Passage for Emphasis: “From this time forth I never will speak word” (Othello)

Passage for Emphasis – Othello


Demand me nothing: what you know, you know:
From this time forth I never will speak word.


What, not to pray?


Torments will ope your lips.


Well, thou dost best.


Sir, you shall understand what hath befall’n,
Which, as I think, you know not. Here is a letter
Found in the pocket of the slain Roderigo;
And here another: the one of them imports
The death of Cassio to be undertook
By Roderigo.


O villain!


Most heathenish and most gross!


Now here’s another discontented paper,
Found in his pocket too; and this, it seems,
Roderigo meant to have sent this damned villain;
But that belike Iago in the interim
Came in and satisfied him.


O the pernicious caitiff!
How came you, Cassio, by that handkerchief
That was my wife’s?


I found it in my chamber:
And he himself confess’d but even now
That there he dropp’d it for a special purpose
Which wrought to his desire.


O fool! fool! fool!


There is besides in Roderigo’s letter,
How he upbraids Iago, that he made him
Brave me upon the watch; whereon it came
That I was cast: and even but now he spake,
After long seeming dead, Iago hurt him,
Iago set him on.


You must forsake this room, and go with us:
Your power and your command is taken off,
And Cassio rules in Cyprus. For this slave,
If there be any cunning cruelty
That can torment him much and hold him long,
It shall be his. You shall close prisoner rest,
Till that the nature of your fault be known
To the Venetian state. Come, bring him away.


Soft you; a word or two before you go.
I have done the state some service, and they know’t.
No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplex’d in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Judean, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinal gum. Set you down this;
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus.


This passage interests me for its interplay between spoken and written word, between hearing and reading as ways of receiving information. I also want to consider the association between sound and character.

I want to begin by thinking about Iago’s self-sworn silence: Iago is the second-most vocal character in Shakespeare’s plays, with 1088, almost 25% more than Othello’s still-considerable 880 lines.[1] I am not sure if this effect is noticeable while reading the play, and I would like to pose to the class whether this effect is noticeable while hearing the play. We think of Othello as an especially eloquent character – and his rhetorical flourishes of elaborate imagery and diction bear this out – but it seems plausible that the predominance of Iago’s voice might relate to the predominance of his influence in the play, perhaps operating at a much more fundamental register than merely his ability to influence the outcomes of the plot. Iago is, in many respects, a narrator, describing what we, or the other characters of the play, see: most prominently in his orchestration of what Othello sees and hears in 4.1 – but also earlier in that scene of what Cassio (and the audience) sees, his lie that “this is his second fit; he had one yesterday” (4.1.51) easily escapes notice.

What is left, then, when that narration is silenced? This passage at first seems to place ultimate explicative power in the written form by accounting for the “discontented paper” of “Roderigo’s letter,” but Othello’s direction to the Venetians pairs the spoken and written forms of communication. He says to “speak of me” in “letters,” to “set down” and “must you speak” and to “set you down this; and say besides” blurs the boundaries between written and spoken text. For Othello, the written account has itself power to speak, and this raises the question of sound a text itself might have. In films often when a character reads a letter one hears the voice of the writer; this is very different that how the recipient of the letter reads a letter aloud in a play (e.g. Othello’s letter-reading in 4.1). What happens, however, when we read to ourselves in private? Do we read in our own voice, and if so, do we do so exclusively, without “doing the voices” as a child might say in response to a bedtime story read aloud? And if we read only in our own voice, what is the effect of replacing all the different characters’ voices with only our own “fingerprint,” to use Dolar’s metaphor for the uniqueness of individual voices (545)? Although Dolar asserts that the uniqueness of voices “does not contribute to meaning,” I find this claim difficult to reconcile with the clear association in a play with voice and character; one potential counterexample would be that of a back-row, or very short, ground-floor audience member in the Globe who might not be able to see the action and thus would rely solely on hearing. I think this latter situation is analogous in to the silent experience of private reading – if it were not for indentations and character labels (i.e., features of the play that do not contribute to the meaning of the play), our silent reading experience would be as though hearing the play without the distinguishing characteristics of different voices.

[1] Hamlet, is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most vocal with 1506 lines.

Thoughts on statistical methods and distance reading

Hi everyone –

Last week’s discussion and readings on stylometrics had me thinking about what it means to use counting methods such as log-likelihood ratios to make comparative claims about texts.

The main point I’d like to make is that I don’t believe that looking at log-likelihood ratios (or other such purely frequency-based measures) alone are sufficient, because they tell us nothing about the distribution of a particular word or lemma throughout a text. For one, I think the distribution of words of importance matters quite a bit as well – not only for plot-related reasons but also because we can, for example, then associate words with particular characters or particular moments. This might then better help inform the kind of close reading that we can do by drawing our attention to particular areas of the text.

The reason I think distribution is important is that a play is not a random sequence of words drawn from a bucket of Shakespeare’s corpus – and so really all that a log-likelihood table tells us is that a given play is not like Shakespeare’s corpus – but we knew that without doing any counting, precisely because the arrangement of words is what makes the play. For example, an alphabetically sorted list of all the words in a given play would produce exactly the same log-likelihood ratio results as the play itself, but would hardly give rise to the same kind of literary analysis. Yet essentially all that counting methods do by themselves is just that – sorting and comparing. I’m reminded here of perhaps Jakobson’s axes of combination and selection – in my mind, a sorted text is very like the original text in the axis of selection since at some level, all the same selections have been made; obviously this does not carry to the axis of combination. For this reason tools that care about syntactical structures might come into play – but even then, the notion of stock phrases or syntactical structures raised in the Shore article troubles me, because those seem like distinct semantic units that somehow operate at the same level of abstraction as words, much as noun phrases for example might.

Thinking about these issues slightly more mathematically, I’m also concerned with the proper interpretation any sort of statistics-based reasoning. Consider Hope and Witmore’s explanation of the significance stars: “Stars are used to indicate degrees of statistical significance: four indicate a result very unlikely to be due to chance, with the degree of confidence decreasing as the number of stars decreases.” First, and I think this perhaps invites some discussion on issues such as authorial intent, in what way can any of Shakespeare’s sentences can be said to have arisen “due to chance?” I would argue that “not at all” is pretty close (but I have certain assumptions of how the creative faculty works that may differ than those of others – a discussion for another time).

Thus, a word on p-values (the number that get converted into significance stars, where lower p-values are considered “lower probability” and thus “higher significance”). Consider the points raised here in this great summary of where p-values can go wrong from Wikipedia, especially points 1 and 4. The null hypothesis using WordHoard’s methodology is (very generally) that the relative frequency of given word or lemma analysis text and reference text is the same. Is this an especially valuable null hypothesis to be testing given that Shakespeare did not compose at random? I’m not sure.


Passage for Emphasis: “Ay, no; no, ay” (Richard II)

Passage for Emphasis – Richard II


I thought you had been willing to resign.


My crown I am; but still my griefs are mine:
You may my glories and my state depose,
But not my griefs; still am I king of those.


Part of your cares you give me with your crown.


Your cares set up do not pluck my cares down.
My care is loss of care, by old care done;
Your care is gain of care, by new care won:
The cares I give I have, though given away;
They tend the crown, yet still with me they stay.


Are you contented to resign the crown?


Ay, no; no, ay; for I must nothing be;
Therefore no no, for I resign to thee.
Now mark me, how I will undo myself;
I give this heavy weight from off my head
And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,
The pride of kingly sway from out my heart;
With mine own tears I wash away my balm,
With mine own hands I give away my crown,
With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,
With mine own breath release all duty’s rites:
All pomp and majesty I do forswear;
My manors, rents, revenues I forego;
My acts, decrees, and statutes I deny:
God pardon all oaths that are broke to me!
God keep all vows unbroke that swear to thee!
Make me, that nothing have, with nothing grieved,
And thou with all pleased, that hast all achieved!
Long mayst thou live in Richard’s seat to sit,
And soon lie Richard in an earthly pit!
God save King Harry, unking’d Richard says,
And send him many years of sunshine days!
What more remains?

(IV.1.190-222, although we might consider back to where Richard begins at 181 as well)

The iconic and complex “Ay, no; no, ay” (201) at the heart of this passage is perhaps the most obvious place to start.  The gloss in my Pelican edition gives two renderings – “yes, no; no, yes” as well as “I, no; no; I” – but I first wonder if the continuation into the next line, “for I must nothing be; / Therefore no no, for I resign to thee” might not also suggest other permutations of meaning as well. For example, “Yes, no; [because] no I,” would very closely fit the continuation.

Richard’s remark is also the simplest (and thus clearest) possible example of a chiasmus, which by its simplicity draws my attention as well. First, the chiastic structure of “Ay, no; no, ay” – a literal inversion – parallels the scene of inversion as well, a subversion or reversal of the natural order that the deposition of kings very much embodies. Furthermore, note how closely it parallels lines 191-3: “My crown I am; but still my griefs are mine” [I, no] “… But not my griefs, still am I king of those” [no, I] – given the deeply introspective speech that follows, this distilled repetition raises questions of Richard’s mental state – is he paying attention to Bolingbroke? This question might be answered by the rhyme scheme – Bolingbroke’s question “Are you contented to resign the crown?” in l. 200 is an interruption of the rhyming couplets that began in l. 188, and Richard seems to ignore it as he does not complete Bolingbroke’s couplet, as he had earlier in lines 191 and 195.

The word “resign” drew my attention in this passage as well; the OED notes the metonymic way in which resigning an object such as a crown has a double meaning – both of giving up and of giving to. Might this suggest another nuance to the “Ay, no; no, ay”? Is Richard being coy with Bolingbroke, content to give up one but not the other? Or is this play on words – this combination of an aural figure and a syntactical one – yet another display of Richard’s vast rhetorical power, the kind of power that can people an empty world, the kind of power that stands in so much contrast to Bolingbroke’s terse and impatient statements and questions?

The chiasmus of “Ay, no; no, ay” also draws significant attention to the flexibility of the monosyllabic “I” in meter, as it sets up a possible trochee-iamb pair that demonstrates both possible uses of “I” as stressed upbeat and downbeat. “I” appears iambically stressed at first “for I must nothing be” and “for I resign to thee” but then trochaically in “I will undo myself” – the immediate emphasis being on Richard’s own person. Following from the above emphasis on “resign,” note here that though Richard “[resigns] to thee,” his subsequent speech is rather of the giving up sense – “how I will undo myself.” As King Richard unwinds the symbols of his power, we also hear “I” as unstressed, as leading an iamb. “I give,” “I wash,” “I give” in lines. 204, 207 and 208 seem iambic, but the unstressed I is a beautiful formal echo of how Richard had just renounced “the pride of kingly sway,” just as how we hear in “deny” (209) an echo of the stressed “I” without any “I” being present – the “I” has been denied, as it were, just as it was replaced by “no” in “Therefore no no.”

A parting thought for discussion: is it also possible to hear other homophones in “Ay, no; no, ay”? Especially “eye,” after Richard’s subsequent list of body parts? Might “no eye” contrast with “years of sunshine days” (220)? Might we also hear “mine ays are full of tears” for line 244? Broadly, what else might “ay, no; no, ay” suggest?

Yan Che