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Figures of Voice in Early Modern Europe

  • Author(s): Helou, Ariane Nada;
  • Advisor(s): Shemek, Deanna;
  • et al.

This multidisciplinary dissertation explores theories of vocality in modern and early modern sources and examines the status of voice as a nexus of lyrical expression, affect, and embodiment in Renaissance poetry, drama, and music.

Renaissance writers were keenly aware of the power of the human voice: its persuasiveness, its capacity to move the affections, its uniqueness to the body from which it emanates. Yet modern philosophy and critical theory, fields that substantially inform Renaissance studies today, generally use the term “voice” as a metaphor that points to psychoanalytical, political, and structural questions. I argue that if we take voice to be only a metaphor, we overlook both its obvious bodily properties and the importance of oral culture and performance in Renaissance literary production; at the same time, if we consider only the faculty of vocalization, we miss the philosophical and poetic resonances of voice. In charting a genealogy of both embodied and literary voices in sixteenth-century literature, my project restores an often-overlooked dimension of vocality to considerations of early modern texts and their relation to bodies, gender, and power.

Following a theoretical introductory chapter, each subsequent chapter presents case studies of vocal archetypes from ancient myth and their afterlives in Renaissance literature and culture: the Sibyl, Philomela, Orpheus, and Echo. These figures of voice were present in the humanist consciousness, articulating the tenacious, often enigmatic relation of voice to body, affect, gender, and subjectivity that seems to have been so crucial to Renaissance theories of meaning. In these studies I draw upon literary and musicological scholarship, critical theory and philosophy, and performance histories and practices; my primary texts include sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century literature in Italian, English, and French, in conversation with their ancient Latin and Greek sources. In tracing a more theoretically grounded relation between embodied and figurative voices, my study expands our understanding of early modern literature, music, and performance practices, and connects our contemporary culture’s attentiveness to voice to some of its most important historical roots.

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