Bruce R. Smith. 1999. The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-Factor. Chicago: Chicago University Press. 386 pp. 0-226-76377-3. 16.75/$21 pb.

  1. Setting out to judge a book by its cover, and faced with the cover of The Acoustic World of Early Modern England, one might imagine two quite different alternatives for the contents: a deeply technical discussion of percentage rates of reflectivity in the building materials of Early Modern theatres, or a highly theorized discussion of the critical paradoxes of considering phenomena that by their very nature are no longer perceivable in any direct way. The achievement of Bruce Smith's magnificent new book is that it manages to be both of these at once.

  2. [Circle], or the O-factor, is the name Smith gives to the subject of the book: all things acoustic, which means in effect all noises heard by people through the bones of their ear and skull, and with particular reference to noises they make using their lungs, throat, and tongue. Smith convincingly argues that the standard theoretical models of literary criticism broadly post-Saussurean, with their belief in the absolute slipperiness of language, forever shying away from any direct external referent are often misleading when discussing sound, since sound comes from and is physically registered by the body. Smith begins with a discussion of anatomy and physiology, complete with exercises to try at home, before moving on to survey critical vocabularies that will be of use in the project that follows. Using theory more usually applied to communications studies, he sets up models of speech communities, acoustic communities, and an 'ecology' of interlocking systems of body, media, psyche and society. He uses these terms to discuss the treatment of sound in texts as obscure as William Baldwin's Beware the Cat (1584) and the reports of the entertainments for the Queen at Kenilworth in 1576.

  3. Chapter Three brilliantly develops the idea of the 'soundscape': that the sounds usually to be heard in a given place are as distinctive and as important as the things usually to be seen there. Smith reconstructs the soundscape of Baldwin's narrator in a house in Aldersgate, using evidence from maps, from the street cries musically notated by contemporary composers (notations that often corroborate each other), as well as from more predictable sources like contemporary prose. Smith goes on to do the same for the countryside, returning to the Kenilworth revels and locating speech as merely one element within a more complicated soundscape. Thirdly, he considers the geography and acoustic properties of the court, and produces example after example of Elizabeth, in particular, obtaining 'absolute control over the acoustic environment' (84). Chapter Four returns to the paradox that most of the evidence of Early Modern sound is locked up in written texts, looking at the relationship between language and the body, rhetoric and the body, and the body and handwriting. Forms of text such as lute tabulature simply do not work in a conveniently post-Saussurean way, argues Smith: their 'signified' is not a matter of endless deferral, but of a particular configuration of the reader's real fingers on a real lute.

  4. Smith surveys 'Games, Gambols, Gests, Jests, Jibes, Jigs', using historical evidence of these entertainments, and a wide range of examples from drama, to sneak up on the question of Shakespeare's fools and dances. Also, he reconsiders ballads in terms of their singers. Within what soundscapes were they sung, and by whom? In what senses was singing a ballad an act of solidarity, and solidarity with whom? Smith sifts evidence from seventeenth-century broadsides, versions recorded by Percy in the eighteenth century, and versions passed further through oral tradition and recorded by folk-song collectors in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in order to argue that ballads are a particular case of texts existing and being constituted in 'the singing, remembering human body' (177).

  5. Chapter Eight, 'Within the Wooden O', takes as its premise the idea that the Globe Theatre was itself some kind of giant harpsichord, 'the largest, airiest, subtlest sound-making device fabricated by the culture of Early Modern England' (208). Smith reviews what is known of the Globe's acoustic properties, especially relative to the Blackfriars, and notes, for instance, the rather surprising discovery that in the reconstructed Globe the most acoustically dominant position, the place where an actor must stand to get the best projection, is not right at the front of the stage but well back beneath the canopy. Musical instruments, sound effects produced by everything from stage cannon to the clanking of stage weapons, and the pitches of the voices of the actors involved, are all given the same laterally-thinking examination. Smith argues that the early modern theatre consisted of a 'matrix' of sounds within which the human voice was only one element.

  6. Chapter Nine pursues the idea of 'scenes of speaking', the ways in which different environments imposed different codes of when to speak and when to be silent: oratory, liturgy, and theatre all made use of different protocols for the ways in which sound worked, as Smith convincingly shows in a series of citations. Chapter Ten concludes the book by analyzing what happened when English culture, with one very specific set of expectations about acoustics, collided with Welsh, Irish, and Native American cultures in which not merely music, not merely language, but much broader ideas about the functions of sound worked in quite different ways.

  7. Under Smith's examination, text after text from Shakespeare to the anonymous ballad is shown to have distinctively aural properties, and to be enmeshed in an aural culture which is all too easy to overlook. This book is a challenge, not merely to preconceptions about attitudes to sound recorded in Renaissance texts, but to the very status of many of those texts themselves: after reading Smith's account, it is much harder to consider playtexts, for instance, as purely verbal, intellectual artifacts. But what are the implications of this? On the one hand, for all the reasoning expended on the sounds of Early Modern England , one of the things to emerge from Smith's account is that these sounds, quite literally, do not occur in a vacuum. Even the reconstructed Globe's internal acoustics remain an imperfect facsimile of those of the original, because the external noises filtering in from the city outside are entirely different. To this extent, the 'true' effect of sound in Early Modern England remains unknowable. On the other hand, that is no reason not to try to approximate that effect, and this book marks a major step forward in that direction. Along the way, Smith turns up dozens of interesting nuggets of information and overlooked texts: offers several startling ideas in each chapter: and leaves the reader exhilarated. Highly recommended.

[Back to Contents] [Back to top of page]
Contents © Copyright Matthew Steggle 2000.
Layout © Copyright Renaissance Forum 2000. ISSN 1362-1149. Volume 4, Number 2, 2000.
Technical Editor: Andrew Butler. Updated 1 August 2000.