"Staging Silence"

Saturday, 1:30-3pm

300 Wheeler

Moderator: Jeff Knapp


Craig Plunges (Harvard University)

Sovereign Sense and Treasonous Signs: Alternative Communications in Shakespeare

Like King Lear, Richard II begins with a “darker purpose” (1.1.35), the settling of a dispute between Bolingbroke and Mowbray over the murder of the Duke of Gloucester. As Bolingbroke and Mowbray plead their cases in turn, each claims to give voice to the truth, which is figured as residing in “the tongueless caverns of the earth” (1.1.105). Despite his complicity in the murder, Richard announces that “impartial are our eyes and ears” and “free speech and fearless I to thee allow” (1.1.115, 123), thereby underscoring a complex intersection between truth, performance and reception that troubles the very possibility of impartiality in the play. The duel between Bolingbroke and Mowbray in 1.3. promises to translate the unspeakable truth into the medium of violence, and this is precisely why Richard interrupts it. Mowbray’s response to his exile – “What is thy sentence then but speechless death?” (1.3.173) – gestures towards the structures that motivate and (pre)determine articulation.

By reading this scene against the rape of Lavinia in Titus Andronicus and the blinding of Gloucester in King Lear, I will consider how acts of violent impairment institute alternative semiotic systems within the plays in question, casting doubt upon what may first appear as a dominant or sovereign logos. Richard’s attempts to retain control over the fact of Gloucester’s murder will be read against Edgar’s rhetorical reconstruction of vision in the Dover Cliff scene. I will not emphasize violence as such, but rather the violence inherent to articulation across verbal and non-verbal media.

Craig Plunges is a doctoral candidate at Harvard University. He has a B.A. from Cornell University (English, 2004) and an A.M. from Harvard University (English, 2010). He has taught in Prague, Rome, Brussels and Milan, and is currently writing a dissertation about how English poets from Spenser to Milton understood and responded to the painterly techniques of the Italian Renaissance.


Amelia Worsley (Princeton University)

Quiet Ophelia: Reading Silence in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Like Cordelia, Shakespeare’s Ophelia is often silent at important moments—though unlike her succesor, she is given no opportunity to declare her refusal to “heave her heart into her mouth.” The staging of Ophelia’s silence is so unobtrusive—so quiet—that it is scarcely taken notice of, either by her father or her audience. And yet, these two heroines are similar in that their muteness is linked to their aloneness.

In the scene from Hamlet that my paper considers, Ophelia is under surveillance by Polonius and Claudius, positioned by her father in readiness for Hamlet’s arrival. Polonius hopes that such an encounter will reveal “If ’t be the affliction of his love or no / That thus he suffers for.” Here, Ophelia is important to her father only as a body: she is not given any lines to say; rather, she is merely told to “walk”. “Read on this book”, her father says: “The show of such an exercise may colour your loneliness”.

“Quiet Ophelia: Reading Silence in Shakespeare’s Hamlet”, posits a link between Ophelia’s inarticulacy and what Polonius, in one of the first uses of the term in English, calls her “loneliness”. Taking stage history into account, I consider how Ophelia’s loneliness has been variously understood by directors and critics in order to reveal a structural similarity between staged silence and loneliness. I argue that by reaching toward this new concept, Shakespeare subtly reveals an anxiety about the efficacy of the dramatic medium. In this scene, he draws attention to the difference between speech and silence; between the “actions that a man might play” and “that within which passeth show”. The presence of the book on stage, I argue, is key to this complex meditation on the role of silence in different genres.

Amelia Worsley is a fifth year graduate student in the English department at Princeton University. She has an MA from Brown University and BA from the University of Cambridge, in her native England.


Larry Friedlander (Stanford University)

Nothingness and Silence in The Winter’s Tale

Paulina brings the new born child to Leontes, hoping that ‘the silence often of pure innocence/ Persuades when speaking fails.” But the silence does not persuade. Leontes orders the child cast away to die on foreign shores. In this play, in midst of a torrent of words, violent and abrupt acts, spectacles, visual tricks, exhortations, speeches in defense and in prosecution, what has happened to the persuasion of silence? How can it be heard?

Shakespeare gives us a clue to his strategy for making silence speak in the scene at the Delphic Oracle. The messengers report on the opposite of silence.

‘But of all, the burst And the ear-deafening voice o' the oracle, Kin to Jove's thunder, so surprised my sense That I was nothing.’

Here the very excess of sound, the overwhelming power of oracular truth, creates a different kind of silence, a silence of passing out and beyond, a silence of emptiness.

Silence and nothingness are familiar counters in all mystical experiences, in all attempts to articulate what cannot be spoken, what cannot be grasped by the discursive intellect nor by ordinary perceptual mechanisms. Silence in many mystical traditions is achieved through a surprise of the senses, through an overwhelming of customary cognition that breaks down conventional seeing and thus permits nothingness to be seen, silence to be heard.

The direct perception of the oneness of creation, or the unity of god and man, is a silence. We do not perceive this unity because we are creatures imprisoned by our sense of separateness, born out of the very nature of time and impermanence. This time-wrought separation is the abyss of time that opens the play. “Since their more mature dignities and royal necessities made separation of their society, their encounters, though not personal, have been royally attorneyed with interchange of gifts, letters, loving embassies; that they have seemed to be together, though absent, shook hands, as over a vast, and embraced, as it were, from the ends of opposed winds. The heavens continue their loves!” The two kings, separated from childhood, try to bridge this great gap through letters, words, sounds, but they fail. Time understood as a fall from primal oneness undermines the true unity of life. When Leontes gazes on his pregnant wife he sees not her innocence but only his intolerable suspicions. But Time that destroys also restores. Time connects what it severs, the young find each other, and the generations reunite. The play seeks for a restoration of primal innocence, for salvation from time through the hidden unities of time. In similar fashion, the dramaturgy-- by emphasizing sound and spectacle, the marvelous and the magical-- employs the extravagancies of speech to make silence heard. The final vision is precisely this kind of assault, the impossible statue that comes to life, surprising the sense. The miracle is a theatrical assault, a lie in favor of truth, a sound in service of silence. Through it Shakespeare surprises our senses to restore to us the vision of nothingness.

I will survey some basic teachings on ‘emptiness’ and silence from Buddhist writings and some Christian sources (St. Paul, Meister Eckhart etc.) that describe strategies to achieve nothingness. I hope to show how Shakespeare employs, in a similar fashion, theatrical ‘noise’ to open us to the persuasions of silence.

Larry Friedlander is Professor Emeritus in the English Department of Stanford University, with a specialty in Shakespeare and Performance. He is an actor and director, and has also worked extensively in the application of technology to the Arts and Humanities, and as a consultant interactive designer to museums internationally.