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‘Squeaking and Gibbering in Every Degree’: Extraordinary Voices in the Shakespearean Playhouse

Date: Tuesday 30 September, 2014
Time: 1-2pm
Venue: The Rex Cramphorn Studio, Department of Performance Studies


Early modern Londoners heard much more than the words written by Shakespeare and his fellow writers. Modern attempts to define playing styles in the amphitheaters have not been very successful, in part because terms like “realistic” are such moving targets.  But we know that in addition to delivering rolling lines of verse and chopping prose, early modern players practiced some forms of vocalization that are marked as extraordinary.  We can say something about the distances between “normal” vocalization and “extraordinary” forms that players made use of—voices, that is, that are presented as effects, discordant voices that promise to unbind as well as to bring together in communication.  These extraordinary voices are sometimes represented sometimes by onomatopoetic interjections, and sometimes referred to as different kinds: roaring, squeaking, howling, great voices and little ones.  In this talk I want to explore the use of such discordant voices on early stages.  “Great” and “little” voices may function as obverses of each other, or poles between which the human voice and more broadly human relations are imagined to stretch, from domineering and aggressive willfulness to weak, exploitable, subordinated passivity.  While I am cautious about trying to re-create these kinds of voices, there are cues modern scholars can follow to say something about what Roland Barthes called the “grains” of these two different non-normative voices.


Will West studies, teaches, and thinks about early modern drama, poetry, and prose. At Northwestern he has taught undergraduate courses on Shakespeare's theories of theater; the book of love; poetics and aesthetics from Aristotle to Kant; and the story collection from ancient India to modern England. He has published extensively and is the author of Theatres and Encyclopedias in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge UP, 2002; pbk. 2006) and, more recently, has produced articles or chapters on intertheatricality, how performance reflects on its histories of performance (Oxford Twenty-First Century Approaches to Early Modern Theatricality, 2013; Theatre Journal, 2013); and humanism and the resistance to theology (in The Return of Theory in Early Modern Studies, 2011). He has co-edited (with Helen Higbee) Robert Weimann's book Author's Pen and Actor's Voice: Writing and Playing in Shakespeare's Theatre (Cambridge UP, 2000) and (with Bryan Reynolds) a collection of essays honoring Weimann, Rematerializing Shakespeare: Authority and Representation on the Early Modern Stage (Palgrave, 2005). With Jeffrey Masten, West is the co-editor of the journal Renaissance Drama (University of Chicago Press). He is currently at work on a book called Understanding and Confusion in the Elizabethan Theaters.