Thoughts from Cicero

I try not to play the token Classicist in the room too often  (along with Elizabeth, that is). However, I felt I had to mention that it was with a real sense of dread that, coming off of a seminar spent puzzling over what Jakobson and Burke might think that terms “metaphor” and “metonym” mean, I turned to my assignment for my survey of Latin literature for this week: Cicero’s De Oratore, Book III. The tortured syntax of this last sentence might give some idea of why the task of trying to figure out what Cicero meant to say about metaphor and metonym was not immediately appealing to me.

The process did, however, reward me with some interesting comparative material. Cicero, or rather Cicero in the persona of L. Lucinius Crassus (not the triumvir), devotes considerable space in this dialogue to ornatus orationis, the decoration or elaboration of speech. In his discussion of tropes, he insists on a distinction between those elements of ornatus that arise from single words (singulis verbis) and those which arise on larger syntactical levels (oratione id est continuatione verborum). To the former belong trans-latio (i.e. meta-phor) and immutatio (metonym, I think), in their various forms. To the latter belongs a trope that Cicero seems not to name explicitly, though his formulation aliud dicatur, aliud intellegandum est (“one thing is said, another is to be understood”) might gloss the Greek ἀλληγορία. For Cicero, these all seem to be special cases, or applications of, the larger category of translatio.

At risk of being anachronistic, one could say that Cicero approximately anticipates Jakobson’s axis of selection (verbis singulis) and his axis of continuity (continuatione verborum), and implies that allegory – or, what we might call extended metaphor, conceit, irony (?), is a sustained transfer of contingent selections projected across an axis of continuity – if that makes sense.

These are not complete thoughts, just some off-the-cuff reflections. I’m not sure how what Cicero says here in his de Oratore stacks up against what he says in his other rhetorical treatises, how all of that compares to other ancient Greek and Roman treatises on rhetoric and style, and what other intervening texts would have mediated the early modern reception of these classical terms. Cicero must be in the mix somewhere so I thought I’d share – though it’s worth noting that he frames this text as more of a practical than a theoretical enterprise. When you see how many different people have in different contexts tried to fix the slippery terms of metaphor and metonym over the years, you begin to understand why it is so hard to employ them consistently. Which brings me back, again, to what I hope is not too harsh a question: how well are these terms working for us as units of analysis?

Will Dingee

Afterthoughts: Week 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Premature Afterthought

My apologies in advance if this begins to sound confessional, discursive, delusional. First, I’d like to thank you all for today’s discussion of Jakobson, namely (many thanks to Jeff for assigning him); it was my second time engaging with “Linguistics and Poetics” in company, and my first experience actually talking about “Two Aspects of Language.” The latter, in particular, is a piece I continue to think much about. I’m going to circle back to our Jakobsonian concerns at the end of this post, by way of a detour through Burke, with whom I’ll agree in at least one respect (though there are more; but I also don’t usually find Burke affecting/effective): his four master tropes sure do “shade into one another.”

Jeff mentioned irony as an adjacent (and likewise slippery) figure in class today during his introduction of metaphor and metonymy, with a nod to style. I’ve been thinking about irony for a little while now along more or less these lines (my interest has to do with wit and, as it happens, the conceit), and I entirely agree. So I was struck by the following definition for “allegoria” in Puttenham: “when we speak one thing and think another, and […] our words and our meanings meet not” (270). Irony, right? At least, in one of its multiple forms. But it gets better because Puttenham elaborates by alluding to dissembling and dissimulation – “the Figure of the False Semblant.” (I’ll just mention here how neat it is that he allegorizes each of his “sensable” figures.) Already, semblance, similitude, seeming are triggered in my mind – all coded references to our master trope, metaphor, insofar as it’s predicated on an analogic mode of thinking (which, yikes, deserves a post all by itself; perhaps we’ll encounter it sometime? [I’m not sure that Puttenham’s “analogia,” “a decent proportion in our writings and speech,” is the same thing, though? {240}]). Then Puttenham, effectively, “maketh the figure allegory to be called a long and perpetual metaphor” because it, allegory, constitutes itself in speech “in sense translative and wrested from the own signification” (271). So allegory is in a way a function of metaphor, and “ironia” occupies neighboring space under the flag of “Dissimulation, […] the chief ringleader and captain of all other figures either in the poetical or oratorical science” (271). And so two of Burke’s categories are uniquely related in Puttenham, specifically vis-à-vis allegory (though I’m unfortunately not at the point of looping in synecdoche and metonymy, especially not with Jakobson inevitably intervening). And so – I’m tempted: can I? at the risk of severe conflation? anachronism? retrojection? – what would Puttenham, and Peacham, for that matter, have said about symbol? It doesn’t appear, from what I could see, in either of our primary texts for this week. And I ask because it has to do with modes or processes of signification – of being, seeming, appearing – ostensibly different from those indicated by allegory. But I don’t know.

Now back to Jakobson. Will posed the searingly penetrating question of what it would mean and how it would look to treat literary texts according to Jakobson’s system – how to apply, implement (and thereby, perhaps, value?) his structural(ist) paradigms. Well, YES. I want to point to the opening sentences of Burke’s essay: “I refer to metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony. And my primary concern with them here will be not with their purely figurative usage, but with their role in the discovery and description of ‘the truth’” (my italics). Does Burke ever deliver on his intention, anywhere over the course of the essay or in its (cryptic) closing section? What would it even look like for him to deliver on a premise he treats with some degree of condescension otherwise and elsewhere (I’m referring to his use of “scientific realism” here specifically)? There’s a very strong chance that I’m overlooking or misconstruing some point, so please call it out if I am. But I jotted down a question by Burke’s first paragraph that my reading of “Four Master Tropes” failed to address. What are the stakes here?


Richard II Passage for Emphasis: The Queen and her Grief

2.2.1-40: The Queen and Her Grief



Madam, your majesty is too much sad.

You promised when you parted with the King

To lay aside life-harming heaviness

And entertain a cheerful disposition.




To please the King I did, to please myself                                                              5

I cannot do it. Yet I know no cause

Why I should welcome such a guest as grief,

Save bidding farewell to so sweet a guest

As my sweet Richard. Yet again, methinks

Some unborn sorrow, ripe in Fortune’s womb,                                                     10

Is coming towards me, and my inward soul

With nothing trembles; at something it grieves

More than with parting from my lord the King.




Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows

Which shows like grief itself but is not so.                                                             15

For sorrow’s eyes, glazed with blinding tears,

Divides one thing entire to many objects,

Like perspectives, which rightly gazed upon

Show nothing but confusion—eyed awry,

Distinguish form. So your sweet majesty,                                                               20

Looking awry upon your lord’s departure,

Finds shapes of grief more than himself to wail

Which, looked on as it is, is nought but shadows

Of what it is not. Then, thrice-gracious Queen,

More than your lord’s departure weep not. More’s

not seen,                                                                                                         25

Or if it be, ‘tis with false sorrow’s eye

Which for things true weeps things imaginary.




It may be so, but yet my inward soul

Persuades me it is otherwise. Howe’er it be

I cannot but be sad: so heavy sad,                                                                          30

As, though on thinking on no thought I think,

Makes me with heavy nothing faint and shrink.




‘Tis nothing but conceit, my gracious lady.




‘Tis nothing less. Conceit is still derived

From some forefather grief. Mine is not so,                                                           35

For nothing hath begot my something grief,

Or something hath the nothing that I grieve—

‘Tis in reversion that I do possess—

But what it is, that is not yet known; what

I cannot name, ‘tis nameless woe I wot.                                                                 40

I came to this passage particularly struck with the way in which figuration gives the Queen’s grief a life beyond the event from which it originates—Richard’s departure for Ireland. One way we might begin to discuss this is by directing our attention the use of personification in the scene. “Grief,” so says the Queen, comes to her as a “guest” displacing “sweet Richard,” her original “guest” whom she must bid farewell to. Personified, grief seems to stage an important process of exchange in the Queen’s own figuration of herself; she speaks of Richard metonymically as if he is part of her whole, a “guest” within the home of her inner being.[1] It is an odd moment, because in order for the Queen’s personification of “grief” and her metaphorical construction of “grief” as a “guest” to successfully pull off such an exchange (or is substitution a better word?), she has to disfigure Richard of his literal relationship to her as a husband and refigure him metaphorically as a “guest” to appease the economy of her figuration. Its all as if to suggest that, as the Queen at least would have it, the relationships one has with those populating the material world outside of our inner selves are figurative in nature, or depend on figuration to make them make sense to how we feel (this is merely a musing of mine, not a doctrine I’m married to).

In any case, the strange quality of the Queen’s metaphorical rendering of Richard accentuates how her sorrow increasingly abstracts itself from its literal referent in a way that creates an acute tension between what is real and what is not. The Queen herself acknowledges that she has no cause for grief other than Richard’s departure, yet she “cannot but be sad” (l. 30). This confusion is, importantly, the spark for Bushy’s remarkable discourse on the “substance of a grief” (l.14). Bushy also works within the figurative economy of personification in his suggestion that “sorrow’s eyes” blind us with their tears and thus “divide one thing entire to many objects” (ll.16-17). And yet here grief is no longer personified as a guest, but as a character who takes possession of the Queen’s subjectivity. This re-figuring of her optical consciousness in turn allows him to create an elaborate simile that relates her vision of Richard’s departure, already “glazed with blinding tears,” to “perspectives,” or prismatic glasses, which, when looked upon, reveal a confused assortment of images that suggest more than is actually present, those “shapes of grief more than himself to wail” (l. 22). Bushy in effect draws our attention to the way a figurative device like personification can take over our sense of the world and from there create multiple new images of the world that shroud over our fundamental sense of what is real and what is figuratively generated.

Yet, even Bushy seems not to be exempt from the powerfully confusing influence figuration can have over how one views the world. While Bushy feels confident in his claim that the Queen’s grief is “nothing but conceit” (l. 33), the reasoning of his “perspectives” simile is rather contorted and confusing. He claims that when “perspectives” are “rightly gazed upon” (i.e. looked on from directly in front according to our editor) they “show nothing but confusion,” and that it is when they are “eyed awry” (or looked at obliquely) that they “distinguish” their true “form” (ll. 18-20). Yet, he attributes the Queen’s unfounded grief to her “looking awry upon your lord’s departure,” thus finding “shapes of grief more than himself” (ll. 21-22). His logic thus seems to get lost within his own elaborate figurative construction since the Queen’s looking “awry” in the theory of prisms he sets forth should distinguish true and concrete reasons for grief, not the more vacant manifestations of it that she stands accused of. In total, Bushy is successful in establishing the vexed relation between figurative and real, but in doing so perhaps becomes a victim of that unstable boundary. Bushy’s confused simile, this is to suggest, stands as an example of the way figuration multiples itself as it gets engaged with; what begins as Bushy adopting the Queen’s own figurative trope of personification ends in Bushy ironically getting just as lost in the Queen’s grief as she is herself.

From this notion of figurative language and reasoning multiplying itself, I hope that we can also discuss tropes of the womb, pregnancy, and parentage, which pilfer this passage. These are tropes with their own figurative relation to the idea of a mood generating and re-generating itself, but of course are also highly gendered. The scene, as I have curated it, concludes with the Queen rebuffing Bushy’s assertion that her grief is “nothing but conceit.” It is, she says, “nothing less,” for “conceit is still derived from some forefather grief” (ll. 34-35). This is a great metapoetic moment in the play, which is full of conceit, and I am struck by the Queen’s familial structuring of how conceit works: it must descend from some literal referent, some “forefather,” in order to have “begot” the definite grief she feels, which in turn begets more abstract senses of grief in her. Then, to track back to the passage’s beginning, the Queen senses some “unborn sorrow, ripe in Fortune’s womb.” Here, she of course foreshadows Richard’s fall, but also interestingly incorporates her use of personification into the cycle of figurative parentage and re-generation that she espouses at the passages end. And, as one of the few female characters in the play, that her use of figuration should be so bound up with a maternal sensibility as well as establishing the plot to come generates a lot of interesting questions about how Shakespeare incorporates gender into the figurative economy of the play and the way in which the birth and re-birth of certain figurative tropes play with the bounds of literal and real so prevalent in this passage.

I hope this can get us started with this passage, see you all tomorrow!


[1] I cannot help but peripherally note the strange way in which we—or a least I do—often fall back on figurative language to describe figuration itself in expository writing. Such a phenomenon seems to double down on the way figurative language proliferates, or expands, outward as does the Queen’s grief in this passage.

Richard II Passage for Emphasis: “That England that was wont to conquer others/Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.”

Let’s look at the beginning of Act II, Scene i, focusing on the conversation between the Duke of York and the dying John of Gaunt in lines 17-68. Gaunt has just argued this his own dying words might persuade Richard, but York disagrees:



No, it [Richard’s ear] is stopped with other flatt’ring sounds,

As praises, of whose taste the wise are feared,

Lascivious metres, to whose venom sound

The open ear of youth doth always listen,

Report of fashions in proud Italy,

Whose manners still our tardy-apish nation

Limps after in base imitation.

Where doth the world thrust forth a vanity–

So it be new there’s no respect how vile–

That is not quickly buzzed into his ears?

Then all too late comes counsel to be heard

Where will doth mutiny with wit’s regard.

Direct not him whose way himself will choose,

‘Tis breath thou lack’st and that breath wilt thou lose.



Methinks I am a prophet new inspired

And thus, expiring, do foretell of him:

His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last

For violent fires soon burn out themselves.

Small showers last long, but sudden storms are short;

He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes;

With eager feeding, food doth choke the feeder;

Light vanity, insatiate cormorant,

Consuming means, soon preys upon itself.

This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,

This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war,

This happy breed of men, this little war,

This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall

Or as a moat defensive to a house

Against the envy of less happier lands,

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,

This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,

Feared by their breed and famous by their birth,

Renowned for their deeds as far from home

For Christian service and true chivalry

As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry

Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s son;

This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land,

Dear for her reputation through the world,

Is now leased out–I die pronouncing it–

Like to a tenement or pelting farm.

England, bound in with the triumphant sea,

Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege

Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,

With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds.

That England that was wont to conquer others

Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.

Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,

How happy then were my ensuing death!


I’m drawn to this passage because it so cleverly plays with the definition of “place.” What, Gaunt seems to ask, is England? Is England a location on a map, a physical landscape, or is England an imaginative location, the site of fantasy, anxiety, and the production of metaphor? In the points that follow, I’ll try to explore the tension between real and imagined spaces in this scene, as well as the ways in which that tension manifests itself through Shakespeare’s language. Per Jakobson: “In poetry, any conspicuous similarity in sound is evaluated in respect to similarity and/or dissimilarity in meaning” (87).


  • There’s a sense, beginning with York’s lines, that England’s place on the world stage is precarious: “Report of fashions in proud Italy, / Whose manners still our tardy-apish nation / Limps after in base imitation” (21-23). Line 22 includes a feminine ending (“nation”), so that the meter seems to reflect York’s deflated attitude toward England (behind in fashions, trends, foolishly trying to imitation a more sophisticated nation).
  • In Gaunt’s speech, we see him thinking through not only Richard’s treachery, but also England itself as an island. The island is a doubled space, at once protected from its enemies by nature of its geography, but also susceptible to its own insularity. That doubleness emerges immediately in the parallelism of the verse instance in line 37: “With eager feeding, food doth choke the feeder.”
  • The speech is notable for its repetition of the word “this.” Here, Gaunt describes the ways in which England has benefited from its position as an island nation–”This fortress built by Nature for herself / Against infection and the hand of war”–before revealing that this land is “now leased out,” spoiled by Richard’s actions. I’d like to suggest that this repetition of “this” creates a sort of “fortress” of words, creating a chain of language that is then broken by Gaunt’s interjection “I die pronouncing it.” In effect, the language forms a barrier that is suddenly broken, just as Richard has ruined England’s privileged position as a secluded, safe, and happy island.
  • Finally, notice how the physical landscape ultimately gives way to the metaphorical: “Whose rocky shores beats back the envious siege / Of watery Neptune, is now bound with shame, / With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds” (63-64). I’m interested in the ways in which these images blend and overlap: We move so quickly from the physical landscape (rocky shores surrounded by water) to the immaterial (shame now stands in for the waters around those shores) and back to the material object (the paperwork which now, in a way, stands in for Richard’s shame!).
  • In our discussion tomorrow, we might also dive more deeply into the language of property and paperwork that runs throughout this scene (the lease, ink, parchment bonds). I wonder if “the map” is also a sort of paperwork that looms behind these images? Then again, I might be running away with that idea a bit…


I look forward to hearing everyone’s thoughts!


‘Til tomorrow,



Passage for Emphasis: The searching eye of heaven and this terrestrial ball


Discomfortable cousin, know’st thou not
That when the searching eye of heaven is hid,
Behind the globe and lights the lower world,
Then thieves and robbers range abroad unseen
In murders and in outrage boldly here;
But when from under this terrestrial ball
He fires the proud tops of the eastern pines
And darts his light through every guilty hole,
Then murders, treason and detested sins,
The cloak of night being plucked from off their backs,
Stand bare and naked trembling at themselves.
So when… (3.2.36-47+)

Wait, what? If our own emphasis this week is on figuration, I thought this passage would be one to emphasize, for this epic simile takes its ornament to the extreme. The Christmas tree is all tinsel. Carried so far from common utterance that it doesn’t just deceive the ear but almost resists the intelligence, this transport might even require translation. The semantic skeleton, then (or trunk?—if I want to keep up my own metaphor), would read something like this: “As the sun gives cover to criminals here when it shines on the other side of the earth but brings them to light at dawn, so I….”

But grant Richard that he wouldn’t speak so plainly as I have, we can still see he doesn’t just rest content with elevation. Rather, he loads every rift with ore. Turn to his own language; consider this revision that keeps his lofty diction but excises the grammatically inessential:

know’st thou not
That when the searching eye of heaven is hid,

Then thieves and robbers range abroad unseen

But when from under this terrestrial ball
He fires the proud tops of the eastern pines

Then murders, treason and detested sins,

Stand bare and naked trembling at themselves.

Only about every other line is actually necessary to “the point”—unless elaboration is the point. What I want to think about, then, and hope we can talk about in class, is the way elaboration can be heaped upon elaboration, figure upon figure, the way an epic simile can set up a series of metaphors, the way metaphors themselves might host further metaphors, and the effect all this figuration has on syntax and grammar. At what point, too, does lofty language collapse under the weight of the decoration that gets it off the ground in the first place? At what point, that is, does this all become silly, more mock than anything else?

To point to just a couple of specific examples in this passage of its nested—or piled-up?— figuration: I’d note the metaphor (“searching eye of heaven”), personification (“murders, treasons and detested sins,” not “murderers”), and the transferred epithet (“guilty holes”). And speaking of silly, what even is a term for that ridiculous approach to diction that casts the earth as a “terrestrial ball”? It seems sort of like a metonymy.  The “ball” could be an example of Burke means as the “realism” that metonymy shares with science. It’s so literal it’s figurative. But to me the word choice mostly aims to get as many syllables as possible out of any single signified.

I look forward to seeing what you all think of this passage’s excesses!


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

Passage for Emphasis – Richard II


I thought you had been willing to resign.


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


Part of your cares you give me with your crown.


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


Are you contented to resign the crown?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yan Che

Afterthoughts: Class 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here’s The Comedy of Errors:


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

Passage for emphasis: “Remuneration”

III.1, lines 117-144


ARMADO Sirrah Costard, I will enfranchise thee.

COSTARD O, marry me to one Frances! I smell some l’envoi, some goose in this.

ARMADO Be my sweet soul, I mean setting thee at liberty, enfreedoming thy person. Thou wert immured, restrained, captivated, bound.

COSTARD True, true, and now you will be my purgation and let me loose.

ARMADO I give thee thy liberty, set thee from durance, and in lieu thereof impose on thee nothing but this: (he gives Costard a letter) bear this significant to the country maid Jacquenetta. (He gives him a coin.) There is remuneration; for the best ward of mine honour is rewarding my dependants. Moth, follow.


MOTH Like the sequel, I. Signor Costard, adieu.


COSTARD My sweet ounce of man’s flesh, my incony Jew!

Now will I look to his remuneration. ‘Remuneration’! O, that’s the Latin word for three farthings. Three farthings—remuneration. ‘What’s the price of this inkle?’ ‘One penny.’ ‘No, I’ll give you a remuneration.’ Why, it carries it! ‘Remuneration’! Why, it is a fairer name than French crown. I will never buy and sell out of this word.

Enter Biron

BIRON O, my good knave Costard, exceedingly well met.

COSTARD Pray you, sir, how much carnation ribbon may a man buy for a remuneration?
BIRON What is a remuneration?
COSTARD Marry, sir, halfpenny-farthing.

BIRON Why then, three-farthing-worth of silk.


My main reason for choosing this passage is, of course, its humor. Some of this is a bit ribald (i.e., “you will be my purgation”), but I think I’m struck even more by the importance of miscommunications and mistakes. While he has admittedly been making similar mistakes for some 50 lines or so at this point, in this passage Costard first suggests that “enfranchise” means “marry to a prostitute” and then takes “remuneration” too narrowly, as the exact sum which he has received (three farthings). Meanwhile, Armado plays with “ward/reward” and Moth declares himself a “sequel” (because he follows).

While there are certainly class differences at play in the characterization of Costard, I find the particular ways in which Shakespeare is setting up his mistakes intriguing. One of Costard’s issues is clearly a lack of knowledge of Latin, but this seems to be compounded by, i.e., (a) failure to distinguish between slang (Frances) and elevated language (franchise) and (b) failure of deduction (although this is a legitimate way to learn a language, and similar mistakes do not necessarily surprise me in the mouth of a FRE101 student). Moreover, while Armado and Moth’s wordplay appears considerably more dignified, the more I read over the passage, the more I wonder if the rhetorical mechanisms at play here are actually all that much more sophisticated than those in Costard’s speech. Armado’s statement that rewarding his dependants (…wards?) is a ward of his honor, for instance, seems almost too redundant. Are these distinctions meant to be murky (i.e., Costard is ridiculous, but he is so in part because of the specific ways in which Armado’s speech has rubbed off on him)? And how does one begin to categorize specific kinds of ignorance?

Passage for Emphasis: The Princess on Heresy and Hunting

My chosen passage for emphasis in tomorrow’s class:



Nay, never paint me now.

Where fair is not, praise cannot mend the brow.

Here, good my glass, take this for telling true;

Fair payment for foul words is more than due.



Nothing but fair is that which you inherit.



See, see, my beauty will be saved by merit!

O heresy in fair, fit for these days!

A giving hand, though foul, shall have fair praise.

But come, the bow. Now mercy goes to kill,

And shooting well is then accounted ill.

Thus will I save my credit in the shoot:

Not wounding, pity would not let me do’t;

If wounding, then it was to show my skill,

That more for praise than purpose meant to kill.

And, out of question, so it is sometimes,

Glory grows guilty of detested crimes,

When, for fame’s sake, for praise, an outward part,

We bend to that the working of the heart;

As I for praise alone now seek to spill

The poor deer’s blood, that my heart means no ill.


What I like most about this passage is the density of thought in the Princess’s language. At first she ensnares the forester in a rhetorical trap by making him seem to deny that she is fair, then catching him out as if he were a flatterer. She posits a “heresy” in the word fair – the heresy being that “beauty,” like beatitude, can be apparently purchased through action and even direct payment. From this paradox of fair and foul, she proceeds to another in which mercy goes forth to kill. This paradox engenders yet another, expressed in economic terms of “account” and “credit”: if she shoots well, it might count against her. We return next to praise, the theme with which she began. She now notes that praise can motivate men and women to do evil. Having questioned first the ability of praise to render the foul fair, and now she seems to posit the ability of praise, or love thereof, to render the fair foul.

But this all smacks of interpretation on a higher level. To get back to our main task, I’m interested in how Shakespeare gets inside of language here. Last week I talked in class about his tendency to pull apart figures of speech, but perhaps another way Shakespeare creates the impression of thinking through language is when his characters create logical paradoxes through the manipulation of words, even stringing several of them together, as above. I am struck by how often in Shakespeare language is not just the medium of expression of thought, but very explicitly is the medium of thought itself. In other words, the Princess’s thoughts seem to proceed from language as much as her language seems to proceed from thought. I hope that makes some sense.

More prosaically, I’m a bit confused about how exactly to understand “for praise, an outward part, / we bend to that the working of the heart.” Is the “outward part” an appositive to “praise,” or is it the object of “bend”? She states a few lines later that her “heart means no ill” in the hunting – but if we bend to the working of the heart, does this not mean that we yield to it? Is it that the heart, while meaning no ill, desires praise, and that it is this positive desire, rather than a negative feeling of ill, that we respond to? What is the heart really doing here?


See you all soon.

Will Dingee