Shakespeare Comes Alive in The Sound of The First Folio Lecture

Dramatic arts professor Dr. David Stern, with the help of UConn faculty and dramatic arts students, gives a presentation on the original sound of Shakespeare's plays on Thursday evening. (Amar Batra/The Daily Campus)

As part of the University of Connecticut’s First Folio events, dramatic arts professor Dr. David Alan Stern gave a presentation on the original sound of the Shakespeare plays at the UConn Drama-Music building. Audience members packed the room and waited in anticipation to hear about Stern’s research into the linguistics of the Renaissance.

Stern has trained actors, business executives and orators in the proper enunciation of certain dialects and accents. Some of his clients in the past have included celebrities such as Liam Neeson and Julia Roberts. Stern is now focused on Shakespearean dialect and enunciation.

Most Shakespeare plays are performed by actors speaking in either a United Kingdom British or even an American accent, which is a far cry from the original pronunciation, or ‘OP’ of the Renaissance-era actors that first presented the plays in the 1500s.

Stern aims to bring back the original flavor of Shakespeare through his research of the dialects and forms of Renaissance speech, in order to understand the plays better and bring a new dimension to actor’s performances.

“It gives students access to another level of meaning,” Stern said. “It de-mystifies Shakespeare and gives it an earthier touch.”

Stern opened the lecture with a performance of fourth year acting majors reciting the opening chorus of ‘Henry V.’ A far cry from the usual polished British accents of traditionally trained actors, the student’s voices were instead a hodgepodge of dialects–most notably Irish, Scottish, Gaelic, Cockney and even a bit of what Stern called ‘Hagrid’.

The pronunciation itself is still a mystery, but it is still the best guess that linguistic researchers such as Stern and David Crystal can take. Stern was initially skeptical of OP Shakespeare plays until he met Crystal at a workshop in Britain.

The two discussed the methods used to decipher dialects. One of the ways includes comparing words in Shakespeare’s sonnets and poems that are supposed to rhyme. Characters such as Puck from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ nearly always speak in couplets, since, according to Crystal, ‘Fairies are scientifically proven to always rhyme.”

Thus, in Shakespeare OP, words like ‘eyes’ and ‘fantasies’ rhyme based on the pronunciation. Puns as well are fodder for research, since Shakespeare often included dirty euphemisms hidden as words that are seemingly innocuous in modern English. The word ‘hour’ for example, sounds more like ‘whore’ in Shakespeare OP.

Stern interspersed the lecture with excerpts and performances from various acting groups, such as the Original Shakespeare Company, who are dedicated to rehearsing and presenting the plays as close to the original format as possible. He also acted out several pieces himself, including a song from the end of ‘Twelfth Night’ and the ‘To be or not to be’ speech from Macbeth.

David Crystal’s son, Ben Crystal, also sent an audio clip of himself reading the preface to the First Folio in Shakespeare OP, which carried a strong Scottish and Irish brogue.  

Overall, original pronunciation is a key part to understanding Shakespeare, history and the evolution of the English language. Students such as fifth semester acting major Shavana Clarke can appreciate the new skills they pick up with the dialect.

“It’s been an interesting experience learning it,” said Clarke, who was one of the performers in the ‘Henry V’ chorus during the lecture. “It’s unique and it’s something to put in our toolbox as an actor.”

Audience members who came for class requirements, the love of Shakespeare or simply out of curiosity also enjoyed the lecture.

“I loved the presentation,” said Liam Williams, a fifth semester political science major, who attended after hearing about the event in an email.

“It was really fascinating. I wasn’t a fan of reading Shakespeare before, but this made it come alive to me.”


Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.