The rest is silence


I had a wonderful, unexpectedly quiet day on Friday, waiting for something to be delivered. The last time I was at home, the peace was somewhat disturbed by a neighbour practising his trumpet – The Entertainer and Christmas carols. In September. This time, perhaps helped by the fact it was cold enough not to have the windows open, I basked in glorious silence.

It is a surprisingly powerful thing, silence. Depending on your mood, sound can be psychological torture – or its absence is. Shakespeare uses his silences both ways. While Coriolanus finds respite from his badgering friends in his wife, calling her “my gracious silence”, Banquo’s ghost is more fearsome in his silence than he could be in any speech – Macbeth implores him “If thou canst nod, speak too”.

Of course, silence can also convey almost as much meaning as words. In Much Ado About Nothing Claudio and Hero’s love leaves them tongue-tied:

Claud. Silence is the perfectest herald of joy. I were but little happy if I could say how much. Lady, as you are mine, I am yours. I give away myself for you and dote upon the exchange.

Beat. Speak, cousin; or, if you cannot, stop his mouth with a kiss and let not him speak neither.

And of course, this early lack of communication (and possible even the kissing!) heralds the troubles in store…

Conversely, in the final scene of Measure for Measure Isabel’s silence means we don’t know whether marriage is on the cards – the Duke says:

Dear Isabel,

I have a motion much imports your good;

Whereto if you’ll a willing ear incline,

What’s mine is yours, and what is yours is mine.

So, bring us to our palace, where we’ll show

What’s yet behind that’s meet you all should know.

And that’s it. Exeunt omnes. The End. It leaves a wonderful note of uncertainty which directors can play with at their will – this production seems to take a rather different slant to the one I saw.

And this is one of the (many) reasons I love Shakespeares – he can say as much with silences as other playwrights do with words…


4 thoughts on “The rest is silence

  1. Ha! I love the mix of the Entertainer and Christmas carols. Maybe your neighbour is so bad at playing, he has to practice for three months to be competent?
    Banquo’s silence always stuck in my head. It’s creepy and mildly frustrating – you’ve bothered to come back from the grave, at least have the decency to give us a good speech. Though, as you say, the silence itself has eloquence.
    Thanks – a really interesting post.
    BTW, how many ghosts are featured in Shakespeare’s plays? I feel like there are loads, but can’t think of many off hand. Though with ghosts and witches and other supernatural goings on, the plays lend themselves perfectly to Halloween themed posts …


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