Hearing Green: Logomarginality in Hamlet (continued)

Bruce R. Smith
Georgetown University

Smith, Bruce R. "Hearing Green: Logomarginality in Hamlet
" Dramaturgical Frame. Early Modern Literary Studies 7.1/Special Issue 8 (May, 2001): 4.1-4 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/07-1/logomarg/dramat.htm>.

Dramaturgical frame

1. Hamlet first comes to consciousness--the audience's and his own--in third person, as words in someone else's mouth: "Let us impart what we have seen tonight/ Unto young Hamlet" (1.1.150-151). He then becomes an entity in second person, a "you": "But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son" (1.2.64)--a syntactical position that he immediately refuses by asserting his first-personhood in an aside: "A little more than kin and less than kind" (1.1.65). Reluctantly he accepts his second-person status, until at last, in his first soliloquy he can command the entire acoustic space, presumably standing in the position of greatest acoustic presence, at center stage, under the canopy. Hamlet's logocentric sense of presence is thus achieved not through his own voice alone but through the voices of other people. As Bert O. States observes with respect specifically to Hamlet, "We speak of actors as feeding each other lines, but it would be more accurate to say that they feed each other character" (7). It is not other actors’ voices alone, however, that call Hamlet into being but all the other myriad sounds in the play, including, most immediately, the "flourish" that the 1604 specifies for Claudius' exit just before Hamlet's first soliloquy.

2. To maintain that presence he also needs the voices of his listeners in the audience--not so much their words as their claps and shouts. Testimony from a number of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century writers suggests that the listeners gathered in the Globe were anything but passive. Michael Drayton, for one, alludes to "Showts and Claps at ev'ry little pawse,/ When the proud Round on ev'ry side hath rung" (Drayton 2:334). Hamlet emerges, not out of silence, but out of the noise of the audience before the play begins. As such, Hamlet recapitulates the process through which all human speech comes into being. Michel Serres in his version of Genesis traces language back to the source of life, to the endlessly roaring sea:

We are immersed in sound just as we are immersed in air and light, we are caught up willy-nilly in its hurly-burly. We breathe background noise, the taut and tenuous agitation at the bottom of the world . . . . My acouphenes, a mad murmur, tense and constant in hearing, speak to me of my ashes, perhaps, the ones whence I came, the ones to which I will return. . . . No life without heat, no matter, neither; nor warmth without air, no logos without noise . . . (Serres 1995: 7).

3. Hamlet's "acouphenes," his relations with sound, turn out to be just as Serres describes his own, an emergence out of ashes and a return to ashes. Hamlet's alpha is [a]: "A little more than kin." His omega, at least in the folio text, is "O, o, o, o" (5.2.311). At the moment of death Hamlet's voice devolves into the noise from which it emerged. What follows is anything but the silence that Hamlet predicted--or at least wished for. What follows are the voices of Horatio and of Fortinbras as they offer their respective versions of Hamlet's story--and then, according to the folio text, the booms of "a peal of ordnance." The play ends, just as it has begun, in a series of single, unified, non-verbal sounds. A "peal" suggests a sequence of shots that answers the trumpet peal with which the play began. After the sound of ordnance being fired comes a return of noise from the audience. The German traveler Paul Hentzner, cataloguing London’s sights in 1598, includes the public playhouses–and the sounds they contain. Performances of tragedies and comedies before "very numerous audiences" almost everyday are concluded, he says, "with excellent music, variety of dances, and the excessive applause of those that are present" (Hentzner 22). The effect of applause after the play, like the buzz of voices before it begins, is both collective and individual. An individual entering the theater speaks to his or her nearest companions. As more and more people do the same, more and more voices are added to the cacophony, until the combined voices make up the collective roar that the trumpet blasts attempts to silence. Similarly at the end of the play the audience responds with applause and shouts that may start out as a collective expression of approval but inevitably end as actions being done by individuals who are about to give up their corporate identity as Audience and leave the theater to go their separate ways.

4. Through the entirety of the play, in fact, Hamlet has to struggle against acoustic oblivion in the sounds of other people's voices and in prelinguistic noises like the ringing cannon shots that Claudius favors as accompaniments to his drinking. The full repertory of sounds to be heard in The Globe can be imagined as a cycle of sounds that begins in pre-verbal cries like "oh!", passes through speech to the post-verbal syntax of music, disperses into the more random but still meaningful sounds of the ambient sound world, and returns finally to pre-verbal cries, which take their place in the ambient sound world and mark as the beginnings of speech. Heard in this context, Hamlet's soliloquies stand out as isolated moments of logocentricism. And they become rarer as the play progresses. The omission of the fourth soliloquy, "How all occasions inform against me," from the folio text means that Hamlet must increasingly compromise his first-person-singularity as he performs the last third of the play only in dialogue, as second person to other speakers' first person, and as first person only in relationship to their second person. In terms of sound, the passage from "To be or not to be" in Act Three, scene one, to "O, o, o, o" in Act Five, scene two, charts the gradual but inexorable disintegration of the speaking "I"–the reverse of the integration that was sounded in the entry to this essay.

Physical frame

Physiological frame

Way out