Although we all imagine Shakespeare’s plays performed in an upper-class British accent according to the experts the original pronunciation of his plays would have had echoes of Irish, New England and Cockney accents.
For the first time in history one of Shakespeare’s plays will be performed with its original pronunciation in North America.
This is with thanks to Paul Meier, a University of Kansas theater professor, who has pieced together the old form of English. Speaking to, he said “What did English sound like back then?....Was it posh or down to earth? Was it anything like today’s British or American English? Would we understand it?”
“The audience will hear rough and surprisingly vernacular diction, they will hear echoes of Irish, New England and Cockney that survive to this day as ‘dialect fossils.’ And they will be delighted by how very understandable the language is, despite the intervening centuries.”
Meier is staging “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” this November. The dialect expert said that it was his love of Shakespeare to launch the Baird’s comedy in its original pronunciation.
“American audiences will hear an accent and style surprisingly like their own in its informality and strong r-colored vowels,” said Meier. “The original pronunciation performance strongly contrasts with the notions of precise and polished delivery created by John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and their colleagues from the 20th century British theater.”
“Original costume, dance, staging and music have been staged repeatedly, but not in the original pronunciation…To restore the lost rhymes, the lost wordplay, is exciting. To hear how much more swiftly the actors of 1600 would have delivered the text is another hugely important insight. To hear the words free from the baggage that attaches to contemporary dialects is likewise exciting and illuminating.”
Meier believes that using the original pronunciation brings alive aspects of the play that “haven’t worked for several hundred years (love/prove, eyes/qualities, etc.) magically restored, as Bottom, Puck and company wind the language clock back to 1595.”
Meier has been collaborating with a scholar, David Crystal, who worked with Shakespeare’s Globe in London on their first original pronunciation production in 2004. Crystal, the author of “The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language” and “Pronouncing Shakespeare”, worked with Meier and the cast for two weeks in September.
This production at Kansas University will only be the fourth in Shakespearean play in the original production. Crystal said that this is because so few linguists can demonstrate the pronunciation, have theater interest or credentials.
Meier said “Theaters might well have a desire to put on original pronunciation productions, but without Crystal and a dialect coach like myself, who has implemented his designs, there is an almost total lack of qualified personnel.”
Later this year the cast will spend time in the Kansas Public Radio recording studios recreating the production along with music and special effects. The recordings will then be made available to the public.

Originally published in 2010.