Afterthoughts: Week 5

There was an interesting line of discussion about the nature of character this week, which I would like to summarize by identifying two polar views with two people who advanced them—advanced them, I hasten to add, with more nuance, qualification, and speculative distance than I will allow here. One one side, Jeewon, who summarized some of Mieke Bal’s arguments about the constituent elements of a character-effect and asked, why does she retain the notion of character at all? Once we have resolved character into repetitions, accumulation, and relations with other characters, are we not free to adopt an alternative heuristic? One that does not put us in jeopardy of seeing, yet again, real people on the page? On the other side, Eli, who allowed as there might be something more to a character than what the text gives us, more history, more depth; in something like the way that we assume (even should assume?) there is more to a person we meet than the sum of our observations would allow us to know.

Maybe we have spent enough time together by now for you to recognize that it is characteristic of me not to try to resolve that question in one direction or another, but to wonder how we came to pose it for ourselves, and who we are that we find ourselves in the middle of it; what our motives might be for choosing an answer, as a commitment or at a given moment.

For us, in this class, the practical question is how these characters, or character effects, interact with the stylistic repertoire of the play. Can we reliably—Bal might say, predictably—associate a discrete set of stylistic devices with the language attached to particular speech tags? The discussion of Falstaff was a great test case for that, and there was much we discovered, his parataxis, his frequent repetition (he is copious, inventive in a technical sense, always foisting up new comparisons, but unconcerned with, or even contemptuous of, elegant variation), Will and others’ great comments on his if clauses, and so on (“and so on” of course including his characteristic diction and predilection for metaphors of the body etc.). But we also noted that his idiolect is adopted by others in the play, and arguably is introduced first in the mouth of Hal, performing for his friend’s pleasure. Mary brought us into the mock trial scene and the intricate experiment there of Hal and Falstaff imitating King Henry, and then Hal imitating Falstaff imitating King Henry and Falstaff imitating Hal imitating King Henry, or however it works. The digressions from this circuit are important, too; interesting, for example, that Falstaff as King Henry sounds so much like a schoolmaster, perhaps Holofernes. (Also like John Lyly.*) Grossly speaking—as Falstaff would have us do—there seem to be three possibilities:

1) Shakespeare’s success (in this play? in others?) lies in the idiosyncrasy of each character, how they all sound like themselves. Character is the primary site of style.

2) Character may be the primary site of style, but styles are mobile, passing from character to character by dynamics of imitation or perhaps infection etc.

3) Style is the primary site of style, or language is; characters are the more or less predictable, reliable avatars of styles to which they have no necessary relation. Or even: styles are the real characters.

The last raises the question, could one construct a style-plot alternative to the character-plot, that would follow the rising and falling fortunes of rival styles in a play? Elizabeth Fowler may help with thinking along these lines, if we substitute for her concept of “social person” something like “social styles”—so that the interest of a character arises from the collocation of a variety of styles that have antecedent meanings, but find, in the play, novel combinations. We can do a little of that based upon the internal evidences the plays give us, observing, for example, how Armado collocates the styles of the braggart soldier and the Petrarchan lover, Richard the styles of monarch and lyric poet, and so on.

Shakespeare must have been asking these same questions himself, no? For Hal seems to pose them so fundamentally, partaking of as many of the play’s different styles as he does—do they add up to a character? (He prefers the trope of contrast to combination, perhaps, as though his self-difference could be a matter of strategy; do we buy it?)

Also fascinating was a discussion of linguistic autonomy, the monologic vs. the dialogic. Jessica wondered if Falstaff might be the only character in the play who can truly speak to himself. Alex asked me, during the break, isn’t he always performing for Hal? Not quite always, but almost; and yet I think there’s something to what Jessica says (esp. the honor speech). At all events, the general question is one worth following, suggesting as it does a difference between speech that follows a single narrative, argumentative, or just expressive line, and speech that incorporates dialogic elements as it goes, especially hypophora. Paradoxically, a character of the first type may be more socially integrated; of the second, more isolated (insofar as internalized dialogic speech replaces actual dialogue). The question might touch some of our conversations, too, about speech as thinking. What kind of model of thinking is an inner dialogue? (To be thought about in this connection: the idea that Sarah introduced of imitating yourself, which is weird and provocative; is that what you do when you sustain a style?)

Let’s see—from the first part of class, also the interesting observation that the prose is, generally speaking, so much more memorable than the verse in this play, which often seems boiler-plate. (Certainly in King Henry’s mouth—if we credit him with full control of his idiom, it would seem he is out to project a kind of generalized high style, full of passing metaphor but little conceit or argument.) Hotspur is possibly an exception: he can go on, but he sustains a pretty high pitch of invention, and turns a nice conceit or two. We have a general repertory of stylistic descriptors for sentences, hypotactic, paratactic, periodic, and we will add to that in week 7.

The imitations this week were truly wonderful; the emphasis on the commerce between Falstaff and Hotspur was a revelation to me.

We talked a bit about other sites of style, besides character or passage: the author, the play as a whole (relative to other plays). As we go forward we’ll want to keep those questions in mind, since Shakespeare’s questions about what character is, how it works etc. only become deeper. When do we speak of styles in a play and when do we speak of the play’s style? What is the relation between the two? (At what levels does style discriminate?)

*As the Oxford notes will tell you, Falstaff as King H is patently “euphuistic,” in the idiom, that is, of John Lyly’s Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1579), a sensation in its time, by 1596 a little out of date. Here’s a passage to give you a feel for it: “He that toucheth pitch * shall  be defiled, the sore eye infecteth the sound, the society with women  breedeth security in the soul and maketh all the senses senseless. Moreover take this counsel as an article of the creed, which  I mean to follow as the chief argument of my faith : that idleness is the only nurse and nourisher of sensual appetite, the  sole maintenance of youthful affection, the first shaft that Cupid  shooteth into the hot liver of a heedless lover. I would to God I were not able to find this for a truth by mine own trial ; and I would the example of others’ idleness had caused me rather to avoid that fault than experience of mine own folly. How  dissolute have I been in striving against good counsel, how resolute in standing in mine own conceit ; how forward to wickedness, how froward to wisdom ; how wanton with too much cockering, how wayward in hearing correction. Neither was I much unlike these abbey-lubbers in my life (though far unlike them in belief), which laboured till they were cold, eat till they sweat, and lay in bed till their bones ached. Hereof cometh it, gentlemen, that love creepeth into the mind by privy craft and keepeth his hold by main courage.”

Forethoughts: Week 5

A brief summa as promised of some of the linguistic and rhetorical formalisms we have been working with so far: just by way of reminding us of the kinds of questions that we can ask as we look at specimens of Shakespeare’s language.

Prosody: we have practiced the iambic pentameter line, and sounded its conventional variations (inversions in the first foot, the characteristic positions of caesurae and inversions after, etc. etc.). We have also thought about rhyme and about the sharing of meter and rhyme between characters. We have begun to ask about the role of the phrase in the rhythm of a line, how units of grammar may come to push the meter around, rather than (as in the earliest plays) the reverse.

Rhetoric: we have thought about the composition of an oration (inventio, dispositio, eloquentia, memoria, pronunciatio) and how the process may leave its mark in speech, especially in moments of high invention (such as catalogues of insults). We have learned several tropes and schemes by names, and thought a bit about what it means to write or speak with such a repertoire in mind. We have paid some attention to the levels of style, high middle and low, their marks and social uses.

Diction: we’ve been on the lookout not only for stylistic level but for word origins and foreign words.

Figuration: we have thought about wordplay, and also about the extended metaphors we now call conceits; also about metonymy and metaphor. Personification is a term that might have come up but hasn’t much, yet; it is important. The excesses and dangers of metaphor were of interest, proliferation and discipline.

We’ve also talked about various different sites of style: the author (across a career or at a given time), the play, the character; when we differentiate styles, what are the terms our our comparison? (What other sites might we discover? Plenty, outside the plays—other authors, genres, etc.—but what about inside?) What is the role of detail—especially the detail established by analysis—in determining these identities and the differences that define them?

We’ll move next to questions of the history of the language, and we will try to mobilize all of these aspects diachronically—as they tell the time, or better, the times of any given play.


Afterthoughts: Week 4

As we turn, next week, to the question of character, we pause temporarily in assembling formal resources (prosodic, rhetorical, statistical) to apply them to a new problem. In the next few days I’m going to try to set down a few thoughts about the territory we’ve covered, but for the moment a few—somewhat fewer, I hope!—remarks about where we were on Wednesday.

Matthew Harrison, a former graduate student in the department, was enormously helpful in gathering the resources we used, and he made a useful distinction to me: between distant reading (the Franco Moretti high-altitude survey of features that emerge across corpora of many texts) and something like computer-assisted close reading. The latter is what Hope and Witmore do with “the” in Macbeth, and what Mary was suggesting with the unusual prominence of the word “through” in MND. The digital finding shows us something we didn’t notice (at least not consciously? does some share of the authority of digital methods depend on their pointing out phenomena that might affect us, even if we are not aware of being affected?), but we then go back and read the way we always read.

Our characteristic use of the technologies, however, especially Wordhoard, was something else again—perhaps closer to the use of digital technologies to make attributions and detect forgeries. For we are in the business, after all, week to week, of making forgeries. Everyone used one of the other of the tools to test the frequency or typicality of a given construction, whether and where it appeared elsewhere in Shakespeare’s works generally or in our play in particular. Mary checked the n-gram for “through” vs. “thorough” and found the former spelling increasingly prominent—one way in which we can estimate whether a given word in Shakespeare is coming in (and he sounds up-to-date, fashionable, etc.) or going out (and he sounds old-fashioned, archaic, etc.). Yan’s valorous by-hand comparison of local repetitions across three plays suggested that MND might be an outlier in that respect…

…which led into a very interesting discussion of the fact that the aristocrats speak twice as often as the mechanicals in the play—something that surprised us all, given how memorable the mechanicals’ lines are. That’s pretty basic DH, but still, it got us thinking about memory and meter and also, per Yan’s result, about repetition. We were perhaps being a little more sophisticated (whatever sophistication is worth—the play certainly has questions about that) when we observed that many of the words that were notably frequent in the play, relative to the rest of the corpus, were the mechanicals’ and the faeries’ words. If they speak less, they must therefore repeat more. Interesting: repetition and class? Repetition and song?

Incidentally, I had a very interesting discussion with Yan in office hours about the methodologies of some of our tools, their assumptions and procedures…Yan, could I tempt you to set down a few thoughts here? I had hoped to open all that up in class, but we went elsewhere.

Let’s see: also an interesting exchange with, if I remember rightly, Maddy and Will and others about punning: metonymy or metaphor? The adjacency (or identity?) of the sounds seemed metonymic, but Maddy pointed out that the tenors (soul and sole, for example) can be quite far apart. But perhaps a pun does not become a metaphor unless its discrepant meanings are made to illuminate one another, as opposed to just making us laugh by their dissonance? Anyhow this one is worth filing away for when we return to wordplay in earnest with Hamlet (the first of our two weeks with the play, oriented generally toward the historicity of language, will treat words, words, words, as Hamlet himself puts it).

I’ll mention briefly the nice work we did with Eli’s passage, the back-and-forth between Puck and Oberon about fairy lifeways. Eli helped us see the stylistic variety, and Scott pointed out how the somewhat hectic enjambment and relatively free placement of caesura in Puck’s agitated (or just puckish) account of the dangers of sunlight contrasted with how evenly, how magisterially Oberon laid his syntax across the lines. (Per Derek Attridge, Scott described this as the ascendence of the phrase as a rhythmic unit over the line; that’s a thought we might return to.)

Things we wish we had: tagging not just for foreign words but words by etymological origin; and by verse type (Maddy wondered where else, besides Macbeth, we could find catalectic tetrameter). What else?

I ended up by giving us a taste of the Shakespeare produced by the recurrent neural network (sent to me by Yan); a few choice lines (if “choice” is the word):


  As I have all the very line, that gave me your highness,
  Where you will hear the single spirit of my business,
  Plant down flives on your son, and even
  And open with their own conusteries; and thinking
  your grave ship should ne’er break Humphrey’s eyes,
  I am poor dear party to make his chamber
  And hospish shameless frozen pride. Here name,
  And light in plot legely in whom I said,
  Glimmed by an argument of it sweet fears your other mouth,
  Such a great estimation would be run as this,
  ‘Tis fit for them, ’tis talk before yourselves.

I confess, when I read this, I can get almost weepy from laughter. We talked just a bit about why Shakespeare’s own language is funny, and Bergson’s idea that comedy is the encrustation of the mechanical upon the organic; that seems to have something to say about certain compulsive, repetitive speakers in the play. Does it account for the comedy (if you find it comic!) of machine Shakespeare? What about the lines below, from the Shakespeare pastiche in “Beyond the Fringe” (the pre-Python British sketch television show)?

  Get thee to Gloucester, Essex. Do thee to Wessex, Exeter.
  Fair Albany to Somerset must eke his route.
  And Scroop, do you to Westmoreland, where shall bold York
  Enrouted now for Lancaster, with forces of our Uncle Rutland,
  Enjoin his standard with sweet Norfolk’s host.
  Fair Sussex, get thee to Warwicksbourne,
  And there, with frowning purpose, tell our plan
  To Bedford’s tilted ear, that he shall press
  With most insensate speed
  And join his warlike effort to bold Dorset’s side.
  I most royally shall now to bed,
  To sleep off all the nonsense I’ve just said….

It’s maybe a cheap, melodramatic question: is this Shakespeare? But I’d love to try to rescue it from the temptations of donnish posturing. Does Shakespeare consist in a set of texts? Or a way of writing? Or (that word again: we’ll really go after it I hope in Week 8) a sound? Maybe there is some version here of what in AI is called the Turing Test. The test: if, exchanging messages at a terminal, you cannot tell the difference between a machine and a human interlocutor, then the machine is intelligent. (I.e., who cares how the machine works, what’s behind the curtain, if it can do what we do?) You could apply a similar test to style. If it sounds like Shakespeare, if you really can’t tell the difference, is it Shakespeare—regardless of when it was written, by whom or by what? Who thinks so, who thinks not, why?


PS a little more “Beyond the Fringe,” when they (Jonathan Miller, Allen Bennett, Peter Cook, and Dudley Moore) reenter as “Rustics”:

Miller: Is it all botched up, then, Master Puke?
Bennett: Aye, and marry is, good Master Snot.
Moore: ‘Tis said our Master, the Duke, hath contrived some naughtiness against his son, the King.
Cook: Aye, and it doth confound our merrymaking.
Miller: What say you, Master Puke? I am for Lancaster, and that’s to say for good shoe leather.
Cook: Come speak, good Master Puke, or hath the leather blocked up thy tongue?
Moore: Why then go trippingly upon thy laces, good Grit.
Cook: Art leather laces thy undoing?
Moore: They shall undo many a fair boot this day.
All: Come, let’s to our rural revel and with our song enchant our King.

Surely that is Shakespeare.

Afterthoughts: Week 3

I’ll begin with Jakobson’s “Linguistics and Poetics”…and with a confession, since I believe I wrong-footed us on one important point, by suggesting that if metaphor (substitution) is the principle of the axis of selection, metonymy (contiguity, association) is the principle of the axis of combination. Jessica asked if the chain of metonymy was supposed to be an adequate model of the contiguity of syntax, and the answer is no, though I argued, alas, the contrary. The beauty of these afterthoughts is that I need not stew about it all week—let me see if I can give a brief, revised account of the Jakobson, incorporating that correction, as well as a distinction between metaphor and metonymy that is not encumbered by my error.

So, one more time! Let’s say a given sentence presents us with a sequence of choices for every semantic unit; for simplicity’s sake, let’s say for every word.

Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?

There is Yan’s dropdown menu. (Imagine it available for any other element of the sentence, too.) It’s not that we run consciously through all the options before we move on to the next word; rather, that the meaning of “music” depends on the constellation of similar words available in the language, to a capable speaker, as represented in that menu. (This is the fundamental Saussurian claim: that meaning is constituted by a system of difference among words, rather than by reference to a world outside words; that to understand “ditty” we have to look not to the discrete set of ditties to which it refers, but to its relation to other words that are candidates for naming music: so it is less formal than “anthem,” likely shorter than “song,” and so on.)

Now, a quick and very conventional distinction between metaphor and metonym: a metaphor, as transport, Puttenham’s far-fetcher, is a trope of substitution, one thing for another; I. A. Richards, source of the tenor-vehicle distinction, would say that the vehicle comes from another realm, from far away. There is a similarity between the two, tenor and vehicle, but the differences are what make the metaphor illuminating. Cf. the emphasis both in Puttenham and Peacham on novelty. Whereas a metonym is a substitution, but a substitution by something already adjacent—adjacent in ordinary usage, in culture—as when one says “the office” for the collection of people who work there. Similarity is not the principle of metonymy and difference is not the source of its interest. An office is not like the people who work there. But it is conceptually and practically nearby and so to use one for the other is convenient, whether as shorthand, or elegant variation.

You could say: a metaphor is a leap in a new direction; a metonymy, a short step in familiar terrain.

Back to Jakobson. Perhaps you’ll begin to see that metaphor and metonymy are both possible principles of selection; so rather than treating metonymy as defining the axis of combination, it is one of the ways in which semantic selection could be defined.* I might, for “music,” use a rough synonym (“tune”), a metonymy (“strings”), a metaphor (“Les sanglot longs / Des violons / De l’automne”). Now we can finally come back to the claim that “The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection onto the axis of combination” (71). Note that J’s word is “equivalence,” not “similarity.” A metonymy need not be similar, but it will be equivalent. Anyhow, the point is that strung out along the horizontal axis of the sentence are a series of equivalent units, in this case metrical feet, mostly iambs. That equivalence is a system of difference—i.e., the equivalence of the iambs makes their differences perceptible and significant—and that system works the same way as the system of differences that defines the axis of selection. “Music” means what it means in relation to those other possibilities, “tune,” “air,” etc. Each iamb asks interpretation in relation to the other iambs or, notably, the trochaic substitution in the first foot. How are they like, how are they different? By extension, other repetitions—other equivalences, such as the those defined by the rhetorical scheme of chiasmus, “music to hear / hear’s thou music”—likewise ask to be thought together, collated, interpreted in view of the similarity that juxtaposes them and the specific differences that arise from the comparison.

One more way of putting it: in an ordinary sentence, you are not looking for formal equivalences across the syntax, across the axis of combination; that would be a distraction. But a text in which the poetic function is prominent, even dominant, is organized to provoke such recognitions of equivalence, rhythmically, rhetorically, imagistically, conceptually. With that recognition, interpretation begins. (Though we might also want to say that such equivalences hav a sound.)

I hope that helps! The basic point I think we did get: that it is in the nature of poetic language to refer its parts to one another, as opposed to elsewhere (the speaker, the addressee, the code, the channel, the world). And I hope that is helpful in regards to many phenomena of repetition that we have observed, and the sometimes almost threatening density of figuration that arises in Richard II, the poem piling on top of itself, defeating its constituent sentences and the grammar of temporality (or one could say, the grammar of temporality—that basic expectation that a well-formed sentence is a model of an action-oriented temporality, in which and antecedent subject is the beginning, the verb is the middle, and the object is the end.)

Now…one more thought about metaphor and metonymy, before I say try to recollect something of what we said about the play (!). As Mani mentioned, and as those of you who read all the way through the aphasia article learned, Jakobson makes some grand claims for metaphor and metonymy, taking metaphor to be the basic trope of Romanticism (in its transcendental yearnings, its sense of loss, aporia, etc.), metonymy of realism (insofar as realism seeks to assemble things in something like the order in which they are found in the world). Harry Berger, Jr.’s book Figures of a Changing World (2015), describes metaphor as a modernizing force, metonymy as traditional; he contrasts “the creative force of metaphorizing and the mimetic force of metonymizing” (17). We might think in that regard of the crown and the bucket. The crown is a metonymy for kingship, barely figurative. A bucket…not so much. It may be a surprisingly plain-style, workmanlike image, but its modernity, or modernizing impulse, would lie in its unsettling of the traditional language, its metaphoricity. I think a sense of the play between those modes of figuration, metaphor and metonymy, has something to offer us as we try do understand what is happening to Richard, or what he is doing. (Maybe in that order.)

So, right! Richard II. I’m just going to pull out what seem to me to be a few portable ideas, so night doesn’t fall upon my afterthinking. John gave us a great passage to start with, Bushy and the Queen. Is Bushy master of the confusions of his rhetoric, or their victim? Whichever it is, figures of fragmentation and of inversion are not only plentiful, but operate on one another; the metaphors are metaphorized. Pronoun referents are elusive, and plural verbs often seem mismatched with singular subjects and vice versa. There is a good deal of logical operation (negation, analogy) but the effort to resolve inconsistencies feels doomed. The speech is a good specimen to keep in mind of figuration out of control, a parody of argument that strews its terms almost arbitrarily across the divisions of the verse. It is worth mentioning—we didn’t remark on it, but it’s important—the philosophical sound of all the “substance” talk, terms that would have sounded scholastic, old-fashioned (more appropriate to debate ca. 1398, when the play is set, than 1594). Many humanists already regarded that language as obscurantist. Also worth recalling: Mary’s point about the counter-figural impulse in the Queen’s language of thing and nothing, her attempt to escape, by abstraction, the proliferation of figure.

Jackie gave us such a different passage, Gaunt’s famous sceptered isle speech, and prompted us to think about the relation to place; Scott pointed out the deictic insistence of the this…this…this. All of it begs to be thought in terms of the play’s crisis of referential meaning, associated with Richard’s downfall. All the talk about blood and land, all the gages; is there nothing to which the terms of monarchy can be durably anchored? (Jakobson might aver that the more poetic language is, the more it is anchored to itself.) We thought about Gaunt’s anaphora and the incantatory quality of his language in relation to the categories of prophecy and of ritual. Is his speech a series of metonymies, familiar contiguous figures for England? He does speak for tradition. Does any of them attain the distance of metaphor?

Too bad we did not get to Scott’s meditations on the “terrestrial ball,” but one of his points from the blog, about metaphors made from metaphors, did find a place earlier on. (What is the difference between such recursive metaphor, if I can put it that way, and mixed metaphor? That will be an interesting question going forward: sometimes Shakespeare’s conceits, or extended metaphors, are miraculously unified; but sometimes they are extravagant, overcrowded, and how are we to judge or appreciate or analyze that?)

The imitations were wonderful. Apologies to Jessica and Andrew, who got such short shrift; and also to Sarah, who put a nice one in the pile, too. We’ll come back to you all. Eli and Mary were judged to have written imitations to rival the original. Not bad! Mary’s put pressure on the question of whether her shadowed sun was a radical trope or a preposterous confusion. For the record, I take it to be the first—but Shakespeare’s figuration will bring us ever closer to the abuse of figures or even the figure of abuse, catechresis, and to questions of whether he (or his characters?) has gone too far. We’ve already found that from our vantage as imitators we can venture some evaluative judgments about these plays. We will, I hope, continue, not least because they ask for it.

Finally…a few minutes, thanks to Yan, with “Ay, no; no, ay”; or “I know no I,” or “I know no ay,” or “Ay, no; no I”; or etc. Let’s just say that this little koan felt like the epicenter of the play’s figural excess. And yet, is it even figurative? Or just ambiguous? What’s the difference/relation between those two terms?

Two codas. Then I’ll stop I promise. First is just a recommendation to keep Burke in mind as we go. His signature, as a theorist, is to conceive of language dramatistically, and that is the general orientation that gives us 1) his sense of metaphor as seeing something from the perspective of something else, and 2) his suggestion that those somethings might be thought of as characters. He’s actually quite useful for thinking about the relationship between local linguistic phenomena and larger dramatic structures. The account of irony as the condition of a good drama, in which multiple characters provide multiple perspectives that interact dialectically, ought to be on our minds. The terms are quite abstract (and his idiom wonderfully peculiar—“coached”? As in acting school?), but he is also author, elsewhere, of the best essay on Othello.

Second, if we’d had even more time, I might have tried to get us talking about another trope, one that’s not in the handbooks—a model. It’s a word used several times in the play, and I think it captures an impulse in Richard especially to conceive of a conceit or extended metaphor as a place to which the imagination can escape. The French modelle and Italian modello refer to an architectural mock-up, and the late sixteenth century saw the entry of that sense into English. So, a representation of the world that is not an allegory—rather, mimetic, scaled down, but somehow also a place where the mind can hide. “I have been studying how I may compare / This prison where I live unto the world.” For another time!

*Jakobson does use the contiguity of metonymy to talk about the contiguity of the axis of combination, and readers like Berger take him up on this: “Metaphor is fundamentally paradigmatic and expresses internal relations of similarity, contrast, selection, and substitution. Metonymy is fundamentally syntagmatic and expresses external relations of combination and continuity” (15). But metonymy is not adequate to account for the variety of connections between sentence elements, their hierarchies, etc.; nor does Jakobson want to represent it as such.

**As I post this, I read Jessica’s very helpful comments, now below; some of what she raises may be addressed in the above, but I’d be interested in other responses. Let’s add to that conversation, as she did, by making new posts (rather than comments, which are easy to lose track of).

Afterthoughts: Class 2

The basic question of the function of language, or even what language is, was upon us this week, in particular what it means to say, on the one hand, that it is a medium of communication (playing out among talkers and writers), and on the other, that it is an expression of interiority, subjectivity etc. Related to but not identical to that question is whether we are to understand Shakespeare’s language as the activity of thinking, or the articulation of the already thought. Perhaps we also felt the undertow of another power—the “her” that carries us from the Forester’s “inherit” to the Princess’s “heresy” (4.1.20ff). Etymology? Sound? The word as materia?

We are not the first to ask these questions, of course, about Shakespeare and in general, and I hope we can (continue to) do some philosophy of language on the fly. It may be interesting, for example, to bring these questions into contact with Saussure and/or with Derrida. Jakobson will offer us more of a framework for next week. But I don’t think it will hurt to continue to excavate* the basic problems from the plays themselves. Our characteristic question is the double one of 1) how might such ideas about language get played out inside the plays, articulated by particular characters, implicit in certain discourses, and 2) how do they shape the way the plays sound as wholes, i.e., how do ideas about language feed back into the sound of language. (And vice versa; feedback is a useful trope here, an acoustic phenomenon that troubles cause and effect, even for the engineers.)

We have had a couple of specific versions of that problem, not on the level of philosophy of language so much as of models of language, grammar and economics. We asked last time about what it means when language in the plays seems to operate specifically under the aspect of grammar and grammatical transformation, and whether grammatical routines (conjugation, declension) might be taken up as shaping analogies for the plays at other levels of construction, e.g. the permutational character of a plot (two Antipholi and two Dromios, four lord and four ladies, etc.). With LLL we pondered the question of economics—Yan and Jeewon both raised interesting questions about the economy of the play and the kinds of exchange represented within it. Jeewon emphasized circulation, if I remember rightly; Yan asked, what does anyone get for it?

You could say that there is a closed, more or less self-sufficient economy in the marriage plot, four women, four men; that is one idea of what an economy is, a system for allocating resources that will always sum to zero. But in other ways the dramatis personae seems to be notably unparsimonious—take Holofernes, for example, who comes onto the scene only in the fourth act, introducing an idiolect that is in many ways redundant with Armado’s. Is the overplus of characters to be understood in relation to the overplus of language? Is Holofernes’s appearance a kind of symptom a) of that burgeoning language or b) of some other force responsible for both? In either case, do we count this (trying to stay within our economic conceit) as profit or as waste? Does the specific economic language of the play help us—small moments like the Princess tipping the Forester, or the large, if incomplete, structural gesture of the unsettled debt of Aquitaine to Navarre? (An incomplete ring structure, if you like.) At all events, again: economics as a discourse and also as a model for discourse. (We’ll have to sort out, too—perhaps when we get to Measure for Measure—what might be at stake in saying discourse as opposed to language.)

In passing: Eli suggested that one might pursue a psychoanalytic explanation for the above, in terms of sublimated and thwarted desire; and indeed, Freud’s basic psychic model is economic in terms of its dependence on a circulation of energies, with which each of us must do something.

Back briefly to my opening remarks in class about the five-stage process of rhetorical composition, inventio, dispositio, eloquentia, memoria, pronunciatio. I proposed it as a model of what thinking is like, for a well-trained schoolboy like Shakespeare and for some of his characters (well-trained or no). I want to keep that model in mind as we go. But I should say—it was on my mind after—it is by no means the only model of mind available in the period, with the most prominent alternative being the so-called faculty psychology, descended from Aristotle, which divides the mind into several discrete faculties, including imagination and understanding etc. That is not quite within our ken, but bears mention. The mind understood as a kind of back-formation from the practice of composition has a different status, not so much a philosophical account as an implication of practice.

One more general thought about all this, which is that—in asking questions about the way in which particular discourses can function as resource, medium, and model within this plays—we have on our side a couple of the great projects in twentieth-century literary criticism associated with the so-called linguistic turn:

  • Structuralism: which is at its root an attempt to discover in a variety of other domains (e.g. kinship, narrative, etc.) structures analogous to those of language; the younger Roland Barthes is a useful example. 
  • Poststructuralism: which particularly in its Derridian or deconstructive versions finds language to be the medium of experience, characterized more by tropological excess and semiotic slippages than by the stability of its structures.

Two ways, that is, to think about what it means to take language as a model of (or in the second case perhaps of simply as) experience. Shakespeare, of course, is not obliged to commit himself to either view.

All this apropos of some great passages. Among many helpful things said, I think now of Madeleine’s observation about the Princess’s use of a maxim at a crucial moment—Shakespeare writes in a culture of commonplaces, whether the homely proverb or the elevated sententia, and it’s always interesting when characters have recourse to them. That the Princess might think herself alone at the moment when she depends most on universal authority is interesting and affecting. Was that (we went on to ask) a soliloquy or a fully social performance for praise? The general question in that passage of forbidding complexity was interesting, too—what kind of thinking is that? What does it sound like? Etc. I’d also like to pick up Whitney’s observation that the confusion around “remuneration” involved not only language use but language learning, even if Costard didn’t take exactly the right lesson. We might keep an eye on those problems as we go, e.g. the new speaker’s difficulty in sorting the particular and the general. I could go on…

…but as for the workshop, I thoroughly enjoyed rooting around in the day’s discoveries. I thought we went a good way toward establishing some of the tolerances of Shakespeare’s early verse, features like the occasional inversions in first position, still more occasionally after the caesura; a feel for where the caesura usually settles (he’s not afraid of putting it in the middle from time to time); something of the range of diction characteristic of different levels of style and characters; and so on and so on. My hope for that part of class is that we will just keep exercising our ears as we make our own imitations and weigh those of our colleagues. Questions of historicity are inevitable there, even though the syllabus supposedly defers them until the middle of the term. Jackie brought us up against them in weighing Mary’s phrase “that merry month and long.” While we wait for stylometrics and the history of the language to come to the rescue, you might, in moments of doubt, consult E. A. Abbott’s old but still valuable A Shakespearian Grammar, which is out of copyright and linked here; N. F. Blake’s A Grammar of Shakespeare’s Language is also a good source, though it lurks only in the library. Volume 3 of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language can be consulted online, and is full of useful information.

Finally, who was it who noticed the prominence of the word forsworn? Alex counted its instances at 16. That’s something we should keep listening out for, too, how particular words, or syntactic constructions, or schemes or tropes, become signatures of particular plays. I’ll close by anticipating our stylometrical investigations and posting below two word clouds, drawn from LLL and CE respectively. (I made them at, but there are lots of sites that will do this if you give them a text; I took my text of the plays from Renascence Editions.) Here’s Love’s Labour’s Lost:

And here’s The Comedy of Errors:


*Excavate? Why excavate? The word seems to assume that the answer lies deep down, underneath, etc. Should we assume that?