Stage Talk
: Recovering the Diverse Soundscapes of Early Modern Comedies

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Early modern playwrights cared about the way their words were delivered on stage.
Their plays were primarily intended to be performed, not read in silence, which means that their oral delivery is fundamental to the construction of meaning. The phonology of early modern English differs considerably from the way people speak English today. The evolution of English pronunciation has therefore inevitably affected the interpretation of various features of the plays, including puns, jokes, rhymes, and other wordplay that get lost ‘in transmission’ when pronounced in modern English. In researching the soundscapes of early modern English comedies, therefore, my approach is accordingly interdisciplinary and historical, and my thesis addresses the following main research questions: what do we know about how early modern plays originally sounded on stage?
What can we learn from the semi-phonetic spellings preserved in the printed editions of early modern plays? Who were the actors who performed these plays and how did their voices inflect their delivery on stage? And what do contemporary pronunciation manuals say that can help us hear the acoustic nuances of early modern dramatic texts? My approach, however, is also firmly grounded in the present. Throughout this thesis I investigate modern productions of early modern plays to test my own theories about how early modern variation translates (or fails to translate) into contemporary performance. I primarily consider pronunciation choices made by modern companies and make suggestions about how I think specific words or dialogues could be delivered in order to enhance subtleties that are otherwise lost in modern English.

Overall, my thesis analyses dramatic and non-dramatic evidence to argue that Original Pronunciation (OP) was as diverse as modern English varieties, and not a ‘standardised’ sound. My thesis shows how acoustic variation was often deployed on the early modern stage to nuance characterisation and the dramatic situation within the fictive worlds of a selection of early modern comedies: William Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost (1598), Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor (1602), Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist (1610), and Richard Brome’s The Northern Lass (1632). By building on the most important contributions to the study of early modern English to date, in both literary and linguistic fields of study, my thesis demonstrates that the study of the diverse soundscapes of OP in these comedies allows for richer character interpretations and for a fuller appreciation of their linguistic nuances, which, in turn, can help modern-day directors and practitioners activate these aspects of early modern comedy in performance.

Keywords: early modern English drama, William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Richard Brome, phonology, original pronunciation (OP), diversity, accents, dialectal comedy, soundscapes, theatre.
Date of Award1 Jul 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorSonia Massai (Supervisor) & Martin Dewey (Supervisor)

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