Macbeth in Original Pronunciation (Shakespeare’s Globe) @ Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 2014Tragedy

  • Eoin Price

Reviewed by Eoin Price

Nevada Repertory Company, "Hamlet"

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 decade, arguing 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 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, relatedly, whether we can be sure that what we are hearing is the original).

The interesting post-show discussion focused largely on how OP could clarify difficulties and ambiguities in the text, but this might not always be the case. For instance, OP sometimes requires the addition of an extra syllable, such as when words end with –ion like ‘construction’. This might render verse metrically regular which could, in modern pronunciation, sound irregular, but it might also do the opposite. So, Duncan’s famous line ‘There’s no art/To find the mind’s construction in the face’ is not strictly iambic in OP. At times, then, OP might offer a tidier and tighter auditory experience, but this is not necessarily always the case.

Listening to OP is a strange experience and I felt myself moving through several different thoughts. I was tempted to say that not much actually changed since most of the pronunciation differences have little direct effect on the way a scene worked, but I was also alert to how strange it felt to hear familiar lines spoken differently. I don’t know whether I listened more attentively, but I listened differently, as if experiencing the play for the first time, wondering whether some new surprise would be thrown up by the pronunciation changes. I felt, then, like this was something unusual and my mind was always aware of the distinctions between the modern and the early modern: thus, I found the OP rendition of Banquo’s brilliant question ‘Or have we eaten on the insane root/That takes the raison prisoner?’ unduly amusing.

Many, of course, will have had a different experience. Mostly, audience members seemed to attest to finding the play newly comprehensible. In the Q&A session one non-native English speaker in the audience said she understood every line for the first time and Daiva Dominyka, a Lithuanian actress who played one of the Witches, said that OP was such a revelatory experience that now, for her, no other will do. I can’t quite share that conviction, but, certainly, I saw things differently and interestingly, because of this production. Pronunciation changes illuminated local detail in ways that I would not otherwise have imagined. There are probably lots of small examples I could have picked out – for instance, Macbeth wonders whether his ‘hate’ (rather than ‘heat’) oppressed brain is conjuring an imaginary dagger – but I will focus on three examples.

The most interesting pun, was on ‘fair’ and ‘fear’. According to David Crystal’s website, ‘fear’ had two pronunciations: the standard modern pronunciation being one, and ‘fair’ being the other. Mostly, the actors seemed to pronounce it in a way which accords with the modern standard, but during one speech, Macbeth said ‘fair’. This seems especially significant in a play determined to complicate the relationship between ‘fair’ and ‘foul’. I wonder, then, if the punning could be extended throughout the production. Would Banquo’s lines, ‘Good sir, why do you start and seem to fear/Things that do sound so fair?’ (1.3.49-50) be fascinatingly illuminated, or merely muddled, by this punning? Perhaps this is a possibility the cast already experimented with and chose to discard, but, for sure, an awareness of the possibility of a ‘fair/fear’ pun can have interesting ramifications for the play.

Elsewhere, I found that OP had an earthy quality not usually heard in modern RP productions. This was especially evident when Macduff finds out about the death of his wife. Here, ‘my’ became ‘me’ in phrases such as ‘me wife killed too?’ (4.3.214) and this allowed for a heart-felt expressiveness which the more precise RP does not always successfully transmit. Non-RP accents are often used for comic effect in modern productions, but OP helps to show the value of regional accents in the performance of tragic scenes (if any proof were needed). In this instance, Macduff sounded a bit Northern (to my, not necessarily especially well-tuned, Northern ear). At other times there seems to be a bit of Irish, but really, as David Crystal pointed out, what we heard was a variety of OP accents. Indeed, Ben Crystal assembled an international cast for just this purpose.

Plays, of course, consist of more than just language and this was a production which, like other Sam Wanamaker shows, made clever use of the balcony. Most notable of all was the decision to stage the post-killing discussion between Malcolm and Donalbain in the style of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, so that two conversations took place simultaneously. Here, Malcolm and Donalbain conspired on the stage while, on the balcony, Macbeth discussed the death of Duncan with Lennox, Ross, Banquo and Lady Macbeth. The effect was a carefully orchestrated chaos in which few words were distinct and it was impossible to follow both conversations. The theatre felt alive with the danger and panic of the situation and yet, ironically for a performance which did so much to promote the value of original pronunciation, this intelligent and successful staging was achieved by making language indecipherable.

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse 2

Eoin Price

Author: Eoin Price

Eoin Price is Tutor in Renaissance Literature at Swansea University. He recently completed a PhD on public drama and political privacy in Renaissance England at The Shakespeare Institute. He has written for the Map of Early Modern London, The Year's Work in English Studies and Literature Compass, regularly reviews books and theatre for a range of journals, serves as the UK Theatre Review Editor for the Marlowe Society of America Newsletter and blogs about Renaissance drama at You can follow Eoin on Twitter @eoin_price