Shakespearean Soundscapes: Music – Voices – Noises – Silence

Invading the Body: Sound and (Non-)Sense in King Lear

by Carolin Roder

I.  Introduction

In the beginning was – not just the word, but, in the case of King Lear, a binary opposition between words and silence which is fashioned as an opposition between sense and non-sense and established in the first scene of the play as central to the processes of signification. The opening scene of the play does not only put Lear’s division of his kingdom on display, but also maps out the taxonomies of meaning to come: It is primarily the voluble words of Goneril and Regan, uttered in response to Lear’s demand for filial love, which provoke and set off Cordelia’s famous ‘silence’. Lear, after the disagreement and banishment of Cordelia, significantly divides his kingdom into two rather than three parts, the map of the newly organized kingdom thus illustrating the binary substructure which is supposed to ensure signification.

In the case of Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, the said opposition between words and silence is also one of truth and falsehood, encoded in the parameters of an economy of speech which is governed by the patriarchal word. The opposition of words and silence can also be said to structure the relationship of Gloucester and his two sons Edmund and Edgar, as all of Edmund’s intrigue rests upon an alleged authenticity of his brother’s voice which is supposed to vouchsafe for the truth and hence, villainy of what Edgar says when Gloucester is made to overhear a dialogue between his two sons.

In this essay, I want to pursue the different processes of signification and especially look into the part that voice, sound and silence play in these processes. I am going to show how the opposition of words and silence as the basis of signification is destabilized in the course of the play and gradually replaced by another binary opposition, namely the opposition of speech and sound that is also established as a difference of sense and non-sense. In the end however, as I want to argue, meaning is established not by either of these oppositions and their respective parts alone, but by the reconfiguration of sound and non-sense in the particular soundscape that is early modern theatre.

II.  “Love, and be silent”: Words versus Silence

In the beginning of the play, Lear, then still sovereign king, declares himself ready to divide his kingdom into three, and his own words establish the rules of the process of his abdication. To gain their share of their father’s kingdom and power, his daughters Goneril, Regan and Cordelia have to confirm their love for their father and thus subscribe to the laws of filial duties and patriarchal authority. Goneril’s statement implicitly points to the inherently paradoxical relationship between words and silence that governs the first scene of the play: In order to prove herself as a loving daughter, she asserts her love as being truly beyond words and thus actually unspeakable: “Sir, I do love you more than word can wield the matter/ […] a love that makes breath poor and speech unable.”[1] Goneril’s assertion of love exposes a contradiction in terms: While the economy of speech established by Lear requires elaborate statements of affection, statements such as those made by Goneril point to a realm beyond words, to a love that is described by the silent Cordelia as “more ponderous than my tongue.” (1.1.78).

And yet, filial love must be told, as the patriarchal order of meaning to which Goneril subscribes with this statement rests upon a (gendered) opposition between words and silence: Lear’s particular “law of the father” has it that words and wordy speeches are taken as a guarantee for truth while silence is rated as refusal and subversion of this code. Both Goneril’s and Regan’s excessive speeches cause Cordelia to ‘remain silent’ since she is unwilling to subscribe to such an economy of speech governed by the patriarchal word.

Cordelia’s refusal also points to a complex relationship between words and silence that is considerably complicated by its ‘reverse’ gendering: Cordelia actually does conform perfectly to a certain kind of early modern signifying systems – remaining silent shows her to be an ideal woman who is supposed to be both obedient to her husband’s or her father’s words and, in light of the early modern association of the tongue with a woman’s sexual organs, who also shows herself to be sexually chaste.[2] Lear, however, demands something else of her, namely a persuasive account of her filial love which, in turn, is supposed to prove her as an obedient daughter. Her refusal to do so is marked by Lear as unnatural and she herself is described as “a wretch whom nature is ashamed / almost t’acknowledge hers.” (1.1.213-214).

Silence, in this case, is not only unnatural but also, more importantly, devoid of meaning – neither Lear nor Burgundy, one of Cordelia’s suitors, can make sense of her remaining silent and refusing to articulate her love for Lear. Silence is non-sense – and Cordelia’s refusal to comply with the requirements of Lear’s taxonomy of love is seen as a void, a kind of semantic emptiness which, at first glance, severely challenges male authority. However, a reading that attempts to do justice to the play’s complexity has to take into account that this semantic emptiness is ascribed to Cordelia only within the parameters of a patriarchal economy of speech that governs the scene. In fact, Cordelia does not really remain silent – on the contrary: she eloquently defends her refusal, at times also justifying what and why she does not speak, namely her love for Lear which exceeds words. Cordelia’s elaborate responses clearly expose the ‘matrix of meaning’ set up by Lear’s abdication which equates silence and a refusal to subject one’s own speech to the rules of decent (female) speech:

If for I want that glib and oily art
to speak and purpose not […]
that you make known
It is no vicious blot, murder, or foulness,
No unchaste action or dishonoured step,
That hath deprived me of your grace and favour. (1.1.226-231)

Cordelia’s words do not make sense in the context of Lear’s binarily structured economy of speech – and neither does ‘non-speaking’, which means that the lack of adequate words is interpreted in just the same way as silence is or would have been: as non-sense.

The opposition of words and silence, of sense and non-sense is stabilized by yet another opposition which is tacitly assumed in Lear’s evaluation of his daughters’ speeches: While Goneril’s and Regan’s wordy affirmations are considered to be the true expression of their affections, Cordelia’s lack of an appropriate speech is interpreted as manifestation of falsehood by Lear. Speech, in the system of signification displayed on Lear’s map, seems not only to confer authority to the speaker but also performatively brings into existence the ‘truth’ of his or her statements. Edmund makes ample use of this assumption, as his plot to assure his father of Edgar’s villainy and his desire to murder him is largely based on Gloucester ‘overhearing’ Edgar admitting to this plan in a conversation with his brother Edmund. Gloucester at first cannot believe Edgar to be so villainous; it is only when Edmund promises him proof of Edgar’s intention by overhearing him himself that Gloucester changes his opinion. Edmund thus relies on what he calls “auricular assurance” (1.2.92), i.e. the persuasive force of words and voice, in order to convince his father of the ‘truth’ – something that uncannily mirrors Lear’s preoccupation with his daughters’ affirmations.

Once more, then, the audience witness a double-bind of authenticity and theatricality which centres on the voice and the (in)ability of a character to speak. And just as Gloucester relies on an authenticity of the voice that – in the case of Edgar – has never been because it has been staged, he is also misled by Kent. As far as Kent is concerned, the voice ceases to be guarantee of a character’s identity. Bruce R. Smith, in his study on early modern soundscapes, puts special emphasis on the part that voice plays in the constitution of early modern subjectivities: “It is the sound of the subject’s own voice that centers the subject’s ‘I’ in the world.”[3] Smith goes on to describe the different speech communities with their various social and gendered rules and rituals of communication which constitute a subject’s voice. This is made use of in detail by Kent after he has been banished by Lear. Kent disguises himself as a servant, and the disguise works precisely because he does not only change his appearance but also his manner of speaking and his voice, in order to fully convince Lear of his different social existence: “If but as well I other accents borrow/ that can my speech diffuse” (1.4.1-2).

Here again, the first act shows a system of signification in crisis. Just as the notion of idealized femininity does no longer coincide with proper silence, so truth does no longer coincide with the authority of the spoken word. When Lear, completely taken aback by Cordelia’s refusal to speak, asks her to “mend [her] speech a little/ lest [she] may mar [her] fortunes” (1.1.93-94), he already implicitly admits the possibility of equivocation and manipulation of words and speeches. Edmund’s almost theatrically staged conversation with his brother Edgar, designed specifically to convince his father, is another instant in which the opposition of speech and silence crumbles and consequently ceases to be the fundament of meaning. It is thus already in the first act that the world of Lear is plunged into chaos – and not primarily because Cordelia refuses to comply with his notions of filial duty and gratitude, but rather because the central parameters of a signifying system based mainly on speech and silence are shifting so considerably that they, literally, do no longer make sense.

II.  Lear’s Chattering: Sound and Speech

As the opposition of words and silence is gradually broken up and thus challenges traditional signifying systems, another binary opposition comes to the fore, most explicitly with the characters of Edgar as Poor Tom and Lear himself in the storm. When, in act 3, Lear exposes himself to the storm raging outside, he is shown deprived of his subjectivity as a king, his naked body demonstrating the split of the fusion of body politic and body natural that his abdication has called for. He evokes a second flood to (metaphorically) purge the earth of a signifying system that, as Lear has noticed with respect to the familial bonds between him and his daughters, is rapidly dissolving and thus threatening to annihilate his own subject position:

Blow winds and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!
You cataracts and hurricanes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world,
Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once
That make ingrateful man. (3.2.1-9)

Lear’s violent outburst of rage is marked as madness by most of the other characters and his words are strangely torn between a highly metaphorical speech charged with an abundance of symbolical meanings on the one hand, and a speech that uncannily emphasizes the material quality of language and focuses on the power of sound on the other hand.

What is struck flat in this speech is not only the “rotundity of the world”, but meaning itself which here is structured by way of binary oppositions such as round and flat, high and low, mould and surface, here and there, man and animal. In contrast to this, Lear’s speech can be seen as an uneasy in-between of rhetorical and metaphorical decorum on the one hand, and the ‘immediate’ power of the ‘soundscape’ it evokes on the other. The soliloquy is full of fricatives that manage to stage the force of the tempest both without and within, the frequent repetition of words such as “spit” and “spout” produces hissing noises that seem to overwhelm the audience just as much as Lear is overwhelmed by the storm itself. Lear does in fact, as he himself acknowledges in 4.6., “chatter” – a term which, significantly, does not only mean “to shiver with cold” but also “to talk nonsense” (4.6.101). In the scene quoted above, Lear’s speech points forward to an erosion of conventional signification, not only in its semantic deconstruction of binary oppositions but also in its particular display of sound effects.

When Edgar, disguised as Poor Tom, enters the scene, the chattering continues: he ‘sings’ “Do de Do de Do” (3.4.57) and recites nonsense verse such as “Pillicock sat on Pillicock hill, / Alow, alow, loo, loo!” (3.4. 75-76). Edgar himself, in his performance of madness, seems to have lost his human subjectivity when his language is disintegrating into pure sound – which shows him as “no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal” and makes Lear wonder whether “man [is] no more than this?” (3.4.101 and 3.4.105-106).

Both Lear and Poor Tom are described as mad: while Lear himself is really plunging into madness, Edgar feigns madness in his impersonation of Poor Tom of Bedlam. Whether feigned or perceived as real, madness in King Lear seems inextricably linked to noise, the uncontrolled raging and babbling and the disintegration of speech into pure sound.[4] Madness is shown as invading not only the mind, but also the body, and it affects the body just as much as it is caused by bodily materiality.[5] At this point, the text points as it were to a blind spot of (linguistic) representation: Sound and noise continually emphasise the material quality of sense perception and do, in contrast to traditional models of visual perception, not permit a complete distancing from the body. The voice can thus be seen as always other than its textual representation, as challenging the possibilities of language rather than asserting its power.[6]

This paradox is ‘voiced’ again at the end of the play, when Lear rages about the monstrous female body, and all he finally manages to say is: “Fie, fie, fie! Pah, pah!” (4.6.125). It is then that Lear does actually ‘chatter’ – picturing the loathed female body in his mind finally leads him to enact just such a bodily materiality in his own language he wished to separate himself from. Before he chatters, he evokes a gloomy picture of women and of a world that focuses its gaze on women: “But to the girdle do the gods inherit, beneath is all the fiend’s: there’s hell, there’s darkness, there is the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding, stench, consumption.” (4.6.122-125). Eventually, all the similes and metaphors come to an end, and the only thing Lear is still able to say is “Fie, fie, fie” – something that might still be recognizable as language, but is no longer intelligible as speech and thus has come to be just like the (imagined) material body Lear turns away from in horror.

His loathing for bodily materiality is most obviously exemplified by his desire to anatomize Regan, an attempt that is also designed to restore the workings of a system of signification which rests upon (gendered) binary oppositions.[7] Significantly, Lear’s wish to anatomize Regan is declared after Edgar, still in his disguise as Poor Tom, has sung one of his nonsense-songs: “Then let them anatomize Regan; see what breeds about her heart.” (3.6.73-74). Lear voices his desire to restore language just as well as bodily materiality to their proper place: not only would an anatomization of his daughter Regan enable him to clearly label and analyse parts of her body, it would also restore the meaningful link between body and mind, between a deformed or degenerated body and an equally degenerated psychic disposition.

However, this wish is spoken in vain, and all that remains for Lear – most prominently exemplified in his howling at the end of the play – is not language, but sound. The central opposition that is supposed to separate meaning from chaos, sense from non-sense is, at the point of Lear’s madness in the storm, no longer the one between words and silence, but has shifted to an opposition between meaningful speech and senseless sound. As Kaja Silverman has argued, “the sounds the voice makes always exceed signification to some degree, both before the entry into language and after. The voice is never completely standardized, forever retaining an individual flavour or texture.”[8] This argument, as I have shown before, refers not only to the particular quality of individual speech, but also the realm of sounds which are no longer coded in words and which challenge the ‘matrix of meaning’ established at the beginning of the play precisely because of the said excess.

III.      The Early Modern Theatre as Soundscape

Striving to keep up this last opposition, the play shows the complete and utter destruction of meaning in the final scene, when Lear can do no more but cry “Howl, howl, howl, howl.” (5.3.255) in the face of Cordelia’s death. It becomes clear then that the two basic oppositions which I have outlined above and which shape the signifying system in question – silence / speech and speech / sound – do no longer hold: The eternal silence enforced by Cordelia’s death seems to be the only true proof of her honesty and loyalty to her father, while Lear’s inarticulate howls only emphasize the impossibility of adequate speech and show mere sound as the only possible reaction to Lear’s grief.

King Lear, then, offers a gloomy perspective concerning meaning and chaos – and yet, I would argue, meaning is not destroyed or negated as such, but only insofar as those structures of meaning that are coded in binary oppositions are eroded and replaced by a different signifying system, namely a signifying system that is based on an interweaving of sound and speech.

Bruce R. Smith has drawn our attention to the particular mode of subjectivity that was engendered for audiences of early modern theatres and he has shown that this became possible because of the particular soundscape constituted by the theatre. The notion of ‘soundscape’ has been coined by R. Murray Schafer who emphasizes the fact that a space constituted by sounds and hearing situates the subject at the centre of such a space, surrounded by and unable to shut out sounds and noises that fill the soundscape.[9] Sound thus does bear on the bodies of the listeners and makes it impossible to escape its more or less immediate power.

Hearing is, as Bruce Smith emphasizes in this context, a centripetal activity that pulls human subjects into the world and does not, as is the case with seeing, distance them from the world. The early modern stage and its particular design made such a soundscape possible and created an acoustic space in which words did not only signify by way of oppositions but also by the material quality of sounds they exhibited. Such a conceptualization of the early modern stage leaves much more room for ambiguities and intersections as it bridges the gap between the subject and object of perception and, in the case of the theatre, between the actors onstage and the audience.

Venturing forth from this, I would argue that the “Wooden O” of Elizabethan theatre mirrors the scene in which Lear exposes himself to the storm and describes this storm to the fool as “invad[ing] us to the skin” (3.4.7). In this statement, Lear refers to the force of the raging storm that does not leave anything intact – neither his body which is exposed to wind, rain and thunder nor his mind which is torn between his metaphorically charged imaginations of a second flood and the deprivation of his royal privileges and familial powers. But just as, to quote Lear again, “the rotundity of the world is struck flat”, the storm can be read as metaphorically destroying the conventional signifying systems and turning them upside down. Such a metaphorical reading does not only refer to Lear’s patriarchal taxonomies, but can also be related to the theatre as means of signification.

It is especially through the performance of speech as inarticulate sound that the body of the audience is affected and that, to quote Bruce Smith, “the listener becomes a subject with the speaker”,[10] when, for example, Lear rages in the storm and his voice doubles the roaring of the wind and the cracking Lear refers to.

Of course, just as in the performance of madness brought on stage by Edgar in the disguise of Poor Tom, one has to take into account that seemingly pure sound or inarticulate speech themselves are framed on the Elizabethan stage by the codes of theatricality and representation and thus thrown into meaningful relief. In contrast to what Schafer called ‘soundscape’, there is no such thing as immediate sound on the stage and in the theatre – which, however, does not mean that sound effects such as Lear’s speech in the storm do not affect the audience’s body.

Meaning is thus created not simply through a stable binary opposition of silence or words, of sound or speech, but rather through a dynamic movement, a continuous oscillating between both of them and the audience. Just as I have shown in my reading of Lear’s raging speech in the storm, there is constant shifting between highly stylized rhetoric and a kind of sound-effects that do not only emanate from the actor’s body. Despite the audience’s awareness of the mediating process of acting and staging, these sound-effects also bear upon their bodies. This effect can, as I would argue, be characterized as a “textual ‘overflow’” from page to stage, and from stage into the audience.[11]


[1]  William Shakespeare, King Lear, ed. by R. A. Foakes. The Arden Shakespeare Third Series (London: Thomson, 1997), 1.1.55 and 1.1.61. Further references to the text are given in brackets in the text.

[2]  On this paradoxical gendering of silence and speech, see, for example, Ina Habermann, Staging Slander and Gender in Early Modern England (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003) and, for the case of King Lear, Sabine Schülting, „Good Girls – Bad Girls? King Lear und seine Töchter“, in König Lear, transl. Frank Günther (München: dtv, 1997), p. 354-375.

[3]  Bruce R. Smith, The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-Factor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), p. 246.

[4]  Something similar can be seen in The Duchess of Malfi, where it is especially the continuous singing, clanking, roaring and murmuring of the madmen that affects the Duchess in her experience of madness and solitude.

[5]  For a similar argument concerning hysteria and the early modern ‘malady’ of hysterica passio, see Kaara L. Peterson, “Historica Passio: Early Modern Medicine, King Lear and Editorial Practice”, Shakespeare Quarterly 57:1 (2006), 1-22 and Richard Halpern, “Historica Passio: King Lear’s Fall into Feudalism”, in Richard Halpern, The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation: English Renaissance Culture and the Genealogy of Capital (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991), p. 215-270.

[6]  It is particularly in the work of Jacques Derrida that a profound critique of what he calls “phonocentrism” in Western culture has been formulated (see, most prominently, Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, transl. by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1998] and Jacques Derrida, Die Stimme und das Phänomen: Einführung in das Problem des Zeichens in der Phänomenologie Husserls, transl. by Hans-Dieter Gondek [Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 2003]). However, to claim that voice and, more importantly, sound and noise do challenge modes of textual representation and at times also exceed their possibilities is not to re-assert consciousness and immediacy of subjectivity that Derrida has exposed as illusions. For further discussion of Derrida in relation to sound and the voice, see Smith (1999).

[7]  For early modern processes of abjection and their relationship to an exclusively male “Renaissance self-fashioning”, see Ina Schabert, “Wombscapes: Abjektion in King Lear und Paradise Lost”, in Ina Schabert, Michaela Boenke, eds., Imaginationen des Anderen im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2002), p. 141-158.

[8]  Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988), p. 44.

[9]  For this aspect, see R. Murray Schafer, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (Rochester: Destiny, 1977).

[10] Smith (1999), p. 279.

[11] Leslie C. Dunn, “Ophelia’s songs in Hamlet: Music, Madness and the feminine”, Leslie C. Dunn and Nancy A. Jones, eds., Embodied Voices: Representing Female Vocality in Western Culture (Cambridge: CUP, 1994), 50-64, p. 64.


Dieser Beitrag fragt in einem ersten Schritt nach der Opposition von Worten und Stille bzw. von Sprechen und Schweigen in King Lear, die den Text – zumindest auf der Oberfläche – entscheidend strukturiert. Die Lektüre arbeitet, ausgehend von diesem Oberflächenphänomen, in einem zweiten Schritt den Zusammenhang zwischen Parametern der Sinnstiftung und der Entwicklung nicht nur der genannten Opposition, sondern auch der sich daraus entwickelnden Opposition von Rede und Geräusch heraus. Schließlich, so stellt der Beitrag heraus, ist es die Betrachtung der frühmodernen Theatersituation und deren anderer Konfiguration der genannten Oppositionen, die einen andere Sinnstiftungsdimension eröffnet, als die Textoberfläche suggerierte.