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Welcome to Episode #100 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

You say toh-may-toe, I’ll say Tah-mah-toe. You say poe-tay-to, I’ll say pah-tah-toe. You may or may not recognize the lyrics to this cute folk song, but I’m certain that you’ve encountered someone who pronounces everyday words with a different emphasis than what you’re used to. During the 16th century, William Shakespeare had his own way of pronouncing words as well, and exploring how to define what that pronunciation was, and how it impacts our understanding of the plays, is a special field of historical linguistics called Original Pronunciation. Our guest this week, Dr. David Crystal is the leading expert in the field of Original Pronunciation and he joins us this week to talk about how an experiment he lead at The Globe theater in London taught everyone involved how important understanding the spoken language is to understanding Shakespeare’s plays. The Globe in London is known the world over for its focus on original practice–which is where they use props and performance techniques that are as close as you can get to recreating what Shakespeare himself would have used on stage. Despite that intense and expertly researched focus at The Globe, David’s experiment was the first time in 50 years anyone had approached a Shakespeare production under original practice conditions that included original pronunciation as well. The results of this experiment were pretty stunning and brought to light some exciting aspects about the life of William Shakespeare. We are delighted that David has agreed to meet with us today to share the inside story behind his latest book, Pronouncing Shakespeare, which details this experiment and what it taught him about the life of William Shakespeare.

Join the conversation below.

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David Crystal was born in 1941 and spent the early years of his life in Holyhead, North Wales. He went to St Mary’s College, Liverpool, and then University College London, where he read English, and obtained his Ph.D. in 1966. He became a lecturer in linguistics at University College, Bangor, and from 1965 to 1985 was at the University of Reading, where he became Professor of Linguistic Science. He's now Honorary Professor of Linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor. In 1995 he was awarded the OBE for services to the English language, and he became a fellow of the British Academy in 2000.

He's published over a hundred books, including The Stories of English (2004) and The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (3rd edn, 2018). Since 1997 he wrote a regular article on Shakespeare's innovative vocabulary for Around the Globe, the magazine of Shakespeare's Globe, and was Sam Wanamaker Fellow at the Globe in 2003. He's written several essays on Shakespeare's language, including introductions for the Wells & Taylor Complete Works (OUP 2005), Wells and Orlin's Shakespeare: an Oxford Guide (2003), and Bruce Smith's Cambridge Guide to the Worlds of Shakespeare (2016). Apart from Shakespeare's Words, his book-length publications are Think on my Words: Exploring Shakespeare's Language (2008), and two collaborations with Ben: The Shakespeare Miscellany (2005) and The Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary (2015).

In recent years David has become specifically associated with the movement to present Shakespeare in original pronunciation (OP). He was Master of Original Pronunciation at Shakespeare's Globe in 2004 for its production of Romeo and Juliet, and has since collaborated with theatre companies in several countries in OP productions of over a dozen Shakespeare plays, as well as works by Marlowe and Henslowe. The story of the first production is told in Pronouncing Shakespeare (2005, updated edition 2018), and the general approach is presented in The Oxford Dictionary of Original Shakespearean Pronunciation, with a linked audio file (2016). A complete list of his writing and fuller bio can be found on his website:

In this episode, I’ll be asking David Crystal about :

  •  In his book David walks through the process of training the actors in this method of speaking, which included not only his transcription but the actors would go on to work with a dialect coach to learn how to pronounce the words. David, does your research into OP make a distinction between pronunciation and dialect?
  • Does original pronunciation take into account the acoustics of the performance space as well? Are there variations on words depending on things like reverberations from the walls of a theater like the Blackfriars versus the open air seating of The Globe?
  • One of the research methods David uses to investigate how Shakespeare would have sounded is through looking at the often phonetic spelling of early modern plays and manuscripts. David gives the word “often” as an example–spelled o-f-t-e-n, and the idea of pronouncing the letter “t” specifically, was optional during Shakespeare’s lifetime, with very few people using the pronunciation as it is today. David, what does your research into the spelling of words tell us about the relationship between the written word and spoken sound? Are the writing of works like the First Folio to be considered phonetic?
  • … and more!

Books & Resources David Crystal recommends:


Online community for those interested in OP:

Shakespeare's Words: A searchable online database of all of the words in Shakespeare's works. 

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What's Inside:

  • Links to Ben Jonson's Grammar 
  • 1662. Image from frontispiece to The Wits, showing theatrical droll
  • Quote from Shakespeare's Hamlet demonstrating “Trippingly on the tongue”
  • 1596 Woodcut of a performance at The Swan theater
  • Examples of 16th century spelling and explanations for why variances exist in the English language
  • links to Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defintions of 16th century words
  • a Free one page download using primary documents to demonstrate how Mercutio's use of “Philome” in Act I Scene iv of Romeo and Juliet provides evidence for how Shakespeare would have sounded.
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A prophet I, madam; and I speak the truth the next

Alls Well That Ends Well (I.3)

1662. Image from frontispiece to The Wits, showing theatrical drolls (characters taken from different Jacobean plays, including Shakespeare, played together) in Restoration Theatre in England. The Wits, or Sport upon Sport frontispiece. attrib. Francis Kirkman Source

Shakespeare had a Stage Voice

In Elizabethan England, the actors in Shakespeare's company and others in the theater industry would have talked in a way that sounded distinct from the way they spoke on a daily basis. This reality is perhaps more tangible for actors or those who regularly perform in theater, but the concept is that things like acoustics, articulation, and being able to be heard in an open air setting were all aspects of communication a stage actor had to consider. For this reason, the way actors spoke is best demonstrated from Shakespeare himself, with the lines he gives to Hamlet,

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc'd it to you,
trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it, as many of our
players do, I had as live the town crier spoke my lines. Nor do
not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all
gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and (as I may say)
whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a
temperance that may give it smoothness

Hamlet III.2

He's explaining to the players that they need to speak “trippingly on the tongue” and to focus on how they speak–not shouting like a town crier to have their message heard, nor should they mouth the words. While it was different form than today's theater professionals, with a much more colloquial style, the style was much more quick. The speech was fast, speaking the words more smushed together.

One thing that performing in OP has shown David and his fellow researchers about Shakespeare's performances, is that the time it took to perform the play was significantly shorter when you use OP as the spoken form. It doesn't take as long to deliver lines in OP, and the resulting difference in time span over the course of the play is very substantial on time.

Related Episode You Might Enjoy

Sing, and dance it trippingly.


Midsummer Night's Dream (V.1)

A performance in progress at the Swan theatre in London in 1596 by Aernout van Buchel (1564-1641) after a drawing by Johannes de Witt/ Utrecht University Library. Source

We can infer Elizabethan stage movement by the speech

The Globe opened in 1997, ten years before they tried this experiment. They were already doing all manner of original techniques. As they were talking with David, it became apparent that they had postponed or even specifically avoided doing OP up until David's experience because they were worried that, at 400 years old, the old fashioned way of speaking would be hard to understand. There was this overarching fear that they would be cutting off their ticket sales, and with a theater that's only open March-October, they had to have seats and were afraid people wouldn’t come.

So how did they decide to give it a try? The director at The Globe pointed out one very helpful consideration:  “If we don’t do it, Stratford will.” Nothing like a little healthy competition to launch a linguistic experiement on stage. 

Despite finally arriving at the decision this should be done, the reality they faced is that perfoming in OP was an experiment, and looking at how to do it presented a unique set of problems to overcome. Firstly, this was a new thing for everyone. Secondly, it was open air, and it was not the 16th century—there are airplanes overhead, and helicopters doing tourist trips, and even just the river itself making noises outside that the actors had to contend with. The actors had to learn how to articulate in a way they wouldn't have had to do indoors. We can infer that Shakespeare had these same obstacles, albiet not helicopter noise. 

One comparison point is when they did Macbeth at Sam Wannamaker indoors with Ben Crystal, the OP brought the performance alive because the external noise was eliminated. It made a real difference. To me, this provided interesting thoughts to consider about why Shakespeare and the Burbages were so persistent of the Blackfriars location in the first place. Did they know it had this value for being indoors? 

Fasinatingly, changing the dialect also changed the way the actors moved on stage, without having to specifically alter the choreography. They were holding things, and travelling on the stage differently. They weren’t as “proper” in terms of how they stood or carriedt their walk. OP grounded them, they reported their sound was speaking from the stomach, and found themselves crouching more, with a different stage presence with quicker movements than when using Received Pronunciation.

I see it in my motion, have it not in my tongue


Antony and Cleopatra (II.3)

Sonnet 132 in the 1609 Quarto of Shakespeare's sonnets. Source

Not phonetic, because spelling was not standardized 

One of the research methods David uses to investigate how Shakespeare would have sounded is through looking at the often phonetic spelling of early modern plays and manuscripts. David gives the word “often” as an example–spelled o-f-t-e-n, and the idea of pronouncing the letter “t” specifically, was optional during Shakespeare’s lifetime, with very few people using the pronunciation as it is today. His research demonstrates a relationship between the spelling of owrds and the spoken sound, but he says that to call it phonetic would be going too far. 

Phonetics is a very precise relationship which isn’t the way English exists. Despite a lack of phonetics in a precise sense, the written word is a guide to how people speak in a way that doesn't exist today because the written word is standardized. For Shakespeare, it's important to remember that the standardization of English language didn’thappen until a couple of hundred years after the bard with people like Noah Webster and Dr. Johnson in England.

Here is an example from Oxford English Dictionary, which explains “Between 1475 and about 1630 English spelling gradually became regularized. There are noticeable differences in the look of printed English before the mid-seventeenth century…u and v were graphic variants of a single letter. The form v was used at the beginning of a word and u in all other positions, irrespective of whether the sound was a vowel or a consonant.” and they provide some written examples from 16th century manuscripts to describe this distinction:

and we defende the that thou be not so hardy for euer to do vyolence vnto the holy token of the crosse the whiche we put in his forhede. (Source: Ordynarye of crystyanyte or of crysten men, printed by Wynkyn de Worde, 1502)

A good example of this distinction is probably text messaging. If you think about the way you sound, you speak with different inflections and overall sound when you talk out loud and if you were to write that same conversation down into a text message, there is a great gap between how you sound and what you wrote, even though it is the same words. In the 16th century, surviving texts show that depending on where someone is from, and how they speak they spell words differently based on how they talk. It would be like writing “Bah-Stahn” instead of “Boston”. We do that for memes in the 21st century, but for Shakespeare, when they didn't have standardized way to spell words, writers did this in regular writing. 


Download this one page example of how Mercutio's use of "Philome" in Act I Scene iv of Romeo and Juliet provides the form below to tell us where to send this printable guide.

Exception bid him speak, and at this time
His tongue obey'd his hand
King of France

Alls Well That Ends Well (I.2)

The English Grammar made by B. Johnson, … out of his observation of the English Language now spoken, and in use. From the British Library description: “Jonson’s Grammar gives us a snapshot of English in the early 17th century. He considers syntax and spelling, and is one of the first writers to leave us a clear indication of the pronunciation of English. Here Jonson tells us that the letter ‘r’ at the end of a word would be heard clearly, because it is ‘the Dogs Letter’ – directing us to think of the sound a dog makes – it ‘hurreth in the sound; the tongue striking the inner palate, with a trembling about the teeth’.” Source

Ben Jonson Wrote a Grammar Book

Like, it seems, everything in the 16-17th century, spelling and the standardization of words was blossoming for the English language during Shakespeare's lifetime. Part of this spelling reform were writers stepping up to produce books that tried to create a system of pronunciation and assigning letters to those words that define how to speak and cement the connection between spoken and written word.

When trying to figure out how Shakespeare would have spoken, these books are hugely helpful to discover what Shakespeare's life was like in terms of spelling (Interesting to think they didn't have spelling tests in school, isn't it?)

One of the most famous example of these books was written by Ben Jonson. In that grammar book, he outlines short and long vowel examples and rhyming examples. He goes through every letter of the alphabet and how it should be pronounced. Read his full grammar online here.