Discovering a Dramaturgy of Sound in Shakespeare's Theatre

Most people who have worked or studied with me know that I am obsessed with dramaturgy. I first worked as a dramaturg with ABC Radio National on an audio production of Shakespeare's Hamlet, and I was hooked on the sound world of Shakespeare from day one.

Throwback to ABC RN's radio production of Hamlet, sword-fighting in the studio, 2012.

Throwback to ABC RN's radio production of Hamlet, sword-fighting in the studio, 2012.

'Dramaturg' may or may not be a word you have heard before. It is a role within a theatre or production company which is essentially a research assistant/advisor to a director. This was my role with the ABC and I found myself doing a whole lot of research into textual adaptations, historical sounds of words, early modern soundscapes and more.

Now, I am doing my PhD on the music of Shakespeare's comedies, and I am realising more and more that understanding the sound world of Shakespeare's theatre is integral to understanding his plays. Below I share the most illuminating books I have read on this topic, which have led me to discover a dramaturgy of music in Shakespeare's Theatre. If you are a sound designer for current Shakespearean productions or adaptations of Shakespeare's works, these books are a great place to start in understanding the significance of music and sound in Shakespeare's plays.

1. Bruce Smith, The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: attending to the O-Factor (University of Chicago Press, 1999)

This book has by far been the most influential on my own work to-date. Bruce Smith goes through the 'soundscapes' of early modern England and contrasts them to our own current day experience of sound. Very illuminating stuff.


2. David Lindley, Shakespeare and Music (Bloomsbury, 2014)

A fantastic reference for anyone wanting to understand the dramaturgy of sound in specific Shakespeare plays. David Lindley highlights the musical meanings of specific musical tropes in Shakespeare's theatre, from trumpet calls and drums to ballads and more.


3. Amanda Eubanks Winkler, O Let us Howle a Heavy Wooden Note: music for witches, the melancholic, and the mad on the seventeenth century English stage (Indiana University Press, 2006)

This book is a great read for anyone interested in the darker side of Shakespeare's plays, as expressed through music. Amanda Eubanks Winkler goes through the role of sound in portraying madness and the supernatural in Shakespeare's plays and in later musical works such as Purcell's Dido and Aeneas.


Ok, SO why is sound important in shakespeare's theatre?

Yes, I hear you ask this :)

One of the biggest points made by Bruce Smith in his book above is that Shakespeare's audience was much more focused on listening than viewing when they experienced live theatre. This is because they were predominantly a culture of oral storytelling. That is, people heard stories told by the human voice in pubs, at home, at church and on the street. This is so important to our understanding of Shakespearean performance, because this implies that the sound of words spoken, music played and sounds made on stage were the primary means of engaging the audience. Just think about that for a moment and your mind will be blown!

If you are interested in this topic, you can read about my exploration of 'translating' a historical dramaturgy of Shakespeare's sound for contemporary practice in my 2012 article, "Aural Sensibility and Interpreting Shakespeare: Developing Modern Approaches to Compositional Dramaturgy in Hamlet and Macbeth in the Sydney Undergraduate Journal of Musicology. You can access the article here.