Week 12 afterthoughts

One more lucky leap into the middle of our play, this time Polixenes’ first speech in Bohemia. Among the more interesting generalizations we made was that the prose here seemed tortured (especially in terms of word order) in ways we ordinarily associate with verse; particularly interesting given that the verse, in its strong enjambments and rhythmic liberties, sometimes seems to tend toward vigorous prose. (The class distinctions between verse and prose, so reliable earlier in Shakespeare’s career, seemed to be gone altogether.) We also found pronoun omission, brevity of phrasing, and heavy use of parentheses, sometimes overbalancing the clauses on which they depend. Also, Scott pointed out, lots of contractions, economies that had the effect of making the language seem even denser, almost to bursting—dense or fast, faster than any auditor could think, if not faster than the speaker. (There’s something interesting here about communication as a problem of speed: characters thinking too fast or to slow for one another, out of sync.)

Jeewon pointed out that Barton’s claim about disjoining style from character seemed more convincing than the claim that the play converges toward a single style, and I would have to agree. We watched many idioms (discourses? per Berger, per Foucault?) circulate among different characters, but they were, for all that, distinct, from Polixenes’ opening ceremoniousness to Leontes’ self-amplifying paranoia to the songs in Bohemia etc. Still one could wonder: does the play nonetheless have something like a baseline style, from which all these variants are derived? An average style? Which would partake of some of the features above and is certainly different from the baseline style of earlier plays. That is a question that stays with me. (It’s a basic question in the theory of style: is style [always] deviant, and if so, from what; might that what differ from text to text; or is the repertory of styles a network without a center?)

And why does it happen in late Shakespeare? The funny combination, I think quite characteristic, of a language so radically NEW which is also in so many ways surprisingly OLD; especially the interest in romance (Ben Jonson’s “moldy tales”), the prominence of alliteration, etc. More to say about the place of language history in the play. Does Shakespeare’s journey out the other side of tragedy demand the formation of a common idiom, more shared among characters who must find a way of surviving together? Or is it rather a kind of internalization, social problems subtly transposed into the theater of the maker’s mind (a la Richard II in prison)?

Well…I could go on, and we did, but we are all going to keep reading Shakespeare I trust and so let these questions be the matter for our ad hoc reunions. My next project is to go back to my draft of an essay for the Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s Language on “Shakespeare’s Style.” It was supposed to be in production now, but seems to have been delayed long enough that I can continue to tinker—and so let me close by saying that anyone who’d like to read a draft and offer me counsel, please let me know. Anything I give them, and anything I write on the subject from here on out, will vibrate with our many voices—so thank you for that and for everything.


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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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!


Afterthoughts: Week 7

These afterthoughts come unusually long after, the break having gotten the better of me; but we’ll see what a longer interval has left in recollection. Before I do that, however, a nod to the exchange between Jessica and Will, which I think gets at some very basic questions for the project of criticism. We have indeed mixed some of the traditional questions of philological historicism with a few excursions, particularly into the polychronic and the multitemporal. Thinking about sound, especially if we take up some of Dolar’s suggestions, may also lead us away from our grounding in the moment of the text’s composition/play’s production/origination. Sound can be historicized, and that is what Bruce Smith is trying to do; but it is resistant to many of the descriptive technologies by which philology proceeds, if only because it hath a dying fall.

I hope we’ll keep these questions alive, at least insofar as we take them to be Shakespearean questions; questions that the plays themselves propose and respond to. Here’s a proposition for our consideration: that literature has long been defined by, or let us say, been recognized by, its resistance to history, its independence from time; an impulse to speak beyond its time (if also, of course, and crucially, to and about its time). That ahistoricism itself is an impulse that takes different forms at different moments. You can historicize the ahistorical. What do you get for doing the reverse—supposing there is an alternative besides presentizing?

The what-do-you-get-for-that question is an important one. To view Hamlet as a truly polychronic object, with no canonical, centering time; what would that be like? Is it an experience anyone could really have or learn to have? Want to have? Could it ever be as rich as what the historical imagination offers? (Imagine approaching an object from a truly foreign culture, a sort of notional first encounter: perhaps you could recognize that it is polychronic in construction and allusion, without being sure of the time of its making; and though you might be curious about when that making was—that could well organize your response—what are the other modes of available curiosity?)

I should say once again, I do not have fixed ideas here, but a general curiosity, and a sense that these questions are gathering rather than ebbing in the intellectual culture of our own moment, so worth conversing with. At moments of doubt, I worry that they are like merely conceptual art, where the idea is interesting to entertain but the encounter with the work leaves you a little stymied about what to do now. At other moments, it feels like such ideas and these works might be in real conversation.

Anyhow, one place where I thought these questions got really interesting last week was in our discussion of the relationship between the historicity of language and the various kinds of time-feeling and time-idea inside the play. We made headway, I thought, with the contest betweeen periodic and running sentences in Hamlet’s soliloquys. The funny historical temporality of the classical period (as in periodic sentence), old/new in the humanist manner, felt always under pressure from the modernity of the running sentence—modern in the sense that Mueller describes, and in the way that form-breaking will often feel modern, when it happens. (Not a rule, of course; iconoclasm can be a primitivizing gesture. Anyway…) Simultaneously in play is their periodic sentence’s project of syntactic foresight, against a more interruptive syntax as a) a mimesis of distracted thinking or b) present-tense dramatic reaction. Maddy’s suggestions about the subjunctive folded the counterfactual into these questions, too, and of course the temporalities of the plot—delay, impatience, and so on. Each sentence seems to be pulled into past and future in ways coded in lexis, syntax, and figuration.

(What about Eliot, by the way? What kind of time does The Four Quartets ask us to consider—is an unanchored polychronism really a fantasy of divine time? What is the present toward which what might have been and what has been [not what was!] point? It’s such a beautiful poem.)

And how much of this—this phenomenological complexity of time, if you like—is part of how the plays sound? This coming week is our week to think about what we have meant by that word, sound, which tends to stand in for reactions that are not explicitly interpretive in character. Nothing in our travels so far lacks a sound, not prosody, not rhetoric, not grammar, not figuration, not history…)

With Jessica’s trick or treat in mind, a send-off from Kurt Schwitters, as himself and as performed by Christian Bok. Till Wednesday!


Afterthoughts: Week 6

Our question this session was about telling time in Hamlet, and we began with an exercise: what are the times we can recognize in Hamlet’s greeting to Ophelia, after the “to be or not to be” soliloquy: “Nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered.” Jackie started us off with a problem that would haunt us all afternoon, how Hamlet projects into the future an injunction to remember the past; this projection felt both entirely ordinary and quite strange, and related to many of the play’s problems about remembering, promising, swearing. That you must remember a promise seems to cross up our tenses badly; a problem that arises only when you think about it, but that, once you have thought about it, is hard to dispel. Scott pulled out a couple of words, “nymph” and “sins,” observing that they were from different registers, classical and Christian, and that their adjacency might speak to a particular historical moment. “Orisons” would serve as well as “sins,” and it had a more sacramental, Catholic association in Reformation England. The EEBO ngram generator suggests that “nymph” is coming into wider currency ca. 1599 (as a commonplace of humanist-inflected poetry) and “orison” going out. We also talked about what Nevalainen calls the “core vocabulary”—“be,” “my” etc.—and wondered if they were words without time. The syntax, in its mild disruption of SVO word order, seemed mildly backward looking. (More about such syntactical matters next week.) What to make of it all? Is this student of Reformation Wittenberg ironically committing himself to a Catholic prayer-custom; is his latest sin the very address, “nymph”? What if we were to take Hamlet out of it—what time-music would we be left with? Is there some pleasing, or just attention-getting, dissonance in the juxtaposition of these temporalities? In the sentence’s out-of-phaseness with itself? (Like Steve Reich? Well, not really, but still…)

From there, I did a riff on some influential recent thinking on the polychronic (the simultaneity of different times) and the multitemporal (the juxtaposition of different kinds of time, ways of reckoning it). I cited Bruno Latour (We Have Never Been Modern) and Michel Serres (a good place to start is Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time, with Latour). I offered my coffee cup as an example, its ancient form, its more recent design (Japanese? Or not really?), its clayey stuff, the signs of use and wear—an object that collates a variety of different historical moments. It has been a tendency of such thinking about time to focus on material objects. What does it get us if we apply it to words?

From there the conversation forked, as I remember it; one line having roughly to do with literary attention, the other with polychronic language. The attention conversation was asking about the possibility, and the value, of developing such a sensitivity about any particular moment of the past, any moment not our own. Can you use technical means, such as we have adopted, to attain something like the feel you have for the music of your own lifetime, its stylistic affinities and schisms? What will that attention be like? I mentioned F. R. Ankersmit’s Sublime Historical Experience, which understands such transport to the past, the feeling of being then, as being the basic motive of historical inquiry. Is that what we are up to? Or might be?

There was some interesting talk, too, about what we’re interested in when we are attending to multiple temporalities—are they coequal, a free collation, Jeewon asked; or are they always interesting in relation to some particular moment, the moment when the thing was made, the text written? The historicist project tends to identify that moment of emergence and understand the other times in relation to that moment. So, if there is a medieval strain in Hamlet, our interest is in the play’s medievalism, its attitude toward that part of itself, where the “itself” is understood to be situated in 1599. That’s the usual historicist project, and nothing wrong with it—it could nearly be said to be constitutive of humanism—but we noted that there are alternatives out there, which allow those different times a freer relationship to one another, free in particular from chronology and from cause and effect. Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” is interesting here—his sense of the emancipatory potential of historical connections that defy or exceed historiographical narrative. Benjamin is more interested, perhaps, in the frictions and irruptions of the polychronic and what they can provoke in the present (more interested than Ankersmit, who wants to be, as Bottom might put it, translated).

Mary brought us back to Hamlet by observing that Hamlet’s scene with Yorick’s skull puts him eye to eye with a polychronic object. Maybe this is a moment to make a quick list of the various kinds of word-time we encountered. (We were mostly concerned with words; syntax next week!)

  • Archaisms (which can be per Munro both nostalgic and forward looking).

  • Neologisms (ditto, and which depend so much on what they’re made from: from Latin? from a European vernacular? by means of affixes? compounding? grand style or inkhornism? etc. etc.).

  • Particular allusions or stylistic affinities, e.g. to Chaucer (and what Chaucer? Theseus’s nobility or choice words from Troilus for the courtier?).

  • Sententiae (with their classical pedigree, but also their smell of the lamp) and proverbs (with their folk-time, common wisdom, orality).

  • The different temporalities of genre (to which Mary N introduced “epic time”).

  • The temporality of the lifespan, especially childhood (impatience? impulsiveness?) and age; they have their idioms.

  • Speed and delay, with particular attention to the way in which some characters (Polonius, the Player King) can filibuster; there were some interesting remarks about wasting time.

  • Versification: the clear old-fashionedness of the play-within-a-play; and we were starting to see changes in enjambment etc. that seemed to be a real departure from the verse of the earlier plays. Especially in Hamlet himself…

Andrew and John led us into some passages where we could explore these times; the imitations, after the break, brought us to the “rugged Pyrrhus” speech (again Mary’s “epic time,” which seems to be so particular to that episode). There was some great Virgil, Chaucer, and a final prophecy of the eighteenth century.

At some point I asked, in a somewhat gnomic way (gnomic, at least, to myself), is anyone ever present in this play? What would it mean to be present? Maybe we can take that question up next time.