Measure for Measure Passage: Jeewon

II. 2. 107-110

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

II. 4. 115-148

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

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

We are all frail.

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

Nay, women are frail too.

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

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

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

Plainly conceive, I love you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound exercises

Afterthoughts to come, everyone, and in the meantime, here are this week’s sound exercises, quite an extraordinary variety and full of surprises.

Sarah: commentary, score, and sound:

Scott: text and commentary.

Jackie: text and commentary.

Yan: commentary, score, and sound:

Will: text and commentary.

Andrew: text and commentary and image:


Maddy: text and commentary and sound:

Eli: text and commentary.

Whitney: commentary and images.

Mary N.: text and commentary and images and an extra sound file for good measure:

Mary P: text and commentary and sound:

John: text and commentary and sound:

Jessica: text and commentary and image.

Jeewon: commentary and images.



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

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

Is’t possible, my lord?

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

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

Is ’t come to this?

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

My noble lord—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Forethoughts: Weeks 10 to 12

A few forethoughts this time, colleagues, since the moment is coming when we will have to plot our course for the final three sessions of the term. We will be reading King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Winter’s Tale; but with what questions in mind, and what texts to support us, is yet to be decided.

My instinct is to leave the final class open, addressing The Winter’s Tale with whatever we have learned this term. For the other two, I see a few possibilities. One would be to summon up some other voices to stand alongside Shakespeare—Marlowe and Fletcher, for example, two of his collaborators. We would gain by this the external comparison that our concentration on Shakespeare’s self-difference (within plays and across time) has so far denied us. Another would be to read some Shakespeare criticism that addresses our questions, books about his language by the likes of Frank Kermode or Simon Palfrey or Janet Adelman. Our secondary readings so far have been mostly directed to different philological and theoretical contexts, but much has been written directly on our topic. (I have been channeling some of it.) Yet another option would be to continue in the vein of this week’s sound projects, with an emphasis on music (for one class) and movement (for another). I would bring in a couple of guests to work with us on what would be, for the likes of us graduate students and former graduate students, a more experimental program, but still dedicated to the exploration of Shakespeare’s language and to our agenda of imitation.

You may detect that I have a bias toward the last, but I would like to sound us all out (so to speak); I think wherever we go, it will be interesting to take the temperature at this point, not least because everybody in the room who is officially a student is seriously considering becoming a teacher. So, such decisions are proper to us all, and I’ll be quite delighted wherever we end up.

So: let’s take up the matter in class; but first, Othello!


Othello, 5.1.23-109

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Passage for Emphasis – Othello


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


What, not to pray?


Torments will ope your lips.


Well, thou dost best.


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


O villain!


Most heathenish and most gross!


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


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


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


O fool! fool! fool!


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

Afterthoughts: Week 7

These afterthoughts come unusually long after, the break having gotten the better of me; but we’ll see what a longer interval has left in recollection. Before I do that, however, a nod to the exchange between Jessica and Will, which I think gets at some very basic questions for the project of criticism. We have indeed mixed some of the traditional questions of philological historicism with a few excursions, particularly into the polychronic and the multitemporal. Thinking about sound, especially if we take up some of Dolar’s suggestions, may also lead us away from our grounding in the moment of the text’s composition/play’s production/origination. Sound can be historicized, and that is what Bruce Smith is trying to do; but it is resistant to many of the descriptive technologies by which philology proceeds, if only because it hath a dying fall.

I hope we’ll keep these questions alive, at least insofar as we take them to be Shakespearean questions; questions that the plays themselves propose and respond to. Here’s a proposition for our consideration: that literature has long been defined by, or let us say, been recognized by, its resistance to history, its independence from time; an impulse to speak beyond its time (if also, of course, and crucially, to and about its time). That ahistoricism itself is an impulse that takes different forms at different moments. You can historicize the ahistorical. What do you get for doing the reverse—supposing there is an alternative besides presentizing?

The what-do-you-get-for-that question is an important one. To view Hamlet as a truly polychronic object, with no canonical, centering time; what would that be like? Is it an experience anyone could really have or learn to have? Want to have? Could it ever be as rich as what the historical imagination offers? (Imagine approaching an object from a truly foreign culture, a sort of notional first encounter: perhaps you could recognize that it is polychronic in construction and allusion, without being sure of the time of its making; and though you might be curious about when that making was—that could well organize your response—what are the other modes of available curiosity?)

I should say once again, I do not have fixed ideas here, but a general curiosity, and a sense that these questions are gathering rather than ebbing in the intellectual culture of our own moment, so worth conversing with. At moments of doubt, I worry that they are like merely conceptual art, where the idea is interesting to entertain but the encounter with the work leaves you a little stymied about what to do now. At other moments, it feels like such ideas and these works might be in real conversation.

Anyhow, one place where I thought these questions got really interesting last week was in our discussion of the relationship between the historicity of language and the various kinds of time-feeling and time-idea inside the play. We made headway, I thought, with the contest betweeen periodic and running sentences in Hamlet’s soliloquys. The funny historical temporality of the classical period (as in periodic sentence), old/new in the humanist manner, felt always under pressure from the modernity of the running sentence—modern in the sense that Mueller describes, and in the way that form-breaking will often feel modern, when it happens. (Not a rule, of course; iconoclasm can be a primitivizing gesture. Anyway…) Simultaneously in play is their periodic sentence’s project of syntactic foresight, against a more interruptive syntax as a) a mimesis of distracted thinking or b) present-tense dramatic reaction. Maddy’s suggestions about the subjunctive folded the counterfactual into these questions, too, and of course the temporalities of the plot—delay, impatience, and so on. Each sentence seems to be pulled into past and future in ways coded in lexis, syntax, and figuration.

(What about Eliot, by the way? What kind of time does The Four Quartets ask us to consider—is an unanchored polychronism really a fantasy of divine time? What is the present toward which what might have been and what has been [not what was!] point? It’s such a beautiful poem.)

And how much of this—this phenomenological complexity of time, if you like—is part of how the plays sound? This coming week is our week to think about what we have meant by that word, sound, which tends to stand in for reactions that are not explicitly interpretive in character. Nothing in our travels so far lacks a sound, not prosody, not rhetoric, not grammar, not figuration, not history…)

With Jessica’s trick or treat in mind, a send-off from Kurt Schwitters, as himself and as performed by Christian Bok. Till Wednesday!


Postscript; Trick or Treat

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

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



(Will) – Response to Jessica Again

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

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

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

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

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

More Thoughts (Responding to Will)

[Disclaimer: I’ve just read over my post, and it sounds rather like thinking out loud on (cyber-)paper. It’s probably riddled with conceptual errors, besides. And I notice that Mary and Maddy have posted passages in the meantime, so now I’ll go read those.]

Thanks, Will, for addressing some of this; I was admittedly hoping for another perspective, and it helps to get a sense of your disciplinary background. You make a compelling case for a certain philological orientation (if I needed any convincing; as I suggested, I’m nostalgically mindful of philological shadows everywhere!), and I agree that classical languages provide a limit case, as you say, for thinking about language in/and history. To state the obvious, an ancient text in the original would literally be devoid of sense or meaning for a casual reader. And that’s not quite the case for an older text in English, say: the earlier you go, the more remote the language and the more difficult the task of reading comprehension, but we can imagine a point – different for more or less every reader, and for every period of historical time – at which the linguistic identity of a text and the linguistic identity of an audience fall within close enough range for “easy” – or at least, comfortable (again, whatever that might be for any given reader or epoch) – access. So a measure of historical consciousness – the project of a philological reconstruction – becomes less pressing, itself more remote, if one can understand or relate to a text with thoughts left over for discussion. In its extreme form, this kind of presentism – wherein the activity of reading depends mostly, if not entirely, on the private experience of each respective reader – might be a radical expression of reader-response theory, or a radical application of reception studies.

But of course, at least in the way I read it, this logic rather repeats the mistake of undue emphasis on originary textuality – e.g., at the expense of close attention to a range of [ahem] ludic associations. For lack of a better expression, it’s too diachronic. And of course, synchronicity hasn’t been a better alternative since the ‘60s – because that posits a system or a structure that would accommodate ostensible differences in reading experiences across time (space too). That’s no crumpled handkerchief, in other words.

I want to press some of the words Will used, via last week’s reading/conversation, in part because I feel our (my) vocabulary getting out of hand. A-temporal, poly-temporal, multi-temporal, polychronic – what do all these mean, provided they don’t mean the same thing?! I don’t think we’re really talking about an atemporal mode of reading here, because that would be evacuated of meaning, like Will’s pseudo-Virgil example. And I don’t think polytemporality is exactly on the table either, because that would still be too prone to historicist attack (which would resemble the charge against structuralism, I think – but I might be seriously wrong).

Here’s the relevant portion of the Munro text we read:

“Drawing on Bruno Latour and Michel Serres, Harris suggests that early modern objects might be both polychronic and multi-temporal. An object such as a joint-stool might be polychronic because it gathers associations and meanings as it descends through time, while a printing press might be considered to be multi-temporal because it gathers together substances and technologies developed in various historical periods, complicating linear temporality. As Serres argues, ‘every historical era is likewise multitemporal, simultaneously drawing from the obsolete, the contemporary, and the futuristic. An object, a circumstance, is thus polychronic, multitemporal, and reveals a time that is gathered together, and with multiple pleats’” (20). (Munro goes on to translate this material orientation into linguistic/literary terms.)

Got that? I’m only sold on paper, to be honest. My best paraphrase for polychronicity and multi-temporality would borrow Maddy’s description from class: seeing the crumpled handkerchief whole, and all at once. So, if I were to imagine Virgil on a continuum from the first century BC to the digital age, my polychronic and multi-temporal vision would NOT give precedence to the Aeneid at either endpoint. NOR would I witness the Aeneid changing hands, assembly-line style, or even in network fashion. Instead, out goes the continuum – right? Except I’m still unsure about where I’ve ended up, and what my textual interaction now looks like. Which might be why I took recourse to philology in the first place.


P.S. I looked up Altertumswissenschaft, a new term for me, and here’s what Encyclopedia Britannica had: “During the 19th century, Germans evolved the concept of Altertumswissenschaft (‘science of antiquity’) to emphasize the unity of the various disciplines of which the study of the ancient world consists.” This sentence came right after the following definition for classical scholarship: “the study, in all its aspects, of ancient Greece and Rome. In continental Europe the field is known as ‘classical philology,’ but the use, in some circles, of ‘philology’ to denote the study of language and literature—the result of abbreviating the 19th-century ‘comparative philology’—has lent an unfortunate ambiguity to the term.” Now, is it just me, or does it sound like the ambiguity in question relates to classical scholarship here? Ambiguity indeed.