Shakespeare's Tongue, Heard at the Globe

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The Globe Theatre in London will soon become the first professional theater company in centuries to stage an entire run of a Shakespeare play in the original pronunciation. The actors in Troilus and Cressida will recite their lines with accents that are believed to be close to what would have been heard in Shakespeare's day. Robert Siegel talks with actor Peter Forbes, who is playing the role of Pandarus in the production.


To bay or not to bay sounds like a choice for a moonstruck wolf. Instead we learn that's how Hamlet would have begun his soliloquy in OP, the original pronunciation. Of course, to an actor in the original production of "Hamlet" it was just English as it sounded 400 years ago. And we really don't know for sure what his accent sounded like. But London's Globe Theatre is now rehearsing Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida" in OP. By assuming that rhyming couplets that don't anymore must have rhymed in Shakespeare's day, the linguist David Crystal has reconstructed the accent of the Elizabethan stage and taught it to the actors. For example, Peter Forbes, who will play Pandarus in the production, which opens in late August and who demonstrated some original pronunciation today.

Mr. PETER FORBES (Actor): The prologue from "Troilus and Cressida," as the play starts, in normal English would go something like this: `In Troy there lies the scene. From isles of Greece, the princes orgulous, their high bloods chaffed have to the Port of Athens sent their ships fraught with the ministers and instruments of cruel war.'

And in OP, it goes, `In Troy, there lies the sand. From isles of Greece (pronounced Grace), the princes orgulous, their high bloods chaffed have to the Port of Athens sent their ships fraught with the ministers and instruments of cruel war (pronounced wahr).' So it's a much earthier, meatier kind of sound.

SIEGEL: Now you run the risk in doing this of--instead of playing to a house that's catching 85 percent to 90 percent of what they're hearing in typical Shakespearean English...

Mr. FORBES: Yeah.

SIEGEL: ...catching only 60 or 70 percent of what they--if it's too exotic.

Mr. FORBES: That is true, but there are all sorts of things that become much clearer. Certain words that in modern English sort of half rhyme or don't rhyme will suddenly start to rhyme in the original pronunciation, and hopefully the audience will enjoy that. Certainly last year they tried this with a couple of performances of "Romeo and Juliet," and Professor David Crystal, who's our expert in all this, talked to some of the audience, including some inner-city schoolkids, and said, you know, `What do think of it?' And they said, `Oh, it's wicked. It's fantastic. It's great.' And he said, `Why?' And they said, `Because they're talking like us.' And, in fact, they weren't talking like them, but at least--what they meant was they weren't talking posh.

SIEGEL: Well, I'd like to read from a list of some words that Professor David Crystal has taught all of you how to pronounce.

Mr. FORBES: Yes.

SIEGEL: And I'm going to--I'll read the words that we would naturally say them and...

Mr. FORBES: Yeah.

SIEGEL: ...tell us how we would have heard them in Shakespeare's day.

Mr. FORBES: OK, I'll do my best.

SIEGEL: For example, another.

Mr. FORBES: Another (pronounced a-NOH-thur).

SIEGEL: Another (pronounced a-NOH-thur).

Mr. FORBES: Another (pronounced a-NOH-thur).

SIEGEL: Fellow.

Mr. FORBES: Fella.

SIEGEL: Fella, which we still would hear nowadays.

Mr. FORBES: Yeah, in normal colloquial speech we would--we probably wouldn't pronounce the fellow. We'd just say fella.

SIEGEL: Flower.

Mr. FORBES: Flower (pronounced floor).

SIEGEL: Flower (pronounced floor)?

Mr. FORBES: Flower (pronounced floor).

SIEGEL: And haste, as in haste makes waste.

Mr. FORBES: Haste makes waste (pronounced hast macks wast).

SIEGEL: Haste makes waste (pronounced hast macks wast)?

Mr. FORBES: Yeah, so haste (pronounced hast) rhymes with tossed, and there's also another one which is the word `feast' that comes up a lot in Shakespeare. Feast becomes fest, and so it rhymes with guest. So you'd be a guest at a fest.

SIEGEL: And it's fest or famine.

Mr. FORBES: Fest or famine, yes.

SIEGEL: Well, why don't share with us another line from "Troilus and Cressida" before you go. Tell us something--give us a speech here that you've been working on and that...

Mr. FORBES: OK. In the first scene of the play, the character that I play, Pandarus, is trying to bring Troilus and Cressida together. He says, `Well, she looked yesternight fairer than e'er I saw her look or any woman else. And her hair were not somewhat darker than heavens well, go to, there were no more comparison between the woman. But for my part she is my kinswoman. I would not, as they term it, praise her, but I would somebody had heard her talk yesterday as I did'--and so he goes on.

SIEGEL: I thought you were going to break into `argh, me maties' there for a moment and talk like a pirate for a second there.

Mr. FORBES: Well, I'm sure, you know, that that sort of stereotypical pirate speak comes really from this sort of time as well, you know, when the privateers were sailing the high seas. And, of course, when the Pilgrim fathers came to America they would have spoken this kind of English.

SIEGEL: Well, Peter Forbes, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. FORBES: Thank you very much, indeed, Robert.

SIEGEL: And especially for talking with us in Elizabethan English, which is a rare moment on the program.

Mr. FORBES: Well, thank you very much. It's been a pleasure to talk to you.

SIEGEL: Peter Forbes will appear in "Troilus and Cressida" at the Globe Theatre in London in August. The play will be presented in OP, the original pronunciation.

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