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Within, Without, Withinwards: The Circulation of Sound in Shakespeare’s Theater

Bruce R. Smith


Cet article s’intéresse à l’air comme medium et explore l’analogie entre l’intérieur et l’extérieur dans la production du son de la voix et dans la circulation du son au théâtre du Globe. Je me propose d’examiner les trois volumes qui donnent forme à l’air dans le théâtre original de Shakespare : le vestiaire, l’amphithéâtre et le corps humain.

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1The emergence of “sound studies” in the past thirty-five years–most practitioners would date it to R. Murray Schafer’s The Tuning of the World (1977)–is part of a much larger phenomenon: media studies. At the heart of all these enterprises is a conviction that, in Marshal McLuhan’s still-echoing words from 1967, “the medium is the massage.” (Note the first a in “massage.”) Hence Film Studies, Visual Studies, Video-Game Studies... and Sound Studies. Since I have been a proselytizer in this enterprise, let me quote myself from The Acoustic World of Early Modern England:

Sound immerses me in the world: it is there and here, in front of me and behind me, above and below me. Sound moves into presence and moves out of presence: it gives me reference points for situating myself in space and time. Sound subsumes me: it is continually present, pulsing within my body, penetrating my body from without, filling my perceptual world to the very horizons of hearing. The shape of this auditory field approximates a sphere. (Smith 1999: 9-10)

2The assumption here is that sound gives us a purchase on the world that is quite different from vision. Seeing feels linear: I cast my gaze out into a world that is “out there,” beyond my body. Listening, by contrast, feels round: sound comes to me from the world and engulfs me. Stephen Handel puts the distinction this way: “Listening is centripetal; it pulls you into the world. Looking is centrifugal; it separates you from the world” (Handel 1989: xi). And so it does feel to me—sometimes.

3Truth be told, my experience of the theater, like my experience of the world in general, is not really an either/or proposition, even when I am trying hard to “bracket” sound in the way phenomenologists like Husserl counsel me to do. Most of the time I don’t choose to look at one moment and listen at another. Especially in the theater, where looking and listening are aesthetically shaped, intensely concentrated, and forcefully directed activities, looking and listening happen at the same time. Voice and sound are not objects, even when they can be attached to particular actors and located in particular places. Instead, voice and sound circulate. The medium that carries them is likewise impossible to objectify. The medium is air, the molecules of nitrogen, oxygen, argon, carbon dioxide, and traces of other gases that transmit the sound waves that reach our ears and impede the light rays that reach our eyes. That is a material condition we share absolutely with Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Within the confines of the theater—the wooden O of Shakespeare’s Globe no less than the black boxes of today—players and patrons alike were and are still immersed in a single homogenous medium: a charged, pulsating medium.

  • 1  A longer version of this paper is published in “Within, Without, Withinwards: The Circulation of S (...)

4What we can see are the containers that shape the medium of air. In this paper I propose to survey the three containers that shaped the air that circulated in Shakespeare’s original theater: the tiring house, the amphitheater, and the human body. Along the way I will try to stay true to my own experience by attending to sight as well as sound.1


  • 2  Stage directions in original spelling from the First Folio, ed. Charlton Hinman (Shakespeare 1968) (...)

One cals within, Iuliet.
Within. A Saile, a Saile.
Alarum afarre off, as at a Sea-fight.
Enter a Porter./ Knocking within.
A tempestuous noise of Thunder and Lightening heard: Enter a Ship-master, and a Boteswaine.2

5In the macrocosm of The Globe, as in the microcosm of the human body, meaning-making with sound began—as it always must—“within.” In physical terms speech begins in the lungs, with an inbreathing of air. Held in place by the diaphragm, that volume of air is released gradually through the larynx and the mouth, both of which shape the out-breathed air in certain distinctive ways to produce phonemes that are heard as speech. If Lev Vyogotsky is right, this body-centered making of meaning happens in psychological terms as well as physical. Thought begins, Vyogotsky claims, as an inchoate whole-body experience.  By the time a thought is spoken or written down it has undergone a metamorphosis. Sensations have become words in the loose syntax of “inner speech” before they are spoken as words in the tighter syntax of “external speech” or encoded in the even tighter syntax of writing. Decoding a theatrical script reverses this process: writing becomes auditory speech which, in the ears of the listener, becomes inner speech, which in turn becomes sensations.  “What is contained simultaneously in thought unfolds sequentially in speech. Thought can be compared to a hovering cloud which gushes a shower of words” (Vygotsky 1987: 281). For spectator/listeners in the theater, the experience of drama is like getting caught out in the rain—which at the Globe must have been the case often enough.

6As speech itself begins within the actor’s body, so in the staging arrangements at the Globe meaning-making through sound began within the tiring house. It was there that all the words were kept in store, as “the book” of the play. It was from within the tiring house that actors made their entrances before they spoke. It was there they returned when they had finished speaking. Meanwhile, the tiring house could make its auditory presence felt, in the form of non-verbal sounds like alarums, thunder, lightning or in garbled verbal sounds like shouts and cries. With respect to sight, it is clear enough that Shakespeare’s plays emerged from within. My argument is that they likewise emerged from within with respect to sound.

7Take, for example, this moment from Act Five, scene five, of Macbeth:

    A cry within of women
                     What is that noise?
                    It is the cry of women, my lord (5.5.7-8).

The sequence here is repeated again and again in Shakespeare’s scripts: first a sound without a visual source, then a verbal identification of that source. Schematically, that sequence might be rendered thus:
         sound? → vision → sound+vision

Whether a question mark is correct for the first unit is open to question. To render Macbeth’s “What is that noise?” as a question is to miss a curious slippage between questions and exclamations. In early modern orthography there was as yet no separate punctuation mark for exclamations. Question marks did service for both. Every instance of “What is that noise?” was–and still is “What is that noise!”

8A famous example is the knock in Macbeth. The uncanny sound begins in 2.2 as interruptions of Lady Macbeth’s confident speeches about Duncan’s murder. The first knock comes as Lady Macbeth takes her exit, within, to finish the deed that Macbeth has left undone there. Alone on stage, Macbeth is instantly unsettled by the sound: “Whence is that knocking?--/ How is’t with me when every noise appals me?” (2.2.55-56). Taking his cue perhaps from the whiteness of “appals,” he ends his search for a visual source by fixing on his bloody hands. His speech is both a question and an exclamation: “What hands are here! Ha, they pluck out mine eyes” (2.2.57). In effect, knock = bloody hands. At the second knock, the returning Lady Macbeth is able to contain the sound by identifying its diegetic source: “I hear a knocking/ At the south entry” (2.2.63-64). Two more knocks in scene two and six more in scene three fail, however, to lessen the sound’s appalling effect, its dissociation of sound from source.

9Knock within”: that stage direction refers to a physical space that was very different from what we casually refer to as “off stage” or “back stage.” It is curious that the tiring house, a space so much associated with aspects of visual performance–with costumes and props, with the making of entrances and exits–should also be a major site for the making of sounds. The prepositions “back” and “off” are locators in visual space. They work well enough to indicate what lies beyond the stage’s margins in proscenium theaters of the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. Even Peter Brook’s “open space” depends on there once having been a back stage and an offstage, even as Brook presumes to move those once hidden locations into plain view. The tiring house in Shakespeare’s Globe was not, however, a space of this sort. In visual terms, “within” marks a boundary less definite than “back” and “off.” “Within” implies continuity with what can be seen “without.” The wooden O of the Globe was itself a “within” relative to the city spaces “without.”

10Experiments by psychologists have demonstrated that sounds from a source that a listener cannot see tend to be attributed by the listener to a space “behind.” Macbeth registers a sense of dislocation when, having just stabbed Banquo, he hears the first “Knock within” in 2.2. Relative to Macbeth’s position on the stage platform, the space within the tiring house, the source of the knocking sound, is “behind.” Ten repetitions of “Knock within” keep the fictional source of the sound unknown to the theater’s audience/spectators, despite Lady Macbeth’s off-hand identification of the south entry, until the Porter opens the gate and admits Macduff and Lennox several minutes later, at 2.3.22. As I have argued elsewhere, “behind” remains an axis of orientation in Macbeth from beginning to end (Smith 2004: 131-50). Noises of the battle in Act Five presumably emanate, like the knocks in Act Two, from the tiring house. Macuff, in his pursuit of Macbeth, first heads into the “behind”:  “That way the noise is,” Macduff exclaims. “Tyrant, show thy face!” (5.8.1). It is from that space “behind” that Macduff emerges moments later when he finally finds Macbeth. Again, the disconnection of sound from vision is dislocating. The audience/spectators get to see the coming consummation–an event of which Macbeth remains ignorant until Macduff’s command “Turn, hell-hound, turn” (5.10.3) adds sound to the picture. Ultimately Macbeth is done in by the unheard noises “behind” that unnerved him in 2.2.


11In the sequence of sound! → vision → sound+vision, the locatives “within” and “without” prove to be interchangeable, at least in terms of the fiction at hand. Most often in Shakespeare’s scripts an unseeable sound is located “within.” But not always. In Romeo and Juliet, for example, the brawl in 1.1 is visibly present to the audience/spectators. With respect to the tiring house, the brawl is located “without.” With respect, however, to Capulet, who makes his entrance from the tiring house, the brawl is located “within.” “What noise is this?” Capulet cries as he enters. “Give me my long sword, ho!” (1.1.72). Similarly in 4.4 the Nurse’s lament, on stage, over the drugged body of Juliet draws Lady Capulet from the tiring house’s “without” to the platform’s “within.” “What noise is here?” Lady Capulet cries as she makes her entrance. To move into presence, from behind to in front, a noise needs a source and a name. In the space “without,” sound is coordinated with vision. With respect to the circulation of sound, it is this coincidence of sound and source that makes the cylinder of the wooden O, the space in which actors and audience come face to face, different from the space “within.”

12The sound that circulates in the air “without” turns out not to be the uniform, undifferentiated phenomenon we might expect. Another beat from Macbeth will help us get our acoustic bearings in “without,” an environment in which sound is directed and modulated in complicated ways. In Act Four, scene three, Ross brings bad news to Malcolm and Macduff in their exile in England. “Your eye in Scotland,” Ross tells Malcolm, “Would create soldiers, make our women fight/ To doff their dire distresses” (4.3.187-89). Malcolm immediately fills this unseen space “within”—Scotland—with the image of his imminent return, backed by ten thousand Englishmen. But the ominousness of that unseen space within returns as Ross continues.

ROSS Would I could answer
This comfort with the like. But I have words
That would be howled out in the desert air
Where hearing should not latch them. (…)
Let not your ears despise my tongue for ever,
Which shall possess them with the heaviest sound
That ever yet they heard.
MACDUFF H’m, I guess at it. (4.3.193-96, 202-04)

And so follows the terrible tale of Macbeth’s massacre of Macduff’s wife and children. Five features of these brief exchanges characterize the circulation of voices “without”:

  1. command for attention to what is about to be spoken (“Let not your ears despise my tongue for ever”)

  2. a report of what sound feels like, especially the experience of sound as siege, invasion, or capture (Ross’s speech will “possess” Macduff’s ears)

  3. hearing as immediate affect (to Macduff’s ears Ross’s speech will come as “the heaviest sound/ That ever yet they heard”)

  4. definition of a space for sound that is psychological as well as physical (“I have words/ That would be howled out in the desert air”)

  5. varying alignments of sound and sight (“Your eye in Scotland” is the first several evocations of Scotland as a visual absence)

Taken together, these five reference points modulate the circulation of sound “without.”


13Between the dagger and the bell, Macbeth in Act Two, scene two, finds himself in sensory limbo. What he says he sees before him, a bloody dagger, was almost certainly not there for the spectators at the Globe who watched the actor playing Macbeth and listened to him speak. Nor was it diegetically present for Macbeth himself: “Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible/ To feeling as to sight?” (2.1.36-37). The “feeling” that Macbeth has in mind is, literally, tactility, the dagger’s susceptibility to being grasped. But in the next breath “feeling” metamorphoses into a state of mind: “Or art thou but/ A dagger of the mind, a false creation/ Proceeding from the heat-oppressèd brain?” (2.1.37-39). The ringing bell that interrupts Macbeth’s soliloquy (“A Bell rings,” goes the stage direction before 2.1.62) likewise has a double existence: a summons from Lady Macbeth (“Go bid thy mistress, when my drink is ready,/ She strike upon the bell,” Macbeth has directed a servant at 2.1.31-32) and an unnerving “noise within,” a sound without a visible source, a sound without a fixable meaning. Macbeth immediately tries to supply that meaning: “Hear it not, Duncan; for it is a knell/ That summons thee to heaven or to hell” (2.1.63-64). But the bell, like the knock, reverberates far beyond the immediate situation. Moments before, Macbeth has imagined his crime in terms of sound, not vision:

Thou sure and firm-set earth,
Hear not my steps which way they walk, for fear
The very stones prate of my whereabout... (2.1.56-58).

As with the knock, the sound can be placed in two ways: diegetically as the sounds of Macbeth’s feet upon the castle’s pavements, performatively as the sounds of the actor’s feet upon the platform’s boards as he stalks toward his exit “within.” In performance those ominous footsteps work like the bell and the knock, as sounds that exceed the meaning of the words being spoken, as sounds that fix the scene in the perceiver’s ears. After the actor has left the stage, all the elements of the scene—words, gestures, blocking, props, non-verbal sounds—vibrate in the perceiver’s consciousness. They form, as Vygotsky argues, a whole impression, not a sequence of separate elements. They linger as a “hovering cloud” (281). The dagger, the bell, the footsteps: it not just words and non-verbal sounds that are fused and confused but things heard and things seen.

  • 3  Queen Anna’s New World of Words (London: Melch, Bradwood, and Stansby, 1611), adíntra, sig. A5v. F (...)

14To place this state of inner thought with respect to the Globe’s “within” and “without” an equivalent word is needed. John Florio provides one in “withinward,” his translation of the Italian adíntra, literally “towards the interior” (OED “withinward, -wards,” adv.).3 Present in “withinward” is the physical idea of “ward” as a guarded enclosed space, as within a castle. One of the eight instances that turn up in an EEBO search—all but one of them predating Florio, despite the OED’s crediting him with having invented “withinward” as a nonce word—does refer to the interior precincts of a fortress (Geoffrey Fenton’s 1579 translation of Guicciardini’s The Wars of Italy), but the rest have to do with physiology or with meditation or, in the case of the sores of Lazarus in a sermon by St. John Chrysostom, with both. Helkiah Crooke, for example, describes in Mikrokosmographia how the “Ring-shield muscles” around the larynx arise from cartilage but become implanted in “the shield-gristle or Thyroeides withinward” (sig. TTT4v).

15It is just here, in the throat, that the circulation of sound that began in the tiring house is completed. In the course of performance, air provides the medium through which character is made manifest through costume, speech, and locomotion. It is the medium that brings to the outside the illusion of insides, both within the characters’ heads and hearts and within the tiring house out of which the fiction comes into presence. Air likewise provides the medium through which the perceivers of these dramatic events process what they have witnessed and return those impressions to the outside. Early modern physiology was as much attentive to the circulation of air within the human body as it was the fluids that have commanded so much attention in recent scholarship. The body’s intercommunication system was thought to be spiritus, an aerated fluid. That particular type of air was thought by some physiologists to be absolutely pure, implanted in the body in the mother’s womb at the moment of conception. So, too, according to some writers, was the air of the inner ear: lodged there during gestation in the mother’s womb, the air of the inner ear was imagined by these writers to be different in quality from the ambient air in which a person drew breath after birth. Hence, perhaps, the anxiety about pestilence and infection that constitutes one of the most frequently invoked characteristics of air in Shakespeare’s scripts.

16Crooke, however, insists that ear, mouth, and lungs directly communicate with each other, that the air of the inner ear is constantly being replenished through the mouth and lungs. Question 44 following his disquisition on the ear is devoted to “the wonderfull simpathy and Consent of the Eaeres, the Palate, the Tongue, and the Throttle”(sig. 0003). In addition to the anatomical evidence, Crooke cites the necessity of passages for the violent air of loud sounds to be released through the mouth. Those passages are now known as the Eustachian tubes. In the schema of “withinwards” that I am proposing here the Eustachian tubes function like the pineal gland in Descartes’ theater of the mind: they mark the spot where “within” communicates “without.”

17The pattern of audition that Crooke describes here has, of course, a Platonic goal. What the brain knows and what the perceiver retains in memory, is assumed to be forms and ideas. And yet those “footsteps and expresse Characters” linger in consciousness, just as Vygotsky imagines. In the theater sounds taken in by individual members of the audience never remain ideal forms. At the Globe and early modern London’s other amphitheaters the reactions of audiences could be immediate—and loud. In one of the sonnets in his cycle Idea (1605), published the same year that Lear was likely first acted, Michael Drayton compares his acclaim as a poet within the “circuit” of his readers to the aural adulation that embraced actors like Burbage within the “proud round” of the theater:

I in the circuite for the Lawrell stroue,
Where the full praise I freely must confesse,
In heate of blood and modest minde might moue:
With showts and claps at euerie little pawse,
When the prowd round on euerie side hath rung (Drayton 1605: sig. CC4v).

What Drayton describes here is in fact the default mode of performance all over the world: performers and listeners exchange sounds. The oddity is Western insistence, since the late nineteenth century, on passive reception of sound in classical music concerts and the theater.

18Globe audiences were not so passive. They were actively encouraged to return sound to the actors in the form of applause. Prospero’s epilogue to The Tempest begs for more—shouts as well as claps:

But release me from my bands
By the help of your good hands.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails (Ep. 9-12).

19The audience will supply the air needed to fill his sails for the voyage back to Milan. And in the act of shouting their approval they will give the actors the inspiration they need to begin anew, in the next performance, the circulation of voice in Shakespeare’s theater.

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Crooke, Helkiah. 1615. Mikrokosmographia: A Description of the Body of Man. London: William Jaggard.

Drayton, Michael. 1605. Poems. London: [Valentine Simmes] for N. Ling.

Florio, John. 1611. Queen Anna’s New World of Words. London: Melch, Bradwood, and Stansby.

Florio, John. 1598. A World of Words. London: Arnold Hatfield.

Handel, Stephen. 1989. Listening: An Introduction to the Perception of Auditory Events. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

McLuhan, Marshall. 1967. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. New York: Bantam Books.

Roach, Joseph. 1985. The Player’s Passion: Studies in the Science of Acting. Newark: University of Delaware Press.

Schafer, R. Murray. 1973. The Tuning of the World. New York: Knopf.

Shakespeare, William. 1968. The First Folio of Shakespeare. Ed., Charlton Hinman. New York: Norton.

Shakespeare, William 2005. The Oxford Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Ed., Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Smith, Bruce R. 1999. The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-Factor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Vyogtsky, L. S. 1987. The Collected Works. Vol. 1: Problems of General Psychology. Ed., Robert W. Rieber and Aaron S. Carton. Trans., Norris Minick. New York: Plenum Press.

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1  A longer version of this paper is published in “Within, Without, Withinwards: The Circulation of Sound in Shakespeare’s Theatre,” in Effects of Performance in the Theatre of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries, ed. Tiffany Stern and Farah Karim-Cooper, Arden Shakespeare Criticism (London: Methuen, 2013).

2  Stage directions in original spelling from the First Folio, ed. Charlton Hinman (Shakespeare 1968), with act, scene, and line numbers coordinated with Shakespeare 2005: Romeo and Juliet 1.5.142, Othello 2.1.95, Antony and Cleopatra 4.13.1, Macbeth 2.3.1, The Tempest 1.1.1.

3  Queen Anna’s New World of Words (London: Melch, Bradwood, and Stansby, 1611), adíntra, sig. A5v. Florio’s earlier dictionary A World of Words (London: Arnold Hatfield, 1598), sig. A4, includes only adentro, “deepely in, far in, inwardly.”

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Bruce R. Smith, « Within, Without, Withinwards: The Circulation of Sound in Shakespeare’s Theater »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 16 | 2013, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2013, consulté le 04 décembre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Bruce R. Smith

Professeur de littérature anglaise occupant la chaire Dean à l’Université de Californie du Sud depuis 2008, Bruce Smith est spécialiste de Shakespeare et a publié plusieurs livres. Parmi les plus récents : Phenomenal Shakespeare. Oxford : Wiley-Blackwell, 2010 ; The Key of Green: Passion and Perception in Renaissance Culture. Chicago : University of Chicago Press. 2009 ; William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night: Text and Contexts (Boston : Bedford-St. Martin's Press, February 2001), Shakespeare and Masculinity (Oxford : Oxford Univ. Press, 2000), and The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-Factor (Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1999).
Dean’s Professor of English, University of Southern California, from 2008 to the present. College Distinguished Professor of English, University of Southern California, 2004-2008. Bruce Smith is a specialist of Shakespeare and has published many books among which, recently, Phenomenal Shakespeare. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010; The Key of Green: Passion and Perception in Renaissance Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2009 ; William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night: Text and Contexts (Boston: Bedford-St. Martin's Press, February 2001), Shakespeare and Masculinity (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2000), and The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-Factor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1999).
University of Californiaen

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