Shakespeare and the Senses

This post was contributed  by Jessica Barrett, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Shakespeare and Contemporary Performance.

On Tuesday evening Birkbeck arts students attended a successful presentation on Shakespeare and the Senses with Mr Simon Smith, Dr Gillian Woods and Dr Derek Dunne as part of the 2013 Birkbeck Arts Week.

The evening began with Simon Smith’s talk on sound within and without of the theatre. Attendees listened to clips of music from the early modern era. One clip, called The City Cries by Richard Dering, gave examples of the street noises one might hear of people selling their wares at the markets in Elizabethan London. Also, Mr. Smith called attention to the measurement of sound by comparing the decibels of applause, a human shout and moderate surf, all noises that would have surrounded the Elizabethan playhouses. Lastly, Smith highlighted a 1596 petition to the Privy Council by 31 Blackfriars’ residents, which prevented Shakespeare’s theatre company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, from moving into the city because of fear of noise pollution. Smith’s lecture was an interesting exploration into the sounds of early Modern England, adding a three-dimensional quality to what life surrounding the playhouses might have been like, as well as reminding us that sound is one sense that can happen to you without you actively or purposely taking part.

Dr Woods followed with an insightful look at George Hakewill’s The Vanitie of the Eye, focusing on how sight was considered the most dangerous of all senses to many Elizabethans (especially anti-theatricalists). Sight was compared with types of sin alluding to how, like sin, theatre spectators can become trapped or fixated on what they are gazing upon. Woods exemplified her points by focusing on The Winter’s Tale and its plot of deception. Leontes thinks he sees his wife, Hermione flirting with his good friend Polixenes, which leads to Hermione’s arrest, and trial. Woods ended her talk by deconstructing the last scene, where Hermione’s statue comes to life, a moment of idolatrous wonder from her daughter, Perdita, and a transformation, which confuses audience members’ seeing it for the first time.

Dr Dunne closed the night’s talks with a discussion on sound deprivation in relation to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and the judicial system of Rome. The play’s many instances of deafness, dumbness, and blindness were seen as a loss of metaphor for a judicial system that does not listen. Dunne goes further in his analogy by examining how tears are a result of the blindness and dumbness and are instrumental in obscuring meaning creating ambivalence in the thoughts of the characters.

Those who attended the talks were keen to ask questions at the end and further explore the final scene in The Winter’s Tale as well as commenting on sensory overload in Shakespearean films which contrasted nicely with the presenters’ topics.


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