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The Atavist: One man's quest to perform Shakespeare as it was originally spoken

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The English spoken during William Shakespeare's time is vastly different from the way that we speak the language today. Aside from our usage of hashtags and pop culture references, the pronunciation and inflection of words 500 years ago varies significantly from what we are used to hearing today.

Hamilton Meadows, a Vietnam veteran and Shakespeare aficionado, seeks out the original pronunciation, or OP, of the legendary bard's English in the hopes of putting on his own production.

Daniel Fromson wrote about Meadows and his journey to perfect the pronunciation of Shakespeare's English and wrote about it for The Atavist.


On Easter Sunday 2011, a 39-foot sailboat motored into the Chesapeake Bay. “Tangier Island!” its captain cried. “Dead ahead, about five miles off of the starboard beam.” He said these words even though he was alone, bouncing through a choppy sea toward a place where he knew no one. He recorded himself with a handheld camera, as if starring in an adventure film of his own creation.

The sailor’s voyage had begun a day earlier, on April 23—the day, many believe, that William Shakespeare was born, in 1564. He called his ship the Tempest, a reference to both Shakespeare’s play and the storm that had wrecked the boat years before he bought and rebuilt it. Sailing without radar or other instruments, he had dropped anchor that evening and spent the night in the cabin, a warren of unfinished wood, dangling wires, and peeling metal foil suffused with a distinctly lived-in shabbiness. Now, however, he stood on deck in the afternoon sun, glided into a marina, and tied up at a berth amid stacks of crab traps and thickets of salt-marsh cordgrass, silencing an engine that had no reverse.

Shaped like an apple turnover, Tangier Island—officiallyTangier, Virginia, as its inhabited portions are known—measures three miles by one mile, sits just a few feet above sea level, and is so grooved with waterways and pounded by waves that several acres, every year, simply vanish into the bay. The place lends itself to hyperbole: Writers have called it “an island out of time” and “the quaintest and most isolated community in the United States.” Its 500 or so residents, descended from Englishmen who arrived in the late 1700s, drive golf carts instead of cars, passing clapboard houses and stone coffins that protrude above the saturated ground. “Interesting to notice how many people here don’t put up curtains at night, living with no fear,” the sailor wrote in his journal. “Never experienced that before”—and he was nothing if not experienced in the world’s diverse living arrangements, from a former embassy in Dubai to the space under an evergreen in Central Park.

For a few days, the sailor prowled the island with his video camera. He looked younger than his 65 years, with blue eyes that flickered between glowing and dim, framed by delicate, childlike lashes. On either side of a strawberry-shaped nose, his ears jutted crookedly from a bald skull. He often moved, despite his gut, with vigor, his face blossoming into extravagant smiles and frowns, but on Tangier Island he seemed lost. That, at least, is what Debra Sorenson—an artist who ran the Tangier History Museum and was a rare nonnative citizen of the island—thought when she spotted him near the local grocery store. His name, he told her, was Hamilton Meadows.

Meadows said he was a Shakespearean actor and filmmaker from New York City, although his acting résumés had typically listed a number of additional “special skills”: “offshore sailor, scuba diver/underwater cameraman, commercial fisherman, lumberjack, US Army ranger Viet Nam, expert marksman, stonemason, carpenter, undertaker’s assistant, wedding photographer, home birth assistant.” For several years, he told Sorenson, he had longed to see Shakespeare’s plays as they were performed centuries ago in Elizabethan England—and after he’d started repairing the Tempest in a Virginia shipyard, in 2007, he had learned that Tangier Island’s fishermen still spoke with the Elizabethan accent of their ancestors. Meadows hoped to convince some of them to recite Romeo and Juliet and to let him film them doing so. He would then return to New York and replicate their readings in an Off-Broadway production of the play, in which actors would speak Shakespeare’s words as they originally sounded. 

You can read more of "Finding Shakespeare" on The Atavist.