- Voice in Motion: Staging Gender, Shaping Sound in Early Modern England
I was prepared not to like Voice in Motion. Yet another text on voice and gender? Given the history of feminist interest in women’s voices in the early modern period (from Elizabeth Harvey’s Ventriloquized Voices  to Christina Luckyj’s ‘A Moving Rhetoricke’ ), I imagined, as I began reading, that Gina Bloom would be hard-pressed to make a genuinely original contribution.
I was wrong. Voice in Motion is an achievement: the book is dense but accessible, filled with exciting new readings of a host of dramatic texts (from Coriolanus and Cymbeline to King John and Antonio and Mellida) threaded through equally compelling and original readings of a number of contextualizing materials—including anatomical texts on aurality, Protestant sermons on the function of the listener, tracts on acting and voice, and, to cap the book, the splendid and hilarious Laneham’s Letter, purportedly an eyewitness account of Queen Elizabeth I’s sojourn at Kenilworth Castle that Bloom uses deftly to position the queen as a model of aural feminist agency. Bloom is equally at home with contemporary performance theory, obscure historical sources, and the pragmatic discourses of the theatre, making her book a delightful as well as informative journey that will appeal to early modern scholars, scholars of acting and audience, and, of course, theorists of gender and the body.
Bloom addresses the feminist heritage circumscribing Voice in Motion by querying the traditional feminist focus on what she calls “voice as agency”: “Scholars and activists frequently figure the voice as analogous with agency,” she writes, “suggesting that the capacity to speak out, to ‘own’ one’s voice, secures personal and political power” (12). Despite the interventions of critics like Peggy Phelan who actively problematize the relationship between visibility and authority, we remain wedded to the notion that achieving voice produces some kind of subjectivity, however tentative. Bloom’s book works against this elision: instead, she posits an agential model in which both male and female subjects are made and unmade not by harnessing voice, but by their vulnerable exposure to its uncertainties. As speakers of “squeaky” voices (the boy actor, in chapter 1), as resistant auditors (chapter 3), and even as versions of the problematic Ovidian echo (chapter 4), these early modern subjects are, in Bloom’s hands, at turns fortressed and freed, not because they can speak with a trans-historically powerful tongue, but because their historical relationship both to their own voices and to the material voices of others positions them in complex ways to disseminate and to receive the discourses of early modern patriarchal power.
This argument is exciting though risky: Bloom is not so much building an early modern aural version of Unmarked as she is insisting—correctly, I believe—that sound is an absolutely historical phenomenon and thus its effects can only ever be theorized locally. In order for this argument to blossom requires reams of historical evidence, and Bloom supplies plenty. She organizes the book according to the early modern trajectory of material sound: her argument moves from the speaking body, through the air in which sound’s particulate matter was deemed to travel, and into the listener’s body, at once vulnerable to aural invasion and yet empowered—as Protestant preachers assured their flock—to make a “fortress” of the ear. This organization works well: it not only allows Bloom’s arguments to flow quite naturally from one chapter to the next, but also allows her to maintain a very clear scientific and social continuum along which to lay her sometimes very complex historical source material. In a book juggling theory, practice, drama, experimental scientific gadgetry (displayed to great effect on the book’s gorgeous cover), philosophy, and Latin poetry, among others, this kind of clear organization is a real asset.
Although the second and third chapters of the book offer smart new feminist readings of such [End Page 158] predictable figures as Innogen, Marina, Desdemona...