How To Talk Like Shakespeare

by Daniel Fromson

Daniel Fromson’s Finding Shakespeare is the tale of a troubled Vietnam veteran turned amateur actor named Hamilton Meadows who became obsessed with a question: what did Shakespeare really sound like? The full story is new this week from Atavist. That’s just $2.99 for a month, or $19.99 for a whole year!

A few years ago, while I was living in Washington, D.C., I became curious about a small, apple turnover-shaped landmass in the Chesapeake Bay: Tangier Island. On Halloween, 2011 — after reading about the place on and off for a year or so — I came across a story in the Salisbury, Maryland, Daily Times. A “New York City Shakespearean actor,” the article said, had spent three weeks on Tangier searching for the Elizabethan English that was rumored to survive there. “The actor’s dream,” it went on, “is to produce and stage Shakespeare’s plays ‘as faithfully as possible,’ using what theater insiders call ‘Original Pronunciation,’ abbreviated OP — referring to the way the Bard himself would have spoken the lines at the time he wrote them.” His name, it said, was Hamilton Meadows.

I would go on to spend weeks with Hamilton Meadows, then months. At first, what drew me toward him was the chance, however small, that he might really revive Shakespeare’s legendary accent. But what pulled me closer was a deepening sense of the meaning of Meadows’s dream — of its place in what he imagined as a theatrical, even Shakespearean life story filled with sudden tragedies and wanderings from Dubai to Hollywood.

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. His investigation for Shakespeare’s Globe, like those of the trailblazing researchers whose work he consulted, relied on three main forms of evidence.

The first was spelling. During the Elizabethan era, words had not yet ossified into their modern versions, so Crystal was able to deduce pronunciations by comparing early spellings to modern ones. In Shakespeare’s First Folio, for example, “poppering pear” — a pear from the Belgian town of Poperinge, and, figuratively, a penis — is written “Poprin Peare.” So poppering must have had only two syllables (“pop-rin”), and speakers wouldn’t have pronounced the g. Examining many words, Crystal concluded that both of these traits — the compression of multisyllable words and the dropping of the g from -ing endings — were common in OP.

The second source of evidence was detailed accounts of pronunciation written by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, such as his fellow playwright and poet Ben Jonson. The letter r, Crystal believed, was pronounced after vowels, in part because Jonson was one of several writers who had commented on how people had used the growl-like “dog’s letter.”

The final clues were sound patterns, particularly rhythms and rhymes. Crystal used lines from Shakespeare’s plays to determine which of a given word’s syllables would have been stressed in everyday speech. Other findings came from rhymes that don’t quite work in modern English, such as a couplet from Romeo and Juliet that rhymes the words “prove” and “love” — the assumption being that Shakespeare never would have let such a clunker infiltrate his verse. Had “prove” sounded like “love,” or had “love” sounded like “prove”? Or had their modern sounds both diverged from a common ancestor?

Daniel Fromson is a copy editor for the website of The New Yorker. His writing has also appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’s, New York, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Washington Monthly. This is his first publication with Atavist.

In such scenarios, Crystal would use spellings and other instances of the words to make educated guesses. He knew not only that it was impossible to re-create some sounds with precision, but also that the Elizabethans, like their descendants, didn’t all speak alike. A regional accent, he believed, would have always colored the era’s underlying pronunciation system.

By the time Crystal met the Globe’s associate director, Tim Carroll, in February 2004, he had arrived at what he considered a close approximation of true Original Pronunciation. Carroll, who was overseeing the Romeo and Juliet production, seemed anxious; despite his enthusiasm for Elizabethan costumes, music, and choreography, he had spent years avoiding what he later called “the final frontier.” Crystal was nervous, too. He had no idea how Carroll would react to sounds that deviated from Received Pronunciation, the elegant accent that most people hear in their heads when they imagine Shakespeare’s voice. RP, as it is known — the accent of the Queen, Shakespeare in Love, and legions of documentary narrators — is in fact a product of the 18th and 19th centuries, when obsessions with class, manners, and proper English swept Britain, privileging the speech of polite Londoners above provincial dialects. Adopted at public schools such as Eton, and of course at Oxford and Cambridge, RP became the accent of the British Empire, the BBC, and Shakespearean theater. It cemented Shakespeare’s air of authority — but it is not how Shakespeare spoke.

Crystal proceeded to read Carroll the prologue of Romeo and Juliet in OP. It sounded decidedly rustic. As the actors soon discovered during rehearsals, the pronunciation of r after vowels reminded listeners of Ireland or the southwestern English provinces known as the West Country. There was also the general style of speech: casual and fast, with actors breezing through short words and skipping consonants and vowels. Friends would be “friens”; natural would be “nat’ral.”

“A courtly bearing starts to feel strange,” one actor told Crystal in an email. “RP’s stiff upper lip dissolves away.” When the show finally went up, attendees said OP made the actors easier to identify with. During an intermission, Crystal asked a group of teenagers what they thought. “Well,” a 15-year-old said, in a Cockney accent, “they’re talking like us.” This conclusion, Crystal says, isn’t limited to speakers of regional British English: Since merchants and colonists spread the accent around the world, it became the spring from which all Anglophone accents flowed, such that people from America to Australia, hearing it for the first time, perceive aspects of their own speech.

Critics praised the Globe’s efforts, but their attention soon faded — as did the Globe’s, after a new artistic director came on board in 2006. Although Crystal published a book about what he called “the Globe experiment,” its influence was mostly limited to a couple of peers who attempted their own OP productions. Then, in March 2011, Crystal received an email. The sender’s name was Hamilton Meadows.

The email consisted of just one sentence: “Shooting doc on Shakespeare accents, using Taming of the Shrew for production in NYC this year, love your views.” Crystal wrote a brief reply: “I have plenty of views, but am not sure from your message how you want to hear them.” Meadows did not respond until the following month, when he emailed Crystal a photo of what appeared to be a sailboat. “Headed to Tangier Island this week to document accents of locals,” he wrote. “Will send you footage when I return.” This time Crystal didn’t reply. Crystal later told me that he viewed Meadows with suspicion, and that, compared with everyone else who wants to do OP Shakespeare, “Hamilton comes from a very different sort of background.

“There are lots of Shakespeare enthusiasts,” he said, “who are simply nuts.”

Shakespeare has always attracted misfits: the phrenologists who once hoped to disinter his skull; the Oxfordian and Baconian conspiracists who have doubted his existence; P. T. Barnum, who tried to buy his birthplace; and a loose cohort of amateurs who, for roughly as long as scholars like Crystal have pursued Shakespeare’s English, have claimed to have found it, alive and well, in the contemporary world. These adventurers and clergymen, journalists and genealogists, have historically latched onto an Edenic notion, believing that in some corner of civilization untarnished by modernity, people still speak like the Elizabethans.

Such stories clash with the wisdom of modern linguistics, which holds that Shakespeare’s English cannot be any living person’s native tongue, if only because all spoken languages are always evolving. Even a colony of 17th-century actors, stranded on a faraway island during the reign of Elizabeth I, would speak differently hundreds of years later. Still, since the 1800s, people have reported hearing Elizabethan English, or at least an “Elizabethan accent,” not only on Tangier Island but also in Appalachia, Bermuda, Cornwall, Devonshire, Northern Ireland, the Ozarks, Panama, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Nova Scotia, Virginia’s Roanoke Island, Newfoundland’s Fogo Island, the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, and the Pitcairn Islands of the South Pacific. “Though they never heard of Shakespeare,” a newspaper once reported, “the Bourabbees of Panama speak an English that sounds as if they were characters right out of his plays.”

This last example, more than most others, encapsulates the idea’s allure. In his essay “In the Appalachians They Speak Like Shakespeare,” the linguist Michael Montgomery argues that the notion that Shakespeare’s language lives on functions as “a myth of the noble savage”: it “satisfies our nostalgia for a simpler, purer past, which may never have existed but which we nevertheless long for because of the complexities and ambiguities of modern life.” The words link us to an imagined age of bygone freedom — of pirates, pioneers, poets — whether the alleged speakers are Bourabbees or hillbillies. “In the Kentucky mountains to this day there are people all of a sort who still speak Elizabethan English,” John Steinbeck wrote in 1966. Or as Emerson Hough put it in 1918, “When and what was the Great Frontier? We need go back only to the time of Drake and the sea-dogs, the Elizabethan Age…. That was the day of new stirrings in the human heart.”

Hamilton Meadows, I would learn, considered himself a throwback to exactly this sort of earlier era — an explorer, a sailor, and a man of honor who had tried to live a rambling life of extreme autonomy. His ideas about the Elizabethans, similarly, echoed those of earlier believers. “They were almost like the hippies,” he told me. “It was wild. It was absolutely insane. It was free. So that’s what we’re trying to find.”

Is there more? Yes. There is so much more.