited the University of Otago last month, giving an eye-opening talk about accents, and what can be learned from hearing and speaking Shakespeare’s works as they were originally pronounced.

Mr Crystal, together with his father linguist David Crystal, has authored four books on Shakespeare’s Original Pronunciation, including the Oxford Illustrated Dictionary of Shakespeare, shortlisted for the Educational Writer of the Year Award last year.

His excellent Otago talk is available on the Otago Humanities YouTube channel and will be captivating even to those who have a passing interest in the Bard.

In it, he compares the study of Shakespeare’s Original Pronunciation to the staging of Shakespeare in the spaces they were written for – such as the Globe Theatre – rather than in modern theatres: Suddenly meanings and hidden jokes reveal themselves.

Plucking quotes from plays and sonnets to illustrate his points, and performing them in both Received Pronunciation (the Queen’s English) and in Original Pronunciation, he highlights the value to be gained from using Original Pronunciation.

He says there are three ways to discover the accent Shakespeare wrote for – rhymes – “either Shakespeare was a really bad poet or the accent has changed”; spellings – for example the word film, spelt ‘p.h.i.l.o.m.e. and likely pronounced ‘fil-im’ as the Irish would pronounce it; and history books such as Ben Jonson’s English Grammar.

For Mr Crystal and his father studying the pronunciations of Shakespeare has been enlightening.

"For the last 150 years or so we’ve been telling actors to speak it in Received Pronunciation, an accent that didn’t exist until 200 years after Shakespeare."

“It’s been fascinating to share Shakespeare in this accent – it seems to release something else.”

He says performing Shakespeare in Original Pronunciation also makes it less “elite” and much easier for ordinary people to relate to.

After his visit, he told the Otago Bulletin Board that his aim is to help people relate to Shakespeare – and not be put off.

“It’s reading him that turns so many away, when they’re asked to study his plays in school. But if they find the courage to try to act them, so many are being told ‘they don’t have the right accent’.”

When he was younger he was told that he needed to speak Shakespeare in Received Pronunciation if I wanted to get hired, a story he’s heard from many other actors.

“Why did we decide this particular type of artistic expression had to be spoken in one particular accent, the accent of the British elite? For the last 150 years or so we’ve been telling actors to speak it in Received Pronunciation, an accent that didn’t exist until 200 years after Shakespeare.”

He says people grow up feeling that Shakespeare couldn’t be further from them.

“Original Pronunciation is one of many ways to redress that balance, and hopefully build a bridge back to a place where ‘the right accent’ for Shakespeare is your accent, whatever that may be, because you want to speak his works.”

Mr Crystal says his visit to Otago was wonderful, with those he met greeting him and his partner like “long-lost family members”.

“The whole trip was incredibly inspiring, and I’m looking forward to coming back!”

Watch the talk: