So the release date of Monstrous Little Voices is almost upon us, and I thought you might want a couple words about the title. So what’s with “Monstrous Little Voices”? Where did it come from, and why did I choose it?
The line comes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act I, Scene ii, in which the tradesmen commissioned by Theseus to put on a play for his wedding have come together for their first rehearsal. It’s a “play within a play,” a device that Shakespeare used any number of times, including in the Dream, in Love’s Labour’s Lost, famously in Hamlet and as a framing device for The Taming of the Shrew and Pericles. It’s an odd, wonderful conceit, which Shakespeare generally used to highlight particular themes and plots in the plays.
The play the mechanicals are performing is “Pyramus and Thisbe,” a tragic story about lovers from warring houses (a story Shakespeare returns to in Romeo and Juliet, written about the same time); a fitting accompaniment to the many warring lovers in Athens’ forests that night. Nick Bottom, the weaver, is a strong, confident actor whom the director, the carpenter Peter Quince, has cast as the noble Pyramus.
…a little too confident, perhaps, as he insists he can play every part, even simultaneously – when Quince offers the part of beautiful Thisbe to the bellows-maker Francis Flute, reassuring him he can cover his beard with a mask, Bottom jumps in:
An I may hide my face, let me play Thisbe too! I’ll speak in a monstrous little voice: “Thisne, Thisne!”—“Ah, Pyramus, my lover dear, thy Thisbe dear and lady dear!”
It should be obvious by this point that Bottom is a bit of a fathead. He’s a clown, shouting that he’ll play the part with a higher, squeakier voice than anyone else – a “monstrous little voice” – an absurd, ironic sort of boast.
So why did I choose it?
I’ll be honest and say I was just looking for a good Shakespearean quote that would stand out from the others. The authors weren’t yet commissioned at this point, and I didn’t know how the project would shake out yet; I wanted something that said a) this was a collection of stories by different writers, b) it was set in the world Shakespeare created, and c) it was fantastical and strange. Brave New World? Turns out there’s a tolerably well-known science fiction book by that name already. All the World’s a Stage? Wildly overused. Sound and Fury? Several films and books, and not immediately recognisable as Shakespeare (also, who wants their anthology to invoke the phrase “a tale told by an idiot”?). Monstrous Little Voices? With about 3000 hits on Google, and I could find precisely one small-press anthology from a few years ago with the title, this felt like a winner.
And a happily apt one. Monstrous ended up with three female contributors out of five, so a quote specifically about women’s voices (albeit about a man feigning a woman’s voice) seemed particularly fitting. “Monstrous” suggests loud, but also dangerous and transgressive, something I think fits the final project well. The title predated the thing, and if it fits better than expected I have to credit that to luck rather than particular foresight.
But it’s a title the book wears well.