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How did Shakespeare originally sound?

We all know the classic Shakespearean lines – “To be or not to be,” “O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” or “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” — but how would these famous lines have sounded to Elizabethan audiences? Are we currently misinterpreting the Bard? This question has been on the mind of Shakespeare scholars, directors, actors, and audiences for a long time, and has proved a tricky problem. The central issue is how to re-create an oral phenomenon, with predictably few pronunciation guides to work from.

Many Shakespearean sonnets no longer seem to rhyme, with the classic final couplet leaving modern readers non-plussed. Take Sonnet 154 for example:

Came there for cure and this by that I prove,
Love’s fire heats water, water cools not love.

Should this be ‘Pruv’ and ‘Luv’, or ‘Proove’ and ‘Loove’? Or Sonnet 61:

For thee watch I, whilst thou dost wake elsewhere,
From me far off, with others all too near.

Again, should we be reading this ‘Where’ and ‘Nhere’ or ‘Weer’ and ‘Neer’?

Through analysis of spelling variants, rhymes, and current usage, these questions are finally being answered. To modern ears, Shakespearean speech sounds a strangely familiar cross between contemporary Irish and Scottish, with a hint of Yorkshire and Bristolian thrown in. Test your knowledge of common Shakespearean words with our quiz, and listen to recordings of all the phrases – as the Elizabethans’ would have heard them. How well do you really know Shakespeare?

Featured and Quiz Image Credit: ‘Edwin Landseer, William Shakespeare’ by Chaos07. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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