OP or not OP?

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On a very damp grey Monday morning in London, a trip to the British Library was successful on two counts: an opportunity to visit the new exhibition Evolving English, while gaining refuge from the inclement weather outside.

In the exhibition, it was a pleasant surprise to come across two names we are well acquainted with here in The Shakespeare Bookshop: David and Ben Crystal, the father and son team who co-authored one of our best-selling reference works, Shakespeare’s Words. Of immediate interest to the bookshop was the recording of Ben reading the opening speech of Richard III in Original Pronunciation (OP), which happens to be the subject of another David Crystal book here on our shelves, Pronouncing Shakespeare.

This of course begs the question, how do we know what Shakespeare’s words sounded like when spoken on the stage of the Globe theatre 400 years ago? How did it differ from our modern pronunciation? Did it really, as one theory goes, sound more like a modern American or Irish accent than a modern English one? And how was it evolving and changing, even as Shakespeare was writing?

David Crystal was asked all these questions, and more (and expected to answer them!), when the Globe Theatre decided to stage three performances of Romeo and Juliet in OP. His book Pronouncing Shakespeare takes us through the process from initial investigations to final performance. Along the way, he examines what can be deduced about the aural qualities of a language from written sources, how to integrate OP into rehearsals without swamping the actors with phonetic technicalities, and finally and exhilaratingly, the definite impact it made on character interpretation, overall stage presentation and audience reaction in performance.

OP lets us understand Shakespeare’s work from another angle, allowing us to get closer to his thoughts by hearing the words as he heard them while writing them, or as we would have heard Richard Burbage speaking them for the first time on stage. If nothing else, we can get a few more of the jokes, especially the puns that have been lost due to changes in pronunciation (for example, ‘hours’ and ‘whores’ sounded almost identical back then). But be careful where you read this book, as it is impossible not to start speaking the words out loud yourself to experiment with OP, which can lead to funny looks from fellow passengers in the train carriage!

Pronouncing Shakespeare by David Crystal is available from The Shakespeare Bookshop. Normally retailing at £15.99, it is currently on offer to our customers at £10 while stocks last.

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  • Richard Baldwin Cook

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