Afterthoughts: Class 1

We began the class going around each of us with a few words about what we hoped to get from the semester. The range of interests and expertise (in periods and languages) was exciting. Two remarks that come back to me now are Scott’s, on the question of what kind of writing might carry us beyond a hictorico-cum-formalist idiom (still somewhere in range of Vendler and Greenblatt; he cited Culler on lyric among alternative directions); and Jackie’s about contending impulses in recent poetry, lyric and anti-lyric. Will we be able to detect such impulses in Shakespeare? “Lyric” is likely to be an important term for us. What forms might “anti-lyric” take?

I talked a bit about some of my own curiosities in offering the course, beginning with an interest in the relation between experience (the usual translation of the Greek aesthesis) and analysis. So often the two are connected by what we call formalism, which is to say, by the discovery of patterns and structures under the auspice of interpretation—the discovery is always bound up with the question, what does this mean? I am curious about alternatives. Of course, we all encounter works of art in so many different ways, different modes, but as for talking about them and sharing that encounter, our languages can sometimes seem relatively restricted. Hence my interest in what things sound like…what does that mean, sounds like?

There is an element of the counter-critical in this, a la Susan Sontag (“Against Interpretation”) and Rita Felski (The Limits of Critique), as well as Michel Serres and Bruno Latour. But as I said, I have generally found the polemic more interesting than the work that follows from it, at least in literary studies. I have a hunch that one line of response might have to do with creative imitation, and the prospects for a wiser confusion among literary criticism, theory, and practice. The course’s imitation exercises will be a place to explore those prospects. (I will also say, I am wary of any counter-critical orthodoxy, too—the tools of critique have not outlived their interest of their usefulness. The difficult question is when to use them and when not, what aspects of literary experience they enable and what they foreclose.)

Another keyword for me is attention. We’ll wrestle throughout, I expect, with the relationship between local attention to language and the larger frames in which we find it, especially narrative. (Think of how much everybody in Comedy loves a story! Especially the Duke, who can’t get enough of Egeon.) Is it difficult to read for style and for meaning at the same time? What might be at stake in that difference, experientially, even cognitively; are there ways of bringing them together? We’ll also simply be expanding the range of things we pay attention to, I hope—what stands out for us as marked, in the linguists’ term. With a little practice, schemes and tropes will jump out at us, and metrical variations snag our ears; we’ll be better and better able to identify when Shakespeare is sounding old-fashioned, or new-fangled, or like his former (or his future!) selves. There’s an aspect to all this that’s a bit like bird watching. All birds look alike until they don’t.

On the subject of attention, I am reminded of Yan’s question about repetition, and how it functions in the plays and perhaps in poetry generally. Certainly it is one of the basic devices for soliciting attention. As a basic scheme, how is it troped? I remember Geoffrey Hartman telling us in a grad seminar, “Where there is repetition, there is anxiety.” Could that be true? Will gave us a more neutral account of its potential to disclose (constitute?) structure. One of the great texts on repetition to my mind is Roman Jakobson’s “Linguistics and Poetics.” I’ll try to find a way to get it into our class in a formal way, but I recommend it to everyone as one of the ur-texts of literary theory, in particular structuralism.

Alright, let’s see—maybe the best way to organize my thoughts about the discussion when we turned to Shakespeare is in terms of the kinds of things we noticed, the kinds of things that were marked for us, as we considered the encounter between Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus in the second scene:


He that commends me to mine own content
Commends me to the thing I cannot get.
I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself.
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself.


Here comes the almanac of my true date.
What now? How chance thou art return’d so soon?

DROMIO OF EPHESUS. Return’d so soon! rather approach’d too late.
The capon burns, the pig falls from the spit;
The clock hath strucken twelve upon the bell-
My mistress made it one upon my cheek;
She is so hot because the meat is cold,
The meat is cold because you come not home,
You come not home because you have no stomach,
You have no stomach, having broke your fast;
But we, that know what ’tis to fast and pray,
Are penitent for your default to-day.


  • The ruminative sound-complex that begins with the merchant’s “Sir, I commend you to your own content” (1.2.32) and issues in “commend,” “content,” “confound” etc. We asked if that were the sound of thinking (as opposed to the sound of speech? Or in addition?); what kind of thinking might that be, in relation to the more explicit structures of argument? What is happening to a word—how is its aspect changing—when it becomes available for such transformations? (E.g. does it have a different relation to sound, to the body, even to matter?)
  • The alliteration of “failing [falling] there to find his fellow forth” (37): cf. both Gascoigne and Puttenham on excessive alliteration; is there something old-fashioned about this? The vocabulary is Anglo-Saxon; NB it is followed immediately by the Latinity of “Unseen, inquisitive, confounds itself.” How do we hear time in language? Anachronism, archaism.
  • The sentence “So I…lose myself” (39-40) as a periodic sentence; such sentences, with their suspended syntax, main verb left to the very end, have a Classical pedigree; often their construction implies considerable premeditation. (The opposite of what Richard Lanham calls a “running sentence,” which adds its parts as it goes.) It is curious that SA loses himself just at that masterly terminus.
  • There were some interesting remarks about how the reflexive pronoun “myself” was prized apart into “my self”; cf. Adriana at 2.2.124. Is this something Shakespeare does elsewhere?
  • “In quest of them unhappy” (40): grammar would call “happy” a post-posed adjective; rhetoric would call it hyperbaton. Does it sound out of place? Archaic? Foreign? Elevated? Etc. Of many of these devices, we may want to develop a systematic account.
  • As for Dromio’s response…many people including Sarah remarked on the sharp class difference, and that’s another thing we want to keep in mind, linguistic markers of social station; Will reminded us of the situation in Plautus, the slave’s obligation to amuse or be beaten.
  • There were some interesting questions about how the caesura is used by Antipholus and by Dromio; cf. Puttenham’s amazing comments about the three kinds of pause, and his sense that the use of pauses—the distinctness of the elements of speech—is a mark of social distinction, and perhaps even of civilization (163).
  • Dromio’s speech is highly patterned, even more so perhaps than Antipholus’s—but what kind of pattern is it? We kicked around the idea that it sounds like song; there were some interesting remarks about the relative priority of line, sentence, and member (a word we could use for a sentence-part under the aspect of rhetoric, what grammar would call a clause or phrase); that is, of poetics, grammar, and rhetoric as disciplines. Contest and collaboration among them is worth watching.
  • What about the much smoother, more pentameterish pentameter of his last two lines, 51-52? What’s the tone there?

There were some general remarks about grammar (declension, conjugation etc.) as a model for experience, from Eli and a few others: the promise of its system for representing other parts of life. Does Shakespeare see with/through grammar sometimes? When and what does it sound like, how do we know, what’s at stake? (Grammar is one of the cultural artifacts we have most made together, even if it sometimes functions to keep us apart; should it be a model of life?)

Phew! The break at last. When we returned, we did some basic work with meter…too little, but we’ll keep working on it. I don’t expect everyone to be spouting spontaneous pentameter by next week, and indeed, it can take quite a while to get the hang of—for the time being, no bad thing to write lines of ten syllables. We made a few general points, most of which are in that handbook essay of mine that I assigned, so I won’t duplicate them here—about the regularity of verse in the sixteenth century and its relation to anxieties about vernacular poetry, etc. We’ll be trying to think about verse 1) as a set of possible local effects but also b) as a climate, a mood, etc., and how different kinds of verse (whether forms or styles, explicit parameters or ways of handling them) are used across the plays.

Let’s keep Puttenham and Gascoigne with us as we go forward, as some of their views and prejudices about meter will illuminate the social world of language in Love’s Labour’s Lost. There’s one big difference between them that we didn’t flag, but I will here, namely Puttenham’s interest in meter as a matter of proportion, a declension, as it were, of the good order of mathematics, theology etc.; and Gascoigne’s more pragmatical language. Is meter mortal language aspiring to the celestial language of mathematics? Or is it a song we sing to one another? (Or is it not song at all?)

The very end of the play is beautiful, no?—that hypermetric line, hexameter or alexandrine or whatever it is. To whom do you think it is spoken? A final, populist note, to split the difference between the two slaves, and find an amity that escapes the play’s concerns with precedence? Or an in-joke to the ex-schoolboys, who might hear a hexameter on the fly and recognize the nod to classical prosody? Hmmmmmmmm!