Scores and videos from week 10. (Only mp4 files embed on the site it seems, so most of the videos here you will have to download to view.)

Scott: score and video.

Jackie: instructionsGonerilRegan, and Cordelia.

Yan: score.

Will: score.

Andrew: score.

Maddy: score.

Eli: score.

Whitney: score.

Mary N: score and video:

Mary P: score and video.

John: score.

Jeewon: score.


Lear 2.2.64-78

Cornwall: Why art thou angry?

Kent: That such a slave as this should wear a sword
Who wears no honesty. Such smiling rogues as these
Like rats oft bite the holy cords a-twain,
Which are t’intrance t’unloose; smooth every passion
That in the natures of their lords rebel,
Being oil to fire, snow to the colder moods,
Revenge, affirm, and turn their halcyon beaks
With every gall and vary of their masters,
Knowing naught, like dogs, but following.
A plague upon your epileptic visage!
Smile you my speeches as I were a fool?
Goose, if I had you upon Sarum Plain,
I’d drive ye cackling home to Camelot.

Cornwall: What, art thou mad, old fellow?

I’m interested in this moment as one in which communication seems to break down entirely, in part because of an excess of language, not a lack of it. Kent’s speech here embodies excess to a tee: it describes an excess of servitude (“oil to fire, snow to the colder moods”), there is an excessive amount of metaphor and figuration, and as a (non) answer to Cornwall’s question, the speech is in itself excessive. What I find particularly skillful—and what I think has bearing on the play as a whole—is the foundation of “naught” upon which this excess is built. Not only does this 13 line speech fail to answer Cornwall’s question, there is also (at least in the eyes of everyone else on stage) no apparent reason for it, and its string of metaphors builds into one involving dogs which both know “naught” and follow nothing, syntactically as well as metaphorically. I like the use of this in a play that in so many ways has “nothing” at its center but an old man’s folly, sparking an excessive chain of events.

What’s more, and what’s particularly pertinent to this week’s theme, this passage deals with multiple transformations of the human body into animal form. Is this merely a complement to “poor, bare, forked animal” that seems to me to be the center of this play—“unaccommodated man”? Or is there something more organized or developmental to this progression of curious and consistent animal metaphor? Each featured animal has a specific physical or verbal trait assigned to it (rats biting, birds with beaks, dogs following); there is an order and symmetry to the animal-metaphors in a rant that is otherwise made up of unstable outbursts. What’s more, this passage suggests itself as an extreme counterpart to Edgar’s more famous and more subdued speech in Act 2.3, in which he “take(s) the basest and most poorest shape / That ever penury in contempt of man / Brought near to beast.” We also have another strangely symmetrical and specific animal-laden speech by the fool at 2.4.6, commenting on Kent’s position in the stocks as a result of the encounter in question.

I’m not sure what to make of all of this beastly figurative transformation, except that I find it appropriate in this moment where people begin to thoroughly misunderstand each other, and particularly apt in a play in which civilization all but breaks down. The fact that Cornwall’s questions develop only from “why art thou angry” to “art thou mad”—two simple lines to Kent’s 13—helped me to think about the exchange that follows this speech in terms of this week’s exercise, as well. I decided to think about how Kent and his interlocutors might abandon communication altogether and staged the passage following this one as a fight.

King Lear 3.4.1-36


Here is the place, my lord: good my lord, enter;

The tyranny of the open night’s too rough

For nature to endure. Storm still.

LEAR Let me alone.


Good my lord, enter here.

LEAR Wilt break my heart?


I had rather break mine own. Good my lord, enter.


Thou think’st ’tis much that this contentious storm

Invades us to the skin: so ’tis to thee.

But where the greater malady is fixed,

The lesser is scarce felt. Thou’dst shun a bear,

But if thy flight lay toward the roaring sea,

Thou’dst meet the bear i’ th’ mouth. When the mind’s free,

The body’s delicate: this tempest in my mind

Doth from my senses take all feeling else,

Save what beats there, filial ingratitude.

Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand

For lifting food to’t? But I will punish home;

No, I will weep no more. In such a night

To shut me out? Pour on, I will endure.

In such a night as this? O Regan, Goneril,

Your old, kind father, whose frank heart gave you all –

O, that way madness lies, let me shun that;

No more of that.

KENT Good my lord, enter here.


Prithee, go in thyself. Seek thine own ease.

This tempest will not give me leave to ponder

On things would hurt me more. But I’ll go in;

[To the Fool.] In boy, go first. You houseless poverty –

Nay, get thee in. I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep. Fool exits.

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,

Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you

From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en

Too little care of this. Take physic, pomp,

Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,

That thou may’st shake the superflux to them

And show the heavens more just.

I include Kent’s lines to Lear at the beginning of 3.4 for context, but I’d like to track the psychological distance covered between – and within – Lear’s first two speeches in the scene. I was impressed by the number of ramifications generated from the basic source of conflict or tension here: Kent’s struggle to lead Lear into shelter. Lear’s monologues are, functionally, justifications for resisting Kent’s efforts, and the first speech in fact identifies Kent as its audience through direct address; when Lear invents a rather spontaneous analogy for preferring the lesser of two proverbial evils, we can assume that he is still addressing Kent. Thereafter, though, “the tempest in my mind” appears to coopt the properly dialogic capacity of Lear’s speech and Lear begins to refer to himself in posing a series of self-directed challenges or internal struggles. Lear can’t come to grips with Regan’s and Goneril’s ingratitude, so he vacillates – between restraining and venting emotion, between expressing indignation and disbelief, and, into the second speech, between following Kent and braving the storm. The progress of the action here depends on Lear’s remaining undecided (and so, delivering his lines outdoors), whereas the characterological effect of his insecurity might serve to underscore his frailty, or foreshadow his madness, or demonstrate the extent of his grief, or perform all three functions at once: the point being, Lear does not know his mind, and he speaks and acts accordingly.

But one transition over the course of this passage struck me above all, which involves the extension of sympathy or feeling (such a crucial term in the play) Lear undergoes between his first and second monologues. “[T]his tempest in my mind / Doth from my senses take all feeling else, / Save what beats there, filial ingratitude,” Lear initially declares, after explaining that, “where the greater [mental/psychological/spiritual/emotional] malady is fixed, / The lesser [physical] is scarce felt.” Lear’s frame of reference at the outset of the scene is only as wide as his personal experience, despite the amplification achieved by setting his domestic, paternal afflictions against his physical suffering during the storm. Lear’s admission to feeling nothing but the sting of “filial ingratitude” attests to a kind of sensorial obstruction that apparently deteriorates by the time Lear is incapable of even registering his daughters’ cruelty (“In such a night / To shut me out? Pour on, I will endure. / In such a night as this?). This suggests both an imaginative sterility* and a degree of self-concern that Lear reverses in his apostrophic second speech to an altogether different, drastically expanded audience. Lear’s unexpected invocation of his public, political sphere of influence – his reign, no more successful than his fatherhood – introduces another dimension to the representation of irresponsible authority in the play and adds depth and complexity to the humanity personified in the figure of Lear. We’ll talk about feeling in terms of identification or sympathy and in connection with seeing, I hope (recall Gloucester at 4.1.70-74, especially), but we can also discuss the status of obligation and loyalty, and even justice, as considered here. And might we push as far as love?


*I make this observation about Lear’s circumscribed point of view without any sound explanation for the fanciful bear analogy. Speculations are welcome.

Afterthoughts: Week 9

First off, I enjoyed that opening exercise much more than anyone should; my appetite for that kind of noticing/scrupling is basically bottomless, for better or worse, and I appreciate everyone’s gameness. Eli did us a great service with that passage of Elbow, the Duke, and Pompey, and we saw so many things: the running sentences (though with their feints at suspension—Pompey in particular is a complicated speaker); the various discourses implicated (law, religion, medicine); the parataxis (what of all the ands in a play of substitution?); the negative constructions, in relation to problems of consent and refusal throughout; the basically plain style; the hectic figuration, such a feature of this play (and Maddy’s interesting suggestion that, even if the various nonce-figures do not gather into a conceit, there might nonetheless be some significant order, a local figure-plot); and the habit of personification, which seemed to be constant, and also quite interesting in a play that broods over the problem of punishing the sinner or the sin. Also all the r’s!

With luck, next time we’ll light on a passage of verse—I do want to keep prosody alive with us (though the exercises would suggest that it is not only alive but well).

The rest of the class was challenging in two basic ways, I thought; first, the challenge of the conceptual category of discourse, especially Foucault’s version; and second, the play’s handling of coercion, consent, and rape. Discourse first, though they’re not really separable. Jeewon took us right into the argument between Isabella and Angelo, and it was amazing to watch how forensic discourse moves through the exchange—first, an impediment for Isabella, who uses languages of love (both Christian and erotic) against Angelo’s rigorism, then as a refuge when he turns against her. If a discourse is a linguistic regime for the production of truth, of agreement, then Shakespeare’s anatomy of how it is upheld and how it is violated, how it serves villain and victim (as Berger would put it), is exacting.

That phrase “we speak not what we mean,” to which Jeewon pointed us in particular, keeps coming back to me as an expression, or is it symptom, of that moment of being caught between discourses—in a space where language may, at any moment, give way to force; and where the threat of Isabella’s eviction into madness (or at least someone who can never be believed) is already present.

Perhaps one could say, following remarks by Eli and others, that one of the marks of the later Shakespeare is his versatility in juxtaposing different discourses. The Foucauldian account emphasizes the situation of being inside a discourse, and the kind of power exercised over a speaker who is enabled to say certain things and not others—discourse being productive but also (often impalpably) constraining. The situation of a Shakespeare play is increasingly, as his career proceeds, one of the intersection or competition of discourses, which generates considerable confusion (comic and not) but also an openness that is perhaps critical in itself, or at least creates opportunities for critical inquiry (in a Frankfurt sense of that word, as well as more generally literary-critical). Which is to say: one of the things we may value in Shakespeare is his extraordinary capacity for discursive detachment and investment at once; perhaps in something of the perspectival way implied by Burke’s definition of irony as a dramatisistic figure (remember that?). What—we talked a bit about that—might this have to do with his powers of figuration? When are figures subordinated to discourse, constitutive of it; when to they challenge discursive order? Is that a difference between metonymy and metaphor?

Whitney brought us to Isabella’s testimony in that strange scene of the Duke’s return; I thought the question of whether Isabella’s dialogue was hysterical (was that Mary N’s observation?) was especially powerful. The gendered category of hysteria: is it a symptom of exclusion, extra-discursive and hence powerless? Or is it a discourse itself, with formal features (like word repetition) that are familiar, conventional, available to writers who would represent such female outrage and helplessness? Or perhaps it is both—or rather, a convention that is not a discourse; it has rules, but no power to produce truth or agreement? We might, by the way, keep the category of hysteria in mind as we get to Lear—he suffers from it, or says he does.

So much more! But it’s certainly worth making note of Sarah’s description of the discourse around rape and harassment in the undergraduate community—the language of consent and saying no that you reproduce, and sign, when you enter a party at an eating club. The whole question of discourse and consent is such a deep one, and the extent to which discursive participation preempts consent—aren’t you already inside, already implicated? If you are talking this way, haven’t you already agreed to so many things? The difficulty of interrupting a discourse to institute a choice—surely that is one of Shakespeare’s interests. The no that is inside a discourse and the no that is outside it. (And the yes too, for that matter.) All of this bears heavily on Isabella’s silence at the end of the play. And, maybe a little more optimistically, on other moments of refusal—especially Barnadine’s refusal to die, to join in the juridical/theological discourse that would reconcile him to his end. (From which Claudio, too, dissents, though with somewhat less existential clarity or conviction.) Does the play offer any hope that Isabella would find such a voice for herself, somewhere in Act VI? At least the resource seems to be somewhere in the play.

Wonderful exercises. Mary P’s raised questions about discourse and words, vs discourse and syntax. It seemed possible to switch from religion to law with some slight adjustments of diction (and there were some words clearly held in common, like “faults”). Other discourses might require very different sentence structures. Jeewon asked a challenging question: if discursive translation is possible, are the discourses really separate at all? Shouldn’t it be the definition of a discourse that its truths can only be produced from inside? Which might incline us to say that both parts of Mary’s exercise are operating within a joint legal-religious discourse which perhaps only pretends to distinction. I loved the general problem of a translation test for the independence of discourses—whether that independence admits of degrees or not.

I thought it was very interesting that several people observed the blurring of this exercise into others, the exercise in figuration and in character in particular. Perhaps that teaches us something about the difficulty of discourse as an analytic category generally—it is easy to displace onto other categories, by definition difficult to bring into analytic consciousness. The full implication of a discourse (say, literary criticism!) is very challenging to measure and to compass. Will’s question about what such analysis gets us is also a durably important one. Adorno might speak of the endless work of an ideological alertness, not transcendental, but immanent to the culture—you cannot stand outside discourse per se, but you can at least recognize the differences among discourses and their seams. (“Discourse” is not his word, but Foucault owes a lot to Adorno, and Althusser.) Alex reminded us too of Nietzschean impulse—toward freedom itself, a disdain of the limits of culture which might have aristocratic inflections (as it does for him) or proletarian, utopian etc. Raymond Geuss’s The Idea of a Critical Theory has been a useful treatment of these general questions for me—skeptical, at the end of the day, but mostly clear and generous in its framing.

Well—it remains perhaps just to appreciate Eli’s Elbow, and his sense of this disruptive undoing of the legal discourse, even as we wonder what it comes to; Scott’s syntactically virtuoso discourse of rumor; Jackie’s neat transposition of Claudio into the Duke’s idiom (with a couple of specially expert pentameters); and Whitney’s ingenious mix (!) of Lucio and the Duke.


Passage for emphasis: Isabella’s complaint (Whitney)

Justice, O royal Duke! Vail your regard
Upon a wronged—I would fain have said, a maid.
O worthy prince, dishonor not your eye
By throwing it on any other object
Till you have heard me in my true complaint,
And given me justice, justice, justice, justice!

Relate your wrongs. In what, by whom? Be brief.
Here is Lord Angelo shall give you justice;
Reveal yourself to him.

O worthy Duke,
You bid me seek redemption of the devil.
Hear me yourself, for that which I must speak
Must either punish me, not being believed,
Or wring redress from you. Hear me, O hear me, here!

My lord, her wits I fear me are not firm.
She hath been a suitor to me for her brother
Cut off by course of justice—

By course of justice!

And she will speak most bitterly and strange.

Most strange, but yet most truly will I speak.
That Angelo’s forsworn, is it not strange?
That Angelo’s a murderer, is’t not strange?
That Angelo is an adulterous thief,
An hypocrite, a virgin-violator,
Is it not strange and strange?

Nay, it is ten times strange.

It is not truer he is Angelo
Than this is all as true as it is strange.
Nay, it is ten times true, for truth is truth
To the end of reckoning.

Away with her. Poor soul,
She speaks this in the infirmity of sense.

O prince, I conjure thee, as thou believ’st
There is another comfort than this world,
That thou neglect me not with that opinion
That I am touched with madness. Make not impossible
That which but seems unlike. ‘Tis not impossible
But one the wicked’st caitiff on the ground
May seem as shy, as grave, as just, as absolute,
As Angelo. Even so may Angelo,
In all his dressings, caracts, titles, forms,
Be an arch-villain. Believe it, royal prince.
If he be less, he’s nothing; but he’s more,
Had I more name for badness.

By mine honesty,
If she be mad, as I believe no other,
Her madness hath the oddest frame of sense,
Such a dependency of thing on thing,
As e’er I heard in madness.

O gracious Duke,
Harp not on that, nor do not banish reason
For inequality, but let your reason serve
To make the truth appear where it seems hid,
And hide the false seems true.

Many that are not mad
Have sure more lack of reason. What would you say?

I am the sister of one Claudio,
Condemned upon the act of fornication
To lose his head, condemned by Angelo.
I, in probation of a sisterhood,
Was sent to by my brother; one Lucio
As then the messenger—

That’s I, an’t like your grace.
I came to her from Claudio, and desired her
To try her gracious fortune with Lord Angelo
For her poor brother’s pardon.

That’s he indeed.

DUKE (to Lucio)
You were not bid to speak.

No, my good lord,
Nor wished to hold my peace.

I wish you now then.
Pray you take note of it, and when you have
A business for yourself, pray heaven you then
Be perfect.

I warrant your honour.

The warrant’s for yourself, take heed to’t.

This gentleman told somewhat of my tale.


It may be right, but you are I’ the wrong
To speak before your time. (To Isabella) Proceed.

I went
To this pernicious caitiff deputy—

That’s somewhat madly spoken.

Pardon it;
The phrase is to the matter.

Mended again. The matter; proceed.

In brief, to set the needless process by—
How I persuaded, how I prayed and kneeled,
How he refelled me, and how I replied,
For this was of much length—the vile conclusion
I now begin with grief and shame to utter.
He would not but by gift of my chaste body
To his concupiscible intemperate lust
Release my brother; and after much debatement,
My sisterly remorse confutes mine honour,
And I did yield to him. But the next morn betimes,
His purpose surfeiting, he sends a warrant
For my poor brother’s head.

This is most likely!

O that it were as like as it is true.

By heaven, fond wretch, thou know’st not what thou speak’st,
Or else thou art suborned against his honour
In hateful practice. First, his integrity
Stands without blemish; next, it imports no reason
That with such vehemency he should pursue
Faults proper to himself. If he had so offended,
He would have weighed thy brother by himself,
And not have cut him off. Someone hath set you on.
Confess the truth, and say by whose advice
Thou cam’st here to complain.

And is this all?
Then, O you blessed ministers above,
Keep me in patience, and with ripened time
Unfold the evil which is here wrapped up
In countenance! Heaven shield your grace from woe,
As I, thus wronged, hence unbelieved go.

I know you’d fain be gone. An officer!
To prison with her.
Isabella is arrested
Shall we thus permit
A blasting and scandalous breath to fall
On him so near us? This needs must be a practice.
Who knew of your intent and coming hither?

One that I would were here, Friar Lodowick. (Exit with Officers)

A ghostly father, belike. Who knows that Lodowick?

My lord, I know him, ‘tis a meddling friar.
I do not like the man; had he been lay, my lord,
For certain words he spake against your grace
In your retirement, I had swinged him soundly.

Although this passage is a relatively long one, it seemed fitting to propose that we discuss Isabella’s complaint before the Duke, given some rather obvious resonances with some of the secondary reading for this week (particularly the Foucault).

As Isabella brings her complaint before the Duke, Angelo immediately attempts to discredit her by portraying her as mad—thus removing her from “the common discourse of men,” as Foucault would have it (217), but also running straight into the dangerous potential for interpreting madness as a “rationality more rational than that of a rational man” (217). The Duke repeatedly notes that her discourse does not bear the appearance of madness, a comment which could of course lend itself either to the conclusion that she is not mad or to the possibility that her madness is simply the vehicle of a higher truth. Meanwhile, Isabella herself recognizes the difficulty of pleading her case and characterizes the matter repeatedly in terms of “strangeness,” calling upon divine power to verify that despite running contrary to institutional authority and expectations, the “truth” of what she is saying is so pure that it must be recognized. There seems even to be something oddly transactional about this use of “strange” and “true,” with Isabella and the Duke even bringing multiplication into the mix to describe the magnitude of the discourse’s transgression/truth, and the Duke later suggesting that justice would “weigh” Claudio’s behavior against Angelo’s.

Lucio provides an interesting counterpoint to Isabella, interrupting her complaint in an attempt to corroborate the facts but being repeatedly shut down by the Duke, who criticizes him on the level of form (while granting the possibility that what he says may be “right”): regardless of whether Lucio is telling the truth, his speech is rejected by the representative of the judicial institution. (The interruptions also recall Lucio’s repeated interventions during Isabella’s initial interview with Angelo, pushing her to argue harder or approving her rhetoric from the sidelines, but remaining in that case unacknowledged.) Even more interesting, though, might be the way he attempts to play the situation at the end of this passage, once Isabella has left and the Duke finally turns his attention to him. Projecting his own controversial comments onto the Duke’s alter ego, Lucio undermines the authority of Isabella’s witness while the victim’s honesty is still threatened (thus also undermining the authority of a character he might expect to get him in trouble himself). In a sense, this hypocrisy mirrors the fault of Angelo, who prosecutes Claudio unjustly even after “weighing” himself against the convict in order to prevent Claudio from returning to complain on his sister’s behalf. Just as Angelo breaking his promise to Isabella multiplies his guilt (or should; the play retreats from this intensification and seems to justify it at a structural level through Angelo’s actual failure to kill Claudio, although this moves the ‘justice’ portrayed in the play away from its more typical portrayal of the state as a sort of guardian of ethics), Lucio’s attempt to shift the blame to the disguised Duke really just doubles his slander against the same person.

Afterthoughts: Week 8

What’s so surprising about Othello is not the ongoing differentiation of the idioms of the characters—but a stronger sense than we’ve ever had before, I think, that the idioms may come loose. In particular, we hear Othello lose his particular mastery (though he regains it at moments, poignantly); we hear Iago’s jagged, insidiously flexible idiolect of jabs and tests and sallies and oaths take hold of his general. Repetition becomes both instrument and object of the play’s inquiries, from Othello’s generous rehearsal of Desdemona’s praise to the rhyming couplets she exchanges with Iago to the compulsive and contagious iteration of words like “honest” to the refrain of the willow song. That has a lot to do with the ways that critics have heard the play’s music, beginning with L. C. Knight (“The Othello Music”).

I thought Maddy’s phonetic diagrams—based on Bruce Smith’s chart of phoneme volume—were a fascinating exercise, right there on the boundary between what we can hear (or at least hear as pattern) and what we cannot (yet). The choreography of O-sounds toward and away from that dismal word “whore” was persuasively part of the passage’s power, something you could really hear once it was pointed out to you. (And so much criticism works that way, helping you hear something you might have missed by using a metalanguage to direct attention there.) Whitney’s diagrams of vowel tones functioned much the same way. I think it’s a very interesting question, whether one could write toward those effects in the way one writes toward metrical expectations. It doesn’t seem like such a stretch to imagine a culture that prized such patterns; and indeed, with a little statistical restraint, it seems possible we might discover orchestrations already present in works we admire.

I thought Jessica’s scene was brilliantly chosen, as a limit case of the damage that Iago does to the language of the play—so fragmentary, violent, scattered across the stage, hard to realize. Imagine writing it! And also, as she pointed out, it is at risk of being funny, ridiculous; and maybe that is true of more of the play, as its repetitions accumulate a kind of Bergsonian obsessive familiarity. The awful noise that accumulates (I loved John’s static for that) is maybe not so far from the rude noise of laughter. Important, too, that the scene is played out in the dark, as is so much of the play. Even if that is only a notional darkness, it does seem to make the dependence on sound the stronger.

There are ways in which the question of the play’s sound entails the kind of pulling back from the particular lines that a structuralist critic might accomplish in thinking about structure or shape—a visual abstraction, sacrificing detail for a more general clarity. As we discussed, the capacity of sound (independent of language) for abstraction is severely limited. Nonetheless, we have a sense that sound changes in some gross and significant ways across the play—something like Bruce Smith’s pitch diagrams, as they show how a scene might move up and down the musical staff and the human larynx. I think Dolar can help us with the way voices contribute to that sound, as something between the cri pur and articulation. But voice is not the only contributor. There is also that damned bell. When we say something sounds like something else, are we invoking that middle register of sonic abstraction? Blurring the details to get a big sound picture (sound image, sound scape)? Though perhaps it is exactly a repeated detail that provokes a sense of likeness.

Yan returned us to Othello’s final speech, where that old music of isocolon and suspension comes back, and he makes friends with his meter again; even though that return to self-control is close to the play’s tragic maximum. (The true maximum is surely the death of Ophelia: it occurs to me only now how the play’s interest in sound may also culminate in a voice stifled by a pillow—has the play’s undoing of articulation been headed there; or is that its most grievous symptom?)

I was so wonderstruck by the exercises. I will not try to comment on them any further here, except to say that I saw a few interestingly different kinds. There were 1) settings, with Yan’s and Mary’s both giving beautiful readings of the affective energies of their texts. I wonder, could one use music effectively to analyze other properties—motifs that might track interpretive interests, for example? Sarah and Maddy both rewrote the text as they set it; who knew, in Maddy’s bluegrass version, that there might be a ballad hidden in Othello’s report of winning Desdemona? A very interesting species of generic criticism. There were also 2) homophonic translations, from Will and Scott, which controlled for the sound by proposing (funny and ingenious) strings of sonically equivalent words. The difference between Scott’s approach and Will’s, the latter more concerned with the vowels, was interesting. Eli’s beautiful, visual sound-abstractions probably fall more or less in this category too. Who can say if one could learn to read such phoneme-maps as representative of artistic effects? But they were striking to look at and made me want to try. Then there were 3) non-linguistic visual diagrams of sonic phenomena, from Jeewon and Whitney and Maddy, all of which I thought were fascinating and rather beautiful; and all of which might just feed back into creative procedures. Then a couple, each in a class on one: 4) Andrew’s allegorical sound-map, and 5) John’s radio-static attention map, if map it could be called; perhaps the most explicit attempt (settings aside) to represent sound by another sound. Really resourceful.

Coming up, after Measure for Measure, two weeks on movement and music, before our final omnibus session on The Winter’s Tale. As the end of the semester nears I’d like to work on bringing what we’ve learned to far together, and with that in mind I’d like to begin each of the next three classes with a ten-minute exercise a little like the sortes vergilianae (that old procedure of sticking your finger arbitrarily into the Aeneid and taking as counsel whatever you find there). In our case, we’ll choose a passage at random, take a few moments to think, then each of us say something by way of making a total sketch of its language—drawing on our resources of prosody, rhetoric, figuration, language history, sound, and of course all those tropes and schemes we have been hoarding up. Very much like the sort of synthetic exercise one might undertake in a (foreign) language class, keeping new knowledge ready at our fingertips.


Measure for Measure Passage: Jeewon

II. 2. 107-110

So you must be the first that gives this sentence,
And he, that suffer’s. O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.

II. 4. 115-148

You seem’d of late to make the law a tyrant;
And rather proved the sliding of your brother
A merriment than a vice.

O, pardon me, my lord; it oft falls out,
To have what we would have, we speak not what we mean:
I something do excuse the thing I hate,
For his advantage that I dearly love.

We are all frail.

Else let my brother die,
If not a feodary, but only he
Owe and succeed thy weakness.

Nay, women are frail too.

Ay, as the glasses where they view themselves;
Which are as easy broke as they make forms.
Women! Help Heaven! men their creation mar
In profiting by them. Nay, call us ten times frail;
For we are soft as our complexions are,
And credulous to false prints.

I think it well:
And from this testimony of your own sex,–
Since I suppose we are made to be no stronger
Than faults may shake our frames,–let me be bold;
I do arrest your words. Be that you are,
That is, a woman; if you be more, you’re none;
If you be one, as you are well express’d
By all external warrants, show it now,
By putting on the destined livery.

I have no tongue but one: gentle my lord,
Let me entreat you speak the former language.

Plainly conceive, I love you.

The lines reproduced above are a part of the tug-of-war between Isabella and Angelo. She asks for an abeyance of the law and he, of her chastity. The two discursive domains intersect in the social form of a woman’s plea. The form is a familiar one to our characters, for some of them even meddle with instructions on how to plead effectively. Within the scene, however, I want to focus on the bolded phrase and think about how this statement arises, why it is accepted as legitimate, how the response melds the discourse of law and love, whether the response appears elsewhere in different form.

I want to think of “we speak not what we mean” as a metadiscursive act, one that not only references and describes a feature of the conversation at hand (pleading, making a case) but also functions as a discursive move on its own (analogous to but different from Berger’s meta theatrical). Which is a long-winded way of saying the line falls into the category of things we say about what we say while saying them—“It’s hard to understand you,” “Let me clarify,” “Do you see what I mean?,” and etc. I think this feature of the line is important because it is a way of staying within a discussion and stepping out of it, of participating and observing one’s participation in a discourse. We might care to keep this mind for when we might introduce Berger’s ethical questions.

We may read “we speak not what we mean” as acknowledging a failure in communication—one that can be corrected through perhaps elaboration, clarification, or even substitution. But we might also read the line as being reflective of unwanted success. Isabella delivers her meaning too well: Angelo is being a tyrant, and Claudio, a mere lover. But the resulting claim is untenable in a plea for mercy, so Isabella must retract them. That is to say, we might gloss the line not only as “What I mean to say was—“ but also as “That is not what I meant,”

(In the midst of argument, we say something, and our interlocutor offers a paraphrase of our own words, harsher but closer to truth in form. But it looks too grave, too terrible for us. We cannot be responsible for such a statement. So we disavow the paraphrase and along with it, our original statement, but the effect of them linger. This is how we say true and terrible things, by not saying them, by making our interlocutor say them, by appending “That is not what I meant.” We hear in return, “Yes, it is.”)

So Angelo accuses Isabella: “You seem’d to make the law a tyrant; / And rather proved the sliding of your brother / A merriment than a vice.” And so she disavows. Foucault might say that Angelo’s paraphrase, though accurate, cannot be admitted into the discourse of the plea. Isabella’s plea is predicated upon already determined truths: Claudio has broken the law. Claudio must die. Angelo enforces the law. Angelo must execute Claudio. Isabella introduces her plea into this legal discourse. She asks Angelo to have mercy and let Claudio live. All these notions can be entertained simultaneously. But if Angelo is a tyrant, and Claudio, a mere lover, the plea is meaningless. A tyrant has no mercy and a mere lover does not require one. There is no point of entry. And so Isabella retracts her words with “we speak not what we mean.”

We may care to notice that “we speak not what we mean” leaves ambiguous where the negative sticks. When “we speak no what we mean,” do we say what we do not mean, or do do we not say what we mean? Do our words take on meanings we did not fully intend, when they are released into a discourse, where they gather implications and history we were not fully aware of, or are we just being plain duplicitous? The ambiguous negative coupled with Isabella’s use of the first-person plural implicates Angelo, for he does not say what he means. He occludes his motive in verbiage. And it takes Isabella’s “Let me entreat you speak the former language” for Angelo to say, “Plainly conceive, I love you.” This may be why, Angelo does not reply “Yes, it is” to Isabella’s retraction, for in saying, “we speak not what we mean,” she has not only made a retraction but also an accusation, one that eludes Angelo’s paraphrase.

And it is here, in the implication of Angelo, in the doubling of retraction and accusation, that we might remember the line’s status as a metadiscursive act, one of participation and observation, and entreat it to Berger’s ethical concerns. What is the status of the accusation in relation to the retraction? How are they held together in the plea? Is Isabella responsible for the accusation as much as the retraction? What of her original statement and of Angelo’s paraphrase? How much of the conversation does she effect, and how much does she simply allow to happen? Does her self-conscious speech reflect an effort at self-representation? Does she hear herself, convince herself, that she is a chaste women as well as a good sister, that she has done everything she can for Claudio? Is her plea also an attempt to prepare herself for Claudio’s death after she has declined Angelo’s offer? How do we think about this scene in relation to her soliloquy, Berger’s privileged object of analysis, at the end of the scene?

Sound exercises

Afterthoughts to come, everyone, and in the meantime, here are this week’s sound exercises, quite an extraordinary variety and full of surprises.

Sarah: commentary, score, and sound:

Scott: text and commentary.

Jackie: text and commentary.

Yan: commentary, score, and sound:

Will: text and commentary.

Andrew: text and commentary and image:


Maddy: text and commentary and sound:

Eli: text and commentary.

Whitney: commentary and images.

Mary N.: text and commentary and images and an extra sound file for good measure:

Mary P: text and commentary and sound:

John: text and commentary and sound:

Jessica: text and commentary and image.

Jeewon: commentary and images.



Othello, 3.3.347-75 (“give me the ocular proof”)

I had been happy if the general camp,
Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body,
So I had nothing known. O, now for ever
Farewell the tranquil mind; farewell content;
Farewell the plumèd troops, and the big wars
That makes ambition virtue—O, farewell!
Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th’ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war;
And O you mortal engines, whose rude throats
Th’immortal Jove’s dread clamours counterfeit,
Farewell! Othello’s occupation’s gone.

Is’t possible, my lord?

Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore!
Be sure of it; give me the ocular proof;

[He seizes Iago by the throat]
Or, by the worth of mine eternal soul,
Thou hadst been better have been born a dog
Than answer my waked wrath!

Is ’t come to this?

Make me to see ’t, or at the least so prove it
That the probation bear no hinge nor loop
To hang a doubt on, or woe upon thy life!

My noble lord—

If thou dost slander her and torture me,
Never pray more. Abandon all remorse;
On horror’s head horrors accumulate;
Do deeds to make heaven weep, all Earth amazed;
For nothing canst thou to damnation add
Greater than that.

There are so many iconic music/sound moments in this play that I hope we’ll get to talk about, hopefully via people’s exercises (the drinking songs, the Willow Song, the importance of vocal dynamics to Iago’s trickery, the handkerchief refrain, etc.). But this moment of Othello the orator caught my attention, particularly the lines I’ve bolded above (which I also used for my sound representation below.)

I was struck how Othello here creates an aural soundscape in his lament (/valediction?/elegy?), with quasi-onomatopoeic descriptors of the sounds of war: the syncopated /s/s and /r/s of “spirit-stirring,” the bray of “neighing.” Why is it sound that Othello ultimately latches onto, contrasted against the other lesser-developed senses of taste (“tasted her sweet body”) and sight (“plumed troops,” “royal banner”)? (We’d do well to recall that it is Othello’s visuals “of antres vast and deserts idle,” rendered enchanting by his eloquence, that make his life story in 1.3 so memorable.) Of course, this intense inventory of sound here highlights by contrast Othello’s call for “ocular proof,” and his obsession with “seeing” Desdemona’s treachery, a treachery that has its basis only in false words, which in turn warp the visual reality Othello “sees.”

In a description extending two full lines, cannons (“mortal engines”) are personified as having “throats” that mimic the sound of thunder, an image swiftly followed by a literal throat: Iago’s, seized by Othello in a stage direction. The supreme irony is that through this action, Othello unwittingly identifies the very “mortal engine”—Iago’s vocal cords—that is the instrument of his demise; to dovetail off of Yan’s post, Othello, for a brief moment, silences the whispering devil that has been pouring lies into his ear, with Iago managing only to squeak out impotent half-lines at best. (The Kenneth Branagh film version makes this dynamic all the more explicit by cutting Iago’s lines entirely and having Othello steamroll through his speech at an increasing pitch, as he chokes and nearly drowns Iago.)

I was curious as to how phonemes are operating in this passage that takes up sound as its subject and voice in its staging, and thought I’d take a stab at testing Smith’s claim that “volume control is written into scripts for the stage” (226). Given Othello’s affective range in this passage (as opposed to the level-headed storyteller we see in Act 1), how does the passage’s phonemic composition script volume? Using Smith’s chart on p. 226, I came up with the following color coding system for visualizing the relative intensities of the various phonemes:

I encountered many methodological challenges, and this is a rough approximation for sure, riddled with errors and best guesses. But it shows some connections I may not have made as a reader otherwise: the least intense phonemic combinations are concentrated in the beginning and end of the passage, giving the overall passage the visual shape of a bell curve; the first two lines I analyzed lack the intense /o/ sounds that pepper the rest of the lines and reach an apex arguably in “whore”—a keyword in the play that comes to describe each female character. “Whore” is doubly emphasized by echoing the sounds of Iago’s “lord” in the previous line and offsetting the high volume vowel with the low volume fricative /h/. We can also draw connections between words based on their comparable intensities (“all” and “war”) or sound progression (e.g., those words like “steed,” “trump,” “spirit,” “pride,” and “pomp,” beginning and ending with low-volume consonants).

I think we could productively question how far this exercise is useful or practical for depicting the sound/volume of lines that have so many other factors determining their shape; I’m interested in the tension between such an idealized phonemical analysis and the overall delivery choices that go into an actor’s performance, not to mention complicating factors like historical linguistic changes and regional accents. I’m wondering, though, if this sort of phonemical analysis could help us broaden literary concepts such as alliteration or assonance to encompass the physiological similarities between sound families, which give the line its sonic texture and seem to call for a certain kind of delivery? (One can hear Othello bitterly spitting out the plosives and fricatives that begin each word in “hadst been better have been born a dog.”) In other words, how do phonemes generate an affective register? How much is predicated on the contextual/relational?

I’m interested to hear people’s thoughts on how phonemes, onomatopoeia, and soundscape are functioning here, alongside or against Othello’s other oratorical moments in the play.


Forethoughts: Weeks 10 to 12

A few forethoughts this time, colleagues, since the moment is coming when we will have to plot our course for the final three sessions of the term. We will be reading King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Winter’s Tale; but with what questions in mind, and what texts to support us, is yet to be decided.

My instinct is to leave the final class open, addressing The Winter’s Tale with whatever we have learned this term. For the other two, I see a few possibilities. One would be to summon up some other voices to stand alongside Shakespeare—Marlowe and Fletcher, for example, two of his collaborators. We would gain by this the external comparison that our concentration on Shakespeare’s self-difference (within plays and across time) has so far denied us. Another would be to read some Shakespeare criticism that addresses our questions, books about his language by the likes of Frank Kermode or Simon Palfrey or Janet Adelman. Our secondary readings so far have been mostly directed to different philological and theoretical contexts, but much has been written directly on our topic. (I have been channeling some of it.) Yet another option would be to continue in the vein of this week’s sound projects, with an emphasis on music (for one class) and movement (for another). I would bring in a couple of guests to work with us on what would be, for the likes of us graduate students and former graduate students, a more experimental program, but still dedicated to the exploration of Shakespeare’s language and to our agenda of imitation.

You may detect that I have a bias toward the last, but I would like to sound us all out (so to speak); I think wherever we go, it will be interesting to take the temperature at this point, not least because everybody in the room who is officially a student is seriously considering becoming a teacher. So, such decisions are proper to us all, and I’ll be quite delighted wherever we end up.

So: let’s take up the matter in class; but first, Othello!