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Keith M. Botelho, Renaissance Earwitnesses: Rumor and Early Modern Masculinity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-230-61941-8. Xiv + 199 pp., Hbk.  $85

Reviewed by Viviana Comensoli

[1]  Keith Botelho’s Renaissance Earwitnesses: Rumor and Early Modern Masculinity is an important contribution to the growing scholarship on early modern drama’s engagement with aural and acoustic traditions and practices. The book explores dramatic representations of ‘earwitnessing,’ the ‘sifting and distilling of information that comes to the ear,’ in the context of early modern constructions of masculinity and the attendant anxiety surrounding the production and reception of information in an age beset by rumour (2). In the book’s prefatory section, ‘Listening in an Age of Truthnapping,’ Botelho provides a brief excursion into our own information-hungry age, in which myriad sources – newspapers, podcasts, websites, tweets, talk-radio programs, and news broadcasts – assault our eyes and ears with spin, which ‘aligns more with entertainment than news,’ and whose success depends upon the audience’s failure to engage the content with discerning eyes and ears (xiii). Tracing the awareness of the potential dangers of spin to the fifteenth-century phrase, ‘to spin a yarn,’ or, to tell a story’ (xiv), Botelho demonstrates that in early modern England the preoccupation with the pervasiveness of rumour underwrites the access to information that was made possible by ‘the burgeoning news business, initiated by inventions of moveable type and the printing press,’ inventions that not only made communication increasingly fragile and unstable, but also created anxiety surrounding its authorization (xii-xiii).

[2]  The book provides a valuable intervention in the scholarly debate about the early modern gendering of the dissemination and reception of information, bringing important new insights into the role of masculinity in the widespread cultural anxiety about rumour (a form of male loose talk that contains elements of both truth and falsehood), and the theatre’s insistence on the need for prudent listening on the part of both men and women. In the Introduction, ‘Buzz, Buzz: Rumor in Early Modern England,’ Botelho illustrates that in a variety of early modern discourses (religious, philosophical, and scientific), the ear is described as the ‘defense mechanism against rumor’; the ear must always ‘be open, on the alert,’ ready to evaluate ambiguous information (2). The dissemination of information (via the tongue) and its reception (via the ear) thus involved “a mutually constitutive relationship between speaking rumors and earwitnessing,” a relationship expressed in the traditional depiction of Rumour or Fama as ‘an ambiguously gendered figure’ whose body was often portrayed as covered with tongues and ears (3). The figure has traditionally been viewed as portraying the threatening female tongue, with little attention having been paid to the figure’s representation of male rumour and its effects on listeners. Botelho reinterprets the figure as inscribing a ‘paradox’ at the heart of early modern culture, namely that at the same time as “male tongues were necessary for broadcasting male fame and reputation,” the failure of male speech to suppress rumour threatened the traditional definition of masculinity as dependent upon a model of authority based on the ‘Humanist insistence on caution and discernment’ (5-6). Although royal seals were employed to authenticate documents and to prevent forgery, it was often difficult to locate the origins and sources of news and information. As certitude and truth were frequently undermined by rumour, so too were the inherited notions of male authority, which ‘posited men as superior authors of information,’ creating a disruption of any “stable notion of male informational authority” (13). The theatre, argues Botelho, was an important cultural site that provided both men and women with alternative ways of guarding against rumour and other forms of oral corruption through judicious use of the ear.

[3]  The theatre itself functioned as an early modern version of the House of Fame or Rumour, to which masses of people ‘would flock to see and be seen but, more importantly, to hear news and information’ about home and abroad. A site ‘of aurality…inscribed by rumor,’ the theatre highlighted ‘the slipperiness of received information, the necessity of earwitnessing, and the resulting consequences for male and female identities’ (8). The threat of gossiping women and of female unruly speech that one finds in numerous discourses of the period, including marriage manuals and other domestic-conduct books, is displaced in a number of plays by the more dangerous threat of male rumour mongering. Male characters destabilize their own informational power by speaking loosely, an activity deemed the province of women, in effect creating ‘their own anxieties about hearing’ (5). In numerous plays, the failure of various male characters to earwitness is juxtaposed with the prudent listening not only of wiser males but also of female characters whose ability to listen with discernment disrupts male claims to informational authority. Early modern England’s ‘paradigmatic earwitness,’ argues Botelho, is Elizabeth I, ‘the all-hearing authority of information’ who was highly aware of the political underpinning of rumour as the result of her extensive experience with loose talk, to which she was subjected throughout her reign (23, 15). Elizabeth ‘casts a significant shadow’ over the drama’s own grappling with the issues attending loose speech, listening, and authority (14).

[4]  In well-documented and lucidly written chapters on Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Jonson, and a brief concluding section on Elizabeth Cary, Botelho corrects the longstanding critical assumption that in the early modern period female transgressive speech is represented as the main threat to male authority and social stability. Although the drama highlights the anxiety that talking like women will undermine masculinity, and often maligns ‘the female tongue as the unruly bodily member,’ female characters ultimately function as scapegoats for male loose talk, which poses a greater threat than gossip to informational authority because of its broader social and political ramifications (75). In chapter one, ‘Table Talk: Marlowe’s Mouthy Men,’ Botelho begins by exploring the Humanist tradition of aural discernment and its displacement by ‘the loose scholarly tongues at Cambridge University in the sixteenth century,’ and by Marlowe’s own life, which was repeatedly the subject of rumour (23). The rest of the chapter examines the relation between rumour and masculinity in Dido, Queen of Carthage, The Massacre at Paris, and Edward II. Although the portrayal of Dido relies on the stereotype of the garrulous woman who ‘attempts to destroy a man’s fame,’ and whose ‘raving’ leads her to suicide, in all three plays rumour, lies, and false oaths are associated with male transgressive speech, which is more dangerous to masculine authority and the political order (39). Aeneas, Guise, Mortimer, and Edward II all fail to discern the dangerous potential of both male and female loose talk, a failure that destabilizes masculine and political sovereignty. In The Massacre at Paris, Marlowe demonstrates that men’s lies, blasphemies, and rumours underscore the precariousness of truth and report, and therefore ‘pose the greatest threat to other men’ (39). In Dido, Aeneas is able to discriminate between male toxic speech and truth only with the help of the gods and Achates, whose earwitnessing helps Aeneas regain his warrior status and reinstate his male authority. In Edward II, Edward’s ‘loose tongue and corrupted ear’ (47) precipitate his tragic fall. His failures are contrasted with the political acumen of his young heir, Edward III, who reveals a profound understanding about the importance of listening to counsel and of discerning loose speech “from the mouths of men” (24).

[5]  Chapter 2, ‘Bruits and Britons: Rumor, Counsel, and the Henriad,’ investigates Shakespeare’s emphasis in the second tetralogy on the necessity for earwitnessing, in the context of the counselling of monarchs found in the pervasive war treatises of the sixteenth century and Sackville and Norton’s play Gorboduc (1562). Botelho persuasively argues that just as the war treatises persistently advise monarchs about the need for discernment as the foundation of effective rulership, Shakespeare’s Henriad, like Gorboduc, demonstrates that a king’s refusal to hear and to discriminate between all types of counsel (including counsel based on rumour) and ‘to discern lies and dissimulation’ is a failure that ‘results in civil war’ (57). Another important issue staged in Gorboduc is the prevalent distrust among male characters, including the King, of information and news reported by women, and the attendant anxiety about female authority, in contrast to ‘the blind trust and authority granted to male report’ (59). In Richard II, Shakespeare contrasts male effective listening, as practised by the new King, Henry IV, in his listening to the Duchess of York’s logical reasons for soliciting Henry to spare the life of her son, with Richard’s failure to listen to wise counsel ‘as he falls prey to flattering tongues’ (61). In 1 Henry IV, Prince Hal is trained in earwitnessing in the tavern world, where he learns to respond to Falstaff’s rumours and unrestrained tongue. Hal’s abilities as ‘a scrutinizing listener’ contrast with Hotspur’s disdain ‘for both verbal and written counsel, coupled with his elevation of talking over listening’ (65). Hotspur’s disregard of counsel leads to rebellion, while Hal’s earwitnessing sustains both his and England’s ‘fame’ (73).

[6]  In Chapter 3, ‘”I heard a bustling rumour”: Shakespeare’s Aural Insurgents,’ Botelho discusses Titus Andronicus, King Lear, Measure for Measure, Othello, The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, and All’s Well that Ends Well in terms of women’s participation in ‘dissident auditory communities’ and their ability to earwitness, which “have the potential to undermine masculine authority” (24). Especially engaging is Botelho’s analysis of Lavinia’s coercion into speechlessness in Titus. As in Shakespeare’s representation of female silence in a number of other plays, including King Lear and Measure for Measure, Lavinia succeeds in inscribing herself, through her earwitnessing, ‘within a domain of masculine authority without [her] tongue’ (81). In All’s Well that Ends Well, as men’s loose talk disrupts traditional social stratification in terms of gender distinctions, ‘the female ear emerges as that insurgent bodily member’ whose role is to protect society ‘against the tongues of men’ (94).

[7]  In Chapter 4, ‘”Nothing but the truth”: Ben Jonson’s Comedy of Rumors,’ Botelho contends that Jonson’s obsession with the act of listening in his plays complements his broader interest in the relation between masculinity, authorized information, and rumour. ‘Jonson’s comedy of rumor plays’ – Epicoene, Bartholomew Fair, The Staple of News, The New Inn, and The Magnetic Lady – foreground the ‘aural failures and successes’ of male characters at the same time as they assert Jonson’s ‘own authority’ as playwright to oversee ‘the news and the printing of his plays’ and to cater for discerning spectators, ‘who will “understand” his authorized words’ (24-25). In the brief, concluding chapter, ‘“Contrary to truth”: Elizabeth Cary’s Tragedy of Rumor,’ Botelho discusses Cary’s Tragedy of Mariam, which, by virtue of its generic status as a closet drama, ’emphasizes not the visual but the aural,’ and the tragic social and political consequences of failing to decipher ‘information that comes to the ear’ (128, 130). In the book’s final paragraph, Botelho touches on Cary’s The History of the Life, Reign, and Death of Edward II as a play in which she ‘returns to the story of a failed royal earwitness’ (130).

[8]  I was, however, left wondering why the discussion of Elizabeth Cary, the only female dramatist whose work the book engages, was sidelined to the conclusion, when Cary’s articulation of the radical potential of female silence in The Tragedy of Mariam corroborates so well Botelho’s analyses of the representation, in plays authored by men, of the widespread anxiety in early modern England attending informational authority. A fuller comparison between Cary’s Edward II and Marlowe’s dramatization of Edward’s reign a number of years earlier would also have been useful. Given Botelho’s emphasis on the role of the printing press in fostering concern about male informational authority, I would also have liked to see more attention paid to the influence of news pamphlets on dramatic and other early modern cultural representations of rumour and the instability of male speech and report. Overall, however, the book enhances in significant ways our understanding of the role of gender in the authorization, production, and reception of information in early modern England.

Wilfrid Laurier University, June 2011