Ballads and Performance: The Multimodal Stage in Early Modern England

"Dangerous Conjectures": Ophelia’s Ballad Performance

mad girl is about to make her entrance, and a courtier, or perhaps the visiting scholar, Horatio, wants to prepare the royal company. “She is importunate,” he relates, “indeed distraught. / Her mood will needs be pitied. More to the point, he warns, they may find themselves thinking when she appears—and so should put their thoughts into a certain frame beforehand. She will be alleging, this man notes, that “There’s tricks i’ th’ world” (4.1.5). “Her speech is nothing,” of course, he reassures them, and yet he must tell them that
the unshaped use of it doth move
The hearers to collection. They aim at it
And botch the words up fit to their own thoughts. (4.1.8-10)

Ophelia’s odd gestures, and the thoughts they elicit, the courtier or scholar continues, “Indeed would make one think there would be thought / Though nothing sure, yet much unhappily.” Someone, either the queen or the visiting scholar, responds that the mad girl should be “spoken with, for she may strew / Dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds” ( And when Ophelia enters, the sight of her—and especially the sound of her—is just as disturbing as has been reported. She is disheveled, singing songs, snatches of ballads, evocative of grief, sexual duplicity, and cruelty.

As Ophelia leaves, one of the onlookers—and a politically astute one, the king—wonders if the corrupted state of the popular mind might be the cause of her distraction, or at least somehow implicated in it: “the people,” that is, are also “muddied / Thick and unwholesome in their thoughts and whispers” (4.1.79-80). The damaged psyche of this “sweet lady” (4.1.27) has been infiltrated, it appears, by the crude cognition of the mob, which can be heard insinuating itself in and through the popular songs she sings.

What is it that, in this famous scene from Hamlet, makes Ophelia so “dangerous”? Is there some intelligible and dangerous “thought” that she expresses, however indirectly, through her songs, and is that what puts the court on edge? The courtiers seem uneasy about her intellection, and how it might relate to their own. Or is it that Ophelia’s songs, her ballads, violate court decorum, perhaps just by being ballads? Or is it, more simply, Ophelia’s seeming insanity that is so troubling?

In the fall of 2015, a class of graduate students and I spent a week or so trying to think through these questions. Just as there are many voices in this scene with Ophelia, there were many voices in our class. Some of our answers accompany this essay; they represent our “joint and several discussion. This essay is meant not so much as a distillation of that discussion as an unfolding of it. Like the courtiers in this scene, we addressed ourselves to the provocation of Ophelia’s mad appearance and tried to “aim” our thoughts at what she might signify.

One consensus was reached: such questions could not be addressed in isolation from one another. The appearance of Ophelia is explicitly framed as a cognitive problem, at least for the court. She may or may not be thinking deliberatively, but the courtiers certainly are: they are thinking about whether she is really thinking, about her thoughts, shaped or otherwise. Ophelia, they note, is not making claims of any obvious sort. She’s not saying anything that can be connected, in some transparent way, to her intent. She is, rather, throwing out observations, quoting sententiae, and framing scenarios—most of them lifted from the discourse of “the people” whom King Claudius so distrusts. If the substance of Ophelia’s thinking is in question for the courtiers, then they must also question, inevitably, the popular forms she adopts. Could ballads serve as vehicles for shaped thought? The query “can Ophelia mean?” leads them (and us) to “can ballads mean?”, or “can aphorisms mean?”

Similar questions apply to Ophelia’s madness. If she is altogether mad, as they suspect, then her songs and odd declarations are, apriori, as empty of significance as she herself seems to be. But if, as they cannot help but imagine, there “might be thought, then her ballads and sayings will have to be accorded some kind of meaning, if just for the moment. The scene is one of interrogation, not so much of Ophelia, who drifts in and out, lost in her own mind, but of the court itself as it struggles to make sense of its own ways of making sense. The linkage the play offers us here is startling: on the one hand, a subtle inquiry into “thinking” that is caught, recursively, in making and unmaking its own object; on the other hand, unmoored significance, fraught with implications, flickering in and out of recognition. What, we asked in our discussions, does Shakespeare want us to make of these sophisticated, knowledgeable people, caught off guard by their own perplexities over thought and the shapes it can take?

Those perplexities, we came to feel, were the upshot of a particular moment in the intellectual history of early modern England. Recently, Katherine Eggert has shown that courtiers such as Horatio—who, in the Folio, is the one who describes Ophelia’s “winks and nods and gestures” (4.5.11)—were “especially in need of” and thus “especially good at” a “tricky epistemological maneuver,” one she calls “disknowledge”: that is, “being acquainted with something and being ignorant of it, both at the same time.”

As Eggert points out, “humanistically educated men of the turn of the seventeenth century…. found themselves in … a longstanding crisis.” Around the middle of that century, “text-based learning” like theirs would give way to “Baconian empiricism.” But there would be a “long lag time” before this happened. Learned men of Horatio’s time could feel one edifice of thought collapsing around them, but they didn’t yet know what would take its place. And, as late humanism came to seem like “antiquated learning,” Eggert argues, Horatio and his sort “manage[d] epistemological risk” by “develop[ing] a number of strategies for managing knowledge.” Many of these strategies, she says, “amount[ed] to means for knowing less. As informed minds were aware, their informing ideas were exhausted.
“Words, words, words

Eggert can help us to get at what is going on in Ophelia’s mad scene: Horatio and the other courtiers are not just ignorant of what Ophelia and her ballads might portend. They are manufacturing ignorance for their own epistemic purposes. After all, the notion that Ophelia (or the ballads she sings) might have some meaning is not, in fact, a very implausible one. Ophelia is addled, true, but finding method in madness is something these courtiers do quite willingly elsewhere in the play (when, for instance, the “mad” person in question is the prince). And her songs? Not only are the stories they tell, or allude to, rich in implications, but those implications, as scholars have long recognized, speak directly to what’s been going on in Elsinore.

This scene, though, can also help us to refine Eggert’s argument. There was a problem with late humanism that went beyond how belated it was. It was also inconveniently akin to, even saturated by, what we now call “popular culture.” Eggert tends to talk in terms of “systems” or “disciplines” which, in the early modern period, do (not) necessarily displace one another. “It is possible,” she notes shrewdly, “to be skeptical about a system while still functioning wholly within it. But Horatio and the other courtiers are not responding to a “system” when Ophelia puts in her appearance. Rather, she is distracted, the very opposite of coherent. And for good reason: the popular media that Ophelia is channeling are operating disjointedly, too. Ballads, tags, images, tunes and the other popular “stuff” of the period did not a fixed order make. Rather, they constituted a loose amalgam of materials that, in practice, were often recombined and repurposed, as when many ballads were sung to the same tune, or a single woodcut was attached to one ballad text after another. That none of this “stuff” could convey knowledge was precisely the claim that intellectuals of the time, like Horatio, made again and again. It is impossible, John Marston declared in 1601, “to find wit in ballading.

So, the threat to Horatio and the court in this scene is not from anything “systematic,” a competitive order of things to what counts for him as learning. Instead, he is challenged, it seems, by something more amorphous but just as threatening: an uncanny simulacrum, a “nothing” that “might” be, but cannot be, “thought.” And this intuition, too, arises from a specific intellectual predicament, though not (only) the one Eggert mentions. Humanists like Horatio were well aware that their “knowledge practices had run their course, as she says, but they had a further problem: those same “knowledge practices” were not as refined as they would have liked them to be. And this was because the popular discourses that humanists disparaged were not nearly as alien to them as they claimed. Peter Burke noted some twenty years ago that, at the time Hamlet was written, elite and popular cultures were still sorting themselves out. They had not yet achieved a sharp distinction from one another. 

"The Countrey Lasses good Fortune"

The sophisticates of this era were poised somewhere along a continuum between their counterparts a century earlier (around 1500) when, Burke says, they would have “despised the common people, but shared their culture,” and their counterparts two centuries in the future (around 1800), when they would still have despised the common people, but would also have “ceased to participate” in their culture. Around 1600, when Hamlet was written, in places such as taverns, inns, and alehouses, different “sorts” shared the same entertainments.
A Convivial Scene

Thus, it’s more than likely that Horatio and the others know and understand the references of the ballads that Ophelia sings; they just don’t want to know them. And so in this scene we see embattled “highbrows” fighting off not just the newer knowledge that they cannot, as yet, assimilate but also the “lowbrow” knowledge that they cannot accept as knowledge—that is, for them, in fact, not knowledge, not really, but a debased popular “wit” lodged uncomfortably within the “system” they inhabit. That is why the epistemic defenses mobilized in this scene are so complex, and why the scene has so much to tell us about the tense relations between elite and popular mentalities in the period. What the scene reveals is precisely not a conflict between “cultures,” popular and elite, but instead a widely shared culture in which some, for their own reasons, pretend not to know what they do know—a “tricky epistemological maneuver” indeed, and even trickier than Eggert makes out. These courtiers are employing not just the disknowledge strategies typical of “England’s learned classes"—"being acquainted with something and being ignorant of it at the same time—but disknowledge about disknowledge itself. They deny that what they are denying could even be knowledge in the first place, although it’s theirs. No wonder, then, that the intricacies of this epistemic contradiction collapses in on them, leaving them anxiously scrutinizing their thoughts to see what they might be thinking about a mad woman who also might be thinking, but can’t be…or can she?

When Ophelia Looks at You, Who Looks Back?

Our emphasis on the (mis)workings of the intellect in this scene runs counter to other critical approaches, some of which take emotion not intellection to be the keynote. For instance, Bruce R. Smith, a sophisticated reader of ballads, has argued that what ballads brought with them into Shakespeare’s plays was mostly, or even only, “feeling.If Ophelia’s transit across the stage tells us anything, however, it’s that intellectual problems did not just disappear when ballads were sung there. It’s good to be reminded that ballads were well known to Shakespeare’s audiences and that much of their response would have been visceral. But those same audiences would have understood that the question of “wit” in ballads was not a settled one, and they would have recognized the disavowal of popular culture concealed a deeper recognition.

As an index of the “dangerous conjectures” that the culture of the people, “Thick and unwholesome in their thoughts,” could elicit in a man like Horatio, take this scene of ballad reception, here re-imagined in 1919 by Hyder E. Rollins, one of the great ballad scholars of his day: 
On the outskirts of the crowd [listening to ballads] there always stood some fine gentleman who sardonically adventured his ears for the mere recreation of seeing how thoroughly the bystanders were affected by the singer, what strange gestures came from them and what strained stuff from their poet, what shifts they made to ‘stand to hear,’ what extremities he was driven to for rimes, how they risked their purses and he his wits, how well the pains of both were recompensed—the crowd with a filthy noise, the singer with a pitiful penny!
     Rollins is paraphrasing the remarks of Sir William Cornwallis, who is much quoted on the subject of ballads.
“All kinde of bookes are profitable”:

“[M]y custome is to read these [ballads],” he alleges in his Essayes, “and presently to make vse of them, for they lie in my priuy, and when I come thither, and haue occasion to imploy it, I read them, a halfe a side at once is my ordinary, which, when I haue read, I vse in that kind, that waste paper is most subject too, but to a cleanlier profit. “To some contemporaries,” says Smith, drawing the obvious conclusion, “the only place for ballads was on a dung hill….The filth and dirt that even so genial an observer as Cornwallis attaches to ballads …. belongs not only to the pleasured lower extremities of his body but to the pleasured lower extremities of the social order.
“For they lie in my priuy”

Smith is on to something. Rollins is paraphrasing Cornwallis quite accurately; all the phrasing is there. But, distracted perhaps by the pungency of Cornwallis’ remarks, Smith is missing something too. Cornwallis does say that he has “adventure[d] mine ears with a ballad-singer,” as Rollins paraphrases. More to the point, he says that he was not “ashamed” to do so, and that his ears have “come home loaden to my liking, doubly satisfied, with profit, & with recreation.” Cornwallis’ description of his habits in the privy comes just after he has rejected “printed Bawdery”—that is, pornography—because “they abuse youth.” But, he further says, “lying stories, and News, and twoo penny Poets”—that is, ballads—“I would know them.
Of the observation and use of things  
And why? Consider that Cornwallis’ remarks on ballads are to be found in his fifteenth essay, “Of the observation and use of things.” Cornwallis was not an odd man out. He was one of many gentlemen in the period who were interested in whether popular thinking could count as knowledge. “I haue observed,” wrote John Norden in 1610, “that many vnlearned men haue better and more retentiue memories than haue some schollers,” for “such as haue not the use of the pen, must use the memory only, which being fed by continuall pondering the things they delight in, becomes as calender of their accounts. Similarly, Cornwallis begins his essay by recounting a conversation he had with a “Husbandma[n]…not without a great deal of wit, if it were refined, & separated fro[m] the dirt that hangs about it.” He claims that, in “an houre of my time,” he “picked out of him good Philosophy, & Astronomy, and other obseruations of Time. The reason, therefore, that Cornwallis concerns himself with ballads, which form the evidentiary centerpiece of his essay, is that he regards them as vehicles for a very real, though very coarse, form of knowledge. And, to render this knowledge useful, he advocates a process he calls “distilling these simples.” (This latter word, “simples,” in the period could mean either a person of humble origins, or a medicinal plant made up of only one constituent, or an unmixed or uncompounded thing, as in alchemy.) 
An Early Modern Alchemist at Work

Lay in a “store of the fuell of learning,” Cornwallis counsels, as if advising an apprentice alchemist, make the fire “hotte enough” to drive out the “tough vile stuffe.” Cornwallis, if we read him attentively, tells us that ballads, properly read, like the base materials from which the alchemist’s stone is rendered, are compounded of truths that will coalesce when the “obseruation, respect, [and] ciuilitie” of the learned are allowed to work upon the crudities of the unlearned. It would be too much to say that what he’s doing in his privy is conducting an experiment on the ballad, but, in fact, by wiping his bottom with “twoo penny Poets” Cornwallis is not merely expressing his contempt for them. He is rather sorting out what is edifying in their works from what is not, for “There is not that thing vppon the Earth, that well examined, yeeldes not something worthy of knowledge," he affirms. Cornwallis seems to think of ballads almost as problems of natural philosophy. They call for the full, though discerning, attention of the educated man, and they reward his “noble obseruations.” Though, admittedly, they have other uses too. 
An Early Modern Scholar

It’s clear, then, that early modern ballads could evoke not just passions in their listeners, but complicated counter-currents of thought as well. In Ophelia’s mad scene, we can note the same uneasy play of cogitation (the courtiers’) across passion (Ophelia's), and across the ballads in which she expresses her passion. It would be a mistake to say that the courtiers “respond” directly to her performance, because much of what they have to say to one another about her occurs before she enters. When she is onstage, except for a few expressions of pity, they are mostly mute. Their compassion, as we can see, is scripted. “Her mood will needs be pitied” is clearly not a spontaneous reaction but a social injunction: the volatility of Ophelia’s feelings must be met with superior restraint. But emotion is not all that is being organized here. Even this carefully felt response, the gentleman points out, will not suffice. The courtiers will discover that, willy nilly, they must also bring thought to bear, and they do so, we note, along much the same lines that Cornwallis proceeds: is there anything of value here, they ask, or is it all just dross?

But what exactly is it that is bringing forth their thoughts and feelings? The question vexes them, it seems. Ophelia’s language, they believe, is operating in the absence of any intent; that’s why it’s “unshaped.” Literally, she means “nothing,” but this is a tantalizing “nothing.” It’s one that stimulates interpretive drives. Horatio, remember, tells the court that Ophelia’s “unshaped” speech will move them to “collection.” “Collection”—which in the period could mean either “the action of inferring or deducing,” or the “action of collecting or bringing under control (one’s thoughts, etc.),” or “the action of collecting oneself, or the state of being collected; composure—is first “move[d],” and then stymied, as the “hearers” try to find significance in her lyrics. Between the mad girl and the courtiers, there is a broken hermeneutic circle. They cannot stop their “collection”—that is, their attempt to find meaning in these popular lyrics—but neither can they bring their thoughts under control because Ophelia cannot “collect” or compose herself in a way that tells them outright what they (and she) means. Smith gets the implications of this passage slightly wrong. Ophelia’s speech does not just “frustrat[e] the rationalist’s impulse toward ‘collection’” (“the action of inferring or deducing”) as he says. Instead, as the text insists, it is exactly her speech, and the “unshaped use of it” that “move[s] / The hearers to collection.” It entices as it frustrates inference and deduction.

The mad girl’s mad meanings could be somehow housed in the ballads she’s singing, or those meanings might be entirely attributed to the ballads by the listeners. They (and we) are compelled to suppose that some meeting of minds is taking place, though perhaps not. One "would think that there would be thought, / Though nothing sure, yet much unhappily.” As Eggert might put it, they are experiencing “epistemological risk,” but here, at least, they are not managing it particularly well.

And therein, our class decided, lies the danger of Ophelia’s ballad performance. Shakespeare has keyed Ophelia’s madness specifically to ballads, which present the elite knowledge of the time with a problem of its own devising. What her songs bring to the stage is not just the “passion” that was often associated with ballads, but a particular nexus of thought and feeling that ballads evoked in elite listeners: anxiety, and not just anxiety, but a particular form of anxiety that is bound up in thought, and not just thought, but self-referential thought that returns uneasily to question what it knows, the sources of its knowledge. In this scene, Shakespeare puts the elite encounter with the ballads of his day on display.
Contemplating Ophelia

We hear the highly fraught, poignant melodies that Ophelia sings, suggestive of age-old lessons about men and women, sex and power, honesty and betrayal. And then we witness the well-born listeners, poised nervously to ascertain whether they have anything to learn from these overwrought effusions, determined to prove that they do not. And then, crucially, the vexed interplay between the ballads and those listeners, as what is supposed to be on one side of a cultural dividing line turns up on the other. Ophelia’s voice is occupied by ballads, a disturbing intrusion. But the real impact of her songs is registered intellectually, as the courtiers struggle to make sense of the perplexities that arise from their own baffled responses. “There might be thought,” they cannot help but think, and, in thinking this, they pose to themselves, again and again, the problem that the ballad had become in England during this period. The elite tried to turn away from popular culture, but they knew it very well, too well, much better than they wished. The courtiers’ passions are moved and their thoughts are shaken, and disknowledge has turned, somehow, to knowledge. How could it be otherwise? The culture they claim to reject is their own.
Sir Philip Sidney

What, then, to pursue our inquiry, is Sir Philip Sidney thinking about as he looks at us from his portrait? Ballads, perhaps? “Certainly,” he says in An Apology for Poetry, “I never heard the old song of Percy and Douglas [the ballad, “Chevy Chase”] that I found not my heart moved more than with a trumpet; and yet is it sung but by some blind crowder [singer], with no rougher voice than rude style; which being so evil apparelled in the dust and cobwebs of that uncivil age, what would it work, trimmed in the gorgeous eloquence of Pindar?”
For Sidney, this rush of joy “confess[es] my own barbarousness.
But still…there might be thought.


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