Shakespearean Soundscapes: Music – Voices – Noises – Silence

The Decomposition of Sound in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest

by Katrin Trüstedt

There is a wide variety of musical forms and uses in The Tempest, a “diversity of sound” (5.1.234),[1] in the words of the Boatswain. This might be due to the opportunities for new and diverse soundscapes offered by the Blackfriars theatre, or, in the case of some of the musical pieces at least, it might be due to the influence of performing plays at court.[2] Whatever the historical circumstances and technical conditions, however, the particular soundscapes of The Tempest have interesting implications for the play’s meaning and its position within Shakespeare’s oeuvre. They can be heard, variously, as moments of composition and decomposition, as variations and improvisations on earlier sound-themes in Shakespeare’s work, or, literally in the words of Stephen Greenblatt: as an “echo chamber”.[3] These echo-sounds constitute a key element of the play. Indeed, sound and music play an important role in each one of The Tempest’s decisive moments. And yet the functions of music and sound in the play are far from homogeneous, but instead, complex and ambivalent, reflecting an ambivalence of the status of music itself in Shakespeare’s time. One the one hand, music was widely seen, following a tradition of “neo-platonic idealization”, as the imitation of divine order, whose purpose was to harmonise, and “charm” wild nature. On the other hand, and in a quite contradictory sense, music was feared and banned as a seductive “source of riot and disorder”.[4] Both of these views find their expression within The Tempest. Moreover, these two contradictory functions both at times bear Prospero’s signature. As not only the director, but also the ostensible composer and conductor of the play, Prospero aims to mark the soundtrack as his own, and uses all the possible functions of sound to this end. Composition, in this sense, also means the degree of construction and control in a piece. At times, however, the sound of The Tempest also exceeds and escapes Prospero’s control, in an act not so much of composition but rather of dis- or decomposing.

I.  A “Source of Riot and Disorder”

The opening tempest that gives the play its title is first of all a sound-effect, echoing other Shakespearean tempests such as the prominent storm in King Lear. “A tempestuous noise of Thunder and Lightning heard” reads the stage direction before the first line of the play. As in Lear, the storm marks a state of emergency, or exception. Suspending social hierarchies, it exposes every living being on the boat – and in the audience – to a looming violence and the sounds that announce it. Thus through sound-effect alone, the very beginning of the play portends a kind of destabilization.

Usually ascribed to natural causes, the tempest in this case is revealed in the following scene to have been an intended and staged violence, carefully composed by the initially hidden director Prospero, deliberately causing “riot and disorder”. The distinction between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ becomes blurred, as the noise, seeming to be a natural sound – unintentional and therefore meaningless – turns out to be a composition: artificial, created, intended. Even the listening experience of those directly affected by the sound eventually takes this shape. Retrospectively, the composer of the putatively natural violence gets reinscribed into the ‘sound of exception’ by the king, Alonso:

Methought the billows spoke and told me of it,
The winds did sing it to me; and the thunder,
That deep and dreadful organ-pipe, pronounced
The name of Prosper: it did bass my trespass. (3.3.96-99)

While the storm is occurring, however, nothing of this sort is uttered, neither by the king nor by anyone else. It is only the deferred mechanism of inscription that renders impossible the distinction between natural and created sound.

This ‘composed noise’ of the opening tempest makes up the underlying soundtrack of the play, and together with certain other sounds form a kind of dissolving medium. Ariel, as an “airy spirit” disseminates – in an echo of Macbeth’s Weird Sisters – a sound of confusion, bewilderment, and anxiety throughout the island. These sounds have an unclear, and in some sense an undecidable status, in that they hover between quasi-natural process and purposeful ‘instrument’. As we will see, they too often seem at first to come from nowhere, and are only belatedly and from certain perspectives revealed to be clearly produced and purposively employed in an intentional and powerful project. Everybody in The Tempest is under the spell of these sounds, even Prospero himself.

The function of sound as a medium of power, as a tool of the sovereign for creating and influencing a certain state of exception, is further evident in the role that sound plays in Caliban’s torture: “sometime am I / All wound with adders, who with cloven tongues / Do hiss me into madness – ” (2.2.14). This is also part of Prospero’s project, as he himself is setting the spirits on to roar at Caliban (“Fury, Fury! Hark, hark!”, 4.1. 251), and Ariel confirms: “Hark, they roar!” (4.1.261). Thus the dissolving and disjointing sound, echoing Lear’s storm and Macbeth’s sound of violence, is itself part of Prospero’s careful composition. As a source of destructive potential, however, it is always at the risk of excess and therefore cannot be kept totally under control.

II.  Harmony: Comfort and Composition

On the other end of the aural spectrum, some of the sounds in The Tempest are of a ‘charming’ quality. For most of the characters affected by this type of sound, it is initially heard as something beyond power, before or outside the attempt to ‘terrorise’ which could be attributed to Prospero and his imperialistic and modernist projects. Thus, unlike Macbeth’s rather monotone sound of fury, the finely-tuned sound management of The Tempest can also create a feeling of comfort in opposition to the anxiety it itself produces: as a “metamorphic music […] the very sound of it kills care”[5]. The diverting and seemingly comforting quality of this type of sound, however, turns out to be – like the tempest itself – in fact not outside, but just as much part of Prospero’s project, as he himself states:

A solemn air, and the best comforter
To an unsettled fancy, cure thy brains,
Now useless, boiled within thy skull. (5.1.58-60)

What creates the stabilising effect of such sounds is the solemnity which bears a ceremonial and thus highly composed character, unlike the terrorising noise of the tempest. Just like it, however, even the harmonising and comforting sound can be a part of the state of exception. What seems to be beyond power or law is here included within it as being excluded, a compensatory function.

But it is not only Prospero’s enemies, and not only Caliban – in addition to being roared and hissed into madness – who are softened by soothing sounds; Caliban’s counterpart Ferdinand is just as seduced. Ariel’s song of sea-change is a good case in point in this respect, for it shows the simultaneous proximity of threatening and comforting sound. The song begins with echo – effects coming from the wings (probably also from beneath the stage): “(Burden, dispersedly) ‘Bow wow’ (1.2.381, 83). The bird-song of Ariel’s song seems to be diverting and seductive, but the subsequent “Hark, hark!” (1.2.384) anticipates the spirit-dogs that later chase Caliban and his companions. Ferdinand is accordingly confused, distracted from his melancholic state and led into a new, but unspecified, direction: “Where should this music be? I’th’air, or th’earth?” (1.2.388). This sound is not received as natural, but neither is it thought to be human; indeed, it seems to have no clear source whatsoever: “This is no mortal business, nor no sound / That the earth owes. I hear it now above me” (1.2.407-8). Regulating his state of mind, the comforting sound switches on – and off, allowing for Ferdinand’s mourning intermittently to manifest itself again:

It sounds no more … Sitting on a bank,
Weeping again the king my father’s wrack,
This music crept by me upon the waters,
Allaying both their fury and my passion
With its sweet air. Thence I have followed it –
Or it has drawn me rather. (1.2.389-95)

The power of this sound is not merely comforting (“allaying”), but also manipulative, as Ferdinand’s claim that the music has “drawn” him attests. The sound ‘plays’ with its subjects, making hope and comfort appear and disappear: “but ‘tis gone. No, it begins again” (1.2.395-6). What the sound interrupts is Ferdinand’s efforts to deal with the supposed death of his father: “The ditty does remember my drowned father” (1.2.406). This, here, is an echo of Hamlet and its ghost – another sound effect, since he calls from beneath the stage – demanding of his son exactly what Ferdinand is trying to do in his own situation: to “remember” him. The alternative to Hamlet’s fate, offered by the song, is the sea-change:

Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something riche and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell.

(Burden) Ding dong.

Hark, now I hear them, ding dong bell. (1.2.437-405)

Embedded within the confusing echoes of a sound of fury, a comic solution to the melancholic dead-end is offered with this song. This unspecified sea-change is presented as one that is, just like its surrounding threatening medium, associated with sound and music. Water is reinforced as the element or medium of change, as the sea-change song, like the opening sounds of the tempest, also comes from the water: “This music crept by me upon the waters” (1.2.392), Ferdinand states. What appears through the words of the song-as-water could just as easily be thought of as sound itself: that is, the change that is reported to happen, happens not – as reported – at sea (where Ferdinand’s father is not), but rather here, in and through music.

There are also sounds in which the sudden turn from one tone to another is more directly audible. These are moments which expose a certain decomposition, in one sense not unlike the aforementioned ‘dissolving’ sounds, yet at the same time opening up a potential for something quite different from the logic of Prospero’s sounds. Such a shift from one key to another is most audible in the moment of Prospero’s disruption of the banquet in 4.1, when Caliban, always a latent threat to Prospero, becomes manifest and thus disturbs the festive concert. The “soft music” (4.1.58) that is part of what Ferdinand calls “Harmonious charmingly” (4.1.118) and that can be understood as Prospero’s version of a harmonizing, comforting sound, suddenly shifts to “a strange hollow and confused noise” (4.1.142). Here Prospero does not just replace one sound with another. On the contrary, in the moment of disruption – and it is important to note that Caliban is inscribed in this moment – Prospero is no longer the master of the sound, but is instead subjected to it. This moment of disruption takes the form of a decomposition of sound and thus marks the techné of sound as part not so much of Prospero’s but rather of Shakespeare’s play. This decomposition or disruption of a harmony which remains fatally tied to the threatening sounds for which it is supposed to compensate is the prerequisite for yet another, different sense of sound: a sound that escapes control entirely, not only in that it cannot be intentionally produced or composed, but in that it will even be heard differently in every performance.

III.  Decomposition as Fantasy

In terms of Caliban’s role in the play and his relation to the soundscapes of the island, such decomposition leads precisely into something “riche and strange”. Especially in the soundscape of Act 3, the centre of the play, something emerges that can be said to be in a process of overcoming the intentionally produced state of exception, out of the reach of Prospero’s compositional power, be it maddening or soothing.

In the play’s comic subplot, the only one that takes place without falling under Prospero’s controlling notice, Stephano and Trinculo sing for Caliban: “Flout ‘em, and cout ‘em / And scout ‘em, and flout ‘em. Thought is free” (3.2.114-116). Both flout and scout (and thus, also cout) imply ridicule.[6] The effect of these lines, however, is not simply mocking. Rather, the effect is of an anonymous, objectless medium of repetition and transition. First, both verbs are transitive without a specific object (only “‘em”); secondly, a particular emphasis is placed on repetition: among other things, flout means “to quote or recite with sarcastic purpose”.[7] Repetition is, furthermore, constitutive for the song, since it is in itself repetitive, that is, a catch: a musical composition in which several voices repeatedly sing exactly the same melody, beginning at different times. Thus the structure of the song creates an effect similar to that of the double plot of act 3: the lines overlap. The seemingly unconnected addition “Thought is free” would not, in a production of the play, be heard independently, that is, on its own. An audience member, hearing this line sung simultaneously with the line “flout ‘em and scout ‘em” might receive the impression that it is this sentence – “Thought is free” – that is to be flouted and scouted. When one listens to the song still longer, freedom of thought appears potentially no longer as the object of ridicule, but rather as the outcome of the process of flouting and scouting. Freedom, then, would be quite another thing than what the phrase “thought is free” evokes on its own. Out of context, the word evokes a kind of freedom that frees itself from the biblical injunction: “Wish the king no evil in thy thought”.[8] Here, the song effects a freedom produced precisely in its form as round or catch: a kind of emptiness of thought, and at the same time, a creative surplus from musical overlap.

Ariel notices the threatening potential of this process and attempts to take control of the tune. In doing so, however, he in fact amplifies the sound: “Stephano: What is this same? Trinculo: This is the tune of our catch, played by the picture of Nobody” (3.2.118-120). The tune is being ‘freed’ not only of thought, but also of any affiliation with a specific character. It is not only not Prospero (or Ariel) that directs this tune, and not even someone called Nobody, but just an echo of Nobody: in this instance, the tune plays itself. The sounds spoken of in Caliban’s famous lines from in the middle act of the play are also lacking any provenance, and seem rather to be off-centre:

[…] the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,
That if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again, and then in dreaming
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again. (3.2.137-45)

The clouds produced or fostered by the sweet sounds and airs in Caliban’s dreams open up riches very different from the riches of power alluded to throughout the play, as well as something very different from what the clouds of the tempest produce (i.e., the ‘sound of exception’). Caliban’s particular soundscape could be described, in the words of Julia Lupton, as the sphere of the Creature. Lupton outlines the traces of the Creature – epitomized here in Caliban – in Christian mythology, and she explicates the role of wonder implied therein: “Wonder, […] an imaginative arch thrown across the destructive breach of The Tempest”.[9] The ability to wonder is what links the Creature, always in the process of being created, to itself creating: “Caliban’s poetry thus indicates, […] the creative potentials of the creature himself: the creat-ura is a created thing who is himself on the verge of creating”. This creativity remains – just like the creature itself  –  always in the process of being created, never ‘finished’, always potential: “It is still, however, only an incipient creativity (the emergence or potential marked by the -ura)”.

Such a process seems to be close to what Benjamin describes as fantasy.[10] Caliban’s world is defaced by the clouds that emerge out of the soundscape of his sleep and is at the same time opened up by them – it is „entstaltet“ in Benjamin’s terminology. In Benjamin’s fragments on fantasy, „Entstaltung“ corresponds to the ‘depositing’ („Entsetzung“) of „Gestalt“, or ‘form’, in its different aspects. Fantasy is a process or play, dissolving form: „ein auflösendes Spiel“.[11] It is, furthermore, without intend, or „zwanglos“.[12] Caliban’s breaking clouds are disruptive, but unlike the intentional sounds of Prospero’s storm, they have no purpose. Moreover, „Entstaltung“ does not lead to death, but rather to an endless sea-change: „[Sie] verewigt den Untergang, den sie heraufführt in einer unendlichen Folge von Übergängen“.[13] Benjamin describes the process of „Entstaltung“ – which I am translating here as ‘decomposition’ – in acoustic terms, with the example of the night, ‘de-exponentiating’ sounds into one great humming: „wie die Nacht die Geräusche zu einem einzigen großen Summen depotenziert“.[14]

Poetic language for Benjamin is similarly capable of „Entstaltung“, and the Shakespeare of the comedies its incomparable master: „Shakespeare ist – in seinen Komödien – ihr unvergleichlicher Gewalthaber“.[15] Indeed, the notion of a sea-change, as it is found in Ariel’s song, is the key element for Benjamin’s conception of fantasy: „Phantasie kennt nur stetig wechselnden Übergang“.[16] As in Ariel’s’ song, water is also the proper element of the riches produced in Caliban’s soundscape, and it is this motif which links Caliban’s song to the sea-change that leads to something “riche and strange”. Not, that is, to security, but rather to a phase of transformation in which everything is kept open, in its potentiality, even if only for a fleeting moment (before being reawakened).

The sound of the abovementioned scene seems to be of a quite different potentiality, however, than Caliban’s outright freedom-song, addressed to Prospero himself: “Ban, ban, Ca-caliban / Has a new master – get a new man” (2.2.179-80). The words of this song refer to Caliban’s subjection to Prospero, who is overthrown, but only to be replaced with another master. Nevertheless, the unusual rhythm of the song, as well as the line “Ban, ban, Ca-caliban”, where both words and Caliban’s own name seem to be in a state of „Entstaltung“, also point to a certain process of decomposition.

Finally, there is Ariel’s own song of freedom, which leads out of the play and into the future. In this sense, it serves as a closing or concluding acoustic answer to the opening sound of the tempest. Prospero is preparing for the future, while at the same time echoing his own past in order to create his re-presentation in the present: “I will discase me, and myself present / As I was sometime Milan.”(5.1.85-6). Simultaneously, Ariel sings his own song. It is his first song not directed in any way by Prospero. Yet it also runs parallel to Prospero’s action, in that the words of song speak of the future; Ariel sings, “Merrily, merrily, shall I live now” (5.1.93). The contrast between the respective futures of Prospero and Ariel is striking, however. While Prospero ‘arms’ himself for a renewed representation of political power, Ariel hides away in a green world, evoking a pastoral scenery and the forest of A Midsummer Nights Dream: “In a cowslip’s bell I lie” (5.1.89). Again, the images of Ariel’s words (a cowslip’s bell) could just as well be the song itself: Ariel lives in the music that escapes Prospero’s reach. The present tense of the song – also in “There I couch when owls do cry” (5.1.90) – and the use of the word “now”, in connection with “Shall I live”, opens up the possibility of a future that is already present, even if latent: “Merrily, merrily, shall I live now, / Under the blossom that hangs on the bough” (5.1.93-4). The sound of this song thus promises a future for Ariel that is already there in its becoming. Just as the sound of the tempest at the beginning of the play contained the decomposed echoes of earlier tempests, the song Ariel sings at the play’s conclusion echoes into the future: it is a sound to come.


[1]  William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. by Stephen Orgel, The Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

[2]  Cf. Stephen Orgel, “Introduction”, in William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. by Stephen Orgel, The Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998); Bruce Smith, The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-Factor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

[3]  Stephen Greenblatt, “The Tempest”, in The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition, ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. (New York: Norton, 1997), p. 3047.

[4]  David Lindley, “Introduction”, William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. by David Lindley, The New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 20.

[5]  Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare and Ovid (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 267.

[6]  William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. by Stephen Orgel, The Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), fn. 3.2.114-5.

[7]  Entry “flout”, in Oxford English Dictionary Online (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

[8]  Ecclesiastes 10.20, quoted in William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. by David Lindley, The New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), fn. 3.2.116.

[9]  Julia Reinhard Lupton, Citizen-Saints: Shakespeare and Political Theology, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), p. 171.

[10] Walter Benjamin, „Phantasie“ in Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften 6, ed. by R. Tiedemann, H. Schweppenhäuser (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1985), p. 114-117.

[11] Ibid., p. 114.

[12] Ibid., p. 115.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., p. 116.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., p. 117.


Der titelgebende Sturm lässt Shakespeares The Tempest mit einer bedrohlichen Geräuschkulisse einsetzen, in der auch Stürme früherer Tragödien widerhallen. Diese Sorte von ‚zersetzendem Sound‘ macht die eine Seite von Prosperos machtpolitischer Geräuschregulierung aus; die andere besteht aus besänftigenden bzw. ablenkenden Harmonien. Sowohl in dem, was Caliban hört, als auch in Ariels Abschiedslied klingt aber jenseits von solcher Indienstnahme ein Potential von Klängen und Formen an, das Walter Benjamin unter dem Begriff der „Entstaltung“ gefasst hat und das konstitutiv ist für seine Auffassung von „Phantasie“, die in Shakespeares Romanzen eine entscheidende Rolle spielt.