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.