Pronounce it for me, Sir

This is a short extract of a longer review which will soon appear on the Reviewing Shakespeare website.

Macbeth is a play by turns familiar and strange. It is one of the most quotable and quoted plays in Shakespeare’s canon and is performed regularly, by professional and amateur companies alike, yet it is a play which features witches and in which, it is said, horses, breaking loose from their stalls, eat each other. Strange, yet familiar, it became the latest play (after Romeo and Juliet, Troilus and Cressida, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, and eight others) to be staged in Original Pronunciation (OP) rather than the standard modern pronunciation, which, in practice, usually means Received Pronunciation (RP). Played under the auspices of Read Not Dead – a superb enterprise designed to promote the performance of rarely-performed plays from the English Renaissance – it was, perhaps, an unusual choice for the series: less Read Not Dead, more Said Not Dead; frequently performed but not spoken in this way since the seventeenth-century. Like other Read Not Dead shows, this was a staged reading in which the actors had their scripts with them on stage.

Professor David Crystal (who played the part of the Doctor) has championed OP for the last decadearguing that it illuminates puns which may otherwise have been obscured and creates new assonances and rhythms which give lines a fresh impact. In the programme notes, much was made of how OP performance reintroduces lost rhymes such as the final couplet: ‘So thanks to all at once, and each to one,/Whom we invite to see us crowned at Scone’ (5.11.40-1) where ‘one’ sounds like ‘own’. The Witches, the play’s great purveyors of rhyme, benefited most in this regard. So, ‘babe’ (4.1.30) sounded like ‘bab’ and rhymed with ‘drab’ (4.1.31) and most noticeably of all, ‘heath’ (1.1.6) sounded like ‘heth’ and rhymed with Macbeth. The heth/Macbeth rhyme certainly has much to recommend it and chimes well with many of the other couplets, but there’s something attractive too about the slight discordancy to the modern half-rhyme. I wonder, despite the overflow of positive feeling towards OP, whether the original is always better (and, also, whether we can be sure that what we are hearing is the original).

This review continues at Reviewing Shakespeare, but for a short sample of OP see Ben Crystal playing Richard II below.


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