Internet Shakespeare Editions


Shakespeare's pronunciation

Elizabethan pronunciation differed significantly from our own. Vowels were in the process of changing, in a process known as a "vowel shift"--the same process that has given us so many different accents today. Thus there are a number of words that would have made perfect rhymes that now sound like half-rhymes: "love" and "prove," for example.

In Henry IV, Part One, Falstaff tells Hal, seemingly inexplicably, "If reasons were as plentiful as blackberries, I would give no man a reason upon compulsion." There is a pun here, but the modern audience would be hard-pressed to notice it, unless "reason" were pronounced in the Elizabethan manner, which would sound something like "raisin." The pun then becomes obvious, and the line makes much more sense. (Click to listen* to this passage.)

In Julius Caesar, Cassius puns on "Rome" and "room"-- and again the words were pronounced alike. (Click to listen* to this passage.)

Andrew Gurr reviews scholarly work on Shakespeare's pronunciation in this useful article in the electronic journal Early Modern Literary Studies See the Renaissance Faire for Proper Elizabethan Accents.


  1. Of raisins and reasons

    Listen to Falstaff:

    Poins: Come, your reason, Jack, your reason.
    Falstaff: What, upon compulsion? Zounds, and I were at the strappado or all the racks in the world, I would not tell you upon compulsion. Give you a reason on compulsion? If reasons were as plentiful as blackberries, I would give no man a reason upon compulsion, I.
    (Henry IV, Part One, 2.4.246-42)

    A contraction of "by God's wounds."
    The victims were tied by straps on the hands, suspended, and dropped varying heights until they confessed to whatever was required.
  2. Of room and Rome

    Listen to Cassius:

    The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
    But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
    . . . . . . . . . . .
    When could they say (till now) that talked of Rome,
    That her wide walks encompassed but one man?
    Now is it Rome indeed, and room enough,
    When there is in it but one only man.
    (Julius Caesar, 1.2.140-41, 154-57)