“The composition is different, that is certain”
—Ophelia Composing Herself

Ella Finer

A paper first delivered at Shakespeare and the Senses International Conference, as part of P.A. Skantze’s “Auratic Persona – Sonic Characters” Panel, Shakespeare’s Globe, London. 5 November 2011.

Thinking about Ophelia and her own acts of vocal composition within Hamlet, I have been struck by her few lines, her brief appearances in every act like a metronomic measure of time passing, and her long presences as auditor to others. I have been thinking about her agency as an experienced listener within the play, and how her composure—her self-control as a character—is related to her sounded and unsounded vocal compositions. And so now as I have come to my own act of written composition in order to make sense of these ideas: to bring sometimes strangely distant elements into conversation with each other, to lose the words which fly too far off the track or even find a phrasing which might cause stars to stand “like wonder-wounded hearers,” I am struck by how much I play a part in testing some of the questions I ask within this work, and how this written composition happens in a suspension of sorts, a space in time which demands a translation of the cognitive composition into a composition made of text.

The beginning of my title comes from Gertrude Stein’s 1925/1926 lecture “Composition as Explanation,” chosen in part to echo the curious task of writing words to be sounded in the future, but mainly to foreground the notion of a composition as something always in flux, ever-changing through time and form, and happening in the continuous, or what Stein calls the “continuous present”:

Everything is the same except composition and as the composition is different and always going to be different everything is not the same. Everything is not the same as the time when of the composition and the time in the composition is different. The composition is different, that is certain. (497)

While Stein attends to the written composition, its moments of vocal delivery are implied in the matrix of compositions she develops, and when she says “speaking is composition” the potential for the auditory life of the words-as-sound is sparked. Being present here, speaking these words out loud, I also make a live composition with voice: a sounded composition made from breath, from the air in the body pushed into the mouth and molded by teeth, tongue, and palate. It is the sounded composition I want to pay particular attention to here, how Ophelia composes herself, and the influence of sound in doing so. I want to discuss the ways Ophelia uses listening to compose, drawing elements from the speech she hears around her. I hope that in giving attention to Ophelia’s form (the sound of her vocal composition), rather than her content (the linguistic meaning carried in her speech), I can offer some “explanation,” or at least offer her character some more complexity as a vocal body, as one who speaks through audition. What is it that the sound of her speech does, or the measure of her silence? Here, for time’s sake, I will concentrate on her use of speech, rather than on the ballad singing of her final scene.

The various interpretations of Ophelia through gender and agency are well-rehearsed, and so what I hope to bring to the deep pool of discussion is a way of thinking her character through sound, thinking with theorists of sound and composition. While keeping ears and minds open to the potential resonances and residues from the early modern sound world, as a practitioner of performance myself, thinking through the senses, I am also interested in attending to what is absent in audience reception now. The wide intrigue and fascination with Ophelia as a subject has moved on from finding in her “an audience-like passivity,” to quote Marianne Novy’s reading of Ophelia’s speech in 1984 (84). The obvious provocation in Novy’s implication of an audience as non-active is spoken back to in the work of numerous scholars today and most notably for this context in the work of Gina Bloom, whose 2007 book Voice in Motion dedicates a chapter to “the fortress of the ear”: in which the “arte” and “talent” of “hearing with your ears” is explored as a subtle strategy for female characters’ gaining of agency (118).[i] And so, I want to seize on what I take to be true of Ophelia in Novy’s reckoning: that she is audience-like and it is her audience-likeness which might grant her a form of agency as a listening/composing subject. Gina Bloom recognizes that a powerful “method of resisting authority and challenging social hierarchies” within Shakespeare’s plays lies in female characters’ dramatization as “acoustic subjects” (116). Applying Bloom’s argument to the character of Ophelia, who does not practice the “defensive hearing” that Bloom goes on to contend “constitutes a form of agency for women,” I would add an alternative take on the acoustic subject: she who lets sound in, in order to compose speech in relation and resonance with what is heard surrounding.

We might think of composition as something formalized, something finished, when the elements are arranged together and the result is composed, in a sense complete, settled into place. And yet, in practice, composition happens in the continuous (as Stein’s writing demonstrates): from mind to hand to eye to voice. The composition is moving constantly, and maybe, too, its author. I began with this idea of the composition in motion so as to illustrate my proposal that Ophelia is a character who makes significant use of shifts in composition, complicating any easy reading of her own body’s states of composure. Indeed, as Bruce Smith writes, “Ophelia’s identity . . . seems anything but fixed.” With each appearance on stage, her speech (or absence of) signals quite distinct acts of composition, which in turn shake her character into new shapes. Smith lists her shifts:

The knowing interlocutor with her brother in 1.3, the thoroughly frightened reporter of Hamlet’s apparent madness to her father in 2.1, the bait to draw Hamlet out in 3.1, the “straight man” for Hamlet’s lewd remarks during The Murder of Gonzago in 3.2, the mad singer of ballads in 4.5, the corpse that precipitates Hamlet’s belated leap into action in 5.1 . . . (280)

So, Ophelia is continually composing herself anew. As an auditory presence, she hears much of others’ voices through each scene in succession. As an auditor she has practice. Even if warned by her father in 1.3: ” . . . what loss your honor may sustain / If with too credent ear you list his songs,” she cannot help but hear (191). Even if she can’t help but hear (“about hearing, you have no choice” [Smith 6]), there are vital signs that she listens too. Her acts of careful listening are revealed within her vocal composition, in how she phrases, in her choice of words, and in their sounded form. While Sandra K. Fischer writes that “the sound and sense of Ophelia’s speech dim in comparison” to Hamlet’s “deafening vocal posturing” she observes something of Ophelia’s speech, which, in my reading makes evident her attention to listening. Fischer writes that “typically she echoes a statement put to her by rephrasing it into a question” (2). While the mimicry of male characters’ voices is problematic in that Ophelia might speak in patterns of language prescribed by dominant masculine others, this observation is useful here for two reasons. Firstly: her echoic response is evidence of her role as an active auditor, as a listener, and secondly: she rephrases.

The following example from Act 3, Scene 1, after a brief to and fro of questioning regarding Ophelia’s honesty, is characteristic of this rephrasing:

Hamlet: That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should admit no discourse to your beauty.
Ophelia: Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than with honesty? (289)

The rephrasing is evidence that the echo is not simply an act of mindless repetition. In fact, what Ophelia performs in her altered reflection of others’ words could be compared to the way sound performs in the physical production of an echo. Of course there are multiple conditions needed for an echo to bounce and be heard in the physical world, including the sound wave bouncing at the same angle at which it hits the reflecting surface and the presence of other reflecting surfaces to amplify the sound. But described in terms of its performance, an echo carries the sound back to the body that made it: repatterning, recomposing (and even decomposing) itself in the act. With the physical echo, the surface(s) the sound waves reflect off, and the distance the sound waves travel through, determine how much recalibrating we perceive of the original sonic character. This recomposing of the sound to make echo takes place in the air, between surfaces: as Brian Massumi reasons, this “resonation is not on the walls,” but in “the emptiness between them” (14). In her capacity as the performer of an altering echo, as a character who performs with sound, could air be Ophelia’s material or tool for recomposing? A material to craft, model or sculpt into voice?

Bloom writes ” . . . one of the most important materials of an actor’s craft, breath is ‘material’ to the actor’s voice in the broader early modern (now obsolete) sense of ‘materials’ as ‘the constituent, intrinsic, or essential parts of something'”(68). The experimentation with air for its fascination as a volatile material is something that happens throughout Hamlet. Carla Mazzio, in “The History of Air: Hamlet and the trouble with Instruments,” observes that “this is a play marked by characters who not only have trouble breathing, but who try to take the air into their own hands” (176). While in Hamlet there is much illustration of conceiving or imagining the body as an instrument, or as a machine, Mazzio contends that the air is not “typically something to be effectually sawed at, penetrated, or cut into.” Indeed it is treated with a respect for its invulnerability as “the woundless air,” “the majestical roof” (160).

In practice air is breathed and the body can compose the articulation, amplification, direction of the voice made of breath. To an extent the vocal body can determine the voice’s sonic existence in the air outside the body, in the space between speaker and listener. And yet, once transmitted into air-space, the sound of the voice is to a large extent unpredictable. Gina Bloom makes a compelling argument for how female characters in Richard III, Titus Andronicus, Othello, and King John “embrace breath’s volatile attributes” in order “to practice a subtle but robust form of vocal agency” (68). Agency is here connected to an understanding, knowledge of the voice’s changeable impact in space. Bloom writes:

Where a traditional view of potent, transgressive speech might emphasise a bond between voice and body—the speaking agent having “a voice of her own”—in these plays the disarticulation of voice from body generates vocal power. (68)

Significantly, Bloom is emphasizing that, unlike male characters who attempt to control a substance which ultimately cannot be controlled, female characters operating with (not against) the lack of control manifest a particular form of “communicative power.” The effect of “the disarticulation of voice from the body”—the disjointing of the authorial body from the voice it speaks—could be compared to Ophelia’s practice of distancing herself from her own voice. Not only does she take on and rephrase the voices of those around her, she also in the example I read above, personifies beauty and honesty so that they become the subjects of her sentence, thus absenting herself from the content of her own speech. And so in this way Ophelia acts like air. Like air, she distances her body’s presence from her voice. Like air, she moves through the play in shifting personas, unfixed and ambiguous. As a host for sound, the air offers the space for sounds to shift, transform, echo and reverberate. So too, like air, she recomposes the sounds she hears. Maybe too it is like air she precariously hosts her own voice, whether aware or unaware of its oddly detached relationship with her own body, and how that might complicate or conceal her character?

Bruce Smith illustrates the importance of the correlation between voice and character in relation to the air as host when he writes:

Character is a function of performance in general, but of voice in particular. It is located not in the actor on stage, or even in the audience’s imagination, but somewhere between the two—in the air, within the wooden O. (280)

Although instead of characters, Smith suggests we “might more accurately talk about the persons of the play . . . which captures the double sense of person as both a body (the actor’s ‘person’) and a voice (sound-through-a-mask from per-sonare, ‘to sound through’).” (280). Bloom points out that the mask, termed “persona” by the Romans, as well as “producing a visual effect . . . helped amplify the actor’s voice via a resonating chamber in its forehead.” (212). That persona is also linked to an ancient technology of amplification hidden in costume is fascinating in itself, but also is useful to think of when approaching present-day stagings of Hamlet which might make use of ever more sophisticated sound technologies to alter persona through vocal character. I am thinking here explicitly of The Wooster Group’s 2007 production of Hamlet in which all the actors (doubling the film version of Richard Burton’s 1964 Hamlet) wore head microphones, through which sounded voice was affected and moved between speakers, alongside the film image and soundtrack of voices. Not in specific reference to The Wooster Group’s Hamlet, but in general, the microphone performs an electric action of distancing the voice from the body, with the potential to swallow sounds and carry them to faraway speakers. Sound technology today can compose or recompose character in an instant, stripping away all of what one might recognize to be the qualities or defining features of one’s voice.

Ophelia on the page has no microphone or resonating mask, but she does have some practical methods with which to test how her voice “works” in relation to others and herself.

Finally, to reiterate, in her rephrasing the words she hears, in reforming air in the mouth, Ophelia composes. In performing this act of composition through listening, through observation, Ophelia is able to practice subtle moments of subversion, twisting words into new orders and feeding them back to those who uttered them. I choose “moments” as a measure of time for Ophelia’s acts of subversion quite particularly, as she is a character who appears as a vocal subject and complex communicator in a few brief instances. Ophelia’s questions are insistent, and on many occasions she asks for clarification: “My lord?” / “What means your lordship?” / “What is my lord?” / “What means this, my lord?” Like a prompt in helping other voices compose, Ophelia has moments of helping keep pace within dialogue. Ophelia’s questions ask others, primarily Hamlet, to answer again, to repeat, to reconsider, to recompose, even if her interlocutor refuses to communicate the desired answers.[ii]

When we say a person is composed it is to notice something of their character, their state of being, their relation with themselves. The composed person is collected, calm, self-possessed. They are measured. They have “their feelings or passions under control” (OED). To reiterate the title of the paper at this endpoint—“Ophelia composing herself”—is to emphasize that I take this action of composing to be both a sounded composing and a bodily composing. I do not think of these as entirely separate acts, so it is curious that we might imagine a composed body to be a relatively quiet, or still body. What are the sounds that characterize composure, the composed body? Although there could be reams written on her shift into song here, I will turn briefly to Ophelia’s final scene where singing has famously been the defining characteristic of her mental decomposition. I would suggest that the practice of composing her voice offers Ophelia a method with which to compose her body. As a speaker she listens to others and then listens to herself. Maybe too, she practices the kind of singing we make without even knowing. Many people sing to themselves in order to compose themselves. The combination of this instinctive practice and the final scene of Hamlet leads me to ponder on whether over the arc of the play, Ophelia is perpetually in the process of composing herself without ever reaching a state of composure. To be composed implies the action is already done: it is in the past. Ophelia is a character in the continuous, in Stein’s continuous present. Ophelia composes herself, but is never simply composed.

An endnote on how I compose myself.

This paper, written to be read aloud for an audience of ears who might help compose the words as heard, begins with a particular tense—the present perfect progressive: a tense I am fond of for its reach from the past through the present and into the future. I have been thinking holds all temporalities at once in its phrasing—it does not specify or pinpoint time, but lets time act in the continuous; and lets the action time carries run from, through, and onwards. I think about the performance of sound this way, as continuously moving, composing itself as it carries through airspace, and this is often reflected in the work I make. With particular attention to how a female body might use the sound of her voice to complicate any passive form of aural spectatorship, my practice often seeks out strategies or methods with which to unsettle the way voice is identified. If voice as sound is always on the move, in flux, then any easy identification of it is already complicated. As a provocation to respond, the essay above illustrates several methods for practicing with the voice, with the central method being that of the female body composing in and for the continuous: constantly listening and composing her own voice through careful attention to audition and those voices speaking around her. Ophelia, as a model of a body and voice in continuous composition, offers ways in which to investigate gender and sound today. Not unlike Elin Diamond’s development of “a feminist mimesis,” which “would take the relation to the real as productive, not referential, geared to change, not producing the same,” Ophelia offers a way of unmaking mimesis through practicing with recomposing the physical properties of sounds heard (xvi). As I have written in the essay above, Ophelia’s composition is characterized by her rephrasing of Hamlet’s words. In this way Ophelia’s mimicry of Hamlet is more sophisticated than it might initially appear. Through her subtle rearrangement of his forceful and obviously commanding speech, Ophelia confuses her traditional positioning as referential to Hamlet’s words, as she is, in her composing (to borrow Elin Diamond’s phrasing) “geared to change.” Applying something of this method in my own practice, I have been working with composing voices speaking in delay, in effect literally conducting a second body to perform the echo sound of the first. I think of the time delay between the two voices speaking as the time (when) of the composition, a rolling time-space in which the rhythms of listening and speaking manifest Stein’s continuous present. Instead of the echo being produced by the architecture within which the initial sound is produced, the echo is here made a character herself, someone who resounds through listening. Unlike the classical figure of Echo, the echoic voice in my practice is not bound to slavishly repeat, stuck with only the words of others: indeed, her echoic capacity is not imposed by others. Rather, the second voice (as can be heard in the sound piece accompanying this essay, see below) is one who holds her own agency in selecting what to listen to and what to recompose. She speaks in a different voice, a different body, and makes this fact explicit when she flies into her own composed song. In my reimagining of Hamlet’s key speech, then, his voice is spoken by two women in succession, one following the other, before finally, the two voices join again, this time speaking Ophelia’s words, where they end “like sweet bells jangled out of time.” To be out of time is of course in another way to be glaringly present in time, to break any passivity in listening, as attention is made sharper by what sounds off the beat or discordant. Those unstable sounds demand a different kind of listening—an attuning to the productive potential of listening to all temporalities at once.

[Design: Joe Hales]

Listen to
Download the audio


[i]Gina Bloom describes how in seventeenth century preaching the ear is “an organ that performs both secular and spiritual tasks” and cites Robert Wilkinson’s A Jewell for the Eare (1605), in which he writes of the “arte” and “talent” of “hearing with your ears” when practicing listening to protestant sermons.

[ii]And certainly this is something Gertrude does with more exactitude and assertion when she asks for “more matter with less art” from Polonius’s speech in Act 2, Scene 2.

Works Cited

Bloom, Gina. Voice in Motion: Staging Gender, Shaping Sound in Early Modern England. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2007.

Diamond, Elin. Unmaking Mimesis. Oxon: Routledge, 1997.

Fischer, Sandra K. “Hearing Ophelia: Gender and Tragic Discourse in Hamlet.” Renaissance & Reformation, n.s. 14 (1990): 1-10.

Massumi, Brian. Parables for the Virtual. Durham and London: Duke UP, 2002.

Mazzio, Carla. “The History of Air: Hamlet and the trouble with Instruments.” South Central Review, 26.1 & 2 (2009): 153-196.

Novy, Marianne. Love’s Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1984.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Eds. Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor. London: Methuen Drama, 2006.

Smith, Bruce. R. The Acoustic World of Early Modern England. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999.

Stein, Gertrude. “Composition as Explanation,” A Stein Reader. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern UP, 1993.

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter