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Shakespeare in the 'OP'

Posted by Josh Rothman  October 28, 2010 04:45 PM

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It's now quite common for classical performances to draw upon historically 'authentic' instruments and techniques. Now the same sensibility is being applied to Shakespeare, most recently in a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream done entirely in the 'original pronunciation' (or OP, for those in the know).

The production is being helmed by Paul Meier, a Hollywood dialect coach and theater director who's visiting at the University of Kansas, where he's putting on the play with the help of theater students. And Meier's troupe has been working with David Crystal, a linguist who's written a book, Pronouncing Shakespeare, with recordings you can listen to online. According to Meier, "American audiences will hear an accent and style surprisingly like their own in its informality and strong r-colored vowels":

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. 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.’

Why does the OP sound 'Irish'? The answer is the Great Vowel Shift, which happened from (approximately) 1450 to 1750. Over that period, the pronunciation of English vowels shifted forward in the throat, toward the teeth and lips. That's how we got from Yeats to Keats (try it and see!). Shakespeare lived from 1564 to 1616, right in the middle of the Great Vowel Shift - thus the 'Irishness' of the OP. (You can hear it even more clearly in this OP of The Canterbury Tales.)

Sometimes 'authentic' performances make old things seem older - but this one, to my ears, moves Shakespeare forward in time.

Link to the original article thanks to Kottke.org.

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