SUMMER READING SALE! Get 40% off all titles plus free shipping with discount code SUMMER21-FM at checkout
Penn Press logo
Voice in Motion

"Voice in Motion is a book of interdisciplinary reach, solid scholarship, and imaginative resonance."—Bruce Smith, University of Southern California

Voice in Motion
Staging Gender, Shaping Sound in Early Modern England

Gina Bloom

2007 | 288 pages | Cloth $65.00
View main book page

Table of Contents

Introduction: From Excitable Speech to Voice in Motion

1. Squeaky Voices: Marston, Mulcaster, and the Boy Actor
2. Words Made of Breath: Shakespeare, Bacon, and Particulate Matter
3. Fortress of the Ear: Shakespeare's Late Plays, Protestant Sermons, and Audience
4. Echoic Sound: Sandys's Englished Ovid and Feminist Criticism
Epilogue: Performing the Voice of Queen Elizabeth


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

From Excitable Speech to Voice in Motion

Is the agency of language the same as the agency of the subject? Is there a way to distinguish between the two?
—Judith Butler, Excitable Speech
Writing hundreds of years before poststructuralist theory, French author François Rabelais provides an answer to Judith Butler's queries concerning linguistic agency. In book 4 of Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel, Pantagruel and his fellow sea travelers are startled by disembodied voices they hear in the air. To assuage their fears—"not unnatural," since they could "see no one, yet could hear voices"—the ship's captain explains that the travelers are hearing the noises of a battle that took place the previous winter; the sea battlers' voices were literally frozen in time, transformed into ice blocks that are now beginning to thaw. Pantagruel throws handfuls of the unthawed words, "which looked like crystallized sweets of different colours," onto the deck, and the men, after warming the words with their hands in order to melt them, examine the materials. The narrator writes: "I saw some very sharp words among them; bloody words which . . . sometimes return to the place from which they come—but with their throats cut; some terrifying words, and others rather unpleasant to look at. When they had all melted together, we heard: Hin, hin, hin, hin, his, tick, tock, crack, brededin, brededac, frr, frrr, frrrr, bou, bou, ... trrrrrr, on, on, on, on, on, ououououon, Gog, Magog, and goodness knows what other barbarous sounds." Rabelais's retelling of Plutarch's story reflects on problems of communication by representing the voice as matter, vocal sound materialized into the form of ice. The capacity of the voice to convey the terror experienced by a speaking subject (the sea battlers of a previous winter) to a listening subject (Pantagruel and his companions) depends on the forces of time, distance, medium, and most particularly, climate. Rabelais implies that such mediations constitute at the same time as they compromise effective vocal transmission: it is only because the sea battlers' voices have assumed this frozen form that they can be carried to listeners distant from the site of the original utterance; yet the voices, however they were intended, emerge for listeners only as gibberish. Rabelais captures with fascination and horror the strange materiality of the voice: durable, substantial, and potent, yet at the same time transient, disembodied, and ephemeral. The voice's material form (ice that can melt) enables communication, but the instabilities of that form render the voice susceptible to a range of forces beyond speakers' control, undermining communicative agency.

As Judith H. Anderson has argued, Rabelais's story of frozen words, though written in France, encapsulates the materialist emphasis of linguistic theory in Tudor and Stuart England: for Rabelais and his English contemporaries, "human language has not simply intelligible substance but also material dimensions." In the early modern period words were imagined to be things, rather than just to refer to things. And as Rabelais's story demonstrates, the effectiveness of language could be explained through narratives about this material form. Like most scholars who attend to the materiality of language in the early modern period, however, Anderson focuses the bulk of her analysis on the physicality of writing and printing. Voice in Motion pushes such insights in a new direction by considering how early moderns conceived of the materiality of spoken articulations.

What does it mean to say that the voice is material? A range of early modern texts—including medical treatises, song books, pronunciation manuals, acoustic studies, religious sermons, and especially stage-plays—insist that the human voice possesses a number of attributes we might readily associate with material substances: specifically, the voice (1) has a temporal and spatial life; and (2) is constituted through a process of production, transmission, and reception. The medical and scientific writers I discuss in Chapter 2, for instance, describe voice as crafted air that gains momentum for movement from the speaker's lungs. Shaped into pronunciations by the tongue, teeth, and palate, shifted in tones by the gullet, windpipe, and vocal chords, vocal sound travels through the air to enter the air-filled chambers of the listener's ears. As we will see in Chapter 3, Protestant sermons describe the voices of God and the devil as seeds that have the potential to take root in listeners' hearts. And as in the sermons, in Shakespeare's late plays, listeners are represented as either tilled ground ready to be penetrated by voices or aural fortresses prepared to resist sounds. While early modern writers recognize the voice as ephemeral and often invisible, they represent vocal matter as taking on a variety of forms (breath, seed, and so on) that are alienable from the speaking subject. Whereas work by scholars like Anderson and Butler might prompt us to read such representations in terms of a history of language or theory of linguistic performativity, respectively, I examine what these representations mean for a history and theory of vocal performance. If the voice is produced by unstable bodies, transmitted through volatile air, and received by sometimes disobedient hearers, how can voice be trusted to convey an individual's thoughts to a listener? And in a cultural climate where speech marks political and social power, who stands to lose and who to gain when speech assumes this unsteady material form?

My approach to these questions differs from that of others who have examined the issue of vocal performance. Practitioners of speech-act theory and conversation analysis describe how speakers establish and uphold social relationships and signal social and political authority (or lack thereof) through certain styles of speech and linguistic codes. The command, for instance, announces and instantiates the power of a ruler, and the supplication, the deference of a servant. In a related vein, studies of early modern rhetoric examine the historical and cultural conditions of particular oratorical styles and methods. Wayne Rebhorn discusses, for example, how Renaissance orators persuade audiences by generating in themselves the passions they wish audiences to experience. Rather than approach vocal authority and persuasive power as a function of oratorical techniques or styles of speaking, I consider how authority and power are imagined to inhere (or fail to inhere) in the material attributes of the voice, what Leslie C. Dunn and Nancy A. Jones describe as the "non-verbal meanings" of the "concrete physical" voice. As Dunn and Jones note in their collection, Embodied Voices: Representing Female Vocality in Western Culture, the body—associated historically and devalued along with the feminine—has too frequently been ignored in analyses of voice. Roland Barthes's notion of the "grain of the voice" provides Dunn and Jones a way of theorizing "the very precise space (genre) of the encounter between a language and a voice," between verbal, culturally inscribed meaning and material, bodily inscribed meaning.

To examine this encounter between language and voice, we need not confine ourselves to song or even to "embodied" voice, however. The play-texts written by Shakespeare and contemporary dramatists inscribe on their pages the voices of actors-voices that exist at the nexus of the verbal and the concrete. Dramatists' figurations of voice complicate Barthes's definition of the concrete as "the body in the voice," for dramatists constantly remind their audiences that the body of the actor is only one of many physical sites that give shape and texture to the voice. The air through which the voice moves and the active work of audience members in the theater space, for instance, determine how language and voice intersect in plays. English authors, on and off the stage, echo Rabelais when they emphasize the detachment of the voice from the body, reminding us, for instance, that vocal communication depends in large part on the successful conveyance of breath beyond the speaker's body. Voice in Motion provides a material history of this detached voice, examining how early moderns represented the production, transmission, and reception of the voice. Early moderns insist that voice is not as much synonymous with, but rather a technology of, communication, one of many "language machines."

Recent scholarship on the early modern period has investigated a variety of technologies of communication, but most studies have focused on manuscript and print culture, what Bruce R. Smith calls "brain-to-eye-to-brain communication." There are sensible historical reasons for the tendency to privilege visual forms. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, England underwent major transformations due to increasing literacy rates and the spread of printing technologies. Changing methods for producing, distributing, and reading books dramatically shaped a range of cultural practices, from the pursuit of pleasure to the interpretation of the Bible. There are also sound theoretical reasons for scholars' emphasis on manuscript and print culture. Following Jacques Derrida, scholars point to early modern textual production as demonstrative of the instabilities of language, the différance between sign and signifier, and the tension between speech and subjectivity. Early modern technologies of writing, as Jonathan Goldberg and others have shown, disrupt problematic Western assumptions about transcendent presence. These historical and theoretical concerns are not limited to writing and textuality, however. As Smith argues in his landmark study The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-Factor, voice was not equated with self-presence for all early modern authors. In fact, authors emphasize a range of things that "make the voice strange," imbuing sound with the same deconstructive potential as writing. Noting the persistence of the face-to-face encounter in early modern life, Smith argues persuasively for the importance of attending to aural artifacts and "brain-to-tongue-to-air-to-ear-to-brain" interactions. My book responds to this call, targeting specifically the material conditions involved in the communication of voice in an effort to theorize the relation between voice and agency. I find that as early modern writers investigate the material dimensions of the voice—the way the voice performs in time and space—they betray concern that the motion of the voice cannot be choreographed. Skeptical of the process by which the voice is invested with agency, authors distinguish the agency of speech from the agency of the speaker, demonstrating the material means by which the former makes possible the latter.

Staging Gender, Shaping Sound

Through my emphasis on the materiality of voice, I aim to intervene in three key, and overlapping, areas of current scholarship on the early modern period, especially of its dramatic production: materialism, performance, and gender.

First, my emphasis on the ways voice is produced, transmitted, and received signals my alliance with the literary, theoretical, and historical investments of "materialist" scholarship, investments articulated elegantly in Jonathan Gil Harris and Natasha Korda's introduction to Staged Properties in Early Modern English Drama. Harris and Korda's collection draws attention to "histories of production, ownership, and exchange that constitute objects' trajectories through time and space," arguing that such attention is crucial because "literary criticism of early modern drama in general and of Shakespeare's plays in particular has belittled or ignored these histories . . . privileging the aesthetic over the economic, the textual over the theatrical, the ineffable over the material, the human over the mechanical, the subject over the object." While I share the aims of "materialist" scholarship, my focus on voice challenges some of the problematic assumptions emerging in work on material objects. In particular, I question the tendency of many scholars to limit "matter" to visible and tangible realms. Voice, I am arguing, has a history of production, ownership, and exchange, a history that has been overlooked for many of the same reasons cited by Harris and Korda. Whereas literary critics have tended to conceive of voice as language, equating it solely with aesthetic and textual concerns, early moderns considered the spoken and heard voice, on and off the stage, to be a substance with economic, theatrical, and mechanical dimensions. Early modern scientific writings and numerous stage-plays consistently describe vocal sound as "made" of breath, for example. While there are obvious differences between, for instance, stage props and human voices, there are also important similarities. Like props, voices often are imagined as unmanageable, beyond the control of those who ostensibly operate and "own" them. The use of pubescent boy actors on England's public stage helped promote such perspectives, as boys going through puberty appear to lack control over the vocal sound they produce.

Additionally, a material study of voice helps critique the positivist ethos of recent turns toward "the material." Voice provides an ideal test case for recent debates about the ideological and historical aims of what has been called the "new materialism" in early modern studies. As Douglas Bruster, Harris, Korda, and others maintain, the turn to the "material" has often been accompanied by a post-Marxist fascination with commodities, a "critical fetishism." Historical matter, as a consequence, often takes on the illusion of stability, as if the study of material objects will give modern scholars access to some realm of the real, some "graspable 'thing' that exists beyond, and untouched by, the textuality of history and ideology." Voice dispels such illusions. Invisible yet substantial, ephemeral yet transferable, voice destabilizes any easy assumptions about the category of matter. Moreover, what enables the material voice to become a site of agency and tool of resistance to oppressive cultural forces is not its stability or instrumentality, but its volatility. I argue that when early modern texts highlight the difficulties of producing, tracking, and controlling inherently unmanageable vocal matter, they (paradoxically) lay the groundwork for a model of vocal agency that benefits those whose expressive acts were curtailed or marginalized. In particular, I am interested in how early modern representations of the voice as unruly matter generate resistance to early modern hierarchies of gender-a point to which I will return.

My approach to voice addresses another problem for material culture studies and, more particularly, for work on what are often called the "material conditions" of the early modern theater—and this constitutes the second of my interventions, into performance. Our understanding of early modern drama has benefited immensely from a range of studies of the conditions in which plays were performed—from the professional theater's location in the liberties to the status of playwrights to the props present onstage. While the thoughtfulness of such work has done much to dissipate old-worn debates about the relative value of the page versus the stage, a binary of text versus performance continues to hold sway, especially where studies of Shakespearean language are concerned. In these studies speech often remains the province of "the text." Yet, in an institution like the theater that depended in large part upon voices to communicate the images, characters, and themes of play-scripts, language and materiality, text and performance, are not competing systems in collision, but rather interdependent variables inevitably in collusion. Part of my goal in this book is to examine the nature and implications of this collusion: how imagery of voice—such as air, seed, echo, and the like—arises out of as much as it informs the theatrical conditions of vocal performance.

Central to my method for exploring this collusion between text and performance event is integrating the study of plays with nondramatic texts. Plays performed in the theater were only one subset of early modern cultural performances featuring sound, and a range of nondramatic texts from the period reflect and inscribe events involving vocal production, transmission, and reception. These nondramatic texts, like plays, urge their readers to conjure live vocal performance as an analog, setting, or provocation for the making of meaning. For instance, the printed Protestant sermons on hearing that I discuss in Chapter 3 represent themselves as recording actual sermons that were once delivered to a live audience; indeed, the sermons almost always recall in their titles a particular date when and place where the sermon was spoken. The medical and scientific writings I discuss in Chapters 1 and 2 claim to capture former live investigations of their subject matter: Helkiah Crooke's anatomy book recalls explicitly prior acts of dissection as it describes in great detail the procedural methods for locating particular vocal organs; Bacon's writings on acoustics claim to report on auditory phenomena that the author or his colleagues have observed or demonstrated. Auditory phenomena serve a similar authorizing function in the commentary George Sandys offers on Ovid's "Echo and Narcissus" episode, which I discuss in Chapter 4. Sandys records how real auditory events—observed by him or others—explain the otherwise eerie phenomenon of the echoic voice in Ovid's poem. Finally, the treatises concerned with voice training that I discuss in Chapter 1 present themselves as applicable in practice: Richard Mulcaster's pedagogical writings prescribe particular exercises for his young students; music manuals, similarly, advise their readers to put into practice the methods outlined on the page. Whatever their relationship to "real" vocal or auditory events, these various nondramatic texts ask to be read in a performative dimension.

When these nondramatic texts are read alone and alongside the period's drama, they help present a more thorough understanding of early modern performance culture, of the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, and of our own theoretical perspectives on the problem of vocal agency. My analysis of these various discursive constructions of vocal performance attempts to enliven and complicate imagery that can easily be overlooked or oversimplified when we read the plays in isolation. Knowing, for example, that early modern Protestant preachers ally deafness with spiritual fortitude reveals much concerning the imagery of closed ears that reappears frequently in Shakespeare's late plays; in turn, this dramatic imagery of closed ears sheds light on the practice of hearing that was so crucial to early modern theatergoing. As "text" and "performance" collude, they reveal, in this case, that communicative agency can inhere in the position of listening, not just in speaking. As should be evident, I am not suggesting that these nondramatic texts are the cultural or ideological "context" for drama or even that early moderns would have imagined these various texts in dialogue with drama. The dialogue I initiate between sermons and the late plays or between pedagogical treatises and children's company plays is one that I, as critic—and as critic armed with training in particular theoretical approaches—initiate. One of my contentions in this book is that creating such dialogues is, in fact, a productive part of doing performance history. The point here is not to subject early modern texts to the critic's theoretical overlay, but rather to recognize the ways the texts themselves articulate theories of the relation between voice and agency. Listening to early modern views on questions that have preoccupied generations of modern critics does more than simply remind us to respect historical difference; because they are so self-conscious about vocal performance, these texts can also teach us a great deal about how voices (on and off the stage) are invested with power.

This brings me to the third of my critical interventions, into our understanding of the way gender difference and hierarchy are constructed in early modern drama and culture. When performed plays underscore the ephemerality of the voice, they put pressure on one of the foundational ways gender difference was established in early modern England. For early modern men, controlling voice—their own as well as those of subordinates (children, servants, and women)—often functioned as a signifier of manly identity. Whereas early modern women and children were discouraged and even barred from certain forms of vocal expression, men often were coached from an early age in the skill of oratory in an effort to prepare them to speak effectively. A similar dynamic is represented in many of the plays of the period. Loss of vocal control is often indexical of male characters' social and political disempowerment. For instance, when Piero, the articulate Duke of Venice in John Marston's Antonio and Mellida, discovers that his daughter has eloped with his enemy, he begins to stutter. In Shakespeare's King John, the political defeat of the Pope's persuasive legate Pandulph is signaled when Pandulph's voice is compared to a "weak wind" (5.2.87).

Shakespeare's Coriolanus dramatizes just how much is at stake for male identity in the loss of control over voice. Roman law insists that the senators' choice of consul be ratified by the "people," and thus in order for Coriolanus to be granted the consulship, he must be "given" the voices of Rome's male citizens. The voice is figured as something that can be transferred from one man to another. Concomitantly, it can be withheld from systems of transaction: though there is little reason for the citizens to "deny him" their voices, as one citizen points out, "We may, sir, if we will" (2.3.3). The citizens' voices are, ostensibly, theirs to give. Coriolanus codes vocal mastery as a masculine prerogative that, when exercised successfully, instantiates male power and superiority. Indeed, ownership and, concurrently, exercise of voice enable the citizens to perform publicly their political power and social standing. It is not surprising, then, that the citizens are resentful when they realize that Coriolanus has cheated them out of their voices. Rather than offering his deeds in exchange for their vocal support, Coriolanus presents the transaction as already completed:

Your voices! For your voices I have fought,
Watched for your voices, for your voices bear
Of wounds two dozen odd; battles thrice six
I have seen and heard of for your voices, have
Done many things, some less, some more. Your voices!
Indeed I would be consul. (2.3.116-21)
Coriolanus's rhetoric of entitlement surreptitiously accepts the voices of Rome's citizens without the citizen-speakers even acknowledging that a transaction has occurred. The citizens, as a result, feel duped. "They have chose a consul that will from them take / Their liberties, make them of no more voice / Than dogs" (2.3.203-5). Echoing an ancient Aristotelian idea that the possession of voice delineates human from animal, the citizens imply that not only their manhood but their very humanity is compromised by this loss of control over voice.

Mastery of the voice may have been a conceptual ideal in Coriolanus's Rome and in Shakespeare's England, but early moderns often represented this ideal as a practical impossibility. Insofar as vocal matter is alienable, mobile, and precarious, the male privilege to speak is accompanied frequently by anxiety. In Love's Labour's Lost, for instance, the powerful vows that establish male identity and community evaporate as quickly as they are spoken, threatening the ground upon which male identity is based. No sooner have Longaville and his fellow courtiers sworn (to the king and to one another) to devote themselves to years of study and celibacy than do the men fall in love with the first women they see, breaking not only their vows, but what are supposed to be powerful homosocial bonds. When Longaville announces that such vows are useless because words are "but breath, and breath a vapour is" (4.3.63), he intimates that what threatens male friendship and masculine honor in Love's Labour's Lost is not only men's encounters with women, but the recognition that the durability of vocalized promises is a material impossibility. Vows, even if articulated with the greatest of fervor by the most sincere of male speakers, are still composed of ephemeral vapor; and the male community constituted by these vows is revealed to rest on unsteady ground. Male identity is, in many ways, aleatory, contingent upon forms of vocal utterance that are inherently unstable.

Early modern plays repeatedly stage the efforts of male characters to reassert control over the fugitive, unpredictable voice, substantiating Michael C. Schoenfeldt's argument in Bodies and Selves in Early Modern England that a "regime of self-discipline" was in many ways productive of early modern subjectivity, "a necessary step towards any prospect of liberation." Focusing specifically on the disciplining of the body prescribed by humoral physiology, Schoenfeldt critiques earlier work on corporeality that claims the porous, "leaky" body to be solely a site of shame rather than empowerment. I similarly find that controlling the body's "flows," specifically, the flow of voice, was thought to be sometimes enabling of early modern subjectivity. However, as my approach to embodiment and materiality accounts for gender differences in a way that Schoenfeldt's does not, I reach different conclusions about the regulative power that his book proposes. For one thing, I follow Gary Spear and others who have described self-restraint as a defining trait of early modern masculinity. The value of restraint is not gender neutral. Where vocal control is concerned, a model of emancipatory disciplining is constructive particularly of male subjectivity. Indeed, early moderns assume men are more capable of and responsible for disciplining bodily flows. As Gail Kern Paster shows in The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England, medical authorities viewed women's bodies as inherently less manageable, the flow of blood and milk offering evidence of a fundamental lack of discipline. The disorderly flow of voice from women's bodies served as an analogous symptom of the female body's extraordinarily porous boundaries.

The consequences of this gender difference are complicated, however. Certainly, as Paster persuasively argues, views of women's natural lack of bodily control helped justify early modern gender hierarchies. Where voice is concerned, many conduct book writers argue that women need the strong guidance of husbands and fathers because they cannot control their own speech. Such prescriptive literature, in fact, instructs women in how to talk to others-husbands, servants, and so forth. Yet this ideological pressure to regulate the flow of voice exists in tension with understandings of the material voice's inherent unmanageability, consequently leaving early modern men in a particularly difficult position. For, unlike women, most men were expected to be capable of regulating voice, and, thus, were at greater risk of being perceived as weak and ineffectual when voice eluded their control. The inherently unmanageable nature of vocal matter becomes a greater problem for men than for women. I argue that early modern male subjects (on and off the stage) who try to assert mastery of the voice sometimes suffer a disadvantage in comparison to vocally marginalized subjects, like women and boys, from whom less vocal discipline is expected.

Moreover, I contend that female characters that embrace, instead of attempting to overcome, their unpredictable vocal flows are able to elude patriarchal regulation and exercise less obvious forms of vocal agency. Thus, Othello represents Desdemona as most persuasive about her innocence not when she forthrightly challenges Othello through impassioned speech, but when she lies sleeping, seemingly unconscious that her "balmy breath," the substance early moderns associated with the production of voice, "dost almost persuade" Othello not to murder her (5.2.16-17). In other words, the ideological asymmetries that establish early modern gender hierarchies—promoting the perspective that women are less capable than men of controlling the voice—also provide the conditions for undoing or challenging those hierarchies. For women, vocal agency may be constituted, not disrupted, by the voice's volatility. Indeed, early modern plays suggest that a woman's voice may be most effective not when it is owned and mastered by her, but when she relinquishes it to the environment beyond her body. Pursuing the implications of this idea to their limits, I argue that it is often as listeners, more than as speakers, that early modern women can most successfully disrupt and reshape their world.

A History and Theory of "Voice" as Agency

The model of vocal agency I have begun to describe differs significantly from models prevalent in the history of feminist thought. Scholars and activists frequently figure the voice as analogous with agency, suggesting that the capacity to speak out, to "own" one's voice, secures personal and political power. The value of women having "a voice of their own" has been central to a range of feminist movements and thinkers. A brief overview of key ideas in some of these movements is instructive. For so-called liberal feminists, who are interested in ensuring women's cultural, political and economic equality, the goal of feminist practice is to ensure that women "have a say" in how an organization or institution is run. One assumption behind the National Organization for Women's "Statement of Purpose" (1966) is that if women are present in a particular organization (especially if they hold a position of authority in that organization), they will "speak for" women and, as a consequence, improve the lives of women. Relatedly, a goal of many women's groups is to encourage women to "speak out." Many of those called "cultural feminists"—who argue that the problem is not the exclusion but the devaluation of female attributes in cultural production—use the trope of voice to call attention to ways that women participate in a society differently from men. As Carol Gilligan famously put it, women speak "in a different voice" from that of men, and only when that voice is valued on its own terms can women truly participate in and transform a culture. For some "cultural feminists," the specificity of the female voice is connected to the unique features of the female body, especially its maternal capacities. For certain French feminists, the term "voice" stands in for the trace of feminine corporeal difference—a difference that manifests itself in the ways women express themselves in speech and writing. Theorists who take issue with white, Western feminism's tendency to "speak for" minorities similarly appeal to the trope of voice to argue that women can inhabit particular subjectivities as a consequence of their racial or ethnic identity. As is evident in titles such as Feminist Readings of Native American Literature: Coming to Voice or Hear Our Voice: Women in the British Rabbinate, the term "voice" conveniently signifies scholars' interests in exploring the agency of groups traditionally ignored by academic, political, or cultural institutions. In sum, whether "voice" refers to the specificity of the female body, to feminine expression, or to women's subjectivity, it functions as a shorthand metaphor for women's access to personal and political power.

The overview I have provided is admittedly reductive and by no means inclusive of the nuances of feminist thought, but it helps to demonstrate the degree to which a range of feminist writings imply an undertheorized system of analogies between voice, body, subjectivity, and agency. Although this system of linkages often serves a strategic role, there are benefits to uncoupling these terms from one another, at the very least to understand better the circumstances that give rise to their equation. My efforts to untether these equivalences has been informed by, but also extends beyond, poststructuralist scholarship on performance and performativity. Theorists have tapped and crucially expanded upon two aspects of J. L. Austin's early work in speech-act theory. First, questioning Austin's insistence that "the utterer must be the performer," some theorists emphasize the instability of the performing agent. Through approaches as diverse as psychoanalysis, Marxism, Foucauldian analysis, deconstruction, and discourse analysis, theorists complicate Austin's vision of the speaker as equivalent to the agent. Second, Austin's appeal to the context of speech has burgeoned into a field of inquiries into what Andrew Parker and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick term the "thither side" of the speech-act, "the complex process . . . of uptake" by silent, implied, or actual auditors. By advancing critical focus beyond the body of a speaker, theorists demonstrate how accountability for speech is dispersed and shared by a number of sources. Rather than locating the power of an utterance in the body of the performer-speaker, theorists prompt analysis of factors that affect the transfer of speech from speaker to listener. Perhaps the most successful application of theories of linguistic performativity to concerns about agency is Butler's Excitable Speech, which demonstrates the ways a theory of the performative is embedded in recent political discourse on hate speech, thereby extending into an explicitly political realm Butler's arguments about the agency of language. Butler submits that if the meaning of an utterance depends not on its site of origination in a particular speaker, but on its circulation, then it is possible for a hurtful invective (for example, "queer") to gain affirmative meanings. A term meant to injure particular individuals or a group can undergo a reversal of meaning and, instead, mobilize the injured party socially and politically. Butler thus shows how untethering speech from subjectivity enables a more expansive conception of agency.

Butler's insights provide a fruitful theoretical ground for my approach to vocal agency, but they are limited in their applicability. For while Excitable Speech grapples more closely than much of Butler's earlier work with the material conditions of linguistic performativity, it does not explain how the practical performance of language constitutes its condition of generative instability. These shortcomings are most evident in Butler's attempts to account for the role of the body as a site for the performance of speech. Butler recognizes that the body of a speaker imbues an utterance with a different sort of "force" than is evident in writing, but her book does not theorize how the body generates this force. Moreover, although Butler notes that the success of an utterance can be undermined during its transmission between speakers and listeners, she does not consider the physical aspects of this transmission, only its social and linguistic features. In short, Butler's theory of the "performativity" of language does not account for the material practice of vocal performance in the way, for example, that Derrida accounts for the material practice of writing. My approach to early modern vocal communication essentially conjoins Butler's theory of the politics of expression with Derrida's emphasis on the materiality of the linguistic medium in order to ask: what sorts of "obstacles" does the physical voice encounter as it propagates meaning? And how can recognizing these obstacles prove productive for feminist approaches to agency? The answers to these questions are not the same in every historical period or in every culture. Thus, to construct a theory of vocal power that serves a feminist politics, we not only need to infuse Butler's abstract theory of linguistic performativity with a Derridian account of the material realities of vocal performance; we also need to historicize voice.

This kind of historicization of voice has significant benefits for feminist scholarship of early modern literature, especially drama, which has been invested particularly in understanding the relation between gender, agency, and vocal expression. Noting the frequency with which Shakespeare and his contemporaries dramatize the Pauline prescription for femininity—chastity, silence, and obedience—feminist critics have considered the extent to which a rhetoric of female silence structured and limited women's expressive lives (in fiction and in reality). Some critics outline methods by which early modern patriarchal systems tried to prohibit women from expressing themselves through the imposition of ideological and physical constraints on women's bodies and the use of legal and social pressures to discourage women from participating in public life. Other critics point to the many examples of women who circumvent restrictions on their voices and speak powerfully despite various cultural pressures to be silent. Although this work has broadened our understanding of early modern literature and culture, and the role of women in both, it is often limited by a narrow definition of the relation between voice and power. As Christina Luckyj observes, feminist critics have tended to accept as fact that in the early modern period "speech is a privileged site of authority" and "silence is site of gendered oppression." Luckyj and others problematize these assumptions by demonstrating the ways that silence can be a powerful rhetorical posture. Work on silence expands the parameters of what constitutes female agency in the period, but while it deconstructs one side of the speech/silence binary, it often leaves intact the other side, reinforcing a narrow understanding of speech. In declaring silence a kind of eloquent speech, scholars leave unanswered the question of how and whether speech itself becomes powerful.

My efforts to widen the signification of speech have been influenced by prior studies of voice by such scholars as Lynn Enterline, Jonathan Goldberg, Elizabeth Harvey, and Carla Mazzio, all of whom complicate the relationship between gender, voice, and agency by examining the ways early modern texts figure the alienation of the voice from the speaking subject. Yet for these scholars, tropes of voice ultimately are interesting because of what they reveal about early modern ideologies of language or textual production and transmission, not vocal performance. For example, Mazzio, noting the increasing textualization of early modern English culture, sees tropes of voice as signaling early modern anxieties about the relation between oral and written forms of articulation. Goldberg queries the authority of voice in an effort to demonstrate the ways a character's individuality and psychology are a function of textual inscription. For Enterline and Harvey, the trope of voice is a tool for poets anxious about the practice of their poetic craft. Voice in Motion argues that voice is not just a trope for poetic subjectivity or a vehicle for understanding writing and textual transmission; voice is also a specific material form, whose modes of production, transmission, and reception need to be historicized and theorized.

One of the few feminist critics who has considered vocal performance in such terms is Dympna Callaghan. In "The Castrator's Song: Female Impersonation on the Early Modern Stage," Callaghan argues for the crucial role of voice in producing a spectacle of gender difference on the stage. In the English professional theater, Callaghan points out, boys were not physically castrated like eunuchs on the Continent, which meant that boys' capacity to mimic the female voice in performance would have been compromised by the physical effects of puberty. For Callaghan, this performance condition ultimately underscores both the occlusion of women from the professional theater and the theater's troubling recuperation of dominant gender ideologies; the transvestite stage fails to operate as the liberatory, subversive space that many feminist critics have imagined it to be. Yet this conclusion about the stage's ideological conservatism is based on a limited definition of how the voice works in theatrical space. Callaghan contends that "[u]nlike beards, codpieces, and so on, voice is not available as a stage property. Embodied rather than prosthetic, the voice accords presence." My broader analysis of the conditions of voicing in the theater reveals that such assumptions do not hold true for many early modern authors, who often imagine the voice as eerily disembodied. A boy actor with a squeaking pubescent voice may not be able to don an aural pitch the way he dons a codpiece, but early modern plays consistently underscore that this is proof of, not proof against, the prosthetic nature of voice: voice is not embodied as much as it is temporarily attached, released, and exchanged by bodies. As a consequence of its mobility and spatial indeterminacy, the voice has the capacity for even greater flux than "the body" and can effect surprising forms of subversion to early modern gender ideologies. By exploring the potential for such subversion, I am by no means endorsing an uncritical celebration of Shakespeare and his contemporaries as protofeminist. Rather, I maintain that because of the volatility of live performance and the particular conventions of the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage, transgressive perspectives on vocal agency can emerge, regardless of whether playwrights consciously write such ideas into their scripts.

Voice in Motion

Voice in Motion underscores its arguments about the relation between gender, agency, and vocal performance by mirroring through its organization the trajectory of vocal matter. The chapters follow the motion of the physical voice from the speaker's body, through the air, and to the listener's body, examining at each stage the way in which the voice's material form can compromise the directness and efficacy of speech. I argue that the further from a speaker's body the voice is imagined to be located, the less the voice can be counted on to perform a speaker's will and the more voice undermines male investments in vocal control—producing instead unexpectedly robust models of female agency. It is the voice's distance from, rather than presence in, the body that constitutes the conditions of agency.

Chapter 1, "Squeaky Voices," examines texts in which the volatile voice is a function of the unmanageable body of its speaker. Analyzing a range of texts concerned with vocal training and performance, including most prominently a pedagogical treatise by Richard Mulcaster, I argue that early modern theories of humoral physiology influenced the period's views of vocal instability and its implications for gender identity. Focusing on the voice changes that accompany male puberty, I consider how humoral explanations for vocal instability shape the way masculinity is represented on stage, especially by boy actors. Through readings of a range of characters played by boy actors-including the male youths in Shakespeare's Coriolanus and Ben Jonson's Cynthia's Revels and especially, the courtiers and noblemen of John Marston's Antonio and Mellida—I show how the squeaky, pubescent voices of boy actors challenge the early modern masculine ideal of vocal control, destabilizing early modern systems of gender differentiation.

Chapter 2, "Words Made of Breath," pursues the voice as it is imagined to leave the speaker's body and enter the air in the form of breath. According to a range of early modern cultural discourses—philosophical, medical, and scientific—the breath that produces and transports vocal sound is an ambiguous indicator of expressive agency, for insofar as it is composed of mere ephemeral air, breath easily disintegrates, undermining the successful transmission of words. The chapter investigates how concerns about breath's fragile materiality triangulate with anxieties about gender and power differences in several of Shakespeare's plays: Richard III, Titus Andronicus, Othello, and especially King John. Male characters in these plays secure their power over others both by claiming they can control the motion of the breath used to speak and also by representing others, especially women, as incapable of managing their voices. Yet breath's ephemeral, unpredictable material nature—which necessarily reveals itself in performance—undermines such confidence in vocal authority. At the same time, female and other ostensibly disempowered characters that embrace the volatility of their voices become capable of unexpected vocal agency. Thus, tongueless Lavinia in Titus Andronicus communicates her trauma through blood that is imagined to be pushed out of her mouth by her "honeyed breath." Noting that vocally marginalized characters like Lavinia were played by boy actors, who faced their own very real vocal challenges in the theater, I argue that the plays' thematizations of vocal agency arise from and reflect on the conditions of theatrical performance.

Chapter 3, "Fortress of the Ear," examines what happens to vocal communication when the voice reaches its most unpredictable destination, the listener. I read Shakespeare's Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest in light of Protestant sermons on hearing. The plays, like the sermons, represent receptive ears as crucial for salvation, while at the same time suggesting open ears are a liability if they are not defended properly from evil. In these late plays, hearing functions as a site of gender differentiation: aural obstruction is disruptive for men, but constructive for women, whose chastity is contingent on aural closure. However, as the line between harmful and beneficial aural closure becomes blurred, efforts to shore up female chastity—and female difference—paradoxically imbue female characters that shut their ears with a method of resisting authority; as a consequence, women emerge as acoustic subjects. This argument sheds light, for example, on Tempest's Prospero and his concern about commanding the obedience of his aurally resistant daughter. The plays suggest, moreover, that resistance to sound constitutes the acoustic subjectivity not only of female characters like Miranda, but of theater audiences, whose potential for blocked ears helps establish their role as active participants in the creation of theater.

Chapter 4, "Echoic Sound," brings the book's argument full circle through an examination of early modern representations of the mythic, female figure Echo, whose seemingly unintentional repetition of the voices of others demonstrates how the auditory agency identified in Chapter 3 can become the vocal agency elucidated in Chapter 2. At the center of the chapter is a close reading of George Sandys's English translation of and commentary on Ovid's Latin poem, "Echo and Narcissus." In Ovid's poem the power of the echoic voice stems from its ambiguous relation to the body of Echo. The echoic voice in Ovid resists being traced back to a particular site of origin, eluding classification as either human "voice" or mere sound. I argue that as Sandys's project of Ovide moralisé redefines Ovid's Echo so that she conforms to this binary, the text provides insight not only into early modern anxieties about the eerie vocal agency Echo represents, but also into the representational strategies by which Sandys's early modern text addresses and alleviates such anxieties. Sandys's text, I suggest, has useful applications to our understanding of drama. For though Sandys's textual medium differs markedly from the live performance medium used by playwrights, Sandys shares with playwrights the challenge of working with the volatile, disembodied voice.

The differences between written text and live performance are the subject of the book's Epilogue, "Performing the Voice of Elizabeth." The Epilogue examines George Gascoigne's treatment of the Echo figure in his entertainments at Kenilworth Castle, which included a scene where Echo appears before—and is made to speak for—Queen Elizabeth, a figure known for her own powerfully unpredictable voice. I argue that Gascoigne's written "record" of the live event, like Sandys's commentary on Ovid, forecloses the power of the volatile female voice: Gascoigne overscripts the voices of Echo and Elizabeth, stripping them of their capacity to speak their own desires. Gascoigne's representation of the female voices at Kenilworth is contested, however, in a competing written "record" of the events, Laneham's Letter, which depicts the Kenilworth Echo scene as more unstable than Gascoigne's account admits. Giving Elizabeth a surprise, starring role in the Echo scene, the Letter demonstrates the ways her voice eludes the control of Kenilworth's male courtiers, and it mocks them for underestimating the unpredictable nature of performance. As such, the Letter demonstrates my book's argument about the ways women in particular can take advantage of the volatility of the voice in performance.

Penn Press | Site Use and Privacy Policy
Report Accessibility Issues and Get Help | University of Pennsylvania
Copyright © 2021 University of Pennsylvania Press | All rights reserved