Wednesday 10 January 2007

On Shakespearean r's

A correspondent, having listened to the samples of 'original pronunciation' (OP) on the Shakespeare's Words website, writes to ask how I know that the letter r was pronounced after vowels and before consonants in Shakespeare's day - in such words as arm and far. The full answer can be found in my Pronouncing Shakespeare - but, briefly, the main reason is that people who were writing at the time tell us so. There's a nice statement from Ben Jonson (the dramatist, yes, but he also wrote an English grammar in which he describes the way letters are pronounced) who talks about 'the dog's letter' [think 'grrr'] being sounded in the middle and at the end of words, but less firmly than at the beginning. Other writers talk about it too. Exactly what phonetic quality the sound had is open to question. It might have been a trilled sound (as in modern Scots), but from the descriptions at the time I think it's more likely to have been a retroflex one - that is, one where the tip of the tongue is curled back, as in a lot of American and West Country speech. That's the sound I used in my recordings, anyway.

He also asks whether there are any OP productions taking place at the moment, and how to hear more of it. I don't know of any. Pronouncing Shakespeare is the story of the first OP production at Shakespeare's Globe in 2004, of Romeo and Juliet. There was another one in 2005, of Troilus and Cressida. Videos were made of these productions and are lodged in the library at the Globe. I know that a couple of US universities have been playing about with OP, notably some people at the Blackfriars project in Virginia. But I don't know of any planned production right now. The Globe has no plans to do another one, as far as I know. Maybe one of the other theatres will take it up, in due course. John Barton told me that there was some interest at Stratford in doing an OP version of Henry V as part of the 'completish works' season there, but it never went ahead. (I say 'completish' because there's no King Edward III or Sir Thomas More - which, despite the authorship uncertainties, were both produced at Stratford in the last few years. So the media hype that in 2006-7 the RSC is producing 'every word that Shakespeare ever wrote' is a bit of an exaggeration.) OP would sound great in the Swan, it seems to me. Although the Globe productions were excellent, the character of the OP was inevitably lost a bit in the noisy environment.

Some prose pieces in OP can be heard interspersed with music from Globe musicians on the double-CD: The World's Globe (signum SIGCD077), which came out last year. I also have a CD of extracts from Troilus, using some of the actors from the company, which I can make available to teachers of this subject. Otherwise, there are extracts on the above-mentioned website ( and also on the Globe's website.


KateGladstone said...

How can I obtain (for teaching purposes when teaching English subjects other than handwriting) your CD of Original Pronunciation extracts from TROILUS (and any other Original Pronunciation audio you may wish to provide to someone who shares your concern for accuracy on the past of English)?

DC said...

Up to now, there have been a few extracts on the Shakespeare's Words site, but in future these will be found at our Shakespeare Portal, where the book Pronouncing Shakespeare is included. The extracts should be there by the end of this month. These are extracts made by me. The OP recording of extracts from Troilus made by some of the actors from Shakespeare's Globe isn't publicly available, but I do have a few copies which Shakespeare teachers seriously interested in this approach can obtain from me.