Society & the female voice: Shakespeare’s Singing Madwomen

‘Enter Ophelia distracted’: Shakespeare’s Singing Madwomen

1280px-john_everett_millais_-_ophelia_-_google_art_project

Ophelia, singing before she drowns in a river, by Sir John Everett Millais.

by Florence Hazrat.

She is noisy and uncontrollable, a nightmare at polite dinner evenings. She annoys everyone with her stories, it’s only always about doom and gloom! She is the embarrassing sister, the unmarried daughter, the taker, the trickster. She is the woman who withheld sex, she is Cassandra.

Cassandra, a princess of Troy, who predicts the city’s fall, but no-one believes her. Cassandra, favourite of Apollo, given the gift of prophecy in exchange for her body. Cassandra who accepts the one, but refuses the other. Cassandra the seer, punished by Apollo with the curse of disbelief — you may speak the truth, but if no-one trusts you, it sounds like babbling, like nonsense. It sounds like madness.

This classical myth of the prophetess who was never believed is described by Homer in his famous poem on the war of Troy, and it puts its finger on a knot of issues pervading culture then, as much as in the Renaissance, and perhaps even today: there’s something about women who speak – sing even – that makes people nervous, that slips through barriers of (male) control, and that has a privileged access to truths, and uncomfortable ones, too. Shakespeare taps into these perceived connections when he stages Cassandra in his play on the Troy story. It’s something he returns to throughout his dramatic career, exploring singing women on the stage, mad perhaps, but with a powerful instrument: their voice.

Society and the female voice

Apart from Cassandra there were other female prophets among the Greeks, notably the Sybils and the Pythia at the Delphian oracle, infamous for the puzzling nature of her pronouncements which the askers needed to interpret, and did, though catastrophically wrong most of the time. Being an oracle, etymologically, means to speak. How can one speak, though, in societies that prize silence and reservation as female virtue? From Socrates to Shakespeare, a voice ‘soft/ Gentle and low’ was seen as ‘an excellent thing in woman’ (King Lear, 5.3). My research investigates the link between female singing on (and off) stage, as well as women’s use of song to fashion and assert their identities in the sixteenth century. I’m excited about the implications of this for what we think about women speaking in public and private today, from me and you to Lady Gaga and Hilary Clinton. Might our own concepts of talkative or loud or simply outspoken women be coloured by the past more than we might be aware of, and like to admit?

Much like us, Renaissance playwrights inherited a mixed bag of attitudes towards, and explorations of, gender. Women who did not conform to a role subservient to men needed to be controlled, which meant imposing silence, a restricting and disciplining of speech by husbands, brothers, fathers. This process is documented in Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew which sets our teeth on edge today (and perhaps also those of some Elizabethan Londoners? Who knows.) It seems women had little chance of expressing themselves in more than prescribed and pre-scripted ways, but there appears to be one way, albeit a risky and tragic one, to claim independence of words, and that was madness. Not any kind of mad behaviour, but one whose symptom (or cause?) is music, a wild eruption into song, violent, disturbing, and disruptive.

Ophelia: Shakespeare’s first singing madwoman

Shakespeare’s first singing madwoman, perhaps even initiating a trend for such types and their representation in the theatre, is Ophelia, a young gentlewoman at the Danish court, and Hamlet’s sometime lover. Owing to his unaccountable rejection of her, as well as (more grievously) his murder of her father, she loses her mind, bursting onto the scene ‘distracted’, the stage directions tell us. More precisely, as one of the text versions from 1603 specifies, she is ‘playing on a Lute, and her haire downe singing.‘ Public performance of music, even just within the story’s own court setting, was an inconceivably forward attention-seeking gesture for a gentlelady, clearly labelling Ophelia as out of her wits. She then launches into a cascade of fragments from songs popular at the time, some bawdy, some mournful, and sacred even, and it is precisely this mixed nature of her songs, which is problematic for the Renaissance playgoer: Ophelia’s songs are broken up into snippets, and randomly stitched together, a seemingly disconnected medley whose meaning we can only guess at — but therein lies exactly her powerful threat against the authorities. Interpretation. Ophelia’s songs make us interpret, and consciously so, as suggested by a nervous courtier who prepares the audience for her first entry in another version of the play text a year later:

Gentleman. She speaks much of her father, says she hears

There’s tricks in the world, and hems, and beats her heart,

Spurns enviously at straws, speaks things in doubt

That carry but half sense, her speech is nothing,

Yet the unshaped use of it doth move

 The hearers to collection, they yawn at it,

 And botch the words up fit to their own thoughts,

Which as her winks, and nods, and gestures yield them,

Indeed would make one think there might be thought

Though nothing sure, yet much unhappily.

Horatio. It were good she were spoken with, for she may strew

Dangerous conjectures in ill breeding minds.   (Hamlet, 4.5).

‘Her speech is nothing’…Yet it is something enough to engage her listeners, to encourage them to figure out less which songs she is pasting together but why. Primed by the courtier to read deeper meaning into her supposedly random associations, we become complicit in Ophelia’s possibly political public music. Is she suggesting her father’s killing was murder? Does she mean there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark? Are we, perhaps, those ‘ill breeding minds’ in the end…?

Music: at the heart of the issue

By claiming the right to speak, Ophelia transgresses limits of aural female presence, more even, by lifting her speech into song, she offends twice, but it is precisely music which both enables and attenuates charges against her crime of song: are these truly her words, or are they just lyrics belonging to everyone? Or no-one? We have all sung these songs at one time or another; does that make us culpable of inciting rebellion against the king and queen? Does Ophelia, perhaps, become the avenger that Hamlet ought to be whose father was also murdered? And does music mean anything anyway? It’s just sound after all! Music, it seems, is both a screen and at the heart of the issue of the female voice, ambiguously “there” and self-effacing at the same time.

More singing madwomen were to follow Ophelia and Cassandra, such as the Jailor’s Daughter in Shakespeare’s late play Two Noble Kinsmen, but also in works by other playwrights. The Renaissance stage was a network of players and writers who knew each other intimately, and cooperated more often than not, circulating and recycling ideas from each other. In the pieces of these dramatists, madwomen use pre-existing words to speak about their own situations, like oracles to speak truths which their environment tries to suppress as well as interpret. Being forbidden a voice of their own, they make the voice of everyone theirs, turning collective into individual identity. Music, almost beyond good and evil, offers women a means to carve out an independent, a noisy self. In a tragedy, that outspoken (outsung?) self often perishes, either by her own or at others’ hands, and yet: the claim to presence and acknowledgement of female personhood has been made. The silence has been broken, and phenomenally so, when Cassandra, rocked by a vision, bursts out like a vocal volcano:

                             Cry, Trojans, cry! practise your eyes with tears!

                        Troy must not be, nor goodly Ilion stand;

                         Our firebrand brother, Paris, burns us all.

                             Cry, Trojans, cry!

She is greeted by her brothers as ‘our mad sister’, but… every single one of these brothers will be dead soon, as much as the fortress city will have crumbled into dust and ashes. Then we will mingle our voice with Cassandra’s, having nothing else to do but mourn and cry.

cassandra

Cassandra, by Frederick Sandys.

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