Hearing Green: Logomarginality in Hamlet (continued)

Bruce R. Smith
Georgetown University

Smith, Bruce R. "Hearing Green: Logomarginality in Hamlet
" Physical Frame. Early Modern Literary Studies 7.1/Special Issue 8 (May, 2001): 2.1-4 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/07-1/logomarg/physic.htm>.

Physical frame

1. It was in the newly constructed Globe that Hamlet probably received its first performed during the 1599-1600 season. In stark contrast to the universal, undifferentiated circumstances in which Derrida assumes that coming-to-presence through speech takes place, the 1599 Globe provided a physical surround with distinctive acoustical properties. For the actor speaking Hamlet’s lines and for the audience who heard him speak, these acoustical properties related sound to speech and speech to identity in ways quite different from they way they were aligned in other locations. The situation of logos was different in the great hall of a castle, in a bedroom, on a ship, in a cemetery–in any of the places where the fictional Hamlet fictionally found himself fictionally speaking. Each of these spaces would have shaped, directed, and propagated sound in distinctive ways. According to its size and shape, each would have amplified the sound of a speaker’s voice or dampened it. Each would have emphasized certain frequencies over others. Each would have returned the sound of the speaker’s voice back to him with varying degrees of delay, and from different directions, according to the reflective surfaces at hand (Handel 41). It was not, of course, in great hall, bedroom, ship’s deck, or cemetery that the actor playing Hamlet spoke but from the stage of the Globe Theater.

2. I'll describe here only briefly the acoustic reconstruction of the 1599 Globe that I attempted in my book The Acoustic World of Early Modern England. The Globe offered a listening space of 231,028 cubic feet shaped roughly like a cylinder--a physical circumstance that would have encouraged a "broad" sound as opposed to the "round" sound shaped by the Blackfriar's rectlinear space. In a cylinder the main reflection of sound waves is from side to side, making it possible for auditors to locate the origins of sounds, in particular higher-pitched sounds, quite precisely. The presence of a canopy, however, meant that sounds originating under that canopy were reflected from top to bottom as well as from side to side, producing a more diffuse, harder to locate sound. The voices of actors standing near the outer edges of the stage are more locatable to auditors than the voices of actors standing under the center of the canopy (Smith 206-245). Hamlet in fact begins as a single word is spoken by an actor onstage: it emerges out of the noise of the assembling audience. Trumpet blasts momentarily impose a central focus on this noise, but the script itself begins with dispersed sounds rather than a centralized sound:

Who's there?

Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.

Long live the king!




The scene continues with such short exchanges until Marcellus, in line 21, finally takes first-person-singular command of the acoustic space and gives it first-person-plural unity as he describes in a seven-line speech "this dreaded sight twice seen of us." It is Horatio, however, whose voice comes to dominate the scene as he fills the audience in on the story prior to Act One, scene one, and then, in mid story, encounters the ghost of the elder Hamlet. In the folio text his speech runs to 42 lines--by my calculation, about three minutes of continuous sound. In the 1604 quarto four brief lines from Bernardo interrupt Horatio's voice in mid career.

3. The Ghost refuses Horatio's repeated commands to join his voice with the others: "Speak, speak, speak, I charge thee speak," "Speak to me," "Speak to me," "O, speak!", "Speak of it, stay and speak" (1.1.49, 110, 113, 116, 120). The 1604 quarto prints the third and fourth of these charges as single metrically incomplete lines, as if the Ghost’s silences filled up the missing syllables. By refusing Horatio’s commands the Ghost throws the other characters off balance, not only in terms of iambic pentameter rhythm, but in palpably physical terms--"’Tis here." "‘Tis here." "‘Tis gone" (1.1.122-123)--just as later the Ghost's dislocated voice entoning "Swear" from under the stage throws Hamlet off balance in equally physical terms (1.5.151 ff.).

4. As a speaker Hamlet comes to presence, therefore, in a physical surround full of dispersed sounds that only on occasion find a center in a single speaker. Hamlet may assume centrality in his soliloquies, but that effect is only momentary. As a physical body, he shares the stage with at least twelve other bodies. As a voice, he provides but one element in a sound-world that includes other human voices in a variety of pitches and timbres, not to mention trumpet blasts, the clank of the watchmen's swords, the thud of feet on wooden scaffolding, the swish of costumes, the crowing of a cock (this in the 1604 quarto), perhaps even a bell sounding twelve midnight before anyone ever speaks. The Ghost, whose repeated interventions serve to dislocate sound and body, points up a more general dislocation of sound in the play. Hamlet comes to presence amid these dislocations. In both visual space and acoustic space he remains a marginal figure. What does occupy the center of the wooden O is not an individual speaker, much less an individual listener, but a physical object: the stage itself, a gigantic wooden sounding board comprising about a thousand square feet in surface area.

Dramaturgical Frame

Physiological Frame

Way out