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.


Measure for Measure Passage: Jeewon

II. 2. 107-110

So you must be the first that gives this sentence,
And he, that suffer’s. O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.

II. 4. 115-148

You seem’d of late to make the law a tyrant;
And rather proved the sliding of your brother
A merriment than a vice.

O, pardon me, my lord; it oft falls out,
To have what we would have, we speak not what we mean:
I something do excuse the thing I hate,
For his advantage that I dearly love.

We are all frail.

Else let my brother die,
If not a feodary, but only he
Owe and succeed thy weakness.

Nay, women are frail too.

Ay, as the glasses where they view themselves;
Which are as easy broke as they make forms.
Women! Help Heaven! men their creation mar
In profiting by them. Nay, call us ten times frail;
For we are soft as our complexions are,
And credulous to false prints.

I think it well:
And from this testimony of your own sex,–
Since I suppose we are made to be no stronger
Than faults may shake our frames,–let me be bold;
I do arrest your words. Be that you are,
That is, a woman; if you be more, you’re none;
If you be one, as you are well express’d
By all external warrants, show it now,
By putting on the destined livery.

I have no tongue but one: gentle my lord,
Let me entreat you speak the former language.

Plainly conceive, I love you.

The lines reproduced above are a part of the tug-of-war between Isabella and Angelo. She asks for an abeyance of the law and he, of her chastity. The two discursive domains intersect in the social form of a woman’s plea. The form is a familiar one to our characters, for some of them even meddle with instructions on how to plead effectively. Within the scene, however, I want to focus on the bolded phrase and think about how this statement arises, why it is accepted as legitimate, how the response melds the discourse of law and love, whether the response appears elsewhere in different form.

I want to think of “we speak not what we mean” as a metadiscursive act, one that not only references and describes a feature of the conversation at hand (pleading, making a case) but also functions as a discursive move on its own (analogous to but different from Berger’s meta theatrical). Which is a long-winded way of saying the line falls into the category of things we say about what we say while saying them—“It’s hard to understand you,” “Let me clarify,” “Do you see what I mean?,” and etc. I think this feature of the line is important because it is a way of staying within a discussion and stepping out of it, of participating and observing one’s participation in a discourse. We might care to keep this mind for when we might introduce Berger’s ethical questions.

We may read “we speak not what we mean” as acknowledging a failure in communication—one that can be corrected through perhaps elaboration, clarification, or even substitution. But we might also read the line as being reflective of unwanted success. Isabella delivers her meaning too well: Angelo is being a tyrant, and Claudio, a mere lover. But the resulting claim is untenable in a plea for mercy, so Isabella must retract them. That is to say, we might gloss the line not only as “What I mean to say was—“ but also as “That is not what I meant,”

(In the midst of argument, we say something, and our interlocutor offers a paraphrase of our own words, harsher but closer to truth in form. But it looks too grave, too terrible for us. We cannot be responsible for such a statement. So we disavow the paraphrase and along with it, our original statement, but the effect of them linger. This is how we say true and terrible things, by not saying them, by making our interlocutor say them, by appending “That is not what I meant.” We hear in return, “Yes, it is.”)

So Angelo accuses Isabella: “You seem’d to make the law a tyrant; / And rather proved the sliding of your brother / A merriment than a vice.” And so she disavows. Foucault might say that Angelo’s paraphrase, though accurate, cannot be admitted into the discourse of the plea. Isabella’s plea is predicated upon already determined truths: Claudio has broken the law. Claudio must die. Angelo enforces the law. Angelo must execute Claudio. Isabella introduces her plea into this legal discourse. She asks Angelo to have mercy and let Claudio live. All these notions can be entertained simultaneously. But if Angelo is a tyrant, and Claudio, a mere lover, the plea is meaningless. A tyrant has no mercy and a mere lover does not require one. There is no point of entry. And so Isabella retracts her words with “we speak not what we mean.”

We may care to notice that “we speak not what we mean” leaves ambiguous where the negative sticks. When “we speak no what we mean,” do we say what we do not mean, or do do we not say what we mean? Do our words take on meanings we did not fully intend, when they are released into a discourse, where they gather implications and history we were not fully aware of, or are we just being plain duplicitous? The ambiguous negative coupled with Isabella’s use of the first-person plural implicates Angelo, for he does not say what he means. He occludes his motive in verbiage. And it takes Isabella’s “Let me entreat you speak the former language” for Angelo to say, “Plainly conceive, I love you.” This may be why, Angelo does not reply “Yes, it is” to Isabella’s retraction, for in saying, “we speak not what we mean,” she has not only made a retraction but also an accusation, one that eludes Angelo’s paraphrase.

And it is here, in the implication of Angelo, in the doubling of retraction and accusation, that we might remember the line’s status as a metadiscursive act, one of participation and observation, and entreat it to Berger’s ethical concerns. What is the status of the accusation in relation to the retraction? How are they held together in the plea? Is Isabella responsible for the accusation as much as the retraction? What of her original statement and of Angelo’s paraphrase? How much of the conversation does she effect, and how much does she simply allow to happen? Does her self-conscious speech reflect an effort at self-representation? Does she hear herself, convince herself, that she is a chaste women as well as a good sister, that she has done everything she can for Claudio? Is her plea also an attempt to prepare herself for Claudio’s death after she has declined Angelo’s offer? How do we think about this scene in relation to her soliloquy, Berger’s privileged object of analysis, at the end of the scene?

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.



Othello, 3.3.347-75 (“give me the ocular proof”)

I had been happy if the general camp,
Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body,
So I had nothing known. O, now for ever
Farewell the tranquil mind; farewell content;
Farewell the plumèd troops, and the big wars
That makes ambition virtue—O, farewell!
Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th’ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war;
And O you mortal engines, whose rude throats
Th’immortal Jove’s dread clamours counterfeit,
Farewell! Othello’s occupation’s gone.

Is’t possible, my lord?

Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore!
Be sure of it; give me the ocular proof;

[He seizes Iago by the throat]
Or, by the worth of mine eternal soul,
Thou hadst been better have been born a dog
Than answer my waked wrath!

Is ’t come to this?

Make me to see ’t, or at the least so prove it
That the probation bear no hinge nor loop
To hang a doubt on, or woe upon thy life!

My noble lord—

If thou dost slander her and torture me,
Never pray more. Abandon all remorse;
On horror’s head horrors accumulate;
Do deeds to make heaven weep, all Earth amazed;
For nothing canst thou to damnation add
Greater than that.

There are so many iconic music/sound moments in this play that I hope we’ll get to talk about, hopefully via people’s exercises (the drinking songs, the Willow Song, the importance of vocal dynamics to Iago’s trickery, the handkerchief refrain, etc.). But this moment of Othello the orator caught my attention, particularly the lines I’ve bolded above (which I also used for my sound representation below.)

I was struck how Othello here creates an aural soundscape in his lament (/valediction?/elegy?), with quasi-onomatopoeic descriptors of the sounds of war: the syncopated /s/s and /r/s of “spirit-stirring,” the bray of “neighing.” Why is it sound that Othello ultimately latches onto, contrasted against the other lesser-developed senses of taste (“tasted her sweet body”) and sight (“plumed troops,” “royal banner”)? (We’d do well to recall that it is Othello’s visuals “of antres vast and deserts idle,” rendered enchanting by his eloquence, that make his life story in 1.3 so memorable.) Of course, this intense inventory of sound here highlights by contrast Othello’s call for “ocular proof,” and his obsession with “seeing” Desdemona’s treachery, a treachery that has its basis only in false words, which in turn warp the visual reality Othello “sees.”

In a description extending two full lines, cannons (“mortal engines”) are personified as having “throats” that mimic the sound of thunder, an image swiftly followed by a literal throat: Iago’s, seized by Othello in a stage direction. The supreme irony is that through this action, Othello unwittingly identifies the very “mortal engine”—Iago’s vocal cords—that is the instrument of his demise; to dovetail off of Yan’s post, Othello, for a brief moment, silences the whispering devil that has been pouring lies into his ear, with Iago managing only to squeak out impotent half-lines at best. (The Kenneth Branagh film version makes this dynamic all the more explicit by cutting Iago’s lines entirely and having Othello steamroll through his speech at an increasing pitch, as he chokes and nearly drowns Iago.)

I was curious as to how phonemes are operating in this passage that takes up sound as its subject and voice in its staging, and thought I’d take a stab at testing Smith’s claim that “volume control is written into scripts for the stage” (226). Given Othello’s affective range in this passage (as opposed to the level-headed storyteller we see in Act 1), how does the passage’s phonemic composition script volume? Using Smith’s chart on p. 226, I came up with the following color coding system for visualizing the relative intensities of the various phonemes:

I encountered many methodological challenges, and this is a rough approximation for sure, riddled with errors and best guesses. But it shows some connections I may not have made as a reader otherwise: the least intense phonemic combinations are concentrated in the beginning and end of the passage, giving the overall passage the visual shape of a bell curve; the first two lines I analyzed lack the intense /o/ sounds that pepper the rest of the lines and reach an apex arguably in “whore”—a keyword in the play that comes to describe each female character. “Whore” is doubly emphasized by echoing the sounds of Iago’s “lord” in the previous line and offsetting the high volume vowel with the low volume fricative /h/. We can also draw connections between words based on their comparable intensities (“all” and “war”) or sound progression (e.g., those words like “steed,” “trump,” “spirit,” “pride,” and “pomp,” beginning and ending with low-volume consonants).

I think we could productively question how far this exercise is useful or practical for depicting the sound/volume of lines that have so many other factors determining their shape; I’m interested in the tension between such an idealized phonemical analysis and the overall delivery choices that go into an actor’s performance, not to mention complicating factors like historical linguistic changes and regional accents. I’m wondering, though, if this sort of phonemical analysis could help us broaden literary concepts such as alliteration or assonance to encompass the physiological similarities between sound families, which give the line its sonic texture and seem to call for a certain kind of delivery? (One can hear Othello bitterly spitting out the plosives and fricatives that begin each word in “hadst been better have been born a dog.”) In other words, how do phonemes generate an affective register? How much is predicated on the contextual/relational?

I’m interested to hear people’s thoughts on how phonemes, onomatopoeia, and soundscape are functioning here, alongside or against Othello’s other oratorical moments in the play.


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!


Othello, 5.1.23-109

(I did my best to make the Folger online text of this passage consistent with our Oxford version, but please forgive any discrepancies in formatting, punctuation, etc.)

Enter Cassio
I know his gait, ’tis he! (Attacking Cassio) Villain, thou diest!
That thrust had been mine enemy indeed
But that my coat is better than thou know’st—
I will make proof of thine.
He wounds Roderigo
RODERIGO O, I am slain!
Iago wounds Cassio in the leg from behind, and exit
I am maimed forever! Help, ho! Murder, murder!
Enter Othello
The voice of Cassio! Iago keeps his word.
RODERIGO O, villain that I am!
OTHELLO, (aside) It is even so.
CASSIO O, help ho! Light! A surgeon!
OTHELLO, (aside)
’Tis he! O brave Iago, honest and just,
That hast such noble sense of thy friend’s wrong!
Thou teachest me.—Minion, your dear lies dead,
And your unblest fate hies. Strumpet, I come.
Forth of my heart those charms, thine eyes, are blotted.
Thy bed, lust-stained, shall with lust’s blood be spotted.
Enter Lodovico and Gratiano
What ho! No watch? No passage? Murder, murder!
’Tis some mischance; the voice is very direful.
CASSIO O, help!
RODERIGO O wretched villain!
Two or three groan. It is a heavy night;
These may be counterfeits: let’s think’t unsafe
To come in to the cry without more help.
Nobody come? Then shall I bleed to death.
Enter Iago with a light and his sword drawn
Here’s one comes in his shirt, with light and weapons.
Who’s there? Whose noise is this that cries on murder?
We do not know.
IAGO Do not you hear a cry?
Here, here! For heaven’s sake, help me!
IAGO What’s the matter?
This is Othello’s ensign, as I take it.
The same indeed, a very valiant fellow.
What are you here that cry so grievously?
Iago? O, I am spoiled, undone by villains—
Give me some help!
O me, lieutenant! What villains have done this?
I think that one of them is hereabout
And cannot make away.
IAGO O treacherous villains!
[To Lodovico and Gratiano]
What are you there? Come in, and give some help.
O, help me there!
That’s one of them.
IAGO O murd’rous slave!
O villain!
He stabs Roderigo
O damned Iago! O inhuman dog!
[Roderigo groans]
Kill men i’ th’ dark?—Where be these bloody thieves?
How silent is this town! Ho, murder, murder!
(To Lodovico and Gratiano)
What may you be? Are you of good or evil?
As you shall prove us, praise us.
IAGO Signor Lodovico?
I cry you mercy—here’s Cassio hurt by villains.
How is ’t, brother?
CASSIO My leg is cut in two.
IAGO Marry, heaven forbid!
Light, gentlemen: I’ll bind it with my shirt.
Enter Bianca
What is the matter, ho? Who is ’t that cried?
Who is ’t that cried?
BIANCA O, my dear Cassio,
My sweet Cassio, O Cassio, Cassio, Cassio!
O notable strumpet! Cassio, may you suspect
Who they should be, that have thus mangled you?
I am sorry to find you thus; I have been to seek you.
Lend me a garter. So.
He binds Cassio’s leg
O for a chair to bear him easily hence!
Alas, he faints! O, Cassio, Cassio, Cassio!
Gentlemen all, I do suspect this trash
To be a party in this injury.
Patience awhile, good Cassio. (To Lodovico and Gratiano) Come, come;
Lend me a light: (Going to Roderigo) know we this face, or no?
Alas, my friend and my dear countryman,
Roderigo! No? —Yes, sure!—O heaven, Roderigo!
GRATIANO What, of Venice?
IAGO Even he, sir—did you know him?
GRATIANO Know him? Ay.
Signior Gratiano? I cry your gentle pardon:
These bloody accidents must excuse my manners
That so neglected you.
GRATIANO I am glad to see you.
How do you, Cassio? [Calling] O, a chair, a chair!
GRATIANO Roderigo?
He, he, ’tis he.
Enter attendants with a chair
O, that’s well said—the chair!
Some good man bear him carefully from hence,
I’ll fetch the General’s surgeon. (To Bianca) For you, mistress,
Save you your labor.—He that lies slain here, Cassio,
Was my dear friend. What malice was between you?
None in the world; nor do I know the man.
IAGO (to Bianca)
What, look you pale? (To attendants) O, bear him out o’ th’ air!
(To Gratiano and Lodovico)
Stay you, good gentlemen.
Exeunt attendants with Cassio in the chair and the body of Roderigo
(To Bianca) Look you pale, mistress?
(To Lodovico and Gratiano) Do you perceive the gastness of her eye?
(To Bianca) Nay, if you stare, we shall hear more anon.
(To Lodovico and Gratiano) Behold her well. I pray you, look upon her:
Do you see, gentlemen? Nay, guiltiness
Will speak though tongues were out of use.
Enter Emilia

This was actually my first time reading Othello, and I’m afraid I might have missed something because I found it kind of…funny. There were moments when I could have laughed at the turn language? – speech, certainly, was taking, moments when characters’ verbal faculties seemed to melt down in ways it was difficult for me to imagine. There was Othello’s swoon, for one, though I could conceive of that in terms of pure emotional overdrive – but what about all the parroting, the lapses into mimicry on Iago’s, Emilia’s, Desdemona’s, Roderigo’s respective parts, often in conversation among themselves and/or with (especially) Othello? There’s Iago goading Roderigo on to “put money in thy purse” in 1.3; there’s Othello obsessing over Desdemona’s handkerchief in 3.4; there’s Emilia repeating after Othello like another broken record player in 5.2. And what about the as-yet-inconceivable (to me at least, and I haven’t yet seen any productions of the play) beelines performed in act as well as in speech by a cluster of characters at the start of Act 5?

It’s this episode that I’d like to highlight for emphasis this week, if mainly to get a clearer grasp of just exactly what is happening – and why – among the disoriented company on stage. I was struck by the number recycled words and phrases, for one, but even more so by their apparent extraneousness, hollowness, and accordingly by an impression of inertia paradoxical for such a kinetic scene. The more closely I followed these sequences of verbal echoes, the longer my passage became; I could reasonably have excerpted all of 5.1 – but that would have been more unreasonable than the helping I’ve provided above.

As you (re)read, note how many expressions bleed into multiple lines that, sometimes, fall at decent intervals from one another and/or carry into different characters’ speech. Does the repetition evacuate words of meaning here, or serve to escalate the tension of the drama? On the former count, note too the frequency of what Dolar would call ““prelinguistic’ phenomena” – all the “O”s, for instance, but also the groaning in the stage directions. One question I asked myself upon finishing Othello was: How does the play register doubt, insecurity, or confusion? Is this a scene that might exemplify the answer?

To be honest, I couldn’t hear this scene very well (unless it were as poorly-scripted melodrama!), but I could visualize it being pitch dark on the stage: Roderigo explicitly identifies Cassio by his gait, Iago enters bearing a torch, and the action depends on the lack of facial recognition, which the dialogue underscores by means of consistently questioned identities. Even so, I found the scene a little implausibly long, such that all the commotion lent itself to a kind of inertia, as I mentioned above. It wasn’t by accident that I also ventured to call the language here surprisingly hollow. If we imagine the characters acting upon strictly or predominately acoustic cues – engaging in a form of echolocation, as it were, especially with Cassio and Roderigo fixed in position on stage – could it follow that words are just sounds here? Or do the stakes of the action enhance the significance of the language?

A comment in closing on a pattern I noticed throughout the play and will refer to as split or layered speech. Othello’s “letter-reading” in 4.1, like Desdemona’s song in 5.2, provides a great example of speech that takes multiple addressees or demonstrates divided attention, and Iago’s lines at the end of the segment I’ve quoted work the same way. This effect might be extended to occasions of suspended syntax or interrupted utterance (also asides), which suggest parallel trains of thought and/or expression and which occur rather often in Othello. Did you find this trend meaningfully pronounced in this of the plays we’ve read so far? And if yes, perhaps thinking along the lines I’ve sketched above, how so?


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.

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!


Postscript; Trick or Treat

Well, there’s little for me to add to Will’s keen, tactful comments except affirmative emphasis, and I think Eliot should get the last word.

And now, looking ahead to Othello’s acoustics in two weeks, I had to send you all this. Below is a link to an English translation of Glossolalia, a pamphlet-length text on sound and sense published in Russian in 1922. It’s by Andrei Bely, novelist, language theorist, and icon of Symbolism, best known among English readers for Petersburg (1913). It’s subtitled “A Poem about Sound.” And it’s really wild. You’re in for cosmological mysticism, the physics of phonetics, the physiology of language – pretty zany pseudo-science if you take a look (which I’m not actually endorsing). Suffice it to quote from Bely’s introductory note: “To criticize me from a scholarly point of view is – absolutely ridiculous.” And to give you a visual taste:



(Will) – Response to Jessica Again

It is not my wish to clog up this blog with back-and-forth; and yet, I indulge myself this. Jessica rightly points out that I have been a bit sloppy with my meta-language about temporality. I will own that I have not put in the full work necessary to understand the philosophical or theoretical foundation upon which these terms rest. I am therefore not comfortable disputing them. Nor do I have Jessica’s admirable command of recent movements in the meta-discourses of literary criticism.

But I do think there’s a basic methodological difference in how we are conceptualizing literary criticism, a difference that must map in a certain way onto larger disciplinary divides. I still conceive of criticism as largely a conversation, a conceit which privileges an idea of “originary textuality” as an interlocutor possessing a kind of agency. This conceit allows me to recognize that this idea of an originary textuality, which again need not be understood as a crude authorial intentionality, always receeds from grasp, is always modified and mediated by the ages across which the message travels – rather like Jessica’s conveyor belt analogy, or, perhaps, a game of telephone. To a certain extent, it can embrace these modifications as welcome additions rather than perceiving them as loss, just as in conversation with each other we never perfectly grasp another’s consciousness, and can delight in the possibilities of unintended signification.

However, the model of reading I describe always has in mind at least the phantom of an original moment of communication as a lodestar, a standard against which later receptions are implicitly or explicitly measured. This conception of reading is, I sense, somewhat at odds with the project of post-modern theories which place great emphasis on the “ludic” possibilities of texts, the capacity of language for infinite signification. Here, there is a controlling outside-the-text. Philology as I see it is a project of controlling or limiting signification – Philologists are often invested in telling you what something can’t mean. As a group, this is perhaps our least appealing characteristic. However, there are different sizes of infinity – and I believe that an unlimited number of possibilities for meaning can play out in a field whose boundaries are distinctly demarcated by certain principles of positivistic inquiry.

On time and crumpled handkerchiefs, I’m reminded of Eliot:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?