Shakespeare Quarterly 54.4 (2004) 463-466
[Access article in PDF]
The Sound of Shakespeare. By Wes Folkerth. London and New York: Routledge, 2002. Pp. xii + 129. $80.00 cloth, $27.95 paper.
Near the beginning of The Sound of Shakespeare comes a delightful moment when Wes Folkerth invites the reader to lay the book aside, boot up the computer, go to one of several Web sites, and listen to Henry Irving deliver the opening lines of Richard III. Folkerth has just finished relating Irving's encounter with an Edison recording phonograph in 1888. The veteran actor was initially thrown off balance by being asked to speak into a machine. He was used to casting his voice toward other people, toward the listening ears of audiences. After a little coaching from Thomas Edison's London representative, Irving succeeded in making "Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer. . . " sound something like what it did in the theater—and gave to posterity the earliest surviving sound recording of a speech from Shakespeare. The story takes on paradigmatic significance in Folkerth's book. The subject here is not an archaeological recovery of sound, such as I attempted in The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-Factor (1999), or a study of the choreography of vocal production in theatrical performance, such as Gina Bloom undertakes in a forthcoming book, but the ethics of sound. Folkerth locates in sound the nexus between speaker and listener, actor and audience, individual agent and cultural construction. Those relationships are implicit in the modern notion of "soundscape" as a space within which groups of people—"acoustic communities" Barry Truax calls them in Acoustic Communication (1984)—experience the world through sound. For Folkerth, a soundscape [End Page 463] is an ethos, in the literal sense of the word, a disposition to act in certain ways that distinguishes a given community from others. Irving missed the listeners that, for him, were an essential part of the soundscape in which he was used to speaking Shakespeare's lines. Shakespeare and his contemporaries, Folkerth argues, were no less embedded in soundscapes that situated them in historically and culturally specific ways vis-à-vis each other. The theater constituted one such soundscape, one that allows us to examine the ethics of speaking and listening with particular acuity. What Folkerth attempts is a "'cultural poetics of listening'" (8). He is concerned not so much with the repertory of sounds in the theater as with "what these sounds would have meant, and how their meanings would have been received by the people who heard and understood them in specific contexts, with early modern ears" (9). Throughout this process of historical recovery, Folkerth never loses the enthusiasm for sound that prompted him to send the reader off to hear Irving's voice on the internet. Folkerth's affability and his fresh takes on scripts more often seen in the mind's eye than heard with imagination's ears make The Sound of Shakespeare a sustained pleasure.
"Shakespearience" is the name Folkerth gives in chapter 1 to the kind of knowledge Shakespeare's plays convey in the theater. Taking a cue from Alfred Schutz's notion of "polythetic meaning," Folkerth insists on the groundedness of "Shakespearience" in physical bodies, in time, in shared social space. It is Folkerth's attention to the sociability of sound that differentiates his work from the studies of interiority and historical phenomenology with which it has closest affinities. Where many scholars tend to imagine a solitary subject, Folkerth attends to people listening in groups. The sense of visual mastery that we have inherited from early modern culture contrasts with an aural openness to experience that we have by and large lost. Oral communication involves an opening up of the physical self by both speaker and listener. Speech thus provides a medium for "sounding out" the depths of subjectivity; it offers "a privileged mode of access to the deeply subjective thoughts, emotions, and intentions of others" (33). A finely detailed reading of The Rape of Lucrece proves the point. The opening chapter, which engages scripts by...