« Step by Step, the Longest March | Main | Why not Hartford? »

Hours or Whores

Your Humble Blogger came across this Open University video recently courtesy of David Beaver over at the Language Log. I have some issues with it—quite a lot of issues, actually, taken as a video. For instance, the video gives the effect that David Crystal believes that there was One Original Pronunciation, as if there were no regional or class accents in Shakespeare’s day. Which is really obviously not true, as people make fun of each other’s accents in the plays. I don’t think that’s what the scholar actually thinks, mind you, but that’s the impression one would get from these ten minutes.

I am, however, unsure whether the Crystals (father and son) feel that performing in O.P. in 2013 is one possible interesting option—which is true and undeniable—or if it is The Superior Way. Which, in my opinion, not so much. I would like to attend such a production at one point, and would like (I think) to take part in such a production, but as experiments. In the video, by the way, they say that it’s a misconception that the O.P. Way makes it difficult for the audience to follow the words, but they don’t talk to any audience members about that. In fact, they only people they talk to are the Crystals, who have the text memorized, pretty much, so.

They do give an interesting example, and it’s from a Jaques line in As You Like It, so it caught my attention. Also: dick joke. It’s only sort-of a Jaques line, as he is quoting Touchstone; in the production I was in this past spring, they took the line away from me and gave it back to Touchstone, which worked rather well. I think. Anyway, for those who don’t want to watch the ten-minute video, it’s from II.vii:

“It is ten o’clock; Thus we may see,” quoth he, “how the world wags; ’Tis but an hour ago since it was nine; And after one hour more ’twill be eleven; And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe, And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot; And thereby hangs a tale.”

The observation is that in 1600 or so, the word hour would have been pronounced more or less oor, identically to the word whore. Thus it’s more obvious that when Touchstone talks about rotting, he’s talking about venereal disease, and more obvious that the whole thing is a dick joke. On the other hand, even if a performer were to use the O.P. of hour, I don’t know how an audience member would know the O.P. of whore, or know it well enough to make the connection quickly on one hearing.

Nor do you really need the hour/whore pun to make the joke work—Ben Crystal gives a bad Received Pronunciation presentation of the joke, but of course there can be good ones as well. If I were doing it, myself, I would play up the hands of the clock—it was nine, arm straight out, soon it will be eleven, arm up. Then bring the arm back in for the world-wagging so you can start it at nine again for ripe and ripe—the erection of your hour hand can be accompanied by a pelvic thrust, if the audience doesn’t seem to get the point—and then the hand droops from twelve to three on rot and rot and then is completely limp and detumescent as the tail hangs. I think the visual pun of the clock’s rising and setting hand works better to explicate the hour/whore pun than actually using the O.P., with which the audience presumably is altogether unfamiliar.

This brings up another problem with the video, and this one I suspect really is a problem I have with the Crystal’s attitude. They seem to be saying that people don’t really get Shakespeare, the sonnets or the plays, unless they get them in the Original Pronunciation. Empirical observation, though, seems to indicate that lots of people enjoy and are moved by the plays and poems in Received Pronunciation, in American Stage Standard, in broad Yorkshire, in Southern Drawl, and even in translation. Are those people wrong? Do they fail to understand that they are failing to understand properly? Is their experience not, you know, central to their experience? I don’t like any discussion of Shakespeare in performance—any discussion of any playscript in performance, actually—that doesn’t put the audience in the center of things. I don’t find it persuasive, not because I don’t believe in their linguistic evidence, but because their dismissal of the evidence of the audience makes me very skeptical that they are judging their other evidence fairly.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I found their O.P. to be amusingly close to the way Hagrid sounds in the Harry Potter movies.

Good points.

I'm curious about the specific joke they talk about. I interpreted them as saying that in addition to the hour/whore pun, Shakespeare was punning on ripe and rape, and on rot and rut. But I have no idea whether that's even plausible, much less true.

Two other thoughts:

* I've had teachers who said that the original pronunciation revealed double meanings, but I'm dubious about the instances they were talking about. In particular, in 9th grade or so, a teacher told us that "fair and foul" was pronounced basically like a modern pronunciation of "fear and fool" (perhaps in a mildly Scottish accent), and therefore that the Witches were talking about foolish people and about people being scared. But that's only a pun if "fear" and "fool" weren't also pronounced differently in Shakespeare's day.

* I'm hesitant to endorse your "if all else fails, make a pelvic thrust" approach, because I've seen that kind of thing done so often in Shakespeare productions, and it tends to bug me. In particular, as I wrote in a column long ago:

'(For that matter, some Shakespearean lines are incomprehensible even to the actors: I always wince when I see an actor speak a line that they obviously don't understand, and I get annoyed when they cover by inserting some random sexual innuendo to get a cheap laugh. When Hamlet says "who would fardels bear, / To grunt and sweat under a weary life," if the actor doesn't know that a fardel is a bundle, he might grab his crotch and pump his hips while saying "who would ... *fardels* bear, / To *grunt* and *sweat* ... under a weary life" with an insinuating intonation.... I hate that.)'

It's quite possible that I'm the ignorant one on this topic; for all I know, maybe the dramaturge has explained to the actor that "fardels" (for example) not only meant "bundles" but was Shakespearean slang for testicles (I'm making this up here, just as an example), and thus a pelvic thrust and a crotch grab is entirely appropriate. But most of the time when I see it done, it gives me the impression that the people putting on the play are just throwing in irrelevant sexual gestures in order to distract the audience from hard-to-understand lines.

I know there's a lot of sex jokes in Shakespeare, though, and I certainly don't want to say actors shouldn't call attention to those. I guess I just want to make sure that the actor's doing it in order to bring out meaning that the audience might miss, rather than just randomly.

Jed—I've been meaning to respond to you here, sorry it has taken so long. I totally understand your hesitance. Certainly, there's a tendency to go for the easy laugh, and some actors surely do fail to understand the texts. A fellow actor was telling me recently of an early rehearsal for a Midsummer during which an actor asked the director what a particular phrase meant, and was told don't worry about it, the audience won't know. So, yeah, it's a thing. At the same time, there's another thing about actors and directors being too delicate to really sell the dick and fart jokes, particularly in the histories and tragedies, and so the lines just lie there like dead things.

It's about the audience, to me: if the point is to distract the audience from an incomplete understand of (or sympathy with) the text, then it's a problem. If the point is to draw the attention to the text (and the circumstances of the play), then it's a good thing. If the director has accurately gauged the audience, that is.

For your (excellent) hypothetical example, I find it difficult to imagine a Hamlet grabbing his balls on fardles making the gesture work—but a pelvic thrust to accompany the country matters in III,ii seems totally justified, but rarely done.


Comments are closed for this entry. Usually if I close comments for an entry it's because that entry gets a disproportionate amount of spam. If you want to contact me about this entry, feel free to send me email.