In Queen Gertrude's short opening monologue the final two lines seem to have rhymed in Shakespeare's day:

Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
Do not for ever with thy vailed lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust:
Thou know'st 'tis common; all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.

Query: was the "i" long or short? Was it "dee" and "e-ter-nit-ee" or "dye" and "e-ter-nit-eye"?

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    Assuming we were still somewhat reeling under the Norman cosh back then, it might be worth considering Modern French pronunciation of éternité. – FumbleFingers Aug 6 '17 at 16:32
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    But those lines may never have rhymed, simply being an "eye-rhyme" or "printer's rhyme". I can't imagine the -y of eternity being anything but short (since it derives from the French éternité, as @FumbleFingers has pointed out. – Andrew Leach Aug 6 '17 at 17:09
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    Die started out being pronounced dee before the Great Vowel Shift. When Shakespeare wrote, the shift had already started, so die had already shifted away from dee. But I don't know the details. – Peter Shor Aug 6 '17 at 18:17
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    There are still English accents where 'eternity' comes close to being pronounced 'e-ter-nit-eye'. I would never claim to be any kind of expert in Brummy (Birmingham) or Black Country speech, but from a dozen years in Smethwick and Oldbury, I'd say that 'eternity' can be close to 'e-ter-nit-eye', though maybe more like half way between 'eternitay' and 'eternitoy'. Only at the end of a phrase though, you wouldn't get that sound in eg 'eternity-ring'. With huge apologies to any Brummies and Black Country folks for mangling your bostin words. – Spagirl Aug 6 '17 at 22:40
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    @Spagirl: Very interesting. It's possible then that both die and eternity could have been partway between pre-Great Vowel Shift dee and present-day die when Shakespeare wrote. – Peter Shor Aug 7 '17 at 0:26

TLDR: The words die, see, eternity probably ended in three distinct vowels and diphthongs when Shakespeare wrote, but they were all quite close in sound, and in the neighborhood of the vowels bead and bid today. So die and eternity was a good near-rhyme.

There is quite a bit of information on this in the comments on this Language Log post. I will summarize. One of the commenters says:

Miege (1688), for example, distinguishes three pronunciations of the letter /y/: as analogous to French /i/ in angry, ready, etc; as like "the broad English i" in my, cry, etc. and as an "e masculine" in "substantives derived from the Latin," such as charity, amity, and liberality. This last, presumably, was a barred i or other centralized vowel.

An "e masculine" is the French term for the vowel /e/, as in café. I don't believe this French vowel has changed that much since 1688, so the vowel of eternity was probably something in the vicinity of /e/ or /ɪ/. In the 20th century, eternity still had the vowel /ɪ/ in some dialects.

Meanwhile, the vowel of die was undergoing the Great Vowel Shift. It started as /iː/ in 15th century (and earlier) Middle English, and went through /ɪi/, /əi/, /ʌi/, and ended up at today's value /ai/ by the early 20th century. If you look at the chart in Wikipedia, it was somewhere around /ɪi/ or /əi/ in Shakespeare's time.

The vowel /ɪ/ and the diphthong /ɪi/ rhyme really well. If these were the pronunciations Shakespeare used, then die would have been a better rhyme for eternity than tree would have. (By the Great Vowel Shift chart, tree had reached its current value of /iː/ when Shakespeare wrote, although east had not).

If you look at Shakespeare's sonnets, he rhymes die with memory, but he also rhymes free with legacy. One assumes that both of these could not have been perfect rhymes, since the vowels of die and free never merged. However, the rhyme of die and memory was presumably a much better rhyme for Shakespeare than it is today.

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