Perceiving Shakespeare: A Study of Sight, Sound, and Stage
Jennifer Rae McDermott
University of Toronto
Jennifer Rae McDermott. “Perceiving Shakespeare: A Study of Sight, Sound, and Stage.” Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 19 (2009) 5.1-38 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/si-19/mcdeshak.html>.
Figure 1: The Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, attributed to
Isaac Oliver c. 1599 – 1602. This image is reproduced with the kind
permission of The Marquess of Salisbury, Hatfield House, England.
Season your admiration for a whileAttention, witnessing, seasoned perceiving, and spying to find out secrets all intertwine within this passage. Horatio’s call to attuned perception resonates not only with Hamlet, but with the witnessing “gentlemen” or gentlewomen (both guards and audience). By reading these words in light of historical phenomenology and an early modern understanding of attention, I hope to demonstrate how Hamlet invites us to practice a new model of perceiving Shakespeare: a model that casts spying as a method of spectatorship with heightened awareness in eyes and ears. The psychical extension of the senses into an embodied intelligence network parallels the characters’ spying action within the body of the realm. This essay examines Shakespeare’s engagement with early modern sense theory and traces the idea of sensory attention as it is made manifest in Hamlet in order to interrogate the nature of attent spectatorship. It is in Hamlet that words relating to sensing appear most often (more than 270 times),5 and that “domestic prying and state spying fuse” in their shared desire to harness truths through complete auditory and visual attention (Haynes 153). Indeed, Shakespeare consistently associates the “sensible and true avouch” of eyes and ears (1.1.56), yoking them as attuned to interior perception.
With an attent ear till I may deliver
Upon the witness of these gentlemen
This marvel to you. (1.2.191-94)4
Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,Where Hamlet is at pains to establish a critical distance between what his “trappings and … suits of woe” (1.2.86) might convey and what his inner self might actually be thinking, what “can denote [him] truly” (1.2.83), Gertrude lacks the ability to attend this warning. While at this particular moment Hamlet’s outward display does align with genuine grief, he alerts us to the possible discrepancy between these signs and the truth. A resulting consequence is the opportunity for deception. Katharine Eisaman Maus invokes this instance to remark that, in Hamlet, “even reliable indicators or symptoms of his distress become suspect, simply because they are defined as indicators and symptoms”; the interior “surpasses the visible” as the exterior is only “partial, misleading,” and “falsifiable” (1, 4). This reasoning implies that it is impossible to comprehend the interiority of another individual as well as one’s self and, further, that intentional miscues or crafted outward shows can trick the viewer into false conclusions. If all this is true, then how can we hope to succeed in our spying or to perceive the truth through attentive senses?
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. (1.2.68-71)
Gertrude, Hamlet points out, has only considered the “actions that a man might play” rather than attempting to search his heart (1.2.84).
O Hamlet, speak no more.Triumphant, Hamlet has forced Gertrude’s superficial sight to perceive with awareness her interior self. The momentum of his allegations builds until her hearing is coerced into attention: “These words like daggers enter in my ears” (3.4.93). This moment recalls the interpenetrative aspect of sensing and the frequent synaesthesia of eye and ear in early modern sense theory, for as Grace Tiffany remarks, Gertrude “sees her sin through hearing it” (87). She is brought as far into awareness as she can go and surrenders to the truth in Hamlet’s torturous revelations, promising to follow his advice. Yet, even after this moment of clarity, where sounds have finally been united with vision for Gertrude, Shakespeare hints that she will never be in possession of attent senses as the ghost remains imperceptible to her. Where Hamlet sees truth, she perceives “Nothing at all” (3.4.129).
Thou turn’st my very eyes into my soul,
And there I see such black and grieved spots
As will leave there their tinct. (3.4.86-89)
…as I was sewing in my closetShe paints a detailed picture of Hamlet, colouring each aspect of his dress and physique to imply his madness. Polonius accepts her report, but seeking to go deeper, asks: “What said he?” (2.1.83). Polonius makes an appeal for aural information. Seeming to follow Wright’s advice to uncover a “man’s heart” and the “inclinations which there reside and lie hidden” (165) by yoking the observation of external features to the probing powers of speech, Polonius tries to sound him out. Ophelia, though, ignores his request and continues to describe how Hamlet held her and stared over her face. She briefly comments on Hamlet’s deep sigh (a sound), that “did seem to shatter all his bulk” (2.1.92). But she does not reflect on his only oral communication to the same extent as his physical dishevelment. Regardless of the sigh, she has pronounced him mad based on the sight. She watches him and is most disturbed by how he watches her, choosing to emphasize how his eyes, extramissively, “bended their light” on her to “the last” (2.1.97). Ophelia here shows her complete concern for outward, visual seeming.
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced,
No hat upon his head, his stockings fouled,
Ungartered and down-gyved to his ankle,
Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other,
…comes before me (2.1.74-81).
And in the porches of my ears [he] did pourThe Eustachian tube allows immediate access to the blood and soul. This “hole or passage which passeth from the eare into the mouth” that fascinated early modern anatomists like Crooke also presented a perfectly sinister vehicle for murder, and one that substantiated fears about aural attention (587).22 At this nexus the poison rapidly spreads; it mortifies the fluid balance of the king’s humors, curdles his blood, and cements the passages within him shut.
The leperous distilment whose effect
Holds such an enmity with the blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through The natural gates and alleys of the body
And with a sudden vigour it doth possess
And curd like eager droppings into milk
The thin and wholesome blood. (1.5.63-70).
Hamlet: Begin,The audience is driven to first focus on Hamlet, then the player, then Hamlet. Their heads turn from one end of the stage to the other, as their attention is bandied back-and-forth like a tennis ball. Three plays are happening at once, nested one inside the other. Where Shakespeare overloads the senses of his audience, he challenges the nature of spectatorship through the powers of vision and hearing. To even attempt to absorb the full impact of what is happening in these moments, both ears and eyes are obliged to be attent.
murderer: leave off thy damnable faces and begin. Come,
‘the croaking raven doth bellow for revenge.’
Lucianus: Thoughts black, hands apt, drugs fit, and time agreeing,
Considerate season else no creature seeing
On wholesome life usurps immediately.
[Pours the poison in his ears.]
Hamlet: ‘A poisons him i’th’ garden for his estate. His
name’s Gonzago. The story is extant, and written in
very choice Italian. You shall see anon how the
murderer gets the love of Gonzago’s wife. (3.2.245-257).
You that look pale and tremble at this chance,The champion hearer in the play meets his end as “flights of angels sing [him] to [his] rest” (5.2.344). The speaker that the audience has struggled to sound out is now divested of voice. Transferring the weight of his tale to Horatio, Hamlet’s last request is to “report [him] and [his] cause aright” (5.2.323). While Hamlet is now only a “sight” to be seen by Fortinbras, the force of his tale is enough to propel the aural emphasis to its destined end (5.2.346, 362). Drums and “soldiers’ music” are summoned to “speak loudly for him” as his body is “placed to the view” (5.2.383-84, 362), repeating the larger pattern of associating eyes and ears as mutually supportive organs. The ambassador likewise delivers his intelligence expressly in terms of sights and sounds; he laments “the sight is dismal” and “the ears are senseless that should give us hearing” (5.2.351-53). The final moments of the play powerfully reinforce the idea that eye and ear are active sensory intelligencers in their own right: senses that, when combined, possess the attribute of attention that completes perception. Sight and hearing in Hamlet, then, can be seen to function as the most dominant, intellectual, and perspicacious senses in keeping with the prevalent sensory theory articulated by Bulwer, Crooke, Davies, Egerton, Tomkis, Wright, and other defining early modern thinkers. Far more complex than mere receivers of stimuli, these senses act as agents and attent perceivers.
That are but mutes and audience to this act,
Had I but time …
O, I could tell you— (5.2.318-21)
1I am very grateful to Elizabeth Harvey, Jill Levenson, Leanore Lieblein, and Jeremy Lopez for their thoughtful and attentive comments on this paper from its earliest stages. Thanks are also due to the EMLS reviewers for their words of encouragement and helpful criticisms. This article is dedicated to my parents.
For a nuanced theoretical reading of the intertwined relationship between seeing and hearing, see Robson, who avers that the ear and eye “change places,” working through “the residue of the one in the other,” wherein phenomenology “embeds itself within a visuality that supplants and supplements orality” (2). My study compliments his analysis of the aurality of Shakespeare by returning to the early modern conception of eye and ear as allied perceivers. Because this essay investigates sight and sound as categories of operation in an embodied early modern context, my approach aligns with the historical phenomenology of Smith, Folkerth, Harvey, and Mazzio. That is, I do not oppose phenomenological reading of text as a visual process against the assumed dominant orality of early modern culture, but rather argue for the collaborative effect of sight and sound under the shared imperative of sensory attention.
2 On the ear as an intimate organ, see Fineman, who reads in this portrait a “salacious ear” that “both covers and discovers the genitals of Queen Elizabeth” (229). Paralleling aural and sexual penetration, the vulva-like ear hints at the vulnerability of acoustic openness despite the iconographic suggestion of the Queen’s powerful sensory omniscience.
3 Alongside the conventional meaning of the term “intelligencer”
as “an informer, a spy, or a secret agent” (OED 1.a), came the figurative use popular between 1580 and 1870 where
“intelligencer” was applied to “things” and, especially, to
the senses (OED 1.c).
The idea that the eye and ear are comparable to spies can be traced
across a variety of disciplines. For example, Sir Philip Sidney
writes in the Arcadia (c.1586) that while “poor Dorus” would turn his back to cry, it
does him no good since his “eyes (being his diligent
intelligencers) coulde carrie vnto him no other newes, but
discomfort” (123); Helkiah Crooke self-consciously characterizes
the “outward sences” as “the intelligencers between the body
and the soule” (6) in his medical treatise Microcosmographia (1615); George Sandys reinterprets the Midas myth in Ovid’s
Metamorphosis Englished (1632) by reflecting
that the “ignorant Prince” is punished with exaggerated ears
because he listened to “his spies and intelligencers: who (by
their false informations) … might well be said to heare with such
eares” (390); Thomas Abernethie testified in a 1641 trial to his
involvement in a “hellish plot” after observing the “mutual
intelligence between Rome and England” such that his own spying
against “Papists” became literalized as “an eie and eare
witnesse” (1, 3); and Vincent Alsop preached to his parish on
Thanksgiving day, 1695, that they were lucky to avoid a closer brush
with war, since “Had this war been acted upon” our “Native
Country, our own eyes would have been the Expresses to tell of the
burning towns, our ears the intelligencers that would soon have
brought the tidings” (29).
references to Hamlet are to the Second Quarto (1604-5), “The Tragical History of Hamlet
Prince of Denmark,” in the Arden 3 edition edited by Ann Thompson
and Neil Taylor.
5 Mark Caldwell tabulates the number of times words such as “eye,”
“ear,” “watch,” “hear,” “see,” “look,” “nose,”
and “smell” occur across Shakespeare’s tragedies, and he
concludes that “words having to do with the senses occur more
frequently in Hamlet than in any other major Shakespeare play … their variants occur
270 times” (140-1).
6 In arguing that Hamlet offers a lesson in spectatorship, I do not mean to imply that the
play is reductively didactic or that Shakespeare is advancing a set
pedagogy. On the contrary, I wish to illuminate the ways in which
Shakespeare’s play thematises the nature of spectatorship as a
process, and specifically as a sensory process of attention. Whereas
all plays can be said to desire the utmost concentration of their
attendees, it is my conviction that Hamlet is fundamentally about spectatorship and how we pay attention in a
way that, for example, King Lear or Macbeth are not.
7 This Renaissance ordering of the senses and its history is the
subject of the third chapter
of Louise Vinge’s The
Five Senses: Studies in a Literary Tradition.
See also Constance Classen on the enumeration of the senses as a
8 Six editions of Lingua appeared, in 1607, 1610, 1617, 1622, 1632, and 1657.
9 Many other period authors enact this same process of introspection as somatised in eye and ear, especially on “sounding.” Folkerth rightly observes that when Shakespeare uses the word sound “it is almost always as a verb or an adjective, only rarely as a noun” (25).
10 But, it should be noted, just as much as the ear was situated as a
prime access point, and as much as it was held up as a perceptive
organ of philosophical power, so too was the eye praised as partner
to this sense. In “A Iewell For The Eare” (1610), Robert
Wilkinson expresses particular gratitude for the eye and ear above
all other sense organs: “we are beholding to [God] for our eies
and eares, for that by these two as by a channel” is “knowledge”
conveyed into “our soules” (11). In the perceptive logic of
Wilkinson’s phrase, the ear processes the spiritual light of the
eye, blurring the divide between the “two” as one united “channel” to understanding.
11 In Hamlet there are several instances in which the eyes and
ears are modified by personifying adjectives. When Horatio explains
that Marcellus and Barnardo have seen the ghost appear during the
night, he does not attribute the agency of watching to the guards as
individuals. Rather, he centres the active power in their sense
organs. That is, the men are impacted because their eyes are
affected: “thrice he walked / By their oppressed and
fear-surprised eyes” (1.2.201-02). Claudius likewise applies the
adjective “knowing” to the ear, implying that the ear
itself comprehends his speech. Reinforcing the connection between
the ear, the permeability of the body to words, and the heart,
Claudius whispers his instructions to Laertes: “you must put me in
your heart for friend / Sith you have heard and with a
knowing ear” (4.7.2-3, emphasis mine). Significantly, each
of these occasions of sensory personhood is couched as spying so
that eye and ear become active intelligencers themselves. The
oppressed eyes of the guards spy the apparition in “dreadful
secrecy” (1.2.206), and Laertes’s knowing ears hear Claudius’s
secret plot in their conspiring (4.7.2-25).
12 William Prynne had his ears first trimmed and then fully cut off for
his printing of seditious material in the Histriomastix.
John Bastwick also suffered the loss of his ears and branding for
failing to hear rules attentively, and the poet Sir John Davies
served as a prosecutor in a fourfold case of perjury on the 17th of November, 1609 in which four guilty jurors were each sentenced to
“lose one ear.” For more on the dangers of mishearing and the
punishment of severing ears, see Folkerth 19-22.
13 The early modern extension of psyche into the senses seems to
anticipate Derridean sensory “thought.” On sensuality and the
perception of touch, Derrida probes the point “where one
experience finds itself implicated in advance of another one, and
conjoined to another one, whatever the originality or even the acute
independence of each one may be” (71). Examining psychical
extension metaphorically, drawing from Jean Luc Nancy’s reading of
Freud, Derrida implies that a sense organ fuses with its process of
pondering in the moment of sensation or “feeling oneself feel”
(31). When the body gives itself over to sensing, that “corpus,
inasmuch as it weighs” also “in a certain way thinks” (71).
14 On the connotations of acoustic spiritual nourishment, of aural eating, or of theatrical/antitheatrical food metaphors in the early modern period, see Folkerth 58-67; Lopez 22-34; and Green, ESC 53-74.
15 An important corollary to Hamlet,
in terms of sensory vulnerability, is Edmund Spenser’s allegorical
representation of the body as a besieged castle in the House of Alma
episode (The Faerie Queene, Book
II 1596). The five senses are guarded with attention, and “every
loup” is “fast lockt, as fearing foes despight” (2.9.10).
Sight, hearing, smell, taste, and then touch all struggle to protect
Alma, the “virgin Queene most bright” (2.9.2), from a barrage of
monsters representing the stimuli to which each sense is most
susceptible. The gate of hearing is perhaps the most vulnerable
because the sum of all the assailants makes the sound of “murmuring
small trompets,” like gnats, whose “clustering army flies”
buzz together in an offensive discord (2.9.16). This is echoed where
Claudius explains that Laertes maintains a distance, since he “wants
not buzzers to infect his ear / With pestilent speeches of his
father’s death –” (4.5.90-1).
16 Of course, while the play Hamlet begins in Elsinore at night, the performance of Hamlet at the Globe theatre likely would have been flooded in bright
afternoon sunshine. The immediate contrast between the darkness of
the opening utterance and the actual reality of lightness in the
playhouse functions, as Yasunari Takahashi notes, “as a sort of
equivalent to modern lighting effects” (3).
17 On the religious significance of the cock crow that “troubles the
ear of the wandering ghost” (80), see Tiffany.
18 The imperative to pair hearing and seeing in order to perceive with
accuracy in Hamlet actualises the theoretical positioning of eye and ear as two halves
of one sensory instrument outlined by Thomas Wright, John Bulwer,
John Davies, and other contemporary authors (see the “Early Modern
Sense Theory” and “Sensory Attention” sections above). Where Hamlet inarguably
aligns its most perceptive characters with sound, promoting the
power of the ear as an “organ of vnderstanding” (Brathwaite 6)
over the eye, neither organ can suffice on its own. Eye and ear must
unite to achieve true attention. Thus, while I agree in part with
Grace Tiffany’s assertion that Hamlet incorporates anti-theatrical Protestant writings that condemn visual
displays by offering instead a “morally purgative” and superior
“aural dimension” in the “performance of reasoned speech”
(83), I contest her categorization of the play as pure “aural
theatre” (75). While the ear occupies a central position in Hamlet and dominates the sounding out of interiority, the eye plays a
reciprocal role in that the two senses help to correct and repair
each other. Hamlet,
as she acknowledges, has no shortage of its own showy theatrical
spectacles with the inset dumb-show, ghostly apparitions, open
graves, and swashbuckling sword-play. Moreover, the ear is often
shown to be blocked, pierced, or poisoned if left ill-attent and
uncoupled from vision, and spoken lies conceal almost as much as
false appearances. Notably, where Tiffany reads The
Murder of Gonzago as designed to “affect”
Claudius’s “ear” (84), Hamlet actually relies on his eye since
he looks to the king’s blanched face as a visual testament to his
true emotion: “I’ll observe his looks, / I’ll tent him to the
quick” (2.2.531-2). In sum, in Hamlet hearing is held above sight, but both eye and ear participate in the
shared process of attentive sensing.
19 For examples of the deception centered approach to questions of
appearances versus reality, see Maus, chapter one: “Inwardness and
Spectatorship,” especially pages 4-7; Takahashi; Levy,
especially page 195; and Kubiak and Reynolds.
20 Patricia Parker writes about the connection between dilating the
private parts of women and spying in Hamlet,
where both concern “the business of detection and informing, of
espial and bringing ‘privie secretes’ before the eye” in “the
‘secret chamber of the heart,’ or the ‘closet’ of the
monarch” (110). See chapter five, “Othello and Hamlet: Dilation,
Spying, and the ‘Secret Place’ of Women.”
21 Bruce R. Smith explains the difference between hearing speech and
hearing musical sounds, in which it takes phonetic recognition to
acoustically process “a continuous stream of sound” into “a
chain of discrete sounds” as meaning units (158). See chapter
seven, “Hearing Green” in Reading the
Early Modern Passions. ed. Paster, Rowe, and
Floyd-Wilson. Richard Crooke, in the address to the reader
preceding Stephen Egerton’s Boring of the
Eare, makes a parallel reference to 1
Corinthians 1.3.1: “and all our Sermons to the most men but as a
sounding Brasse or a tinkling Cimball” (A3). My discussion of the
role of the actor’s voice in gathering attention is also indebted
to Smith’s interpretation of the acoustic playing space,
especially his eighth chapter, “Within the Wooden O” (206-245).
22 See Helkiah Crooke’s chapter XVI in the eighth book of Microcosmographia (1615). He describes the Eustachian tube and considers its enigmatic
role in purging the “thinne excrements which could sweate through
the fast membrane of the Tympane,” questioning in turn the
thickness of the fluids it admits (587). Crooke also documents
anatomical experiments with dried skulls or the still “greene
heads” of corpses where melted hog’s gristle is poured into the
“hole of hearing” to trace its movement through the interior
corridors of the body (588).
23 The contrast between spectators and auditors is a convention
established by Andrew Gurr (86).
24 The number of people that the Globe could hold at full capacity has been estimated to be anywhere between 2000 and 3500 depending on how closely those in attendance were packed together. I take the figure of 3000 from Frye (59) and Folkerth (17).
25 Adopting a quasi-Marxist approach, Yachnin and Dawson have
effectively demonstrated how early modern theatergoing served as a
masquerade where all could participate in the “desirability of the
language, conduct, and dress of the gentry and the court” in an
“inexpensive version of deluxe goods” (40). Both the actors on
the stage and the nobility in the audience were placed conspicuously
on display. Meredith Skura likewise observes that the audience
would in part be filled with spectators “showing themselves,”
and so the degree of competition becomes more immediate between
audience members to attract notice (54).
26 In illustrations of outdoor performances from the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries this maxim holds true. Where the actors are
posturing, “so are the spectators. A number have their eyes fixed
on the stage or the actors who may have descended from the stage to
the place below, but others are looking elsewhere and doing other
things. … Conversational groupings suggest gossip, courtship, and
business are being carried on” (Lieblein 122). Assuming these
relationships were occurring in the Globe, there were a great many
more actions being played out within the theatre than just those
upon the stage.
27 The opposite view has
recently been advanced by Jonathan Gil
Harris and Natasha Korda, who emphasise the
importance of costumes and stage properties for providing visual
entertainment. They counter the commonly accepted scholarly
position, that the “Shakespearean stage was a
simple ‘wooden O’ appealing to its audiences’ minds rather
than their senses,” to insist instead that the English public
theatre still relied on spectacle (2). While I cite Gurr and
Reynolds to support the early modern value placed on the acoustic
dimensions of performance in Hamlet,
I am still cognizant of the additional visual appeal. Hence I refer
to the stage as a “relatively bare” platform. My argument
bridges these critical perspectives where I affirm the combined
acoustic and visual attractions of the playhouse, and specifically Hamlet’s structural
call for both eyes and ears.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
© 2009-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).