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.

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