William Shakespeare Silence - Essay


(Shakespearean Criticism)


Scholars who write about silence in Shakespeare's plays emphasize that it is an important dramatic element, particularly with regard to characterization and thematic development. A character's muteness may signify the experience of an emotion that is beyond human understanding or articulation, imply that a character feels intimidated, or communicate defiance. Calling attention to its inherent ambiguity, critics frequently note that the way actors “perform” a dramatic silence will endow it with alternative meanings. Furthermore, the text of a Shakespearean play may itself be “silent” with respect to an action or episode—that is, not represent it directly but introduce it through the report of one or more characters, thus leaving its implications ambiguous or confusing. Many late-twentieth-century commentators allude to the way Shakespeare dealt with the conventional notion that women should be reticent or soft-spoken. Disputing the idea that there was such a fixed concept, Christina Luckyj (1993) argues that Shakespeare's plays mirror contradictory Renaissance views of women's silence, depicting it variously as a sign of independence, acquiescence, or expediency.

Whether women's silence reflects passivity or resistance is a central issue in several Shakespearean comedies. In particular, Isabella's silence at the end of Measure for Measure has elicited a great deal of critical attention. Charles R. Lyons (1989) reads the absence of her response to the Duke's announcement in Act V, scene i that he will marry her as an indication that she has been constrained to silence because her earlier eloquence represented a threat to male authority. Amy Lechter-Siegel (1992) also equates Isabella's final silence with containment, suggesting that the resolution of the play depicts the suppression of female challenges to patriarchal control. Philip C. McGuire (1985)—who coined the phrase “open silence” to describe one that may be interpreted in different ways, especially in theatrical performance—asserts that Measure for Measure provides Shakespeare's most intricate use of dramatic silence. During the play's final moments, he points out, Angelo, Barnardine, Claudio, Juliet, Mariana, and Isabella all become literally speechless. Jonathan Bate (1994) focuses on the silence and passivity of Hero in Much Ado about Nothing, remarking on the relative paucity of opportunities she has to speak for herself and the many occasions when other characters talk about her. He postulates that her provisional “death” may represent the ultimate silencing of women.

Among the critics who discuss the silence of women in Shakespeare's tragedies are Jill Levenson (1971), Harvey Rovine (1987), Christina Luckyj (1991), Cynthia Marshall (1991), and Mark Berge (1994). Rovine argues that whereas the muteness of female characters in Shakespeare's comedies usually signals acquiescence, in the tragedies it generally conveys “fear, despair, or confusion.” Levenson compares Cordelia's silence in the first scene of King Lear with her reticence in later scenes, but she also calls attention to Lear's increasing inarticulateness, suggesting that this underscores the play's concern with the limitations of language in communicating emotion. Like Levenson, Berge sees Cordelia's initial silence as evidence of her strength and constancy, though he proposes that her reticence in subsequent scenes indicates that dramatic events have led her to question the justice and benevolence of providential forces. Luckyj regards Volumnia's silence in Act V, scene v of Coriolanus as a similar token of despair, arguing that she fully understands her son will be killed because he yielded to her pleas and spared Rome. Perhaps the most extreme example of the silencing of women's voices in Shakespearean drama is Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, whose tongue is cut out by her rapists. Her mutilation, Marshall contends, is a manifestation of how men in the play punish women, whether they are powerful—as Tamora—or dependent—as Lavinia.

A number of late-twentieth-century commentators have focused on the silence of men in Shakespeare's plays. Harvey Rovine, for example, maintains that in the comedies, the silence of male characters in the final scenes may imply anger or bitterness about their alienation from society. In the tragedies and histories, he argues, it may be a means of controlling others or concealing treacherous thoughts. Rovine also calls attention to the frequent juxtaposition in Shakespeare's plays of verbose and reticent men, as does Michael Manheim (1977). Whereas Rovine contrasts Richard II's volubility and Bolingbroke's reserve, Manheim offers a close reading of the occasions when Henry VI's silence is the direct antithesis of his noblemen's blustering. Gayle Greene (1978) examines the apposition of verbal and nonverbal modes of expression in The Tempest, proposing that the play demonstrates the limitations of language in response to the experience of awe and wonder. Mark Berge evaluates the significance of the silencing of the Fool in King Lear—that is, his disappearance from the stage when the play is only at its midpoint.

Absence as a form of dramatic silence is the concern of several Shakespearean critics. Marjorie Garber (1984) analyzes offstage episodes in King Lear and The Winter's Tale, describing these as “unscenes.” She points out that this indirect mode of presenting highly significant events—known to the audience only by the reports of those who claim to have observed them—generates doubt and confusion. Mark Taylor (1989) evaluates two episodes in Much Ado about Nothing that are not represented on stage: Don Pedro's courtship of Hero and the chamber-window scene. Assessing various characters' accounts of these episodes, Taylor emphasizes their subjectivity and links what he regards as their hollowness to the “nothingness” at the heart of the play.

Jill Levenson (lecture date 1971)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Levenson, Jill. “What the Silence Said: Still Points in King Lear.” In Shakespeare 1971: Proceedings of the World Shakespeare Congress, Vancouver, August 1971, edited by Clifford Leech and J. M. R. Margeson, pp. 215-29. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972.

[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1971, Levenson contends that silence in King Lear is integral to the play's structure, characterization, and thematic development.]

Only he who has attained to his own identity, can be silent, only when thinking has reached reality, will it come to a stop.1

At the...

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Michael Manheim (essay date 1977)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Manheim, Michael. “Silence in the Henry VI Plays.” Theatre Journal 29, no. 1 (1977): 70-6.

[In the following essay, Manheim stresses Henry VI's humanity and compassion, characterizing him as a man of integrity who is shocked into silence by the treachery and brutality of England's fractious noblemen.]

Alwin Thaler nearly a half century ago introduced the idea that Shakespeare, the master of words, achieves some of his most effective and meaningful dramatic moments through the absence of words.1 Thaler of course discusses characters who have created problems for interpreters because of their refusal to speak, or to speak much, on subjects...

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Zvi Jagendorf (essay date 1978)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Jagendorf, Zvi. “‘Fingers on Your Lips, I Pray’: On Silence in Hamlet.English 27 (1978): 121-28.

[In the following essay, Jagendorf evaluates the motif of silence in Hamlet, arguing that it permeates the dramatic action and underscores the play's representation of truth as subjective and therefore open to different interpretations. In particular, he discusses the dumb show, the Ghost's initial speechlessness, and the ambiguity of silent gestures.]

Hamlet is the most brilliantly articulate of Shakespeare's tragedies. The sheer flow of speech is overwhelming in its quantity and surprising in its variety. Hamlet and Polonius are both...

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Gayle Greene (essay date 1978)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Greene, Gayle. “Excellent Dumb Discourse: Silence and Grace in Shakespeare's Tempest.Studia Neophilologica 50 (1978): 193-205.

[In the following essay, Greene points out that although Prospero occasionally uses language to constrain or coerce, his special powers of healing are affected by silence, show, and music. Greene maintains that this accentuates Shakespeare's exploration of both the necessity and the limitations of speech.]

“Hush and be mute, or else our spell is marr'd.”

Critics have commented on the poetic thinness of The Tempest, and some have expressed surprise that the play has such great imaginative impact in...

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Marjorie Garber (essay date 1984)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Garber, Marjorie. “‘The Rest Is Silence’: Ineffability and the ‘Unscene’ in Shakespeare's Plays.” In Ineffability: Naming the Unnamable from Dante to Beckett, edited by Peter S. Hawkins and Anne Howland Schotter, pp. 35-50. New York: AMS Press, 1984.

[In the following essay, Garber surveys Shakespeare's onstage silences, his use of the indirect mode of representation—that is, characters' reports of events that occur offstage—and his adaptations of the conventional theme of inexpressibility. Garber asserts that Shakespeare understood that silence can be as effective as speech in communicating emotion.]

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must...

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Philip C. McGuire (essay date 1985)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: McGuire, Philip C. “The Final Silences of Measure for Measure.” In Speechless Dialect: Shakespeare's Open Silences, pp. 63-96. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, McGuire describes the way five late-twentieth-century productions of Measure for Measure depicted the muteness of Angelo, Barnardine, Claudio, Juliet, Mariana, and Isabella in the play's final scene. By means of nonverbal gestures, blocking, and shifting the sequence of lines, McGuire observes, the directors of these productions explored the many possible interpretations and implications of these characters' silences.]

Measure for Measure...

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Harvey Rovine (essay date 1987)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Rovine, Harvey. “Women and Silence.” In Silence in Shakespeare: Drama, Power, and Gender, pp. 37-51. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Rovine contrasts the silence of women in Shakespeare's comedies and tragedies. In the comedies, he contends, it generally conveys acquiescence, while in the tragedies it may be construed as despair, resignation, or confusion. Rovine maintains that in both genres women's silence underscores their social, political, and familial obligations.]

Traditionally, silence in a woman was considered a virtue and a quality much preferred over loquaciousness. The proverbial view of women may be one reason why...

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Harvey Rovine (essay date 1987)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Rovine, Harvey. “Silence as Confrontation.” In Silence in Shakespeare: Drama, Power, and Gender, pp. 53-69. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Rovine associates the silence of male characters in Shakespeare's comedies with their social alienation, and the silence of men in the tragedies and histories with a variety of motives—including antagonism, treachery, and a desire to influence or control the actions of others.]

Whereas the silence of women often implies a passive acceptance of circumstances or a faith that events will turn out for the best, the silence of men can be more purposeful. Men's silence can show loyalty,...

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Charles R. Lyons (essay date summer 1989)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Lyons, Charles R. “Silent Women and Shrews: Eroticism and Convention in Epicoene and Measure for Measure.Comparative Drama 23, no. 2 (summer 1989): 123-40.

[In the following essay, Lyons maintains that Isabella's transformation from volubility to silence is a reverse image of the metamorphosis of Ben Jonson's Epicoene from submissiveness to stridency. He contends that both Measure for Measure and Epicoene demonstrate the eroticism of female silence and the power women possess when they are objects of male desire.]

In Jonson's Epicoene, the silent “woman” attracts Morose through “her” reticence to speak; but once...

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Mark Taylor (essay date winter 1989)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Taylor, Mark. “Presence and Absence in Much Ado about Nothing.Centennial Review 33, no. 1 (winter 1989): 1-12.

[In the following essay, Taylor focuses on the inscrutability of characters' reports of events in Much Ado about Nothing that are not represented on stage. Emphasizing the subjectivity of these reports, he focuses on Don Pedro's offstage conversation with Hero in Act II, scene i and the chamber-window scene in which Margaret is mistaken for Hero.]

Who would not say, that glosses increase doubt and ignorance, since no booke is to be seene, whether divine or profane, commonly read of all men, whose interpretation...

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Christina Luckyj (essay date spring 1991)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Luckyj, Christina. “Volumnia's Silence.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 31, no. 2 (spring 1991): 327-42.

[In the following essay, Luckyj asserts that Volumnia's speechlessness in Act V, scene v of Coriolanus represents not triumph but despair, for she understands that her son will die because he yielded to her supplication. The critic emphasizes the Roman matron's vulnerability as well as her vitality, describing various ways she has been represented in performance.]

Volumnia's last appearance in Shakespeare's Coriolanus is a brief and silent one. She has just pleaded successfully with her son to spare his native city from intended...

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Cynthia Marshall (essay date 1991)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Marshall, Cynthia. “‘I Can Interpret All Her Martyr'd Signs’: Titus Andronicus, Feminism, and the Limits of Interpretation.” In Sexuality and Politics in Renaissance Drama, edited by Carole Levin and Karen Robertson, pp. 193-209. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Marshall claims that Titus Andronicus offers a profoundly misogynistic view of male-female relations through its presentation of women as estranged, alienated, and silenced.]

Titus Andronicus presents special problems for a feminist critic. We are familiar with patriarchal societies like the Rome of Titus Andronicus, composed of tier...

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Amy Lechter-Siegel (essay date 1992)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Lechter-Siegel, Amy. “Isabella's Silence: The Consolidation of Power in Measure for Measure.” In Reconsidering the Renaissance, edited by Mario A. Di Cesare, pp. 371-80. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1992.

[In the following essay, Lechter-Siegel traces Isabella's movement from articulate, rational speech to submissive silence, contending that the change in her discourse reflects the Duke's increasing control of social, political, and religious power in his realm. She compares the Duke's consolidation of power in Measure for Measure with the model of governance set forth by James I in his Basilikon Doron (1599).]


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Christina Luckyj (essay date 1993)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Luckyj, Christina. “‘A Moving Rhetoricke’: Women's Silences and Renaissance Texts.” Renaissance Drama 24 (1993): 33-56.

[In the following essay, Luckyj relates Renaissance notions of female reticence as decorum or defiance to the silence of women in King Lear, Titus Andronicus, and Troilus and Cressida.. She contends that sixteenth-century conduct book writers' ambivalent views of feminine silence are reflected in Shakespeare's plays.]

It is therefore useless to trap women into giving an exact definition of what they mean. … They are already elsewhere than in this discursive machinery where you claim to take them by...

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Mark Berge (essay date 1994)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Berge, Mark. “‘My Poor Fool Is Hanged’: Cordelia, the Fool, Silence and Irresolution in King Lear.” In Reclamations of Shakespeare, edited by A. J. Hoenselaars, pp. 211-22. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994.

[In the following essay, Berge links the disappearance of the Fool and Cordelia's final silence to Lear's failed search for self-knowledge. In the critic's judgment, although the king comes to understand his daughter's initial reticence as a strength rather than a fault, he never comprehends his own complicity in the tragic events.]

In the chaotic world of King Lear, resolution of character seems remote and veiled from an aged king bent on...

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Frank Kermode (essay date 1994)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Kermode, Frank. “Shakespeare's Silences.” In Surprised by Scenes: Essays in Honor of Professor Yasunari Takahashi, edited by Yasunari Takada, pp. 16-26. Tokyo: Kenkyusha, 1994.

[In the following essay, Kermode evaluates the conjunction of speech and silence in Shakespeare's plays, with special reference to the way in which speechlessness can be a form of eloquence.]

It does not do to neglect Shakespeare's access to proverbial wisdom, or to forget that it sometimes merges with his rhetorical resources. And there is an immense amount of proverbial lore concerning silence. It gives consent. It never did man harm. It is prudent and useful: nihil silentio...

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Jonathan Bate (essay date 1994)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Bate, Jonathan. “Dying to Live in Much Ado about Nothing.” In Surprised by Scenes: Essays in Honor of Professor Yasunari Takahashi, edited by Yasunari Takada, pp. 69-85. Tokyo: Kenkyusha, 1994.

[In the following essay, Bate focuses on Hero's passivity and her provisional dispatch to death—the ultimate silencing. Noting how frequently other characters speak of her or allude to her—thus demonstrating her centrality in the play—he compares Hero to sacrificial women in classical literature who die in order that their husbands may be transformed.]

King Charles I knew what he liked in Shakespeare's comedies. He inscribed in his copy of the Second...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Bock, Philip K. “‘I Think But Dare Not Speak’: Silence in Elizabethan Culture.” Journal of Anthropological Research 32 (1976): 285-94.

Categorizes different types of silence in Shakespeare's plays. Bock distinguishes between those which imply ambiguity, enhance characterization, express transient emotions, or underscore the nature of the relationships between dramatic characters.

Busia, Abena P. A. “Silencing Sycorax: On African Colonial Discourse and the Unvoiced Female.” Cultural Critique 14 (winter 1989-90): 81-104.

Briefly considers the implications of the physical absence of Sycorax...

(The entire section is 1321 words.)