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.


Falstaff Swears – Will


I am accursed to rob in that thief’s company. The rascal hath removed my horse, and tied him I know not where. If I travel but four foot by the square further afoot, I shall break my wind. Well, I doubt not but to die a fair death for all this, if I scape hanging for killing that rogue. I have forsworn his company hourly any time this two-and-twenty years, and yet I am bewitched with the rogue’s company. If the rascal have not given me medicines to make me love him, I’ll be hanged. It could not be else – I have drunk medicines. Poins! Hal! A plague upon you both! Bardolph! Peto! I’ll starve ere I’ll rob a foot further. An ’twere not as good a deed as drink to turn true man and leave these rogues, I am the veriest varlet that ever chewed with a tooth. Eight yards uneven ground is threescore-and-ten miles afoot with me, and the stony-hearted villains know it well enough. A plague upon it when thieves cannot be true one to another. Whew! A plague upon you all! Give me my horse, you rogues, give me my horse, and be hanged!



Hang thyself in thine own heir-apparent garters! If I be ta’en, I’ll peach for this. An I have not ballads made on you all and sung to filthy tunes, let a cup of sack be my poison. When a jest is so forward, and afoot too! I hate it.


I noticed in reading this play that Falstaff has a particular fondness for the conditional. I’m especially interest in cases in which Falstaff’s conditionals take the form of an oath, with the protasis (“if clause”) setting forth something obviously true or untrue, and the apodosis (“then” clause) setting forth a clearly undesirable or drastic consequence which will not be realized. The drastic nature of the apodosis serves, in fact, to highlight Falstaff’s certainty in the protasis. The modern equivalent might be “if… then I’ll eat my hat.” In this construction Falstaff seems to incline more toward asserting that something isn’t true than that it is. Of course, not all of his conditional sentences function this way – in some cases, they express a real sense of uncertainty about the future or a counterfactual discussion of what would be the case but isn’t. What I’m talking about here could be called an ironic usage, which grammatically discusses something in uncertain terms but which serves in practice to assert certainty. I’ve bolded some examples in my passage above. This type of construction might receive and entry in a constructicon.


It might be worth discussing how this construction relates to other forms of strong statement that Falstaff employs, such as when a temporal clause depends on a main clause expressing an undesired or unattainable result: “I’ll stave e’re I’ll rob a foot further,” i.e. “I won’t rob any more.” This seems to be related to constructions like the modern “when pigs fly” i.e. “never,” or “that’ll be the day.” Whether expressed through an unlikely temporal sequence, or an unlikely causal (i.e. conditional) sequence, these types of oaths, if I may lump them under that heading, seem to be a common feature of colloquial speech, or at least the literary representation thereof, across cultures and times. I think Falstaff provides an interesting case study for why that is and how they might be understood to function.


Is this a substantial observation about Falstaff’s character? Does this hold true in other scenes in which he is less upset? Really, all that I’ve pointed out is that Falstaff is quite prone to swearing, and that he uses particular formulas of swearing. The verbal mood of swearing is, in any case, essentially subjunctive or imperative, not indicative – it discusses what might or should be, not what is. Is this simply part of the demotic and comedic coloring of Falstaff’s speech, or does this texture of unreality tell us something more fundamental about his character?

Henry IV, Part I: Reading Hal as a “Social Person”

A quick FYI: My post is going to overlap ever-so-slightly with Jeewon’s. However, I’ll be looking at mostly different passages and working through different ideas, so hopefully my selection won’t ruffle too many feathers!

I’m thinking about Fowler’s definition of a character as a social person, one whose construction depends “not only upon their contexts of topoi and institutions, but also upon their positions in networks of social relationships” (14). Fowler’s argument suggests that an analysis of character must emerge, not just through the character’s own words, but through a complete mapping of all the contexts in which that character appears. In the first two scenes of the play, Prince Henry is revealed to the audience through a series of lenses, refracted through multiple contexts. So, let’s consider the intersections between character, context, and language at three points: when King Henry first mentions his son at the end of the first scene, when Hal and Falstaff pun and joke at the beginning of 1.2, and when Hal delivers his soliloquy at the end of 1.2.

We first hear about Hal before we meet him, during the King’s complaint in 1.1, 77-94:


Yea, there thou mak’st me sad, and mak’st me sin

In envy that my lord Northumberland

Should be the father to so blest a son–

A son who is the theme of honor’s tongue,

Amongst a grove the very straightest plant,

Who is sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride–

Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him,

See riot and dishonor stain the brow

Of my young Harry. O that it could be proved

That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged

In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,

And called mine Percy, his Plantagenet!

Then would I have his Harry, and he mine.

But let him from my thoughts. What think you, coz,

Of this young Percy’s pride? The prisoners

Which he in this adventure hath surprised

To his own use he keeps, and sends me word

I shall have none but Mordake, Earl of Fife.

  • In the King’s speech, I notice his use of three consecutive figures to illustrate Hotspur, the son he wishes he had, a son who is “the theme of honor’s tongue,” “the straightest plant” in a grove, and “sweet Fortune’s minion.” The syntax lines up neatly in accordance with the line, with each figure fitting into one end-stopped line.
  • Now, let’s compare the language used to imagine an ideal son with the language of the son himself, Hal. Notice the way Hal’s metaphors pile up in his banter with Falstaff at the opening of 1.2, 1-11.


Now, Hal, what time of day is it, lad?


Thou art so fat-witted with drinking of old sack, and unbuttoning thee after supper, and sleeping upon benches after noon, that thou hast forgotten to demand that truly which thou wouldst truly know. What a devil hast thou to do with the time of day? Unless hours were cups of sack, and minutes capons, and clocks the tongues of bawds, and dials the signs of leaping-houses, and the blessed sun himself a fair hot wench in flame-coloured taffeta, I see no reason why thou shouldst be so superfluous to demand the time of the day.

  • Think about what the audience has just heard: Only a minute before, they listened to the King lament “in envy that my Northumberland / should be the father to so blest a son.” Now, they hear “the blessed sun” compared to “a fair hot wench in flame-coloured taffeta”! In this case, the wordplay–and the sense that Hal definitely isn’t living up to his father’s expectations–moves across scenes, not just within them.
  • What’s more, consider the way in which metaphors accumulate here. The connections are rapid-fire, spilling across these lines of prose: cups → sack, minutes → capons, clocks → tongues, dials → signs, sun → wench. There’s a messiness and an excess here, so different from the King’s three neat metaphors that we observed earlier.
  • Finally, let’s turn to Hal’s soliloquy at the end of this scene. This is where we first see the “other side” to his character. It’s notable, of course, that he switches from prose to poetry and that’s he’s alone in the tavern. But, I’m also interested in his use of figuration and the ways in which he’s able to sustain a conceit over the course of several lines. Here’s the speech in 1.2, 183-205, typed out a second time:


I know you all, and will awhile uphold

The unyoked humour of your idleness.

Yet herein will I imitate the sun,

Who doth permit the base contagious clouds

To smother up his beauty from the world,

That, when he please again to be himself,

Being wanted he may be more wondered at

By breaking through the foul and ugly mists

Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.

If all the year were playing holidays,

To sport would be as tedious as to work;

But when they seldom come, they wished-for come,

And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.

So when this loose behavior I throw off

And pay the debt I never promised,

By how much better than my word I am,

By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;

And like bright metal on a sullen ground,

My reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault,

Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes

Than that which hath no foil to set it off.

I’ll so offend to make offence a skill,

Redeeming time when men think least I will.

  • I’ve marked in bold two of the main figures in this speech: when Hal compares himself to the sun and when he then compares his “reformation” to “bright metal on a sullen ground.” What interests me about these moments is that fact that Hal sustains these comparisons over the course of multiple lines. He proves himself able to develop an abstract thought at length, a skill that’s very different from the rapid-fire punning that opens the scene. In this way, the transformation in language mirrors the transformation of character, a third lens through which we might begin to assemble Hal’s character.

Looking forward to thinking through character with all of you tomorrow!


Henry IV Part I Passsage: Jeewon

Act 1 Scene 2


I know you all, and will awhile uphold

The unyoked humour of your idleness:

Yet herein will I imitate the sun,

Who doth permit the base contagious clouds

To smother up his beauty from the world,

That, when he please again to be himself,

Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at,

By breaking through the foul and ugly mists

Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.

If all the year were playing holidays,

To sport would be as tedious as to work;

But when they seldom come, they wish’d for come,

And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.

So, when this loose behavior I throw off

And pay the debt I never promised,

By how much better than my word I am,

By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;

And like bright metal on a sullen ground,

My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,

Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes

Than that which hath no foil to set it off.

I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill;

Redeeming time when men think least I will.

Given the readings this week, I thought it might be worth thinking about how Shakespeare holds Hal together in Henry IV Part 1 in spite of the duplications of his character across many different contexts and forms. Hal with Falstaff and Hal with his father seem like two different characters. The form and texture of the language attest to this, moving from talking about animal parts in prose to glory in pentameter. There is also Hal as conveyed to Hotspur and Hal on the king’s mind—third-person descriptions a la Bal. If we are to think of Hal, not as a verisimilitude of a historical person but rather a “paper person,” as Mike Bal put it, and a body of text, what makes us think that his lines belong together? Why does it not feel incoherent?

In thinking about the question, I thought we may look at Hal’s soliloquy above. Here, Hal speaks alone, without the modulation of any other character. This is supposedly, his unadulterated self free from the bonds of having to banter with Falstaff or play prince to the king.  If we were to look anywhere for the true Hal, the one behind the mask that juggles the wide range of language he exhibits in the play, it would seem to be here.

So what do we have? We have Hal speaking, for the first time, in verse. The image is naturalistic and the lines are of a high style. We only need to compare with the register he adopts with Falstaff. It does seem that Hal merely “permit[s] the base contagious clouds,” such that “being wanted,” “he may please again to be himself” and “be more wonder’d at.” He seems to convince us that his lifestyle is a choice by showing us that he can speak in high pentameter as well as the textured prose of Falstaff.

Hal also displays a keen sense of theater. “If all the year were playing holidays / To sport would be as tedious as to work,” he tells us, arguing that “nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.” Here, Hal speaks in verse for the first time, and I do think it has the effect he describes within his soliloquy; it contrasts powerfully with what we have been provided with thus far. The same sense of presentation runs through the ruse he plays on Falstaff, leading Falstaff on to bolster his claims only to undercut him more effectively later.

Is this enough? It still seems to me that lines being grouped under “Prince Henry” contributes the greatest to letting us think of them under a single unit of character.

Which leads me to wonder also whether this passage or a passage at all is the correct moment for thinking about what makes Hal a distinctive character. Maybe this is not the right way to go about it, trying to identify a core aspect stripped of other devices, but rather, we may consider the devices in their total effect. That is to say, there is no character element to be dug up, but character is the effect of all these devices given together.

But that also seems a little atemporal. The tense shifts to the future within the soliloquy around the middle when Hal talks about expectations: “But when they seldom come, they wish’d for come, / And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents. /So, when this loose behavior I throw off /And pay the debt I never promised.” Hal is not only aware of the expectations placed upon him as a prince but also when he will have to deliver them the most, when he becomes king. Expectations project from one point to another. And throughout the play, Hal’s character can be thought of as a shift from frustration of expectations to their fulfillment, and thus requires “Redeeming time” to be considered fully. That is to say, perhaps the problem of Hal may not only be the coexistence of different kinds of stylistic registers but also the order in which they shift and why. For example, why then, is this soliloquy not more delayed for greater effect? More fundamentally, can we consider character apart from plot?



On a side note, during Richard II, we briefly discussed what rhetorical properties Richard and Bolingbroke had and how they were compatible for kingship and rule. In a play constantly concerned about roles, whether one is playing it correctly—whether the right person is performing it—Hotspur is entertained as Hal’s rival for fulfilling the role of a prince better, but perhaps the point of departure here may be that fulfilling one’s role well, fulfilling expectations, may not be what a good king or a character/actor does.

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.


“Dost thou speak like a king?”: Henry IV, Part I Passage (Mary P)

Act 2, Scene 4

Weep not, sweet queen, for trickling tears are vain.

HOSTESS O the Father, how he holds his countenance!

For God’s sake, lords, convey my tristful queen,
For tears do stop the floodgates of her eyes.

HOSTESS O Jesu, he doth it as like one of these harlotry
players as ever I see.

FALSTAFF Peace, good pint-pot. Peace, good tickle-brain.—
As King. Harry, I do not only marvel
where thou spendest thy time, but also how thou
art accompanied. For though the camomile, the
more it is trodden on, the faster it grows, so youth,
the more it is wasted, the sooner it wears. That
thou art my son I have partly thy mother’s word,
partly my own opinion, but chiefly a villainous
trick of thine eye and a foolish hanging of thy
nether lip that doth warrant me. If then thou be
son to me, here lies the point: why, being son to
me, art thou so pointed at? Shall the blessed sun of
heaven prove a micher and eat blackberries? A
question not to be asked. Shall the son of England
prove a thief and take purses? A question to be
asked. There is a thing, Harry, which thou hast
often heard of, and it is known to many in our land
by the name of pitch. This pitch, as ancient writers
do report, doth defile; so doth the company thou
keepest. For, Harry, now I do not speak to thee in
drink, but in tears; not in pleasure, but in passion;
not in words only, but in woes also. And yet there is
a virtuous man whom I have often noted in thy
company, but I know not his name.

PRINCE What manner of man, an it like your Majesty?

FALSTAFF, as King A goodly portly man, i’ faith, and a
corpulent; of a cheerful look, a pleasing eye, and a
most noble carriage, and, as I think, his age some
fifty, or, by ’r Lady, inclining to threescore; and now
I remember me, his name is Falstaff. If that man
should be lewdly given, he deceiveth me, for, Harry,
I see virtue in his looks. If then the tree may be
known by the fruit, as the fruit by the tree, then
peremptorily I speak it: there is virtue in that
Falstaff; him keep with, the rest banish. And tell me
now, thou naughty varlet, tell me where hast thou
been this month?

PRINCE Dost thou speak like a king? Do thou stand for
me, and I’ll play my father.

FALSTAFF, rising Depose me? If thou dost it half so
gravely, so majestically, both in word and matter,
hang me up by the heels for a rabbit-sucker or a
poulter’s hare.

PRINCE, sitting down Well, here I am set.

FALSTAFF And here I stand.—Judge, my masters.

PRINCE, as King Now, Harry, whence come you?

FALSTAFF, as Prince My noble lord, from Eastcheap.

PRINCE, as King The complaints I hear of thee are

FALSTAFF, as Prince ’Sblood, my lord, they are false.
—Nay, I’ll tickle you for a young prince, i’ faith.
PRINCE, as King Swearest thou? Ungracious boy,
henceforth ne’er look on me. Thou art violently
carried away from grace. There is a devil haunts
thee in the likeness of an old fat man. A tun of man
is thy companion. Why dost thou converse with that
trunk of humors, that bolting-hutch of beastliness,
that swollen parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard
of sack, that stuffed cloakbag of guts, that roasted
Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly, that
reverend Vice, that gray iniquity, that father ruffian,
that vanity in years? Wherein is he good, but to taste
sack and drink it? Wherein neat and cleanly but to
carve a capon and eat it? Wherein cunning but in
craft? Wherein crafty but in villainy? Wherein villainous
but in all things? Wherein worthy but in

FALSTAFF, as Prince I would your Grace would take
me with you. Whom means your Grace?

PRINCE, as King That villainous abominable misleader
of youth, Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan.

FALSTAFF, as Prince My lord, the man I know.

PRINCE, as King I know thou dost.

FALSTAFF, as Prince But to say I know more harm in
him than in myself were to say more than I know.
That he is old, the more the pity; his white hairs do
witness it. But that he is, saving your reverence, a
whoremaster, that I utterly deny. If sack and sugar
be a fault, God help the wicked. If to be old and
merry be a sin, then many an old host that I know is
damned. If to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s
lean kine are to be loved. No, my good lord,
banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins, but for
sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack
Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more
valiant being as he is old Jack Falstaff, banish not
him thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy
Harry’s company. Banish plump Jack, and banish
all the world.

PRINCE I do, I will.


Halfway through the passage quoted above, Hal asks Falstaff, “Dost thou speak like a king?” Given this week’s focus on the language of character, we would do well to ask the same question. What must one character do in order to “speak like” another? Do Falstaff and Hal succeed in sounding like the king? On the level of meter, it is clear that Hal and Falstaff fail. Henry IV speaks almost always in blank verse, or unrhymed iambic pentameter. Here, both men speak in prose.

Of course, this passage has little to do with any real attempt to sound like King Henry IV. Hal may be the only one in the room who has heard the king speak. So, the humor must be predicated on something other than the similarities and differences between their patterns of speech. It is humorous, first, because Hal and Falstaff are offering their best, over-exaggerated king-speech in order to insult each other. The humor is based, too, on how well Falstaff and Hal mock Henry’s social roles—or his “social persons,” as Fowler would call them. At play here are the social persons of father and sovereign. We laugh to hear Falstaff use archaic, highbrow phrases like “tristful queen” (2.4.406). (For the record, the true king uses the more common “sad” to convey the same emotion (1.1.77).) We laugh because there is a disjunction between Falstaff’s tavern chair, dagger, and ratty cushion, and the high dignity of the throne, scepter, and crown they represent. We laugh to hear Hal chastised like a child. I wonder where else we might locate the humor of this scene? I wonder, too, whether anyone spots any moments in which either Hal or Falstaff do sound particularly kingly? In content, for example, they do join the true king in expressing disappointment in Hal.

The passage also plays into Henry IV’s concern with role-playing. King Henry makes it clear in Act 1 that Hotspur has played the part of heir to the throne far better than Hal has done. In the final battle, a number of characters run around disguised as the king. When the disguised Walter Blunt speaks with Douglas, the latter believes he is about to fight the king. Earlier, the king himself claims his formerly “smooth” behavior toward Northumberland and Hotspur was unbecoming, and that he “will from henceforth rather be myself” in taking them to task (1.3.5). The true prince, if he is to believed, is only disguising himself as a lowlife, promising to re-claim his proper role and very “self” when the time is ripe (“I shall hereafter, my thrice gracious lord, be more myself” (3.2.95)). As we think more about the play in class, I hope we’ll continue to ask what work is done when language points toward a character’s coherent, interior self. After all, as Mieke Bal writes, “characters don’t have an unconscious; only people do” (121).




“Is This Shakespeare?”

Here I am again, perhaps a little slaphappy from the pastiches Jeff quoted above, because you’re in for an anecdotal post if you keep reading. “Is this Shakespeare?” For whatever reason, I thought back some fifteen years? more? to a Candid Camera episode (I said this would be random) that asked the same thing. Briefly, Candid Camera was a 90s/early 2000s television program that taped people’s unscripted responses (or so they advertised) to circumstances staged for humorous effect. So the clip in question, as I recall, featured a mock-interviewer polling random passers-by on whether some passage of verse “was Shakespeare.” I was a few years into school at the time, and “Shakespeare” was a new word for me. So I ingenuously turned to my parents asked just what “Shakespeare” was: a very famous writer. I retorted! How could they presume upon my ignorance by mistaking an adjectival category for a noun phrase? I had sense enough to know (after all!) that a text could only “be” a certain way – long, difficult, poetic – or, it might be something – a book, a poem – but not someone.

It would mean something quite different to ask, “Is this Shakespearean?” since any number of extra-linguistic categories – dramatic/theatrical, characterological, Elizabethan – might apply. When one invokes “the Kafkaesque,” for instance, Kafka’s prose style doesn’t immediately come to mind. To what extent does the force of the substantive channel bardolatry, then? And if that’s a leading question, does it refer to a healthy, a constructive move? If “the Shakespearian” sounds very baggy until it’s made specific to, say, character, since we’re discussing that next week, does “Shakespeare,” on the other hand, indicate something so distilled or quintessential – or perhaps just personal – that the descriptive exercise falls through?


P.S. I wish I could have touched on any of the other valuable threads we’ve pursued so far, from figural procedures to counting operations, but I’m afraid this is all I have for now. Hopefully it drew a laugh. Anyway.

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.

MND Passage for Emphasis: “Play our play” (Sarah)


Flute, you must take Thisbe on you.


What is Thisbe? a wandering knight?


It is the lady that Pyramus must love.


Nay, faith, let me not play a woman; I have a beard coming.


That’s all one: you shall play it in a mask, and
you may speak as small as you will.


An I may hide my face, let me play Thisbe too, I’ll
speak in a monstrous little voice. ‘Thisne,
Thisne;’ ‘Ah, Pyramus, lover dear! thy Thisbe dear,
and lady dear!’


No, no; you must play Pyramus: and, Flute, you Thisbe.


Well, proceed.


Robin Starveling, the tailor.


Here, Peter Quince.


Robin Starveling, you must play Thisbe’s mother.
Tom Snout, the tinker.


Here, Peter Quince.


You, Pyramus’ father: myself, Thisbe’s father:
Snug, the joiner; you, the lion’s part: and, I
hope, here is a play fitted.


Have you the lion’s part written? pray you, if it
be, give it me, for I am slow of study.


You may do it extempore, for it is nothing but roaring.


Let me play the lion too: I will roar, that I will
do any man’s heart good to hear me; I will roar,
that I will make the duke say ‘Let him roar again,
let him roar again.’


An you should do it too terribly, you would fright
the duchess and the ladies, that they would shriek;
and that were enough to hang us all.


That would hang us, every mother’s son.

(Act I Scene II)

This week’s work with the digital resources proved to be quite the task (despite being the youngest person in the room, I am embarrassingly out of touch with technology).  Still, using the suggested platforms proved to be very useful in pushing me to look beyond the immediacy of a small section of text and appreciate larger trends that pervade the entirety of this play.  Speaking of play (!!!), I chose to focus my attention on Shakespeare’s ‘play within a play’ structure by unpacking the word’s various forms in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Voyant provided the most visually striking representation of this by mapping out the term’s sixteen occurrences in Act I Scene II (a portion of which is included above).

Though Voyant didn’t give what might be considered a sophisticated breakdown of how “play” was used in each instance (e.g. part of speech, verb tense if applicable), it was certainly helpful in emphasizing the term’s significance in relation to the surrounding text.

The role of “play,” both the idea and word itself, take on a ‘meta importance’ as the story progresses: the players, fairies, lovers, and peacemakers all, quite literally, play their part by simultaneously engaging in lighthearted acts of comedy and carefully engineered performances.  Much of this is brought to the surface by the players’ production of Pyramus and Thisbe, but arguably just as much is revealed through the players’ dialogue outside of their performance.  “Play” takes on multiple roles in this passage, acting as an activity for amusement (n.), the act of engaging in such activity (v.), and the process of immersing oneself in whimsical pretense (v.).  It’s all very dizzying, but this is precisely what Shakespeare wants.

Taking all of this into consideration, how does the multifaceted nature of “play”—as it exists in both this specific passage and the story as a whole—shape our understanding of Snout’s line in Act III Scene I: “Doth the moon shine that night we play our play?”

MND Passage: Fairy Speech (Mary)

I’ve chosen another Puck (+ fairies) passage, starting some lines up from Puck’s famous epilogue, but I think it dovetails nicely with Eli’s. 

Enter Robin Goodfellow with a broom


Now the hungry lion roars,
And the wolf behowls the moon,
Whilst the heavy ploughman snores,
All with weary task fordone.
Now the wasted brands do glow,
Whilst the screech-owl, screeching loud,
Puts the wretch that lies in woe
In remembrance of a shroud.
Now it is the time of night
That the graves, all gaping wide,
Every one lets forth his sprite,
In the church-way paths to glide;
And we fairies, that do run
By the triple Hecate’s team
From the presence of the sun,
Following darkness like a dream,
Now are frolic. Not a mouse
Shall disturb this hallowed house.
I am sent with broom before
To sweep the dust behind the door.

Enter Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of Fairies, with all their train


Through the house give glimmering light.
By the dead and drowsy fire
Every elf and fairy sprite
Hop as light as bird from brier,
And this ditty after me
Sing, and dance it trippingly.


First, rehearse your song by rote,
To each word a warbling note;
Hand in hand, with fairy grace,
Will we sing, and bless this place.

[The song. The fairies dance]


Now until the break of day,
Through this house each fairy stray.
To the best bride bed will we,
Which by us shall blessèd be,
And the issue there create
Ever shall be fortunate.
So shall all the couples three
Ever true in loving be,
And the blots of Nature’s hand
Shall not in their issue stand.
Never mole, harelip, nor scar,
Nor mark prodigious, such as are
Despisèd in nativity,
Shall upon their children be.
With this field-dew consecrate,
Every fairy take his gait,
And each several chamber bless,
Through this palace, with sweet peace;
And the owner of it blessed
Ever shall in safety rest.
Trip away, make no stay,
Meet me all by break of day.

Exeunt all but Robin Goodfellow


If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended:
That you have but slumbered here,
While these visions did appear;
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I am an honest puck,
If we have unearnèd luck
Now to ’scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the puck a liar call.
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.                Exit       (5.1.362-429)

If we’re thinking about what makes a character’s speech distinctive, I chose this passage because at this point, all the fairies sound the same; this is generic fairy-speak at its fairy-est. Part of this is the meter—the tripping catalectic (thank you Hope & Witmore for this word) trochaic tetrameter is earlier in the play employed mostly by Puck, but also by Oberon, whenever they do something incantatory or mischievous; for “serious” matters or conversations, as in Eli’s passage, they use a more courtly iambic pentameter. The former is, of course, the same meter used by the witches in Macbeth; my question is, is the effect of a “sickening see-saw rhythm” that L. C. Knights describes an intrinsic quality to the meter? My hunch is no. The insistent stress of “Now…” that opens many of the lines above feels instead like it’s keeping the time for the dance. I wish I could use Wordhoard for prosodic concordance, to see where else Shakespeare employs this meter, but alas, this feature isn’t available for Shakespeare’s corpus.

Diction might also contribute, and this leads me to more DH findings. I ran two log-likelihood comparisons on Wordhoard: MND against Shakespeare’s corpus (first two figures), and MND against the comedies only (third figure).

MND against corpus
MND against corpus (cont.)
MND against comedies

These charts show that this passage incorporates many of the words that make up the unique verbal texture of the play: brier, lion, through, fairy, elf, night, to name a few. It makes sense that the most unique words are those uttered by either the fairies or rustics. (Note the words that made the list by virtue of Bottom’s repetition, e.g. “monsieur.”)

“Through” is an interesting case, at least for a non-Early Modern-specialist like me. At the beginning of 2.1, the unnamed Fairy uses the disyllabic spelling “Thorough” instead of “Through.” I used the EEBO N-gram browser to graph which spelling was more common, and found that “through” really spiked after ~1510.

That the lemma “through” should be more commonly found in MND than in the rest of Shakespeare’s corpus is perhaps notable, too; it’s one of those common words we probably wouldn’t notice an increase in without stylometrics. As its usage in the passage above shows, the preposition suggests the “fairy” qualities of quickness, transparency, permeability.

Just a final note. I felt like I kept hearing the fairies drop “be” in interesting ways all over the place, so I used Wordhoard’s nifty “mortality” filter to compare how often “immortal or supernatural” creatures in the play use it, versus use by “mortals.” Well, the mortals use it almost twice as often (66x verses 39x). But looking at the concordances of these instances showed that the fairies more frequently use “be” at the end of a line (cf. “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” as well as instances by Oberon in the passage above.) This stress on the word, and the propensity to pair it with a rhyming word in a couplet, made “be” stand out in the fairy speeches during my first-pass reading—something I misinterpreted as word frequency before looking at the numbers.

I had many failed experiments with CQPweb. While it seems powerful in theory, I can’t seem to get it to function properly.

Thanks for reading this far. Looking forward to hearing everyone else’s findings in class!