Shakespeare’s “English”

In 1997, “Shakespeare´s Globe” opened its doors to the public as a faithful reconstruction of the theatre that Shakespeare would have been performed in originally. The Globe Theatre is located about two hundred meters from the original location that, unfortunately for the heads of the project, had already been turned into a parking lot.

The purpose of the Globe Theatre is to perform Shakespeare´s plays as closely as possible to Shakespeare’s time. This means original costumes, staging and lighting (no electric lighting!). But, until 2004 an important piece was missing: the original language.

But aren’t his plays in English?

They are, and Early Modern English (as opposed to the Late Modern English we use today) is mostly intelligible, except for a few grammatical oddities and a few words that have fallen out of use (such as the informal pronoun “thou”). A big thing with English, however, is the pronunciation.

How did Shakespeare say his words? What did he sound like? The Globe Theatre teamed up with linguist David Crystal on a quest to “talk like Shakespeare”. Using a combination of contemporary works on pronunciation, contemporary spelling and working out rhymes that no longer worked in Late Modern English, the accent used in Shakespeare´s time was reconstituted. It turns out that it is an entire universe away from English “Received Pronunciation”, colloquially known as “RP” or “BBC English”.

The Globe Theatre now performs in “original pronunciation” (also known as OP). And, unexpectedly, the audience feedback was overwhelmingly positive. The British working classes for a long time viewed Shakespearean theatre as an “elitist” exercise – it was distant, reverential, in a form of English only 2% of the population spoke. Basically, “posh”.

But OP is actually much closer to a lot of Britain’s regional accents nowadays (a lot of them are in fact descended from Shakespeare´s English), making Shakespeare’s “posh English” in reality more understandable to the common Englishman. That and OP bringing out a lot of the puns and wordplay, particularly of the salacious kind that Shakespeare was fond of, helped the Globe Theatre performance feel far more genuine and down to earth. Shakespeare´s English felt more real to English people than “real English” ever could.

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