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Dumb reading: the noise of the mute in Jonson's Epicene.

O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious, periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part, are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise

--Shakespeare, Hamlet

A Mute is one that acteth speakingly

--Brome, The Antipodes

The connection between "inexplicable" dumb shows and noise that Hamlet makes in his speech to the players provides the impetus and conceptual framework for this investigation. What do dumb shows and noise have in common with one another, and why might they be regarded as"inexplicable" phenomena? Jonson's Epicene, or the Silent Woman is my principal case study, a curious choice, perhaps, given that the play does not contain a dumb show, and also given Jonson's famous resentment of theatrical production--his abhorrence of the figurative "noise" of theater. (1) However, Epicene is a famous play on the subject of noise--the protagonist of the play, Morose, is afflicted by it--and Jonson's treatment of noise is dramaturgically complex, if not contradictory. I will outline the contrariety of noise, figurative and actual, in Epicene and will analyze how noise is performed in various guises, positing a dialectical relationship between the expressive modes of the acoustic and the gestural in Elizabethan theater. I contend that Jonson's play is marked by the gestures of the dumb show via the character of Mute, whose antics have hitherto evaded critical attention. I will consider the gestures made by Mute in Epicene (indications of which are given in the text) vis-a-vis those performed by the tongueless, handless Lavinia in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, whose impassioned gestures make strange the act of gesturing on the stage and signal a potentially disruptive semiotic "noise." (2) The animating figure of this essay is the mute who acts as a noisy signifier--"dumb" but replete with meaning.

Dumb shows--pantomimed sequences set to music that intervene in the action of a play--remain a controversial and contentious aspect of early modern theater. We may know the constitutive elements of the dumb show, roughly, but we can only speculate as to their potential significance in performance. Dumb shows come to life on the stage; they are embodied gestures that imply a repertoire of actions and are but ghosts of themselves on the page. Rather than throwing our hands up at what we do not (and cannot) know, it is worthwhile, I suggest, to engage in some educated guesswork and to develop interpretive possibilities.

The dumb show is understood to symbolize the mood or theme of the main action by way of picturesque arrangements; it also prefigures aspects of the plot, marking the action to come in a few brief gestures. (3) Hamlet may disapprove of the dumb show, and Shakespeare may have thought it old-fashioned, but one cannot dismiss it as simple fodder for the groundlings. William Engel postulates that dumb shows "open up, and to some extent are, windows onto another space--one that materially and mimetically remains contained within, but which metaphysically and allegorically reaches beyond, the contours of the main spectacle." (4)I find this conception of the dumb show as a potential window-onto-alterity provocative, as it suggests the possibility that the dumb show may have subverted the main action of the play by performing gestures that can signify otherwise.

Gestures in dumb shows, or that derive from dumb shows (hereafter referred to as "dumb" gestures), may be semantically overdetermined, which would support the association between noise and dumb shows that Hamlet makes. In his speech to the players, Hamlet advises against gestural "looseness" and expressive abandon. The action is to be suited to the word, the word to the action; there is to be no "gap," no discrepancy, between the two. (5) In this model, a player is in control of his faculties, and the possibility of "interference" in his performance is reduced; neither his gesture nor his intent will be confused. The players at Elsinore, following the edicts of the rhetorical tradition of acting, would present Claudius with a mirror of his own actions, causing him to betray himself. (6) "Dumb" gestures, on the other hand, "other" the hand, and allow gestures to become polysemic, disruptive, and antic. Dumb shows may partake in the grotesquery of the clown, and ape his nonconformist and buffoonish modus operandi, his license to "buzz" about the stage (2.2: 376). (7) "Dumb" gestures may thus effect a "noise" of signs that renders the performed action "inexplicable," or at least markedly strange and confused. (8)

In early modern usage, "noise" refers to a disturbance caused by sounds; a "discordancy"; an aggregate of sounds in a particular environment; and may also mean "contention," "rumour," and "strife." (9) Noise could therefore be figurative as well as actual; it had conceptual and imaginative value as well as phenomenological import. Noise was perceived, imagined, felt, heard, and possibly--I propose--seen. This conception of noise is inter- or trans-sensorial, which is a valuable means of considering the operation of the sensorium and of interrogating the aesthetic media of the Renaissance. Jonson, following Plutarch, likened performance to a "speaking Picture," and the dumb show to a "mute Poesie." Similarly, Robert Armin, a comic actor with the Chamberlains Men, regarded performance as a "picture" with "life [put] into" it and thought that a printed play might be a "dumb show" of sorts. (10) Scholars of early modern theater would be advised to look with their ears and to hear with their eyes, so as to appreciate the overlapping, crossed, dimensions of plays, players, and playing--the noisy techne of writing and performance. (11)

Ironically, for a play that has noise as one of its central topoi, Epicene is not a terrifically noisy play. It is dense with verbiage, as is typical for Jonson, but it is not as raucous as one might expect. Indeed, there are more signs of noise, and discussions about noise, than actual noise. Epicene was performed by the Children of her Majesty's Revels at the Blackfriars Theatre in London, an indoor theater that was an acoustically "live" space. Bruce R. Smith, pioneer of scholarship on early modern theater sound, estimates that individual auditors in the Blackfriars enjoyed a listening space exceeding modern standards. Unlike the Globe Theatre, which produced a "broad" sound in the center of the space, the Blackfriars Theatre dispersed sound waves throughout the room, thus creating a "round" sound. (12) Sound in the Blackfriars was relatively contained, unlike the open-air Globe, and was protected against the acoustic environment. In this respect, the Blackfriars was perfectly suited to host Jonson's play, which takes place in the interior chambers of the recluse, Morose, as both its presentational space and representational space were insulated against noise. (13) Morose lives in London, which is perverse given his pathological aversion to noise, but he strives to eliminate the sounds of the city from his hearing. (14) His house is in an alley that is too narrow for coaches. He has triply insulated his room against the sound of the church bells, and has made arrangements with the local tradespeople not to interfere with him; trumpets frighten him out of his senses. Morose can only abide the sound of his own voice. When he must converse with others, he uses a "speaking-trunk"--a pipe in the wall that is connected to different parts of the house. He is referred to as a "prodigy" in the play, presumably in reference to his sonic sensitivities, and he is certainly made into a figure of fun. Morose's obsession with noise may be exaggerated, but this does not dismiss the underlying anxiety about the urban soundscape that Jonson (via Morose) articulates. As Bruce Smith observes, the acoustic environment of seventeenth-century London was dynamic and full of activity, constituted by a host of mutually competing acoustic communities. (15) Morose has some cause for his concerns. He catalogs the loudest places in London, at which he claims he would do penance in order to rid himself of Epicene, his shrew-like wife:
 [I]n a belfry, at Westminster Hall, i' the Cockpit, at the fall of
 a stag, the Tower Wharf (what place else is there?) London Bridge,
 Paris Garden, Billingsgate when the noises are at their height and
 loudest. Nay, I would sit out a play that were nothing but fights
 at sea, drum, trumpet and target! (4.4.13-8) (16)

He is equally intolerant of the noises at court. Morose is an hysteric, a self-made martyr to noise, but the soundscape he describes was real, and a lived, negotiated experience for Jonson and the Blackfriars audiences. (17) Morose is likely a mouthpiece for Jonson, who was at best a detached participant in the metropolitan scene, wary of the psychological consequences of urbanity. (18) Noise in Epicene is no laughing matter, even though it is made into a laughing matter; noise is deferred, but it cannot be entirely displaced.

Epicene may not be the noisy play of Morose's fearful imagining, but it is not devoid of the occasional acoustic shock, and these shocks gain their potency from the otherwise restrained (and contained) sound world of the play and the Blackfriars performance. One cannot discount, for instance, the effect of a cast of prepubescent, pubescent, and possibly postpubescent boys railing and declaiming on the stage. This is the "eyrie of children" that Rosencrantz describes to Hamlet, "little eyases, that cry out on the top of question and are most tyrannically clapped for it" (2.2.326-27). Smith imagines the boy actors producing a "piping, squawking, chattering effect" their treble voices penetrating the acoustic field of the Blackfriars with absolute clarity. (19) This is not peculiar to Epicene, of course, although Jonson does achieve a good effect when the boy playing Epicene sheds his demure persona of coy whispers and turns into the scold that mercilessly berates Morose. "Oh immodesty!" cries Morose, "A manifest woman!" (3.4.40). Epicene, the Collegiate Ladies, and the London wits consequently drive Morose to despair, with what Truewit describes as "the spitting, the coughing, the laughter, the neezing, the farting, dancing, noise of the music, and her [Epicene's] masculine and loud commanding" which forces Morose up to the crossbeams of his house, a "whole nest of nightcaps" on his head and buckled over his ears (4.1.8-10, 21). Morose bemoans his fate, and cannot understand why he is tormented so. "Oh, what is my sin, what is my sin?" (2.2.89). If one were to proffer a metatheatrical answer, it might be that Morose's antics are a profound rejection of a vital operation of theater: sound. Morose would like a world--and by extension, a stage--peopled by mutes, along the lines of a dumb show, but without the musical accompaniment.

Although Morose is not left to live in peace inside his shut and caulked windows, his torment is, as I have suggested, represented and talked about more than it is actually demonstrated. There are two instances when Jonson bucks this trend, however, and allows for notable acoustic shocks. In 2.2, Truewit launches a sonic assault against Morose--and the audience--by playing a post-horn, an outdoors instrument, which, as Richard Dutton observes, must have seemed ear-shattering within the confined space of the Blackfriars. (20) The greatest acoustic shock, however, is reserved for the charivari, or skimmington, that accompanies Morose's wedding breakfast. Jonson calls for "music of all kinds," and the musicians oblige, to Morose's utter distress: "Oh, a plot, a plot, a plot, a plot upon me! This day I shall be their anvil to work on, they will grate me asunder. 'Tis worse than the noise of a saw" (3.7.3-5). The music for this stage charivari has not survived, if indeed it ever existed, but one can well imagine its discordant effect. As an example of "rough music" (as opposed to the dainty song "Still to be Neat" sung by Clerimont's boy in 1.1), the charivari is "a conscious disordering of the soundscape, a substitution of noise for concord." (21) The charivari presents a powerful example of noise felt, heard, and perceived; I now wish to posit a type of noise that is perhaps seen or intuited: a noise of gestures, a noise of signs.


Morose, irritated by the need to have dialogue with his servants (even with the aid of his speaking trunk), latches onto the idea that his servant-delightfully named "Mute"--should answer him by a rudimentary sign language rather than by speaking to him. (22)
 Is it not possible that thou shouldst answer me by signs, and I
 apprehend thee, fellow? Speak not, though I question you. You have
 taken the ring off from the street door, as I bade you? Answer me
 not by speech but by silence, unless it be otherwise.--Very good.

 (At the breaches, still the fellow makes legs or signs.) And you
 have fastened on a thick quilt or flock-bed on the outside of the
 door, that if they knock with their daggers or with their
 brickbats, they can make no noise? But with your leg, your answer,
 unless it be otherwise.--Very good. (2.1.5-15)

The "breaches" mentioned in the stage directions are the dashes in the text, which are quite deliberate in Jonson's folio, and are separated by parentheses. It is during the "breaches" that Mute responds in some fashion to Morose's inquiries. As a contemporary reader, it is easy to overlook the gestural exchanges that Morose's servants have with him; I wish to suggest that these gestures may have had added meaning in the early stagings of this play.

The phrase "to make legs" means to bow, by drawing back one leg and bending the other, but the stage directions state that Mute may also "make [...] signs," and these signs may or may not support the conventional bowing gesture. (23) The phrase recurs at the end of the play, when Truewit scornfully tells the London wits to "travail to make legs and faces" which suggests that the action of bowing may be accompanied by other gestures or expressions (5.4.236). Mute is encouraged to make further signs, this time using other body parts. Morose addresses him:
 And you have been with Cutbeard, the barber, to have him come to
 me?--Good. And he will come presently? Answer me not but with your
 leg, unless it be otherwise; if it be otherwise, shake your head or

 [...] How long will it be ere Cutbeard come? Stay, if an hour, hold
 up your whole hand; if half an hour, two fingers; if a quarter,

 (Mute holds up a finger bent) Good; half a quarter? 'Tis well.

I propose that it might be instructive to read Mute's signs as "dumb" gestures that borrow from the stylistics of the dumb show. Clearly, the routine between Morose and Mute is meant to be comic. Morose is the puppet master, dangling Mute on a string, but Mute does not relinquish his agency entirely. Mute's ingenuity in raising half a finger to cover an option that Morose did not anticipate marks a minor--though not insignificant-point of resistance. (24) Morose does not register this; he is taken by the efficacy of the sign language and likens it to practices in the Turkish court. "The Turk in this divine discipline is admirable, exceeding all the potentates of the earth; still waited on by mutes, and all his commands so executed, yea, even in the war (as I have heard) and in his marches, most of his charges and directions given by signs and with silence: an exquisite art! [...] I will practice it hereafter" (2.1.30-38). (25) Morose also instructs Cutbeard, his barber, to "make a leg" at him, and suggests to Epicene that she should respond to him with "silent gestures" (2.5.43).

In what ways and to what ends might the gestures of Morose's servants and wife be likened to the gestures of a dumb show? I wish to suggest that Jonson's audience may well have interpreted the comic routine between Morose and Mute (whose name, lest we forget, is a technical term for an actor who performs in a pantomime or dumb show) as they would the actions of a dumb show, and that the seemingly innocuous gestures of Mute and Cutbeard are intertheatrical, and reference (among other things) the antics of the clown. (26)

Our knowledge of the performance styles of the children's companies supports the contention that the gestures of the actors may well have been interpreted in intertheatrical terms. As with the adult companies, the boys' companies did not use a single acting style but mixed and matched different approaches. Michael Shapiro identifies three basic styles of acting used by child actors: natural, declamatory, and parodic. The "natural" style of acting was essentially an imitation of adult mannerisms by children, so its "natural" qualities were always already highly theatrical; the declamatory style borrowed from the combination of gesture and elocution outlined in oratory and rhetoric; the parodic style of acting chiefly satirized the theatrical behavior and dramatic techniques used by adult actors. (27) Shapiro's three-tier analysis provides a useful shorthand with which to conceptualize the different playing styles that Elizabethan child actors may have used, although this knowledge is, of course, partial. It does stand to reason, however, that Elizabethan child actors must have been fairly--if not very--sophisticated performers if they were to carry off the difficult plays that were written for them, and for which they achieved considerable commercial success.

The idea persists that child actors were more likely to draw attention to the mechanisms of acting than their adult counterparts would. Andrew Gurr suggests that child actors were better trained in the declamatory arts of rhetoric (specifically, pronunciation and gesture) than adult actors, and that child actors might have used this to their advantage, "[bolstering] their performances by using the academically approved conceptions of what was natural, and [criticizing] by their means the acting of the adults which exceeded their capacities." (28) Gurr also highlights the important contemporaneous distinction between the term acting, which was used to describe the "action" of the orator, his art of gesture, and the "playing" of the common stages, which was not identified by careful speech and studied gesture, as oratory was. (29) Players became "actors" in the early seventeenth century as the conventionalized gestures of oratory fell out of fashion, and the business of "personation" was favored, which presented the idea that a character might have "interiority" The implication this holds for the gestural language of Epicene is that the signs performed by Mute and Cutbeard may escape the attempts of Morose (and possibly also of Jonson) to frame--and thereby to contain--them. The signs are double if not triple coded, at once establishing the rules of decorum and simultaneously parodying or subverting them. In this conception, Mute's gestures toy with referentiality and enjoy the polysemic quality of gestures performed in dumb shows. This allows the spectator to read (through) their difference and to appreciate their semantic "noise" which is both performative and visual.

My objective in investigating the "noise" of signs in Jonson's play is not to invent a problem to be solved, necessarily, or to overdetermine "simple," comedic gestures. There are grounds for speculating that gestures performed by mute actors have special meaning in performance, given contemporaneous discourse about gestural communication, the legacy (or specter) of the dumb show, characters who appropriate "dumb" gestures, and the legion of mute actors who silently populate early modern plays as attendants, servants, guards, and so on. We may do well not to forget the presence of these silent actors on the stage or to underestimate the potential effects of their actions. In his study of bit parts in Shakespeare's theater, M. M. Mahood writes:
 It is highly unlikely that Shakespeare's fellows tolerated less
 than total participation on the part of the minimal actors and
 mutes who filled a scene at the Globe or Blackfriars, for, as Louis
 Jouvet has said, the inattention of a single super has an effect
 similar to that of a change in a magnetic field; it can weaken or
 nullify a whole scene. [...] Nothing in the theatrical documents
 implies that minimal roles in Shakespeare's plays were acted
 otherwise than with conviction and intelligence. (30)

This is speculation, of course, and it may well be that some theater mutes could have been little more than uncommitted "extras" who serve to remind the audience of the skill of the principal players. Mute in Epicene is different, though, because he is a featured player. He is a first-class mute, so to speak, one of the mut-ocracy, and enjoys a status superior to that of the dumb show player, to whom he is arguably related. Jonson gives rein to the theatrical nature of the mute, and this is significant, as I will argue later.


Mute's most famous distant cousin is Lavinia in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, another boy player, who is relegated to the status of mute in the course of the play. I do not contend that Jonson intended Mute to reference Lavinia, or even that Jonson's audience made this connection explicitly, but that Mute and Lavinia are representative of stage figures whose performative power draws in part from the tradition of the dumb show, and from contemporary debates about the communicative potential of the deaf and dumb.

Shakespeare's Lavinia is perhaps the exemplar of the stage mute as a noisy signifier. Lavinia enters in 2.4,"her hands cut off and her tongue cut out, and ravished," having been raped and mutilated by Chiron and Demetrius. She has been turned into a grotesque mute who does not even have hands with which to gesture, and yet she continues to gesticulate (with her stumps, presumably). The signs that she makes are largely indeterminate, although this does not prevent other (male) characters from (mis)reading her. Titus, horrified upon seeing his butchered daughter, asks "shall we cut away our hands like thine? / Or shall we bite out our tongues, and in dumb shows / Pass the remainder of our hateful days?"(3.1.130-32). Titus has no need to join Lavinia in her "dumb" antics, however, as he is somehow able to interpret her signs, which, presumably, Lavinia continues to make, although they are not marked in the text."Mark, Marcus, mark" Titus exclaims. "I understand her signs. / Had she a tongue to speak, now would she say / That to her brother which I said to thee" Titus later clarifies these seemingly clairvoyant powers:
 I can interpret all her martyred signs.
 She says she drinks no other drink but tears,
 Brewed with her sorrow, mashed upon her cheeks.
 Speechless complainer, I will learn thy thought.
 In thy dumb action will I be as perfect
 As begging hermits in their holy prayers.
 Thou shalt not sigh, nor hold thy stumps to heaven,
 Nor wink, nor nod, nor kneel, nor make a sign,
 But I of these will wrest an alphabet,
 And by still practice learn to know thy meaning.

The operative verb here is wrest, which implies change and alteration, analogous to a reduction of semantic "noise" to recognizable "signal." (31) As Christina Luckyj observes, Titus's solipsism should make an audience wary of his claim to "understand" Lavinia's signs. (32) Shakespeare presents no evidence that Lavinia requests--or appreciates--Titus's "mercy" killing of her in the final scene; it is the logical conclusion of his misreading of her, however, and bookends his earlier infanticide of Mutius. (33)

Lavinia performs "dumb" gestures in a manner similar to that of Jonson's Mute, I suggest, and the "noise" of Lavinia's signs is significant, which perhaps accounts for the attempts by Marcus, Titus, and others to eliminate it. Shakespeare's audience may still have attended to Lavinia's dumb "noise" however. Christina Luckyj, writing about silence in early modern theater, identifies the unstable paradoxes generated by Lavinia's peculiar stage presence: "Given such a range of referents for Lavinia's silence, as well as the unspeakable horror she figures, the audience (unlike the play's male characters) cannot 'read' her simply, reduce her to a single signified. Lavinia's 'open' silences multiply as the play proceeds." Lavinia, Luckyj notes, offers a "radical decentring" of the stage action that the play's male characters are quick to correct. (34) 1 would add that the figure of Lavinia may borrow from the semantic "noise" of the dumb show; she makes the condition of muteness visible, unpredictable, and potentially subversive.

Lavinia and Mute, stage mutes whose muteness is made a topic of discussion, may also have acquired extratheatrical significance in performance from associations made with the actual (so-called) "deaf and dumb" and discourse about gestural communication. James R. Knowlson traces the idea of gesture as a "universal language" in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as evidenced in John Bulwer's Chirologia: or the Natural Language of the Hand and Chironomia: or the Art of Manual Rhetoric (both 1644), and shows how this idea was informed by studies of the deaf and dumb. Bulwer believed that gestural signs were infinitely superior to spoken language as they were "natural" and therefore did not need to be learned or translated. After attempting to adapt the manual signs of the orator for use among the deaf, Bulwer later concluded that such an adaptation was unnecessary, as the deaf already possessed their own perfectly adequate system of signs. (35) Bulwer writes:
 [T]hough you [the deaf] cannot express your mindes in those verball
 contrivances of man's invention; yet you do not want speech, who
 have your whole Body; for a Tongue, having a language more naturall
 and significant which is common to you with us, to wit gesture, the
 generall and universal language of Humane nature, which when we
 would have our speech to have life and efficacy we joyne in
 commission with our words, and when we should speak with more store
 and gravity, we renounce words and use Nods and other Natural signs
 alone. (36)

This was something of a turnabout in how the deaf and dumb were regarded; hitherto, the deaf and dumb were deemed closer to brutes in intelligence than they were to "speaking" people. Knowlson writes that it was in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries that deaf-mutes were first taught to associate the conventions of written language or the action of the speech organs with objects and ideas, although there was still confusion as to whether the signs that deaf-mutes made were "natural" or "learned," and if it was a language per se, or was merely restricted to a few limited, concrete ideas. (37) It is possible that the "theatrical" stage mute might make audiences recall the figure of the real-life dumb-mute or deaf person, whose mode of gestural communication was a subject of debate and fascination at this time. (38)


I have advanced the thesis that the gestures performed by Mute in Epicene (a "noise of signs") may have had inter- as well as extratheatrical resonance for the playgoers of the Blackfriars Theatre, yet I have not yet engaged Jonson as playwright in this operation. Jonson's dislike of the material conditions of the theater and his distrust of the theatrical process may be built into the interchange between Morose and Mute. Jonson harbored what Julie Stone Peters calls "anti-spectacular prejudice" and wished to distance his art (Art, rather) from the "vulgar" theatricality of stage movement, as bodied forth by Richard Tarlton and Will Kemp. (39) As is widely reported, Jonson assigned pride of place to the written words of his texts, which he regarded as literary works, not mere playscripts for performance. One is therefore tempted to draw a parallel between Jonson, who luxuriates in his own authorship, and Morose, who can only abide the sound of his own voice and wishes to silence everyone else. Morose's fear of noise is not dissimilar to Jonson's wariness of theater, and both Morose and Jonson depend on their respective nemeses for self-definition. Epicene, however, is not a wholly neat play--in performance, at any rate. Noise is always on the boundaries, and sometimes it invades, figuratively as well as actually.

The playtext of Epicene is another matter. Here, Jonson reigns supreme, and he manages to excise--almost completely--the noisy techne of production from his work. The dashes in Morose's speech that signify the "breach" in the performance wherein Mute performs his "dumb" gestures are the sole remnants of theatricality, and these are easily overlooked. The reader gets the idea of Mute's jests/gestures, but not their troublesome effects, affects, or associations. The printed play of Epicene becomes a dumb show, to use Robert Armin's analogy, and Jonson's sovereignty as author is unchallenged. (40) The playtext even forgoes the final revelation of Epicene's sex, stating in the dramatis personae that Epicene is "a young gentleman, supposed the silent woman." The reader thus enjoys a position of privileged knowledge, unlike the audience at the Blackfriars, who had no reason to suspect that the boy playing Epicene would turn out to be a disguised boy, unless they realized the clue inherent in the name "Epicene." (41) Alternatively, Jonson may have included this information, which lets the reader "in" on the dramatic irony of the situation, to counterbalance the fact that the revelation about Epicene's sex is less startling in print than it is in performance.

The fact remains, however, that the playtext of Epicene is detached from the materiality of theatrical production, and this is not incidental. The techne of production and performance is in some ways anathema to Jonson's sensibilities as an author, since the theatrical practice of the time actively displaced authorship and authority. I suggest that the "dumb" gestures of Mute aggravate and highlight this situation by evading both the directorial control of Morose and the authorial control of Jonson, thus initiating a performative, semantic "noise." Mute, like Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, apes the stylistics of the dumb show, and circumscribes language in favor of physical, expressive signs. Mute may bring what Robert Weimann calls an "alien, refractory energy" into the presentation: a surplus or overbid of performative action that unsettles any pretence of decorum. (42) Weimann argues that an element of "doubleness" was at work in Elizabethan mise-en-scene that encompassed both standards of Renaissance rhetoric and poetics as well as a continuously viable tradition of common playing, jesting, and display. This "doubleness" was manifested in instances of "contrariety"--a clash of cultural patterns in staging a play--and of "disfigurement," which Weimann glosses as "sites of parody or resistance to Renaissance rhetoric, form, and proportion." (43) The staging of Epicene by the boys' company at Blackfriars provides a particularly telling example of the "contrarious" playing impulse, given the likelihood of these child actors referencing their adult counterparts, as well as their own earlier performances, and the tradition of "acting" and "playing" that they inherited. When Mute "makes legs or signs," he is not merely bowing, necessarily; his performance allows for slippage between conventions of decorum (Turkish or otherwise), the gestures of the dumb show, and the frivolous antics of the clown. Jonson cannot moderate this performative "noise of signs," as it operates outside his purview as a dramatist. Nora Johnson, in her study The Actor as Playwright in Early Modern Drama, addresses this very issue and advances the idea that certain actors should be considered coauthors of meaning, restaging the authority of the page by the more dispersive authority of the stage. Johnson argues that Nathan Field, a popular actor, and Jonson established themselves as "authors" in relation to one another, which forced Jonson into a double bind in terms of catering for Field's autonomy as a performer and maintaining his fantasy of himself as the sovereign author. Johnson cites Leah Marcus on this point:
 It is [...] characteristic of [Jonson] to fail to sustain the
 distinctions that he has taken pains to establish--to collapse them
 uproariously into one another, or at least allow them to
 contaminate one another to the extent that the playwright's
 'authority' over his materials is lost. Considered from the bottom
 up instead of the top down, Jonson's hedges against free
 interpretation are desperately futile attempts at constraining his
 own ludic impulses along with the populist energies he purported to
 despise. (44)

"Contrariety," "ludic impulses" and the "noise of signs" are critical constructs that attempt to account for destabilizing aspects of performance, which are often rooted in the performer's body. Morose may wrap nightcaps around his head, Hamlet may reject the histrionics of players, and Jonson may seek solace in the illusion of textual autonomy, but the unpredictability--and sometimes inexplicability--of embodied actions cannot be discounted; they activate and cross the senses in surprising ways.

In this article, I have offered "dumb" (no pun intended) readings of Epicene and Titus Andronicus that consider the potential effects and significance that gestures performed by stage mutes may have had in early modern theater. The figure of the stage mute, like that of the "bit" player, is easily overlooked, as s/he appears to the reader to be merely a functional operative of the dramatic text. In performance, however, the stage mute may draw considerable attention and recall older performance traditions, such as that of the dumb show or the antics of the clown. This reminds us of the essentially intertheatrical nature of Elizabethan and Jacobean theater, in which character types, phrases, and bits of business were shared and reformulated by players and playwrights, and plays were often patchwork enterprises, valuing the part and the "moment" more than the whole. (45) I have also strived to relate the expressive modes of the acoustic and the gestural in Epicene in the understanding that these and other performance modes may not have been treated discretely in early modern theater but may have acquired added meaning in the extent to which they inflected, crossed, and potentially disrupted each other. The early modern sensorium retained a sense of flexibility in how sense perceptions were ordered and understood, so that it may have been possible to hear, see, sense, conceptualize, and feel noise in the theater. For this reason, I have not explicitly quantified and corresponded semantic and acoustic "noise" in Jonson's play, as to do so might, I fear, repeat Jonson's textual strategy and reduce the dialectical operations of text and performance, which are best kept in productive exchange. It would also be antithetical to the configuration of noise that I have advanced throughout, which is partially informed by information gleaned from play texts and from scholarship on the acoustic world of early modern England, and partially informed by recent thinking in systems theory, which posits that noise might actually contribute to rather than impair the meaning derived from the communication process. Philipp Schweighauser explains: "Since the introduction of noise into a channel of communication increases uncertainty and makes messages less predictable (by distorting the signal emitted by the sender),it also increases information." (46) Noise, which so plagues Morose and may also have irked Jonson, contains multiple, overlapping meanings, some of which are relevant, and some not. One might propose, then, that noise, as a pervasive, contingent, anti-structure, provides a useful conceptual framework with which to theorize and contextualize early modern plays, which ask to be read, heard, seen, and thought about in overlapping relations with one another.

Northwestern University


Special thanks to Will West for his comments on this article.

(1) Epicene, or The Silent Woman was first performed either late in 1609 or early in 1610. An extant text of Epicene was included in the 1616 folio of Jonson's Workes. For a discussion of Jonson's complex relationship with the theater, see Nora Johnson, The Actor as Playwright in Early Modern Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

(2) Titus Andronicus was first performed in 1592.

(3) Linda Austern, Music in English Children's Drama of the Later Renaissance (Pennsylvania: Gordon and Breach, 1992), 91. See also Dieter Mehl, The Elizabethan Dumb Show (London: Methuen, 1964).

(4) William Engel, Death and Drama in Renaissance England: Shades of Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 42.

(5) In "Playing with a Difference" (in Author's Pen and Actor's Voice: Playing and Writing in Shakespeare's Theatre, ed. Helen Higbee and William West [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000], 79-108), Robert Weimann writes about the "gap between the object and the agency of representation, between the imaginary world in the representation and the means of representing it" (83). I will return to Weimann's theory of representation later in this essay.

(6) Joseph Roach observes that the art of the actor/orator of the seventeenth century was to acquire restraint, "to ser his bodily instrument in expressive motion, not by freeing his actions, but by confining them in direction, purpose, and shape" (The Player's Passion: Studies in the Science of Acting [Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1985], 53).

(7) I play on the phrase "buzz buzz," used in Hamlet to mean "rumour" or stale news (William Shakespeare, The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt [New York: Norton, 1997]. All quotations are from this edition and are cited parenthetically by act, scene, and line). For a discussion of the Bakhtinian grotesque vis-a-vis the clown in Elizabethan theater, see David Wiles, Shakespeare's Clown: Actor and Text in the Elizabethan Playhouse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 176.

(8) Consider, for example, how Hieronimo must explain the meaning of the dumb shows that he organizes to those in attendance in Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (1582-92).

(9) The OED also gives a "company or band of musicians" as a definition.

(10) Robert Armin, qtd. in Julie Stone Peters, Theatre of the Book, 1480-1880: Print, Text, and Performance in Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 150.

(11) Mark Robson makes this suggestion in his article "Looking with Ears, Hearing with Eyes: Shakespeare and the Ear of the Early Modern," Early Modern Literary Studies, 6 December 2006, <>.

(12) Bruce R. Smith, The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-Factor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 214-17 and passim.

(13) In his introduction to Epicene, Richard Dutton writes: "The silence that Morose craves is an achievable reality in such acoustic conditions [as the Blackfriars]. The theater itself, at its quietest, becomes the equivalent of the double- and triple-insulated room he has created" (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), 53.

(14) Dutton, 12.

(15) Smith provides a quotation from Thomas Dekker's The Seven Deadly Sinnes of London (1606) to illustrate the frenetic street scene: "Hammers are beating in one place, Tubs hooping in another, Pots clinking in a third, water-tankards running at tilt in a fourth" (54).

(16) All quotations are from Richard Dutton's edition of Epicene (see n. 13, above) and are cited parenthetically by act, scene, and line.

(17) The phrase "self-made martyr to noise" is Dutton's (26).

(18) Martin Butler, "Jonson's London and Its Theatres," in The Cambridge Companion to Ben Jonson, ed. Richard Harp and Stanley Stewart (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 16.

(19) Smith, 235. For a discussion of the significance of boys' voices in performance, see Gina Bloom, Voice in Motion: Staging Gender, Shaping Sound in Early Modern England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), 21-65.

(20) Dutton, 55.

(21) Smith, 256.

(22) Mute's name is announced to the audience by Truewit: "Farewell, Mute" (2.3.148). Mute does speak two short lines in 2.1, for which Morose abuses him, but he is otherwise silent.

(23) Dutton, 140 n. 10.1.

(24) Dutton, 141 n. 24.1.

(25) Richard Dutton speculates that Jonson drew primarily for his view on the Turks on Richard Knolles's General Historie of the Turkes (first printed in 1603). See Dutton, p.140 n. 0.1,142 n. 33. Jonathan Ree claims that "the spectacle of gesticulating mutes at the Ottoman court or harem became a commonplace in European travelers' tales, removing some of the humiliating stigma from deafness and lending it an allure of oriental glamour" (I See a Voice: Deafness, Language, and the Senses: A Philosophical History [New York: Metropolitan, 1999], p. 123).

(26) For a discussion of intertheatricality, see Jonathan Gil Harris, "Rematerializing Shakespeare's Intertheatricality: The Occidental/Oriental Halimpsest," in Rematerializing Shakespeare: Authority and Representation on the Early Modern Stage, ed. Bryan Reynolds and William N. West (London: Macmillan, 2005), 75-93. Jacky Bratton explores the concept of intertheatricality in New Readings in Theatre History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

(27) Michael Shapiro, qtd. in Austern, 11-12.

(28) Andrew Gurr, The Shakespearean Stage, 1574-1642 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 72.

(29) Gurr, 73.

(30) M. M. Mahood, Playing Bit Parts in Shakespeare (London: Routledge, 1998), 15.

(31) In his article "Deafness and Insight: The Deafened Moment as a Critical Modality" (College English 57 [1995]: 881-900), Leonard J. Davis writes: "As if the pure uninterpretability of Lavina were too much of a negation, Shakespeare nudges her dumbness toward language. [...] Tne almost violent necessity to "wrest" an alphabet out of dumbness demonstrates the vigour with which Shakespeare must banish the non-being of non-language" (896).

(32) Christina Luckyj, 'A Moving Rhetoricke': Gender and Silence in Early Modern England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002), 93.

(33) While muteness may also be figured in Mutius's name, the character does speak before his untimely death. The Latin root of the word is mutare, meaning "to change."

(34) Luckyj, 93, 78.

(35) John Bulwer, qtd. in James P. Knowlson, "The Idea of Gesture as a Universal Language in the XVIIth and XVIIIth Centuries," Journal of the History of Ideas 26 (1965): 495-508 (497).

(36) Ibid.

(37) Knowlson, 498-500 passim.

(38) Jonathan Ree writes: "The deaf were displaying skills of the most paradoxical kind--reading and writing before they could speak, speaking with their fingers, hearing with their eyes, and reading words that were not even written; not to mention speaking out with their own voices. After centuries of neglect, the deaf were turning into a curiosity, a spectacle, a wonder" (109).

(39) Julie Stone Peters, Theatre of the Book, 1480-1880: Print, Text, and Performance in Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 154, 153.

(40) Richard Cave argues that the marginal annotations in Jonson's 1616 folio reflect Jonson's intentions about staging and can be interpreted as assisting the reader or as instructing the performer. In Cave's estimation, Jonson folio text signifies a plurality of texts within the one held text: "performance text and literary text cohabit the page and one can, therefore, choose a mode of reading" (26). Caves observation is sound, but in the case of Epicene, the marginal notations in the text do not suggest contrary readings. See Richard Cave, "Script and Performance,' in Ben Jonson and Theatre, ed. Richard Cave et al. (Routledge: London, 1999), 23-33.

(41) Epicene: having the characteristics of both sexes (Dutton, 112 n. 5).

(42) See Weimann, 83.

(43) Ibid., 59.

(44) Leah Marcus, qtd. in Nora Johnson, The Actor as Playwright in Early Modern Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 78-79.

(45) See, for instance, Douglas Bruster, Quoting Shakespeare: Form and Culture in Early Modern Drama (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000).

(46) Philipp Schweighauser, The Noises of American Literature, 1890-1985: Toward a History of Literary Acoustics (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006), 7.
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Author:Curtin, Adrian
Publication:Comparative Drama
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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