Five Shakespeare puns ruined by modern English

Many the Bard's puns now go over our heads, says expert

A host of William Shakespeare’s puns, rhymes and rhythms are completely lost on modern audiences due to changes in pronunciation, a linguists expert has said.

David Crystal has dedicated 12 years to studing original pronunciation (OP) productions of Shakespeare plays, where actors pronounce their lines in what research suggests would have been the accent used in Shakespeare’s time. 

The recitation of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets in modern British accents means many of his puns and rhymes are effectively lost in translation.

Below are some of those that risk being rendered obsolete:

1.    Romeo and Juliet, Prologue:

"From forth the fatal loins of these two foes,

A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life."

The word ‘loins’ would originally have been pronounced the same as ‘lines’.

This pun refers to the fatal blood lines of Romeo and Juliet – the families that they descended from are the reason for their death, as well as their ‘loins’ (their physical relationship). 

2.     As You Like It, Act 3, Scene 3: 

Touchstone: "I am here with thee and they goats, as the most capricious poet, honest Ovid, was among the Goths." 

In Shakespeare’s time, ‘goats’ and ‘Goths’ would have sounded the same. 

The Goths were a group of early Germanic Christians, at whom this line seems to be making a subtle dig. 

3.    A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 5, Scene 1:

Demetrius: "No die, but an ace for him."

‘Ace’ here refers to one (as in the number one on a single dice), but at the time would have sounded like ‘ass’, as in donkey. 

4.     Sonnet 116

"If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved."

In Shakespeare’s time, ‘proved’ would have been pronounced to rhyme with ‘loved’, making this sonnet end with an elegant rhyme. 

5.    Troilus and Cressida, Act 1, Scene 2:

Thersites: "But yet you look not well upon him; for, whomsoever you take him to be, he is Ajax." 

Thersites is insulting Ajax just by saying his name. At the time, ‘Ajax’ would have been pronounced ‘a jakes’, a word that meant ‘sh*thouse’ in Shakespeare's time. 

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