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MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 63.2 (2002) 254-258
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The Acoustic World of Early Modern England:
Attending to the O-factor
The Story of O:
Prostitutes and Other Good-for-Nothings in the Renaissance
The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-factor. By Bruce R. Smith. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. xiv + 386 pp.
The Story of O: Prostitutes and Other Good-for-Nothings in the Renaissance. By Michele Sharon Jaffe. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. x + 196 pp.
These books both take O, 0, the circle, as their founding image and repeated point of return. Yet they do so for different purposes and to different effects, and in their difference they mark out two very distinct approaches to the cultural criticism of the Renaissance and early modern period.
Bruce R. Smith has written, quite simply, a wonderful book. In a richly and densely researched study he opens up a new perspective from which we [End Page 254] may reflect on the early modern world; in so doing, he not only invites us to a work of imagination in re-creating the soundscape of England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but also demands of us a revaluation of the assumptions that we habitually bring to bear on its culture and literature. His concerns are both philosophical and practical. On the one side, he quotes Helkiah Crooke's observation that "the Act of Seeing is sooner ended and passeth more lightly by the Sense then the Act of Hearing. Whence it followes necessarily that things seene do not sticke so fast vnto vs" (283) to suggest how radically different the priority given to sound over sight was from the commonplaces of our own time. On the other side, he observes that "two inventions—electricity and the internal combustion engine—make it difficult for us even to imagine what life in early modern England would have sounded like" (49).
At the simplest level, this book enables us to begin to hear that world. With beautifully chosen detail, culled from a wide variety of sources, Smith contrasts the soundscapes of the bells, vendors' cries, and industrial noise of the city with the acoustic horizons of the country; dramatizes the turbulence, "whoops and hollers," and "rough music" of popular carnival, setting it against the public and private environments of the court; and, deftly introducing acoustic science, differentiates the acoustic environment of the open-air stage of the Globe from the indoor arena of Blackfriars. The great strength of this book is precisely that it draws effortlessly on an enormous range of material, from Renaissance anatomies and the philosophical writings of Bacon, La Primaudaye, and others; through the literary productions of writers from Shakespeare and Jonson down to the anonymous writers of manuscript verse; to diaries, correspondence, legal records, musical settings, and more. Smith moves easily between these disparate sources: two pages, chosen almost at random, for example, move from Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida to Della Casa's book of etiquette, Galateo; proceed through Thomas Browne and Philip Stubbes; and conclude with the records of street dancing in Wells in 1607 (163-64). But these sources are never compelled or contorted to serve a thesis, nor are Smith's comments on them reductive. Whether discussing Caliban (335-39), Jonson's Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue (93-95), or Queen Elizabeth's speech at Cambridge in 1564 (251-52), Smith is consistently sharp, particular, and suggestive.
But the book does much more than evoke a lost world of sound, for Smith is interested in drawing out the implications of this sound world. The opening chapter discusses the properties of sound as "physical act," "sensory experience," "act of communication," and "political act," proposing that each of these attributes "comes equipped with its own terms of analysis . . . bears its own intellectual history and suffers its own limitations" (3). Each dimension is explored in itself and in its interaction with the...