Shakespearean Soundscapes: Music – Voices – Noises – Silence


by Tobias Döring and Susanne Rupp

The contributions in this issue all explore Shakespearean soundscapes, which can be found in many of the plays. In one of his most memorable lines, for instance, Caliban speaks of the “noises”, “sounds and sweet airs” which haunt the magic island and, with “twangling instruments” or “voices”, wake its dreamers while also putting them again to sleep. Caliban is acting as a local guide, giving comfort to the foreign visitors who respond with terror to the sounds they hear when Ariel plays the tabor and the pipe. In fact, these very instruments belong to the established repertoire of stage fools. So, with the staging of their powerful effects, The Tempest here self-consciously presents the soundscapes of the theatre and explores what impact they have on the actual audience in the playhouse. In many ways, the ear may have been more important for early modern play-goers than the eye, because it used to be auditory rather than visual experience that defined the pleasures – just as the perils – of the stage. When old King Hamlet dies from poison poured into his ears, the tragedy points to the dangers of these organs that open our bodies to the world. Acoustic elements, like singing, howling, groaning, crying, are not regularly scripted; as elements of physical performance, they relate to a space beyond – or perhaps before – the symbolic code of language, a space from which transgressive acts like Lear’s or like Ophelia’s madness gain their noisy energies. By the same token, the acts of silence performed by Cordelia or inflicted upon raped Lavinia disrupt the rules of social discourse and suggest the relevance of hearing. What, then, can music, voices, noises, silence do and how are they used on the stage? What soundscapes are presented in Shakespearean productions, in early modern or in our times, in film or audio versions of the plays? What function does stage music have here and for whom? And what about the sounds of language in a foreign tongue, like the Welsh spoken in Henry VI? Questions such as these and others, related issues, are treated in the following papers.