Week 11 afterthoughts

Another lucky stab into our text, by Sarah this time—that exchange between Antony and Cleopatra in Act III,

ANTONY. I will be treble-sinew’d, hearted, breath’d,
And fight maliciously. For when mine hours
Were nice and lucky, men did ransom lives
Of me for jests; but now I’ll set my teeth,
And send to darkness all that stop me. Come,
Let’s have one other gaudy night. Call to me
All my sad captains; fill our bowls once more;
Let’s mock the midnight bell.

CLEOPATRA. It is my birthday.
I had thought t’have held it poor; but since my lord
Is Antony again, I will be Cleopatra.

So many things interesting things said. It seemed typical of the shorter sentences throughout, the unpredictable caesurae, the sharp enjambments. (Is this a breathless play?) We lingered over the rhythms of “Call to me / All my sad captains.” How to scan the four words after the line break: two iambs? Trochee and iambs? A slow double spondee—as though to linger out this heroic fatalism; or to slow down, to compensate for—formally, affectively?—the hurry of an anapest in “Call to me”? And Majel wondered if the solution wasn’t simply dramatic, or dare we say, musical, to read it with feeling for its immanent rhythms, without getting hung up on the metrical contract. When is it, or is it ever, licit to do so reading Shakespeare? Questions to carry into the next week, when the pentameter will be under still greater stress, and we’ll have some additional resources for thinking about it.

Let’s see: also some interesting discussion about disappointment, Jeewon’s term; a very very interesting attitude, affect, whatever it is, to consider in relation to a play that keeps trying again and keeps failing, that gives us so many characters so variously engaged in propping each other up for their own purposes. (Does music, because of its strong and visceral expectation for certain cadences or rhythms, do a particularly good job of generated and perhaps of imitating disappointment?) Whitney I think observed that there was a subject-verb-object drumbeat (“set my teeth” etc.) that felt like it became a parody of the grammar of action. We talked some about the play’s interest in threeness vis a vis the treble-triplet at the beginning. (In re the triumvirate, the doubleness of A&C and the play’s political momentum toward a single emperor.) Then there was Maddy’s observation about “stop me”: is that a subjunctive (“would stop me”) or an indicative? A beautiful moment, in which Antony’s strength and weakness, his bravery and his fatalism, flicker in the grammar.

So let’s see: Sarah took us to another exchange between the principals, and suggested that, as a rule, the rhetorical power of each came at the expense of the other (with a couple of interesting exceptions, as Mary P pointed out). That struck me as an interesting parallel with the soothsayer’s sense that Caesar will always cast Antony in shadow. (Interesting to think of scenes in Shakespeare where two speakers are well matched, adequate to one another; when a high style, that is, does not gain its elevation at the expense of someone else. The paired speeches of Hal and Henry IV, after their reconciliation, would be an interesting example. Isabella and Angelo in the heat of their debate? Others? Very often a commanding high style is interrupted by an insurgent speaker in a very different idiom: see Hamlet.) We noted again in the passage the strong enjambment, good pentameter lines willfully interrupted across the breaks. Eli then took us in a hurry to Cleopatra and the Messenger, as she tries to force her desires back through the news channel. We didn’t have much time with this one but the play’s problems with communication (does Antony listen to anyone?) seemed to come to a head, and we also saw, again, how many short lines, simple strong sentences there are—as jagged syntactically as the short scenes are narratively.

After the break, music! An amazing display of ingenuity, once again—Majel and I listened to the exercises with wonder on Tuesday night. Still it was a difficult assignment to make work, at least if the idea was to produce, in musical terms, some sort of analysis of properties of the language beyond tone, affect, etc. Eli’s example certainly got us there (past affect), by adopting an arbitrary mapping of letter to pitch/duration/dynamics on the model of the new rules of serial composition a la Schoenberg or, even more, Milton Babbitt (of Princeton). As Majel helped us realize the idea, it had real acoustic charisma, but the lesson seemed to be more the limits of music for our purposes. (Limits that have something to do perhaps with our stylometric inquiries earlier in the term—with counting things that cannot be heard? These procedures are perhaps most interesting when they show us something we could learn to hear, as I think we sometimes felt in the sound week with e.g. vowel color; but there’s still something instructive when the result is unhearable, even if it’s only a lesson in the limits of hearability.)

Mary N gave us a king of Schaferian soundscape of Enobarbus’s last words, a mix of acoustic allegory (there were some significant correspondences of sound and word) and mood-painting. It was a striking thing in itself, and also captured something important about the tone of the play in Act IV, the gathering despair. But as she said, it couldn’t be said to have canceled or controlled for the affective dimensions of the speech—on the contrary. This difficulty was a finding for many, the thrust of the exercise notwithstanding.

At the end, Majel’s exercise!—scoring a line with some basic vocal effects, rising or falling or modulated pitch, changes in volume. Our various uses of the techniques she gave us were intriguing for what they could emphasize, or maybe notate, in the lines, structurally or in terms of repetitions. Most surprising to me was how good we sounded together, how rich that soundscape was; a lot of that is Majel’s experience wrangling amateurs, I suspect, and I was a little mesmerized. Did it get us further into Shakespeare’s language? I’d be interested to hear what others think after some reflection. I did learn some things about language and music, but they were more general than our customary inquiry yields—more about the faculties/kinds themselves than about the texts with which we interacted. Is music simply too much the language of the emotions to be a language of analysis for anything else? (For what is picked out by the various technical vocabularies we employed?) That’s very different, if so, from the broader category of sound, which seemed, back in week 8, to be both susceptible of imaginative representation and itself a relatively supple representational medium. Perhaps with respect to the assignment (with its call to avoid relying on affect), it was, net, a negative result; that is, fascinating material that failed to confirm the hypothesis. Maybe those are undervalued in the humanities? I greatly appreciate everyone so gamely making the wager…I was instructed by the obstacles and also smitten with the sounds, whatever they meant.

AC Passage for Emphasis (Eli)

 

2.5.72-106

Messenger He’s married, madam.
CLEOPATRA Rogue, thou hast lived too long.
[Draws a knife]
Messenger Nay, then I’ll run.
What mean you, madam? I have made no fault.
[Exit]
CHARMIAN Good madam, keep yourself within yourself:
The man is innocent.
CLEOPATRA Some innocents ‘scape not the thunderbolt.
Melt Egypt into Nile! and kindly creatures
Turn all to serpents! Call the slave again:
Though I am mad, I will not bite him: call.
CHARMIAN He is afeard to come.
CLEOPATRA I will not hurt him.
[Exit CHARMIAN]
These hands do lack nobility, that they strike
A meaner than myself; since I myself
Have given myself the cause.
[Re-enter CHARMIAN and Messenger]
Come hither, sir.
Though it be honest, it is never good
To bring bad news: give to a gracious message.
An host of tongues; but let ill tidings tell
Themselves when they be felt.
Messenger I have done my duty.
CLEOPATRA Is he married?
I cannot hate thee worser than I do,
If thou again say ‘Yes.’
Messenger He’s married, madam.
CLEOPATRA The gods confound thee! dost thou hold there still?
Messenger Should I lie, madam?
CLEOPATRA O, I would thou didst,
So half my Egypt were submerged and made
A cistern for scaled snakes! Go, get thee hence:
Hadst thou Narcissus in thy face, to me
Thou wouldst appear most ugly. He is married?
Messenger I crave your highness’ pardon.
CLEOPATRA He is married?
Messenger Take no offence that I would not offend you:
To punish me for what you make me do. 125
Seems much unequal: he’s married to Octavia.
CLEOPATRA O, that his fault should make a knave of thee,
That art not what thou’rt sure of! Get thee hence:
The merchandise which thou hast brought from Rome
Are all too dear for me: lie they upon thy hand,
And be undone by ’em!
[Exit Messenger]
CHARMIAN Good your highness, patience.

In truth I’m interested in the whole of 2.5, but this is an exemplary passage. The scene begins with Cleopatra’s call “music, moody food / Of us that trade in love” – an odd internal echo of Orsino’s famous opening speech in Twelfth Night – passes through the comic-erotic-nostalgic reminiscence about Antony and the salt fish, and then develops into a violent farce of a messenger scene. Cleopatra wants to script what the messenger will say and in attempting to do so delays and disrupts his report. When he finally does get to the gist of his dispatch, she attacks him and drives him from the stage before calling him back to repeat it again and again. As often happens in Love’s Labour’s Lost, the language here develops a kind of self-consciousness or meta-textuality. The passage plays at being a messenger scene. It  also is asking something about the limits of communication—about whether it’s possible to have dialogue, to convey and receive packets of information. Dialogue in elsewhere in the play can have a fragmented quality: there are so many scenes of little reports and retorts on seemingly inconsequential subjects that leave one puzzled about the semantic/dramatic purpose. Act II, with its recurrent trope of the ‘hoop’ (cf. 2.2.122, 2.4.37) and its uneasy commingling of speeches with conversation seems to be asking something about how language between people holds—or doesn’t hold—together. Perhaps Cleopatra’s call for music is a call for another mode of communication altogether?

Antony and Cleopatra 1.3

ANTONY

Now, my dearest queen.

CLEOPATRA

Pray you, stand further from me.

ANTONY

What’s the matter? 

CLEOPATRA

I know, by that same eye, there’s some good news.
What says the married woman? You may go:
Would she had never given you leave to come!
Let her not say ’tis I that keep you here:
I have no power upon you; hers you are.

 ANTONY

The gods best know—

CLEOPATRA

O, never was there queen
So mightily betrayed! yet at the first
I saw the treasons planted.

ANTONY

Cleopatra—

 CLEOPATRA

Why should I think you can be mine and true,
Though you in swearing shake the throned gods,
Who have been false to Fulvia? Riotous madness,
To be entangled with those mouth-made vows,
Which break themselves in swearing!

ANTONY

Most sweet Queen—

CLEOPATRA

Nay, pray you, seek no colour for your going,
But bid farewell, and go: when you sued staying,
Then was the time for words: no going then;
Eternity was in our lips and eyes,
Bliss in our brows’ bent; none our parts so poor,
But was a race of heaven: they are so still,
Or thou, the greatest soldier of the world,
Art turned the greatest liar. 

ANTONY

How now, lady?

 CLEOPATRA

I would I had thy inches, thou shouldst know
There were a heart in Egypt.

ANTONY

Hear me, Queen:
The strong necessity of time commands
Our services awhile; but my full heart
Remains in use with you. Our Italy
Shines o’er with civil swords: Sextus Pompeius
Makes his approaches to the port of Rome:
Equality of two domestic powers
Breed scrupulous faction: the hated, grown to strength,
Are newly grown to love: the condemn’d Pompey,
Rich in his father’s honour, creeps apace,
Into the hearts of such as have not thrived
Upon the present state, whose numbers threaten;
And quietness, grown sick of rest, would purge
By any desperate change: my more particular,
And that which most with you should safe my going,
Is Fulvia’s death.

CLEOPATRA

Though age from folly could not give me freedom,
It does from childishness: can Fulvia die?

What I find so humorous about this scene is that the exchange between Cleopatra and Antnoy epitomizes the claim that, despite Shakespeare’s title, this is Cleopatra’s play.  If we isolate Antony’s lines leading up to the reveal that Fulvia has died, this is what we get:

Now, my dearest queen.

What’s the matter?

The gods best know—

Cleopatra—

Most sweet Queen—

How now, lady?

If left unlabeled, these lines might seem more aligned with the speech of a servant speaking to his mistress instead of the words of a respected general reasoning with his lover.  The speech of Cleopatra, in contrast, dances across the page with charisma and a certain degree of childishness, something Cleopatra claims to be rid of.

Using these lines, I would like to consider freedom in Shakespeare’s language: How strict are certain character parameters?  How much flexibility do readers and actors have when delivering a character as dynamic as Cleopatra?  Take Cleopatra’s last two lines: “Though age from folly could not give me freedom, / It does from childishness: can Fulvia die?”  These words carry a lot of weight, but how “should” they be delivered?  (With the glee of an adolescent, a degree of snideness, etc.)

Week 10 afterthoughts

It was very interesting, was it not, to be interrupted by Aynsley’s invitations to reflect on our bodies, postures, comfort and discomfort etc. over the first half of class? I’d like to keep that alive in our final two sessions. I think it’s so interesting for all of us as teachers, to pay attention each of us to our own bearing and also that of everyone else in the room—I wonder, too, how it might be more integrated into the thinking and talking we do together. Lord knows there is plenty for us to do in the last two weeks, but let’s not forget that.

As for King Lear, Jessica has us now (after Eli’s initial coup) on a two-week streak of choosing the perfect passage for our opening exercise in description. Not least for its variety: Lear’s railing, Kent’s plain rebuke, Edgar’s tetrameter charm against the barking dogs of Lear’s imagination. The play’s constant collision of levels and kinds of style seems important. That’s a Shakespearian trick from the beginning (think of Antipholus and Dromio), but here it is so much more various and chaotic, and the kinds of speech acts involved are so different. There were some interesting comments about the meter (the difficulty accommodating that line “Arms, arms! sword! fire! Corruption in the place!” to iambic pentameter). The Frenchness of the passage struck Whitney, maybe having to do with Edgar’s pose as a maddened courtier? Will had a crazy theory about “sweetheart” and Coeur-delia; we expect to find him on the heath before long. (But I love such theories! And there are some deep sound-plots in these plays; I made a note to look out for other instances of this one.) The interruption of the play’s action by the folk-spell was striking. And a proliferation of r’s. I’ll repeat John Porter Houston’s observation, which I cited in class, that there is in Lear more of “the principle of parallel accumulation common to many Elizabethan playwrights rather than the syntactic complexity peculiar to Shakespeare.”

Maddy then brought us to consider Kent’s unexpected rant at 2.2.64ff., and especially all the animals. That’s particularly interesting in a play so preoccupied with the nature of “nature” (of which there are at least four varieties: a total order that includes and sponsors hierarchies of family and state; a vital impulse that is the opposite of culture [Edmund’s goddess]; the self, one’s own nature, as a guarantee of the quality and consistency of actions; and the human minimum, man as a poor bare forked animal, whether as a mode of suffering or of escape from aristocratic pain.) Maddy put this in the general context of excess, and we talked some about the plain style, how it is torn between decorum and honesty—one of many potential contradictions exposed by the collapse of patriarchal authority in the play. We compared Kent to Falstaff; does he bear comparison with other out-of-control speakers in plays we have read, even the nonsensical ones like Elbow? He says some weird things, like the Sarum Plain bit or “Lipsbury Pinfold,” whatever that means. The failure of the plain style is a question we could well follow into Antony and Cleopatra, especially with Enobarbus. We wondered what to make of the grammar of the animals and the apparent confusion of their traits with one another, whether this might be a signature of the play’s approach to figuration, a kind of illicit transfer of attributes (in keeping, perhaps, with the free movement of authority in the play, all the disguise, etc.). And all of this, Maddy suggested, circling around “knowing naught”? Cordelia’s nothing, Edmund’s “nothing, my lord,” so many others.

We might have spent more time with the passage, as with Jessica’s: Lear’s reckoning with the plight of his people on the heath. Her basic question was how we get from a Lear who cannot feel the storm on his skin for the storm in his mind, to the Lear, a few lines later, who prays, it would seem, to the poor wretches who bear the pelting of the pitiless storm. I’ve been thinking about it since: is this sympathy another mode of escape from his particular, aristocratic and paternal pain, an escape into the general from the self? (Which brings me back to the curious observation in class, about Edgar’s dog-charm, that he turns particular names to general breeds.) Or is his epiphany the common need for more than nature gives us? How exactly does he get from one to the other—is it the speech act of prayer itself? Hmmmm. We talked some about the hectic self-interrogation of the early lines, the internalization of dialogue. And yet, none of it is really soliloquy, or at least not the way we know it from Hamlet, is it? Why does Lear never get a proper soliloquy? It seems important to the language of the play that it will not accommodate such a speech. (Do Edgar and Edmund have them? An interesting question—certainly, they talk to themselves…)

The play does seem like the right one for thinking about body, given the physical reductions in this scene—to the minimum, the poor bare forked animal; and the general interest in pain and the evasion of pain. Those are questions usually and appropriately referred to the embodied actor. I thought that the exercises rose to the challenge of how choreography might get at other registers of the play. Mary N’s tap-dancing made her lines sound ritualistic and a little hypnotic, and the capacity simultaneously to capture verse rhythm, phrase rhythm, and to suggest the recurrence of semantic motifs was an impressive surprise. (Jackie’s twirling, which we did not see in class, had a similar impact on me; and both are modes of display in a play that is so concerned with performance, self-dramatization, disguise, unmasking etc.) The sign-language of Mary P’s exercise parsed things differently, with the peculiarity that ASL is a language, but 1) a language that no one in the room knew and 2) that borrows some of its signs from a repertory of iconic gestures, which can look like ritual to the untrained eye. I was fascinated by how it cut up the words of the speech, with units of its own. Aynsley’s suggestion to decouple the signs and words was strange and powerful. Almost anti-acting? And that seemed to fold the speech in on itself in ways that made its figurations denser. Eli’s minimal scripts picked out particular knots of body-position and affective experience (the confinedness of the cell, the hope for a kind of free sociability there, etc.) in ways that brought out the ambivalences of the “We two alone” speech, such a dream for Lear, perhaps such a nightmare for Cordelia. And then Jeewon’s storm-duet, amazing in its analysis of the complex interdependence of storm and king, Lear’s attempt to outshout and even puppet the winds and the rains, and the resistance of nature. (And then the revelation of the storm as the Fool, the “natural”—another meaning of that complex word.)

We didn’t talk much about Johnson, but I thought his book was helpful, and it’s valuable I think to add his account of meaning to the two basic paradigms (referential and relational) that we’ve been working with so far. That is, words mean, for Johnson, not by virtue of their reference to things, or their relation to other words, but their grounding in basic somatic experience, in lifting, twisting, and so on, the unreflective body. A couple of people, in exercises, pointed out what a strangely asocial account of meaning resulted—but that limitation may pick up something in the play. At all events, I was moved by what we discovered.

So, special thanks to Aynsley; and we’ll benefit next week from another new expertise, Majel Connery’s work as composer and singer. She and her group Oracle Hysterical did a setting of The Passionate Pilgrim, which you may remember from Week 2, worth a listen here.