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:>.

  1. The Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth I (c.1600; figure 1) depicts the queen enveloped in a copper-coloured gown woven with eyes and ears. Scattered across her body, these dismembered parts function in relation to the whole as extended agents of espial and, accordingly, as the two most perspicacious perceivers.1 These symbols displace the queen’s facial features in miniature – her arched brow, liquid eyes, pointed gaze, and half-hidden ears2 – even as they emblematically portray the omnipresent faculties of perception associated with her widespread intelligence network through the iconography of Tudor portraiture.

    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.

  2. The equation between senses and spies was such a common metaphor in the early modern period that the senses became known, in short, as “informants” or “intelligencers” between the body and the soul.3 While many critics have written on the floating population of spies under Elizabeth I’s spy-master Francis Walsingham and the atmosphere of “paranoid surveillance” in Hamlet, even linking espionage to spectatorship (Plowden; Haynes; Parker; Maslen; Garber), a lacuna appears in terms of the senses as attentive intelligencers themselves. In sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, eyes and ears were held in an exclusive position above the other senses since they do not rely on physical contiguity. As active mediators between the inner wits and the outer world, they freely range and return with collected solutions for the governing soul. Drawing qualities of the exterior world “in” to the body, these senses give acquired knowledge material “form” as literal “in-formers.”

  3. My consideration of Shakespeare’s Hamlet emphasizes the way philosophers, poets, anatomists, and religious orators conceptualize the senses as subject to an internal rule known as attention. While attention today is thought of as a purely cognitive phenomenon, in the early modern period it was frequently, and synecdochally, connected with the organ of perception itself. An eye or ear was invited to be “opened” or “attent.” Accorded agency, the physical organ was believed to exercise discerning judgment: the attent sense instrument filtered the good from the bad. For a sense to pay attention, it must possess the ability to not only receive a stimulus but to perceive its full meaning, to see actively rather than simply look, and to listen actively rather than simply hear. In 1.2, Horatio confides in Hamlet about the spectacle of the ghost, instructing him to attend in just this fashion:
    Season your admiration for a while
    With an attent ear till I may deliver

    Upon the witness of these gentlemen
    This marvel to you. (1.2.191-94)4
    Attention, 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.

  4. Considering the dangers of an over-reliance on sight (by treating Gertrude’s visual appraisal of her son’s “trappings” of woe [1.2.86] and Ophelia’s misreading of “[u]ngartered” Hamlet’s appearance [2.1.77]), as well as the perils of an over-reliance on sound, (by analysing the king’s acoustic poisoning [1.5.63] and Claudius’ “mildewed ear” [3.4.62] and defective hearing), I suggest that Hamlet accentuates the dangers of inattention through the vulnerability of the senses. Alongside this warning, Shakespeare crafts – in the very structure of his play and characterization of his protagonists – a careful lesson in spectatorship as spying where true hearers (Horatio and the guards, as well as exemplar listener Hamlet) are privileged over seers.6 In its repeated underscoring of attention and its development of spying as more than a theatrical device, the play shows us by example that both the ear and eye must be called to attention in order to perceive things as they truly are. By extending this sense reading into a speculation about performance and the position of spectator awareness, I argue that Shakespeare orchestrates in Hamlet an elaborate bid for the attention of his playgoing audience through scenes of divided seeing and hearing (as evinced in the dumb-show, the nested moments of eavesdropping and espial, and the multilayered confusion of the final death scene). Shakespeare’s words in Hamlet draw all eyes and ears towards the play and away from the distractions offstage, proving the playwright a genius of both sound and sight.

    Early Modern Sense Theory

  5. The enumeration of the senses, as well as their anatomical function, relationship to the imagination, and position as the liminal boundary between inside and outside spaces of the body, were pivotal subjects of debate in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The acute curiosity surrounding the senses and their disputable nature is evident in the eighth book of Helkiah Crooke’s Microcosmographia, “Controuersies belonging to the Senses” (646-726). An anatomist, professor of surgery, and personal physician to King James I, Crooke first published his influential English treatise on the human body, Microcosmographia, in 1615. While the ninth book, “Of Ioynts,” and the eleventh, “Of Vessels,” seemingly invite less debate, the subject of the senses (Book 8) is bracketed by no less than sixty-four embroiling questions. Ranging from the existentialist, “What Sense is?”, to the essentialist, “Concluding that Fishes do not Smell,” Crooke summarizes the evidence presented both by classical sources and contemporary findings, comparing Aristotle, Galen, Bauhinus, Vesalius, Eustachius and others to weigh the grounds for either case and yield his own view in this “Labyrinth concerning the Senses” (716). One question that perplexed Crooke, and even influenced his treatment of the organs of the head, is that of the uninterrupted “order of the senses” (661).

  6. Indeed, why should the senses necessarily appear as sight, hearing, smell, taste, and then touch?7 Given the nebulous nature of early modern sensory theory, three central points of consistent intersection emerge as newly formed pre-modern ideas: (1) that despite the fluidity of arrangement among the “lower” bodily senses in the hierarchy, seeing and hearing typically comprise the first two links of the chain and are frequently viewed as twinned “intellectual” senses; (2) that eye and ear are the organs deemed most inward or perspicacious; and (3) that they are accordingly the most vulnerable. Thomas Tomkis’s raucous comedy Lingua: Or the Combat of the Tongue and the Five Senses for Superiority (1607), for example, playfully embodies these dilemmas onstage for a university audience. Performed at the turn of the seventeenth century, Lingua materialized scholarly debates about sense theory for a learned crowd. Nevertheless, the play’s success in multiple editions bespeaks a collective interest in sensory issues at this time, reaching beyond the universities into public popularity.8 What is particularly striking about Lingua’s fantasies of sensory embodiment in relation to Hamlet, however, is the way in which attentive sensing is once again linked to spying. Recalling the Rainbow portrait, Lingua – the personified female representative of the tongue who schemes her way towards the position of a sixth sense – defines a “Sense” proper as “a facultie by which our Queene sitting in her privy Chamber hath intelligence of exterior occurents” (3.5). She creates a niche into which the tongue would ostensibly fit as well as the other sensory organs, but Common Sensus, the ruling figure, overturns her claim and instead sentences her to the tooth-guarded prison of the mouth as mere non-sense (see Mazzio). This pattern, in which sight and sound are “commodius” senses of the spirit and attentive “authors” of information promoted above those “necessitated” by the body within the set pentarchy (Lingua 4.7), is re-established in John Bulwer’s writings. In Chirologia … Chironomia (1640) a compendium on dramatic gestures and hand positions, Bulwer, like Tomkis, brackets hearing and seeing as discrete from the other senses in a paired unit of interpenetrating intellectual function. A synaesthesia of eye and ear flows through his descriptions. In his very definition of gesturing as a language, we see how he conflates seeing with hearing: “for as the tongue speaketh to the ear, so gesture speaketh to the eye” (5). Ideal organs of espionage, if attent, these two senses allow man to present (through tongue and hand) and accept (by ear and eye) the “signifying faculties of the soul, and the inward discourse of reason” (15).

  7. The very word “inward” intimates the vital difference between sight, hearing and other forms of perception. Bulwer’s language of eye and ear as active participants in deconstructing received meaning highlights their partnered ability to discover the interior workings of another’s soul. He somatises the process of interior perception as perspicacity wherein the eyes pierce the exterior by “spying into” the centre, and the ears channel this interrogatory impulse by “sounding out” hidden secrets.9 In religious parlance, most likely familiar to early modern playgoers because of the 1559 Act of Uniformity that mandated attendance at weekly sermons, the eye was lauded as the “directice to all other Sences” and hearing was named “the organ of vnderstanding; by it we conceiue” (Brathwaite 2, 6). Richard Brathwaite asserts outright that the ear “hath a distinct power to sound into the centre of the heart” (6), and the ministers Stephen Egerton and Robert Wilkinson similarly privilege the ear as the admission point into the deepest reaches of the body. In Wilkinson’s words the ear is the “doore” (4) through which the word of God enters the listener, and Egerton likewise describes the attentive hearer as “boare[d]” (7) into by God. While the ear was given prominence as a direct conduit to the soul in metaphor, it is possible that the early modern understanding of this sense organ became embodied even more aggressively following an actual anatomical discovery: the identification of the Eustachian tube by an Italian surgeon in 1564. Uncovered as an open passageway for matter, bodily liquids, and in-bred air, the Eustachian tube materialized the transmission of word from hearing to heart.10 News of Bartlemomeo Eustachio’s medical advancement spread quickly throughout the continent, making the corridor “well-known in England by Shakespeare’s time” and renewing fears about vulnerability, contamination, and passibility between the interior and exterior, as Tanya Pollard affirms (129). By opening up the body in anatomy, and especially in public anatomies that revealed the interior to numerous onlookers, the body was demystified and rendered an objective thing of flesh. Instead of being a whole and sacred unit, impenetrable and secretive, it became a site of exploration: a site with discrete mechanisms, parts, and private crannies. Alongside the rise of anatomy, arguably, came a new belief in sight and hearing as perceptive tools for entering that hidden dimension of others. One could attentively spy into “classified” interiority (Maus 4) or break down the exterior to “discover the subject” and hear their confessions (Hanson 2).

  8. If the eye and ear are imagined as two halves of one sensory instrument, then they can be read in early modern sense theory to simultaneously open others and yield the self, collapsing the boundaries between inner and outer worlds. By extending our psyche into exterior space, and allowing the perceiver to “enter into” another “man’s heart and view the passions or inclinations which there reside and lie hidden” through the discovery of speech effects and “external operations” (Wright 165), sight and sound work together to enable transparency of intent. Early modern philosophers like Thomas Wright and the poet Sir John Davies envisage these senses as acting in tandem to harness insight. It is through conversing with another “very long” and observing his outward deportment that one can discover “what is in him” (84, 180-84). Davies predicts, in the first oracle of his philosophical poem Nosce teipsum, that our only hope will be “through Eye and Eare” to “recollect those beames of knowledge cleare” (3). In our postlapsarian existence, a sensory-fuelled recovery will only be possible through the combined attention of sight and hearing. The associations of peering into another through such careful scrutiny are inevitably tied to a fear of exposure. Wright counsels his readers to become “wary in their words and circumspect in their actions” to avoid the danger of transparency (159), and Davies warns that while sight is “the first degree” which brings “true wisdome” (9) it also must be governed attentively by the soul to “check” that “which oft do erre” (17).

    Sensory Attention

  9. Across representations of the senses in early modern discourse, the organs themselves are referred to again and again as subjects rather than objects. These senses actively do things. Personified as fully fleshed, freewheeling, and speaking characters (for instance in Lingua), embodied as spies, watchmen, or “Sentinells” (Davies 42), and described as guides, schoolmasters, and living senses (Brathwaite 5, 27), the eye and ear are not merely specialized anatomical mechanisms for receiving stimuli. On the contrary, they judge, defend, filter, desire, harken, and – most remarkably – pay attention. In his opening advertisement to the reader, Brathwaite uses imperative verbs to command notice. Foreign to a modern perspective in which the appeal would foreground the brain as the locus of cognitive processing and attention, Brathwaite issues his call directly to the senses: “Lend here thine eare of zealous attention, fixe here thine eye of inward contemplation” (Brathwaite [A1]). It is the ear in “hearing” that is “the organ of vnderstanding” for Brathwaite rather than the brain or more elusive mind (6). More than a material site, the sense organ literally houses the power of perception. For Brathwaite, both eye and ear are ascribed numerous abilities as agents and the adjectives that modify them are qualities of the variety commonly applied to people: “discreet” (9), “resolued” (10), temperamental, “doa[ting]” (4) or “iealous” (4).11 Indicating personality and attributing to the senses adjectival cases of personhood, they carry a greater significance than pure reception as fleshy instruments.

  10. Critics who have written on the ear in Shakespeare have tended to emphasize its continual openness, the dangers of receptivity, and the early modern hearing culture as characterized by an imperative for obedience (Folkerth 10; Pollard 123; Green, EMLS 3). Connected to the notion of enforced hearing is, of course, the punishment built into the English judicial system of quite brutally losing one’s ears for a host of crimes.12 Yet, if Brathwaite is to be trusted, then the ear is not necessarily an organ of prerequisite openness. Counterintuitively, the open ear can be shut; if not like the eye through the physical barrier of the eyelid, then it can be attentively closed by a spiritual and cognitive “free will” and “pure consecrated desire” nestled inside the organ itself (37). Armed with such a resistive screen, wherein the ear or “eye of the Body” vivifies, fills, and coalesces with the “eie of the Soule,” the cautious ear can become “barracadoed against insinuating desires” (Brathwaite 34, 37). That is not to say that a barricaded ear is physically enfolded. Rather, in this early modern conceptualization a perceptive element extends beyond the brain or the heart, reaching into and residing within the sense itself. “Selfhood and physical materiality, then,” as David Hillman has argued, “were ineluctably linked in the pre-Cartesian belief systems of the period” which precede any attempt “to separate the vocabulary” of “physiology” from that of “individual psychology” (83). This psychophysiology allows for a fluid interpenetration of body, mind, and affect without the divisions between mental attention and physical function that estrange sensory attention today. It is this extended element of soul as psyche that animates the ear and eye as immediate sites of attention, and even thought.13

  11. Sir John Davies aligns sight and hearing most closely with thought, as they are the “conduit pipes of knowledge” to “feed the mind”; he groups them above “th’other three” senses which “attend the Body still” (44). Nevertheless, he takes care to distinguish the acceptance of forms from the perception enabled by the soul inhabiting the sense organs. Peering out through these “windowes” that inform her of “the light of knowledge,” the reasoning impulse of the soul courses through the body (37). Without the attention granted by the soul inside the eye, then true “sight” cannot be achieved and “nought but Colours see” (15). Crooke stresses this distinctive feature as sensory attention where he explains perception as a process: “To be able to perceiue is not onely to receiue species or formes without the matter, but there is also requisite and Animall faculty which is not in all things that recieue the formes of sensible things” (652). The action inside the sense is what makes the eye an active perceiver, rather than the simple receiver of forms akin to mirrors or “glasses” (652). For certainly, he reasons, “there must be some part of the mind present in sensation” (656). While Crooke is convinced that reason manages the reception of visible species in the “Afterbraine” in book seven, his phrasing in the controversies allows for refining of images to occur within the organ of the eye, because “something more is required to Sense then the bare reception of species” (657).

  12. Taking into account the popular early modern theory of extramission, the eye might seem a more likely sensory candidate for agency and activity. Believed to send out beams to illuminate objects in view, the eye was aligned with “notions of activity, individualism, aggression, and technical innovation” in the “rising ascendancy of visual culture,” whereas the ear, it has been suggested, was aligned with “passivity” (Folkerth 18). I challenge this assertion both because intramission and extramission were hotly contested at the turn of the seventeenth century, and because the ear and other senses were embodied as characters in drama, as interlocutors of the soul in poetry, and as active participants in religious discourse. The ear is anything but passive in Brathwaite’s account. Quite the reverse, “the Eare is one of the actiuest & laborioust faculties” (12). “A discreet eare seasons the vnderstanding, marshals the rest of the sences wandring, renewes the minde” and moreover confers “with iudgement, whether that which it hath heard, seeme to deserue approbation” (9, 8). The preacher Robert Wilkinson likewise places “attention” squarely in the ears of his auditors, reminding them to “move theyr eares toward” him and “harken” (23). He separates out the attent ear from that which merely “apprehendeth outwarde sounde,” and seeks to unlock the ears of his parish by tuning them with “attention” (23). Using the proverb that a wise man’s eyes should stay in his head, Wilkinson chides those whose ears falter in their attention though a “wandring eie” that – again detached from the body – walks “up and downe in euery corner” (24). Attempting to concentrate the attention of his devout readers, Wilkinson stresses the necessity of both eye and ear acting in partnership to “quicken your sences” (25).

  13. But the vital importance of sensory attention runs deeper than either the apparent religious imperative or a fantasy of corporeal agency as psychical investment. Inattention was deemed a real and palpable threat. As much as attention was stressed as a means of acquiring knowledge, spiritual nourishment,14 and access to others’ interiors, ill-attent sense organs were believed to be dangerously permeable. The mounting concern about the permeability between interior and environment gave rise to narratives exhorting constant vigilance at these five essential gates. The discovery of the Eustachian tube fed fears about murder through the ear, a fact that Tanya Pollard traces in detail from Ambroise Paré’s accusation and Christopher Marlowe’s assassin Lightborn in literature, to Crooke and Wirtzung’s vigorous championing of the senses’ natural defences (wax, hair, and windings) against “little wormes,” “stones,” kernels and other blockages in their anatomies (128-29). The senses were envisaged as continually assailed by the roughness of the physical world, or even its constant “pressure” (Hobbes 9). While the ear was suspect for letting in literal poisons, or metonymic poisonous words, the eye was also known as the first ingress of disease and the easiest “entry of vice” (Brathwaite 3). Facing numerable challenges and manifest attempts at invasion and contagion, the eye and ear needed more than material boundaries for their protection. Armed with lashes and lids to “defend the soft eyes from the incursion of outward iniuries” (Crooke 547) and a bitter wax humor to serve as “lime” for small creatures in the ear cavity, the body enables one system of defence. All the more crucial, however, was the winnowing that took place in an attent sense through sifting, judicious appraisal.

  14. Stephen Egerton recognizes that to “heare then, is to attend with the eare, to receiue with the heart,” and “to conuert in the life” (A4). But just as the true words of God can reach these innermost parts, so too can the piercing dangers of Satan. Hence Egerton exhorts his reader to “bee the more vigilant” (5). While the “pollution and uncleanesse of our lives” (11) can cause the ear to become figuratively blocked, unable to hear as it should, too credent an ear is an equal menace.15 Listing five types of mishearers and ill-attent ears – the drowsy ear, the blocked ear, the sinister ear, the itching ear, and the adulterous ear – Egerton characterizes the essential features of each in order to diagnose and correct his readers, preparing them before, during, and after mass for greater attentiveness. Most importantly, the ear works best, in Egerton’s assessment, when it observes the same matter as the eye. He advises his audience that the strongest defence against the vice of distraction is to have “the helpe, not only of the Eare in hearing, but also their Eye,” to focus “both their attention and memorie” (38), for example, in reading the scriptures while hearing them preached aloud. In the battle of the body the eye and ear are shown to be the first lines of defence, and that defence is dependant upon the essential attribute of sensory attention.

    Hearers and Seer in Hamlet

  15. Hamlet opens in darkness with a question: “Who’s there?” (1.1.1).16 We are equally in the dark, unaware as to who approaches and what awaits us. The phenomenological perspective of the audience-subject and our current experience, like that of the original early modern audiences alongside the guards, is here shaped by sound. All is clarified through speech; in a rapid stichomythic exchange of questions, we soon learn where we stand. The subsequent question asks if Francisco has “had quiet guard” (1.1.8). The prominence of “quiet” literalizes the guards’ duty as hearers where they must strain their ears to “zealous attention,” just as Brathwaite described it (6). Positioned on the threshold, these liminal figures defending the kingdom are the embodied “ears” of Denmark. As hearers they must listen attentively for sounds of danger in the night and perceive them as the threat they are, or dismiss them as innocent, only “a mouse stirring” (1.1.8). Yet as seers they doubt the accuracy of their eyes, hoping that if the ghost is to appear again then Horatio might be there to confirm the truth so that “he may approve [their] eyes and speak to it” (1.1.28). When the ghost does reappear in the glimmering of night, they all see it before them but are still perplexed by the apparition. Logic causes them to doubt the “sensible and true avouch / Of [their] own eyes” (1.1.56-57). They cannot believe what they see. They want a more valid proof of its existence and hence continually demand that the ghost speak: “If thou hast any sound or use of voice, / Speak to me” (1.1.127-28). Horatio and the guards are attent: fixated on the image before them they endeavour to solve the riddling appearance with not only their eyes but their ears as well. Just as they are about to break through the ghost’s mystery and out of the confusion, another sound overpowers the moment: the crowing cock with “his lofty and shrill-sounding throat” (1.1.150). The call pierces the ghost’s ear as a “fearful summons” and makes him physically rigid; he “starts” at the noise and vanishes (1.1.148).17 Emerging from the confusion the ghost inspired, the guards reach a decision: they will seek out Prince Hamlet and divulge their vision to him. They hope that the ghost will converse with Hamlet and thereby they will hear and learn, with a keener organ of perception, the inner truth of the matter. It is clear even in the first scene that the more reasoning, incisive characters are those most connected to sound: the guards, Horatio, and Hamlet. Dissatisfied with visual spectacles alone – because they realize their eyes might mislead them – these characters strive to couple ocular impressions (sight) with verbal explanations (sound), effectively balancing the two in order to form one attentively complete composite.18 Polonius, too, often refers to sound and the importance of rightful hearing, but through him Shakespeare mocks the ill-attent ear that ironically attempts to sound out truth. Polonius is not credited with the same perspicacity of the other characters associated with ears. He instead foils them in order to suggest the vulnerability of acoustic inattention.

  16. In direct contrast to the sounded characters are Gertrude and Ophelia, who misread appearances as reality and so are aligned with the dangers of sight. Gertrude is the character most concerned with outward appearances and visual signs. Confronted with her son’s apparent grief, shown in his face, posture, and clothing, she urges him to change his attitude by shifting his eyes:
    Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,
    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).
    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?

  17. This question is at the heart of Hamlet and is part of what makes this play so enduring. There have been many critics drawn into the play’s evident concern with the discrepancy between appearances (“seeming”), and reality, (“is”).19 Where most choose to focus on deception, I place the emphasis on perception. How well one character can understand the interior of another, passing through the potentially false veneer of appearances to get to the heart of the matter, depends on which sense they rely upon and whether that sense perceives with attention. Shakespeare uses hearing and seeing to signify different levels of a character’s potential for interior understanding: hearing characters are more perceptive than seeing characters. Like Robert Schwartz, I see in Hamlet a “dialectic of two levels of knowing: one which takes facts at face value, assuming their generalized validity, and one which through experience comprehends their reality and reason for being” (5). Where Schwartz interprets these two possible modes of understanding through vision, I envisage the split occurring between how Shakespeare casts his characters towards either sight or sound. Through the ways characters interact with and spy upon each other, Shakespeare illustrates that attent seeing is never as powerful as attent hearing. Yet ultimately, the best perceivers are those that use both senses as one interpenetrative instrument of full attention.

  18. Gertrude’s failings of perception are attendant upon her reliance on sight alone. Whenever she remarks on Hamlet, she pronounces visual judgments: “But look where sadly the poor wretch comes reading” (2.2.165), or “He’s fat and scant of breath” (5.2.269). She deduces that it may be Ophelia’s “good beauties” that are “the happy cause / Of Hamlet’s wildness” (3.1.38-39), assuming that his plight must have a visual root. Gertrude is also described in terms of her eyes: a figure “[l]ike Niobe, all tears” (1.2.149), a woman with “galled eyes” (1.2.155), and most evidently when Hamlet assaults her “hoodman-blind” in her closet, repeatedly reproaching her: “have you eyes?” (3.4.75, 65). In the closet confrontation, Hamlet recognizes his mother as a visual character and so combines his verbal attack (speaking daggers to her) with a visual one (constructing portraits for her). Equating introspection with perspicacity through vision, Hamlet sets up a “glass” wherein his mother’s “inmost part” becomes dilated for speculation (3.4.18-19).20 Deaf to his accusations, Gertrude hears only a rude noise wagged against her, and thus to “wring” her heart “of penetrable stuff” Hamlet readjusts to a visual register (3.4. 34). Offering first the face of heaven for her to read and then the contrasted features of the two brothers in twin portraits (3.4.51-75), the images finally affect Gertrude, and her eyes are opened to what she has done:
    O Hamlet, speak no more.
    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)
    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).

  19. Ophelia, like Gertrude, is unable to perceive with attention initially and focuses on visual rather than aural cues. One telling instance of her reliance on appearances is where she recounts to her father a distressing encounter that again meshes surveillance with a secretive closet space:
    …as I was sewing in my closet
    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).
    She 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.

  20. Ophelia staggers through the middle of the play in confusion. Her eyes have misled her, her family as well. He who she thought loved her claims now, “I loved you not” (3.1.118). Unable to piece together the truth between what she has seen and what she hears from Hamlet, Ophelia begins to realize she has been “the more deceived” (3.1.119). At this moment of recognition, Ophelia unites visual observations on the fallen Hamlet with acoustic inflections as well, linking the woe of having “seen what I have seen, see what I see” with the “honey of his musicked vows” (3.1.160, 155). While Ophelia begins in a visual register, with Hamlet equated to sight metaphors – the “rose of the fair state” and “glass of fashion” (3.1.151-52) – she shifts into a completely sonorous register with the mention of reason hearing his words “Like sweet bells jangled out of time and harsh” (3.1.157). Despite the fact that she ends her lamentation with a return to her eyes, the momentary step towards sound resonates with an awakening. At first unable to distinguish audible words from an inchoate stream of sonority, like music where his vows are “sweet bells,” she gradually develops the ability to move from sound to speech in her quest for aural/oral meaning: her ears become attent.21

  21. In the remainder of the play, Ophelia actively appraises what is going on around her as she approaches a coupled form of perception between sight and sound. When she watches the dumb show, she attempts to gain aural information by asking: “What means this, my lord?” (3.2.129), and she is the first to notice that “[t]he King rises” (3.2.258). This is Ophelia’s last utterance in pure speech, or legible phonemes, rather than snatches of speech-in-song. Her sensory realizations as a hearing character have corporealized her trauma, and so she falls into madness and, interestingly, into song. Ophelia, in Egerton’s words, “apprehendeth outwarde sounde” (23) more readily than speech, and she channels inner meanings into these melodies as a result. Ophelia’s songs highlight her transition from a short-sighted, blissful ignorance to a sounded, insightful sorrow. The Gentleman describes Ophelia’s transformation to the Queen: “Her speech is nothing, / Yet the unshaped use of it doth move / The hearers to collection” (4.5.7-9). Filling up a space in the listener’s thoughts, Ophelia’s song is simultaneously “nothing sure, yet much” (4.5.13). In these songs Ophelia implies the sexual nature of her relationship with Hamlet (“before you tumbled me,” 4.5.62), her perceived guilt of Claudius (“Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be,” 4.5.43-44), and her own intense grief for her father, possibly foreshadowing suicide (“he is dead, / Go to thy deathbed,” 4.5.184-85). Ophelia has come full circle. As an initially visual character she is blind to interior truth, yet as her ears are opened to a shrewd form of mixed perception she enters into a distressed knowledge only expressible in music.

  22. Where Ophelia’s appeals to the ear move emotion, and are a call to pity if not perception, Claudius is an overlapping figure who appeals to an ear that hears with distortion. Unlike Gertrude and Ophelia, he is aware and attent, the deceiver rather than the deceived. However, despite his best efforts at being a listener, he is unable to discern with aural attention through his “mildewed ear” (3.4.62). Articulate and cunning, Claudius blends verbal appeals for logic with accompanying visual cues. He presents himself as a mourning emblem by constructing a mask: “With an auspicious and a dropping eye, / With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage” (1.2.11-12). This image captures the outward split in desire between grief and mirth, and simultaneously his inner twofaced nature. Claudius counsels Hamlet, with seeming parent-like concern, to abandon his “obstinate condolement” and “unmanly grief” (1.2.93-94), but beneath such words of comfort Claudius’s true motives seep through. This is particularly evident where he desires Hamlet to remain safely in view: “in the cheer and comfort of our eye” (1.2.116). Claudius perceives Hamlet as a threat. As a calculating player, the king recognizes that Hamlet may not be as mad as he seems and so tries his utmost to sound him out, but is continually frustrated by Hamlet’s evasive replies. In the aims of spying as attentive, simultaneous seeing and hearing, Claudius attempts to extend his physical sphere by engaging associable organs as spies. Hiring Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he hopes that Hamlet may let his guard down before them, if not before him. In this way King Claudius acts like Queen Elizabeth I to enlarge the range of his ears, using the pair as hearing-aids and sensory intelligencers to “draw him on to pleasures and to gather / So much as from occasion as you may glean” to “open” Hamlet’s affliction to “remedy” (2.2.15-16, 18). The verbs “draw,” “glean,” and “open” anatomize the spying process, and beyond this embody Claudius’s own desire to explore Hamlet’s inner workings.

  23. To Claudius’s disappointment, Hamlet refuses to admit the spies into his confidence, and they pronounce that he is simply not “forward to be sounded” (3.1.7). They aver that “with a crafty madness” Hamlet “keeps aloof / When we would bring him on to some confession / Of his true state” (3.1.8-10). Stymied in these attempts, the King adopts a new approach to sensory espionage. Upon the recommendation of Polonius, he sets a visual snare with Ophelia as bait, yearning to discover the truth by “seeing” all while “unseen” (3.1.32). The Elizabethan secret service likewise pledged to act as an “invisible power,” tracking the “visible” transgressions through the reach of its agents (Haynes 154). This plan too fails, yielding Claudius no insight. Uneasy with Hamlet, and unable to access his interior, Claudius admits: “I like him not, nor stands it safe with us / To let his madness range” (3.3.1-2). While he can perceive that something is not right, he cannot, by means of his eyes or ears, determine its true cause. His only choice is to rid himself of Hamlet. Where Claudius’s eyes make him suspicious of Hamlet, he is correct. Yet his pricked up ears are incapable of grasping Hamlet’s affliction, and he is ultimately defeated by his stepson because he cannot perceive with full attention. Claudius is the blocked ear. One of the five mishearers identified by Stephen Egerton, the “pollution and uncleanesse” (11) of Claudius’s life obstructs his ears as the avenue of both truth and grace. He admits in soliloquy that his own rank offence stops his prayers, and regardless of his intent, he cannot perceive things sharply: “Pray can I not, / Though inclination be as sharp as will” (3.3.38-39). Like a man suffering from an ear infection, he is unable to listen with accuracy due to his own diseased core.

  24. The defects of Claudius’s hearing appear all the more evident in comparison to the man he attempts to sound out: Hamlet. Indeed, Hamlet is the ultimate hearer within the play. As an observer, Hamlet uses both his ears and his eyes to their greatest advantage. He tempers his senses with scepticism, cautiously unstitching the tangled exteriors of the characters around him. He is – as his father pronounces him – an “apt” listener (1.5.31). Hamlet is able to convert the words he hears (aural) into a form of meaning within his own body (interior), becoming “in-formed” by his sensory intelligencers to somatise “the book and volume of [his] brain” (1.5.103). Punning on the etymology of the word “apt” in its original sense of apt-us, “fitted,” or ap-ere, meaning to “fasten or attach” (OED 2), Hamlet uses his senses as a physical means of “fastening” his father’s speech. Hamlet is thus a listener, in the early modern sense, in that he not only hears words but interiorizes them into his body. Aware not only of his corporeal body – referring to his “sallied flesh” (1.2.129) and “each petty artery … As hardy as the Nemean lion’s nerve” (1.4.82-83) – but also of the potential for the body’s exterior and interior to convey different things – “‘Seems’, madam - nay it is, I know not ‘seems’” (1.2.76) – Hamlet has the sensory acuity to apprehend and the judgment with which to moderate his initial perceptions. He is also directly charged with this duty of being a listener when the ghost demands to be avenged. Hamlet does listen to what his father has to say with ears of more than flesh and blood, as requested, and as a truly cautious hearer, he desires to verify these judgments for himself before he attacks. What is often called inaction is evidence of his attention. Hamlet’s delay in seeking revenge comes from his desire to attentively sense their interior to confirm or deny their guilt.

  25. Hence Hamlet sees not only the exterior features of those he scrutinizes but colours their visage with his aural understanding of their character. It is for this reason that Hamlet sees a similarity between Laertes and himself: “by the image of my cause I see / The portraiture of his” (5.2.77-78, Folio [Thompson and Taylor, Appendix 1]). Hamlet watches with scrutiny and forms visual appraisals that he couples with a deeper understanding gleaned from “hearing them out.” Hamlet therefore easily sees through the guises of friendship of Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. He cuts them to the quick: “Nay then, I have an eye of you” (2.2.256). When the pair falter as to whether or not to disclose that they were sent for, Hamlet tells them he has already read the truth in their expressions. His “eye” of them consists not only of what he sees in their faces, but of what he has already come to appreciate of their nature. Hamlet adopts a musical metaphor, famously relating himself to a pipe, warning Guildenstern that he has heard the false attempts in his friendship: “you would pluck out the heart of my mystery, you would sound me from my lowest note to my compass” and yet “cannot you make it speak” (3.2.357-60). As a shrewd perceiver, Hamlet sees the parts they play, hears the motives underlying their false speech, and recognizes the traps they lay for him. Through Hamlet then we may discover how a careful perceiver can gain insight by glimpsing partial-truths inside others, and how his attent senses are rewarded with a clearer understanding. Gertrude, Ophelia, and Claudius, on the other hand, provide examples of how characters can be deluded into harm as a result of either placing too much trust in one sense, especially vision, or just paying too little attention.

  26. The most concrete example of the danger posed by an ill-attent sense is the aural poisoning of King Hamlet. The ghost reveals how he has been betrayed by his brother; his ears had been deceived by Claudius’s “witchcraft of … wits” (1.5.43). The ghost laments that he was unable to see his brother for what he was. His eyes were blind to his “Lewdness,” observing instead only his disguise as “a shape of heaven” (1.5.54). Tricked into trust and primed to fall in his unsuspecting “secure hour” (1.5.61), the king realizes too late that his senses were unguarded by attention. He was especially susceptible because, asleep, his body was an open target for attack. The hapless ghost describes his misery:
    And in the porches of my ears [he] did pour
    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).
    The 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.

  27. Apart from poison, words are also shown to do the ear considerable damage. Hamlet cautions his friend to avoid untruths that do “violence” to his ear (1.2.170), the guards “assail” the ears of Horatio that are “so fortified against [their] story” (1.1.30-31), and the ghost warns that he has a tale “whose lightest word / Would harrow up thy soul” (1.5.15-16). Words alter the physical state of the body and can be as powerful, if not more powerful, an assault on the unguarded ear than physical contaminants themselves. One character that ironically alerts us to this danger is Polonius. Polonius, a foil for the hearer Hamlet, is Egerton’s “itching” or foolish ear. He eavesdrops and listens to all that he can but his reasoning is so muddled that he consistently misjudges each situation. Hamlet’s chastisement of Rosencrantz seems equally suited to Polonius here: “A knavish speech sleeps in a foolish ear” (4.2.21-22). When Polonius discovers that Ophelia is being courted by Hamlet, he scolds her that she has been far too liberal with her listening. She has not guarded her ears or screened what they admit, but has instead been a “green girl” whose innocence is “[u]nsifted in such perilous circumstance” (1.3.100-01). Where he recognizes the troubling vulnerability (and specific penetrability) of the open ear in his admonishment of Ophelia, he paradoxically comes to his demise in precisely this fashion since he is stabbed through the arras and physically pierced while he eavesdrops with his too “credent” ear (1.3.29).

  28. Through these examples of visual and acoustic vulnerability, we witness how characters suffer from sensorial inattention. It is the judicious hearers, Hamlet, Horatio, and the guards, who successfully gather intelligence despite the murderous final outcome. Structured into the plot, as evinced in the numerous references to sight and sound, is Shakespeare’s own exercise in perception: Be attent! Like the characters themselves, the auditors of his play are insistently called to attention through psychical extension and so are “bound to hear” him (1.5.6).

    From Performance to Perception

  29. It is within the very structure of the play that Shakespeare urges his audience to be bound to hear: that is, to participate in the same active, interior, and attent way. By re-evaluating spectator awareness and heightened sensory acuity in a series of cumulative spying scenes, and moments of watching others watching, or hearing others overhear in eavesdropping, Hamlet unquestionably thematizes the nature of spectatorship. As I have argued, Shakespeare combats inattention within the composition of Hamlet, patterning his narrative along a trajectory of hearers and seers as spies, and embedding a study of spectatorship that encourages close sensory attention. Where hearing is lauded over seeing in Hamlet as an interiorized mode of perception, it can be extrapolated that this play urges its audience to rely on their ears as well as their eyes to interpret performance. In keeping with the stage conventions of the time, Shakespeare privileges sound over sight in his use of verbal scenery, role-doubling, and patterned vocal delivery. In compelling the playgoers before him to be auditors rather than mere spectators,23 Shakespeare presents theatrical attention as both looking at and listening to what the play articulates. Above and beyond this, Shakespeare crafts scenes that intentionally create division to force the playgoer to look and listen where he directs them, to “amaze indeed / The very faculties of eyes and ears” (2.2.500-1, emphasis added).

  30. When Hamlet comments on the Hecuba speech, saying that with his cause the player king could “drown the stage in tears” and “cleave the general ear,” Shakespeare accentuates the seam between the text, the performer, and the character (2.2.497-98). Metatheatrically, Hamlet envisions the heart-wrenching effect his story would rouse in audiences were he, not Hecuba, the subject of the actor’s portrayal. Of course, Hamlet is the fictional character being played by the actor before us and it is his tale that the actor uses to “amaze” the audience’s senses. Worked into a passion, this actor has penetrated into the hearts of his viewers. Actors on the early modern stage demanded attention. Indeed, they had no alternative; as Peter Thomson declares, “timid acting had no chance in such a setting” (41). If the player did not have a commanding enough presence, he would fade into the background of countless other distractions.

  31. The earliest surviving records indicate that Hamlet was staged in the Globe theatre in 1600, with Richard Burbage in the title role. To consider the competing distractions in such a venue, we must move beyond the physical “boards,” as Leanore Lieblein emphasizes, to “the context” (119). The Globe theatre was the great wooden O, encircling actors and rafters, street vendors, nobles, groundlings, and more. In a sense, it was an open-topped jar containing up to 3,000 people of mixed society, status, sex, and age: a true, bustling sample of humanity.24 The audience was neither a riotous rabble nor a set of reverent observers but instead a “playgoing community” with a great deal of variation, and attention, focused in and on itself (Gurr 3).25 Shakespeare, both a playwright and an actor, was certainly aware of the competing attractions and distractions within the Globe theatre. No curtain, lights, or boundaries other than the raised stage were used to differentiate the player from the playgoer. In such a setting, filled with hawkers, book sellers, and orange-women circulating in the crowd, as well as gallants in ostentatious clothes, jewels, and feathers, attention can be seen as a truly precious commodity. In fact, with the apron stage jutting out into the orchestra, flanked by spectators on all sides, it is impossible to imagine the players without the attendees.26 Large props, like a hanging curtain or “bowre,” hid characters such as Polonius while he was overhearing an exchange. But as George Reynolds cautions, these props “are intended only to suggest the scene rather than to picture it completely” (97).27 What the playgoers would have seen before them was a relatively bare platform, excepting the actors. It was the task of Shakespeare’s words to help colour the stage, leading our eyes by our ears.

  32. Role-doubling forces a similarly heightened acoustic awareness. Where a spectator’s eye recognizes the same actor’s face in portraying more than one character, the words taken in through the ear must dominate to correct the misleading visual impression.. Casting the same man as Polonius and the Gravedigger, however, is not loaded with the same fulsome implications as the conjectured Cordelia / Fool doubling for the King Lear plot. Role-doubling is particularly interesting in terms of perception because the audience who has already seen an actor as one man is now suddenly expected to embrace the same actor as a new man with a relatively minor change in appearance, such as the addition or removal of a hat and cloak. Instead of believing one’s eyes and interpreting Polonius as having taken up a new career, the audience is able to allow that he is a new persona, relying upon their active listening to follow doubled characters.

  33. Shakespeare further appeals to the ears of his audience by employing the actor as a voice. Michael Hattaway asserts that in contrast to what the Puritan accounts would lead us to believe, the early modern audience was not an unruly, ignorant mob. The vast majority paid their admission “to hear fine poetry and enjoy the spectacle” (46). Shakespeare’s poetry when spoken aloud has a distinctly captivating power beyond the embodied heartbeat rhythm of iambic. The metrical arrangement and orchestrated consonance engenders a live voice, made material within the cadences, breath, and sonority of the lines themselves. Exerting a spellbinding physical effect, the lines become “alive kinetically” (Styan 151). Shakespeare’s ability to manipulate the actor’s voice and body through his text allows him to gather the ears of the audience to him. Certainly, the alternation between the pitch and timbre of the men’s voices and the boy-player’s voices would have created aural intrigue (Smith 229). In 1.3, for example, Laertes’s long, loud, and bass-clef directives are offset by the short, soft, and treble interjections of Ophelia’s voice: “Do you doubt that?” (1.3.4) combines the quietest consonant sound [th] with the strong vowel [o], two thudding soft [d]s and the rising tone of a question as vocal effects. Describing the Globe theatre itself as a “resonator,” Bruce R. Smith marshals detailed evidence on this playhouse’s construction to prove its shaping influence on theatrical sound (208). Built in a tubular form that mimics the human vocal tract, the Globe acts as a wooden instrument designed for reverberation, the transmission of standing waves, and the “harmonically rich amplification” of voices (Smith 209). For this reason, it seems only logical that the text of Hamlet can be read as much as a musical score crafted to guide and hold aural attention, as it can be seen as a map of performance space and movement meant to attract the eye.

  34. If Burbage performed Hamlet with considerable vocal talent like the “excellent actor” Sir Thomas Overbury imagined in 1616, then he would have enraptured his audience: “Sit in a full theater and you will thinke you see so many lines drawen from the circumference of so many eares, whiles the Actor is the Center” (qtd. in Smith 206). Unsurprisingly this phrasing posits sound as a circle. This O speaks to the physical reality of the playhouse, the shape of a sonic field, and what Smith names the “physics of speech-making” (239). Even more intriguing is Overbury’s representation of the connection between auditor and orator. The directionality of the lines, moving from the circumference of the ears to the central point of convergence on the actor, signifies aural attention as a communicable property. The listeners transmit their attention by sending out lines to the speaker, their ears travelling outwards as intelligencers, rather than the more intuitive projection of sound from the actor that we might imagine in the reverse. One of Thomas Dekker’s prologues similarly characterizes the movement of aural attention. The speaker here can call his “Auditor home, And tye / His Eare (with golden chaines) to his Melody” (Dekker 264). Once again, the auditor’s ear is pulled to the actor, and – recalling Hamlet’s abilities as an “apt” listener – the ear becomes physically fastened to the words in metaphoric golden chains. Shakespeare’s words would have been clearly audible in any seat of the Globe theatre as no auditor is more than fifty feet from the speaker. Where Shakespeare most evidently plays upon the actor as pipe is in the use of soliloquies and asides. The soliloquy demands vocal variety and forces complicity between player and playgoer. Hamlet’s staging depends on this cooperation where the auditor is necessarily an attent participant. When Claudius shares his remorseful thoughts, sighing, “My fault is past. But O, what form of prayer / Can serve my turn…?”, he lures the eavesdropper into his confidence (3.3.51-2). In order to receive this confession, the auditor must listen to the voice of the actor, and further, must discern with a judicious ear the truth or lie behind the words.

  35. Meditating once again on the nature of sensory attention and spectator awareness, Shakespeare writes scenes of visual division into his play to catch the eyes as well as ears. When many events are occurring simultaneously, Shakespeare obliges his viewers to watch the action onstage (rather than the distractions offstage). One such instance is the dumb show, The Murder of Gonzago. Here Shakespeare forcibly tugs his audience’s attention in separate directions. The play-within-the-play is at the first level of action. The Globe audience is invited to watch the same entertainment as the characters, to observe the gesturing of the player King and Queen and hear their separate verse style. Yet those spectators are equally, if not more, concerned with watching the real Claudius and Gertrude than their parodic doubles. The spectator, like Hamlet, hopes Claudius will blanch at the repetition of his heinous crime: that he will display some outward show of guilt. Further, at the second level of action, the onstage audience includes Hamlet and Horatio. The playgoer is also tempted to watch them to see if the self-elected judges of Claudius’s guilt are affected by his reactions or not. Hamlet’s intrusive bursts of dialogue direct the audience’s ears back to him:
    Hamlet: Begin,
                         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).
    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.

  36. The final duel scene is the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s call for attention. The audience has been delivered his message through the modeling of the characters. The spectators have had their attention increasingly funnelled towards this cumulative moment in the play. There is again overlapping action. Certainly, the spectators’ eyes are drawn to watch the sword fight. Onstage swordplay was a commonly employed and thoroughly enjoyed device of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century theatre. In a time when bear-baiting and cock-fighting were entertainments, the simulated violence of fencing matches were popularly energetic displays. In the face of the sensational duel, however, Shakespeare indirectly warns his audience to remain alert to all the action on the stage: “you, the judges, bear a wary eye” (5.2.256). While watching the literal fight between Hamlet and Laertes, the audience “anticipates the duel Hamlet [faces] with his real adversary, Claudius” (Thomson 134). The eye of the viewer might be trained upon Claudius, to monitor his apparent joy in the approach of Hamlet’s doom. There is also that poisoned cup that begs to be watched. The King has tainted one goblet for Hamlet, but there is still another that remains untouched. After Claudius calls, “Give me the cups” (5.2.251), the audience must carefully track which goblet is which and holds the threat in an onstage shell-game. When the Queen toasts Hamlet’s health, the audience’s anxious gaze shifts over to her: waiting for the effects of the mortal drug to kick in. That attentive tension is pulled away from her as the duel mounts to its climax: “Have at you now! [In scuffling they change rapiers]” (5.2.285). Three characters begin to die at once: the Queen, Laertes, and Hamlet. The Queen falls, Laertes confesses the conspiracy, and Hamlet stabs the King all within a breath’s pace. The action combines in a dizzying torrent of death and revenge. The viewers’ wits, eyes, and ears, must be attent to decipher what exactly is going on. In spite of all this, once Laertes dies the fervent pitch of the scene smoothes over.

  37. Hamlet becomes the universal focus of attention. He turns to his audience, and speaks to them directly:
    You that look pale and tremble at this chance,
    That are but mutes and audience to this act,
    Had I but time …
                          O, I could tell you— (5.2.318-21)
    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.

  38. Just as the eyes and ears must cooperate in order to properly commemorate Hamlet with diligent (and vigilant) attention, so too are the eyes and ears of the spectators invited to focus through this heightened mode of perceiving the entire play. Foregrounding spying and eavesdropping in every act, and demonstrating the dangers of ill-attention in the embodied characters as eyes and ears, Hamlet implicitly beckons its audience into closer surveillance. Hopefully, by surveying sixteenth and seventeenth-century sense theory and with further awareness through critical projects like Embodying Shakespeare, a modern audience can rediscover the “attent” dimension of their own theatrical sensory experience. Shakespeare charges us with the duty to listen, calling upon those “noblest” in “the audience” (5.2.371) to not only witness but perceive; to listen to the sounds of the play, see the sights in the lines, and recognize the true beauty of Hamlet with attention. For if we miss this call to be attent, indeed, “the rest is silence.”

  1. 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).

    4All 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 cultural construction.

    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.

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