I was at the Globe Theatre in London earlier this evening listening to a lecture-cum-performance by Professor David Crystal (there's a link to his blog on the left-hand side of this page) and his son Ben Crystal, an actor. They were talking about the language spoken in the 16th century in England, and read some speeches from Shakespeare's plays in the original pronunciation.
There were no audio recordings of how people spoke in Shakespeare's time, but Professor Crystal said we have evidence how the language sounded. First, there was a movement at the time to fix spellings and ensure that there were rules, so writers wrote about how words should be pronounced and about how words that rhymed should be spelt the same. The playwright Ben Jonson wrote a grammar book and in it he stated that r was pronounced after vowels, although it was not too strong a sound.
Many rhymes and puns in Shakespeare's plays don't work in modern English, because the pronunciation of words has changed. In Shakespeare's time mood rhymed with blood, one was pronounced own, so rhymed with alone, and wars was pronounced to rhyme with stars.
The two Crystals explained why the highlighted lines of this speech of Jaques in As You Like It would have been hilarious to a 16th-century audience:
A fool, a fool! I met a fool i' the forest,
A motley fool; a miserable world!
As I do live by food, I met a fool
Who laid him down and bask'd him in the sun,
And rail'd on Lady Fortune in good terms,
In good set terms and yet a motley fool.
'Good morrow, fool,' quoth I. 'No, sir,' quoth he,
'Call me not fool till heaven hath sent me fortune.'
And then he drew a dial from his poke,
And, looking on it with lack-lustre eye,
Says very wisely, '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.' When I did hear
The motley fool thus moral on the time,
My lungs began to crow like chanticleer,
That fools should be so deep-contemplative,
And I did laugh sans intermission
An hour by his dial. O noble fool!
A worthy fool! Motley's the only wear.
Hour was pronounced oar at the time; so was whore. If you substitute the word whore for hour, you will see the joke.