Remember sitting in a cramped wooden desk in high school, furrowing your forehead over “Hamlet” or “Othello”? Walter Cannon, professor of English, knows why. You didn’t hear it.
“These texts are really meant as scripts for the stage rather than big poems you’re just supposed to read in silence,” he says.
Cannon has had a lifelong love affair with Shakespeare’s plays and recently co-edited the book “Who Hears in Shakespeare?: Shakespeare’s Auditory World, Stage and Screen.” The volume, co-edited with Laury Magnus of the United States Merchant Marine Academy, grew out of a conference session at the Shakespeare Association of America a few years ago.
Cannon compares the editing and publishing process to building a house, with him and Magnus acting as the architects. In addition to selecting and editing the essays, they wrote the introduction together and each contributed an essay to the volume. Cannon’s is titled: “Hearing Complexity: Speech, Reticence, and the Construction of Character.”
Sitting in his office in Jordan Hall crammed with Shakespearean volumes and memorabilia (including a jaunty hat with feather), Cannon talks of his long interest in Shakespeare’s dramatic language. But it wasn’t until he traveled to London in the 1980s to become Central’s study abroad director there, he explains, that he realized how important the stage was—and thus the sound that emanates from it.
“Shakespeare’s stage is primarily an acoustic stage, one that depends on the ear rather than the eye,” Cannon says.
The Globe Theater in London, where most of Shakespeare’s plays were performed while he was alive, was a thrust stage with three sides to the audience. This allowed for a much more dynamic relationship between the actors and the audience.
Cannon believes that Shakespeare’s lines become alive in the mouths of the actors and impress themselves through the ears of the hearers—much more than they would through the eyes.
“I think Shakespeare understood something about the significance of the ear,” says Cannon. “We take in things we hear in a more existential, personal and complete way than we do with our other senses. We’re often deceived by what we see.”
Cannon continues his fascination with Shakespeare with his next collaborative project—he is an assistant editor of the MLA Variorum of “Twelfth Night.” In addition to an authoritative text, it’s basically a museum of the play chronicling all the major performances and scholarly history since the 17th century. “So there are a lot of footnotes,” he says with a laugh.
As for “Who Hears in Shakespeare?,” Cannon is always using ideas from it in his Central courses, though it is mainly intended for professional Shakespeareans. It is already being used in at least one graduate course that he knows of.
And for the rest of us amateurs still looking to fall in love with the Bard, Cannon has some advice: “Go to a Shakespeare play and hear it.”