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Caesar’s wife in Shakespeare

Q: I’m researching Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and came upon your 2022 posting on the use of “ph” as “f” in classical imports. I assume the “ph” in “Calphurnia” (Caesar’s wife) was pronounced as “p,” not “f,” in 1599, but I want a scholarly source to cite. Can you help?

A: The “ph” of “Calphurnia” in The Tragedy of Julius Caesar was indeed pronounced as “p,” according to the linguist David Crystal, an authority on the pronunciation of Shakespeare’s plays in Elizabethan times.

In The Oxford Dictionary of Original Shakespearean Pronunciation (2016), Crystal has this entry for the noun and its possessive form:

Calphurnia / ~’s n
kalˈpɐ:ɹnɪə / -z
sp Calphurnia / Calphurnia’s

We published a post in 2012 that discusses the movement to reconstruct the original pronunciation of Shakespeare’s works. As Crystal notes there, dozens of rhymes and puns that don’t work in modern English make sense in OP.

The name of Calpurnia, Caesar’s fourth and last wife, is spelled “Calphurnia” in the oldest surviving text of Shakespeare’s play, from the 1623 First Folio, published seven years after his death.

Our guess is that the name may have been spelled “Calpurnia” in Shakespeare’s long-lost original script, believed written around 1599.

In fact it’s “Calpurnia,” as the Romans spelled it, in Plutarch’s Lives (1579), by Sir Thomas North, the source for much of Shakespeare’s play. Shakespeare drew on the lives of Caesar, Brutus, and Antony, according to the British Library.

Perhaps the editors of the First Folio mistakenly thought the proper Roman spelling of the name was with a ph digraph rather than the letter p.

Richard Grant White, editor of The Complete Works of Shakespeare: The Plays Edited From the Folio of MDCXXIII (1899), also felt the name “Calpurnia” was misspelled in the First Folio. In his notes for Julius Caesar, White has this explanation for changing “Calphurnia” to “Calpurnia”:

“The folio has, ‘Calphurnia,’ here and wherever the name occurs; yet the needful correction has not hitherto been made, although the name of Cæsar’s wife was Calpurnia, and it is correctly spelled throughout North’s Plutarch, and although no one has hesitated to change the strangely perverse ‘Varrus’ and ‘Claudio’ of the folio to ‘Varro’ and ‘Claudius,’ or its ‘Anthony’ to ‘Antony’ in this play and in Antony and Cleopatra. I am convinced that in both ‘Anthony’ and ‘Calphurnia’ h was silent to Shakespeare and his readers.”

As we say in our 2022 post about the “ph” digraph, the Romans transliterated the Greek letter ϕ (phi) as ph and the letter π (pi) as p. The Latin ph sounded like the aspirated “p” in “pot,” and the Latin p like the unaspirated “p” in “spot.” (An aspirated letter is pronounced with the sound of a breath.)

However, the pronunciations of both the Greek ϕ and the Latin ph evolved during the first few centuries AD and came to sound like the English fricative “f.” (A fricative is a consonant produced by the friction of forcing air through a narrow space.)

In the original Greek version of Plutarch’s Life of Caesar, written in the late first or early second century, Calpurnia is Καλπουρνία (with a π) and pronounced “Calpurnia,” the same as the classical Latin and usual modern English spelling.

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