Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Musical Response in the Early Modern Playhouse, 1603–1625/some Other Note: The Lost Songs of English Renaissance Comedy

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Musical Response in the Early Modern Playhouse, 1603–1625/some Other Note: The Lost Songs of English Renaissance Comedy

Article excerpt

Musical Response in the Early Modern Playhouse, 1603-1625, by Simon Smith. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Pp. 260. Hardback, $99.99.

Some Other Note: The Lost Songs of English Renaissance Comedy, by Ross W. Duffin. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. 760. Hardback, $49.95.

In a valuable new study, Simon Smith draws our attention to the sheer volume of music and song in Jacobean plays and asks how the original audience might have responded to such staged music. While Smith acknowledges that it is important not to assume that all audience members would have experienced musical moments in the same way, he argues that their responses would have been shaped by certain "cultural expectations about how to listen" (3), and that playwrights and playing companies worked to "evoke particular responses from playgoers through musical performance, responses often central to the dramaturgy of the play being performed" (6). The study as a whole offers "a phenomenological enquiry into playhouse experience [and] into sensory encounters in early modern culture" (6). Focusing on 1603 to 1625, it includes a range of playwrights (not merely Shakespeare), and draws particular attention to later plays like Middleton's A Game at Chess (1624) that have not typically been included in studies of playhouse music.

Turning away from early modern music theorists, whose views would not have been widely known among non-specialists, Smith examines the paratexts of printed music books, commercial play-texts, and casual allusions to musical effects across a wide range of genres to uncover "quotidian musical responses" (6). Drawing on the work of Angela Hobart and Bruce Kapferer on the relationship between the "cultural prevalence of an idea of music response and the lived experiences that might occur in that culture," he posits that an understanding of common beliefs about the effects of music can lead us to identify the specific responses that plays invite playgoers to experience (17). Each chapter of the study takes up a different kind of response, exploring in turn how playwrights used music to encourage the audience to listen, look, imagine, and remember.

The first chapter, "Listening," focuses on the idea of musical compulsion, the prevalent early modern belief that music irresistibly seizes the listener's attention. Smith here traces how music is used to compel the attention of characters and audience members in Middleton's Revenger's Tragedy and A Game at Chess, and Shakespeare's Winter's Tale. The next chapter, "Looking," argues that early modern sources treat musical experience as "a fundamentally multi-sensory phenomenon" (70), and that playgoers expected not only to hear but also to see musical performances, an expectation that Shakespeare and John Marston manipulate to considerable dramatic effect in Antony and Cleopatra and Sophonisba. Smith's third chapter, "Imagining," addresses the way that songs invite the listener to adopt the subject position of the singer, particularly in cases when "the staged character is noticeably 'other' to the majority of the anticipated audience members" (120). The final chapter, "Remembering," deals with specifically tactile memory, demonstrating "an early modern emphasis on touch in relation to musical instruments," and arguing that "subjects' own memories of handling instruments provide points of imaginative engagement with a musical performer" (146). The chapter culminates in an in-depth reading of two key scenes in Heywood's A Woman Killed with Kindness.

Smith's study offers a particularly important contribution to existing schol- arship in its attention to the ways in which musical experience involves senses other than hearing. The book makes a powerful case for the idea that, in an age before audio recordings, any experience of music would be visual as well as auditory. As Smith points out, when characters in an early modern play refer to "the music" they are often referring to a group of musicians, not simply to the sounds that these musicians produce; and in a culture where many people were used to playing musical instruments themselves for recreation, the sounds of music cannot be considered separately from the physical experience of producing such sounds. …

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