Week 12 afterthoughts

One more lucky leap into the middle of our play, this time Polixenes’ first speech in Bohemia. Among the more interesting generalizations we made was that the prose here seemed tortured (especially in terms of word order) in ways we ordinarily associate with verse; particularly interesting given that the verse, in its strong enjambments and rhythmic liberties, sometimes seems to tend toward vigorous prose. (The class distinctions between verse and prose, so reliable earlier in Shakespeare’s career, seemed to be gone altogether.) We also found pronoun omission, brevity of phrasing, and heavy use of parentheses, sometimes overbalancing the clauses on which they depend. Also, Scott pointed out, lots of contractions, economies that had the effect of making the language seem even denser, almost to bursting—dense or fast, faster than any auditor could think, if not faster than the speaker. (There’s something interesting here about communication as a problem of speed: characters thinking too fast or to slow for one another, out of sync.)

Jeewon pointed out that Barton’s claim about disjoining style from character seemed more convincing than the claim that the play converges toward a single style, and I would have to agree. We watched many idioms (discourses? per Berger, per Foucault?) circulate among different characters, but they were, for all that, distinct, from Polixenes’ opening ceremoniousness to Leontes’ self-amplifying paranoia to the songs in Bohemia etc. Still one could wonder: does the play nonetheless have something like a baseline style, from which all these variants are derived? An average style? Which would partake of some of the features above and is certainly different from the baseline style of earlier plays. That is a question that stays with me. (It’s a basic question in the theory of style: is style [always] deviant, and if so, from what; might that what differ from text to text; or is the repertory of styles a network without a center?)

And why does it happen in late Shakespeare? The funny combination, I think quite characteristic, of a language so radically NEW which is also in so many ways surprisingly OLD; especially the interest in romance (Ben Jonson’s “moldy tales”), the prominence of alliteration, etc. More to say about the place of language history in the play. Does Shakespeare’s journey out the other side of tragedy demand the formation of a common idiom, more shared among characters who must find a way of surviving together? Or is it rather a kind of internalization, social problems subtly transposed into the theater of the maker’s mind (a la Richard II in prison)?

Well…I could go on, and we did, but we are all going to keep reading Shakespeare I trust and so let these questions be the matter for our ad hoc reunions. My next project is to go back to my draft of an essay for the Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s Language on “Shakespeare’s Style.” It was supposed to be in production now, but seems to have been delayed long enough that I can continue to tinker—and so let me close by saying that anyone who’d like to read a draft and offer me counsel, please let me know. Anything I give them, and anything I write on the subject from here on out, will vibrate with our many voices—so thank you for that and for everything.


Leontes 1.2.281-293

Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning cheek to cheek? Is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? Stopping the career
Of laughter with a sigh?—a note infallible
Of breaking honesty! Horsing foot on foot?
Skulking in corners? Wishing clocks more swift?
Hours minutes? Noon midnight? And all eyes
Blind with the pen and web but theirs, theirs only,
That would unseen be wicked? Is this nothing?
Why then the world and all that’s in’t is nothing,
The covering sky is nothing, Bohemia nothing,
My wife is nothing, nor nothing have these nothings
If this be nothing.

Much of The Winter’s Tale coasts along at a sort of midrange—characters saying what they need to say, with the appropriate degree of anger or love, in loose (rather, jam-packed) iambic pentameter, as all sorts of horrible or baffling things happen onstage (cast the baby into the desert! let’s see Antigonus shredded by a bear!). There are exceptions, though, and we might see occupying two opposite stylistic poles 1) the moments, longer than moments, when speech becomes mostly a vehicle for explicit narration and 2) the most violently impassioned utterances, when speech has the effect not of advancing narration but making itself the main event.

Into the former category I put the couplets by Time. Though they’re hardly unskilled (and are skillfully enjambed), the grammar is rather stilted, the feminine rhymes lilt, and a few of the rhyme pairs are near-howlers (“Florizel” and “well”…). If time’s triumph is in the plot, it’s not in the verse. I also put in this category the dialogue with the (completely interchangeable) gentlemen in 5.2, who go on at length in polite prose about something we could get the important details from in a few lines. What’s Shakespeare up to here?

At the opposite pole I put some of Leontes’ speeches in the first half of the play. 1.2.177-205 and 1.2.281-293 (above) are particularly remarkable, the first for its interinvolved metaphors, and the second for its rhythms. Of the latter, we see in its first few lines that the questions have an energy all their own: first just inching past the endstop with an extra unstressed syllable (“nothing,” “noses,” “career”), then breaking it with hard enjambment (“stopping the career / Of laughter” “a note infallible / Of breaking honesty). As the momentum builds, the grammatical elisions stack up. First we have understand that “Is ___ nothing” remains implied. Then “wishing” is elided too. And we never even get the necessary “be” verb that should be within the “wishing” questions (i.e. ‘is wishing clocks were more swift nothing?’ hours were minutes? Noon were midnight?’). And how do we scan “Hours minutes? Noon midnight” anyway? Leontes lops off more grammar and stretches the meter to a breaking point as his questions heap up. It’s an electrifying utterance.

I think for all the stress Shakespeare puts on the line in this play, though, it’s important not to say that the line no longer matters. We see in this very speech how the line can contribute even to a frantic energy; it’s not always just a calming balm or restricting force. At the end of the speech, Shakespeare plots first one “nothing” in the lines, then two, then three; the use of the line becomes a way to measure (or just feel) the intensity of repetitions becoming more frequent. And he uses the end of the line four times in a row to really ring out the “nothing,” so that it bangs like a drum punctuating each line end while the line itself correspondingly gives the performer the chance to sound out the “nothing” even more.


Week 11 afterthoughts

Another lucky stab into our text, by Sarah this time—that exchange between Antony and Cleopatra in Act III,

ANTONY. I will be treble-sinew’d, hearted, breath’d,
And fight maliciously. For when mine hours
Were nice and lucky, men did ransom lives
Of me for jests; but now I’ll set my teeth,
And send to darkness all that stop me. Come,
Let’s have one other gaudy night. Call to me
All my sad captains; fill our bowls once more;
Let’s mock the midnight bell.

CLEOPATRA. It is my birthday.
I had thought t’have held it poor; but since my lord
Is Antony again, I will be Cleopatra.

So many things interesting things said. It seemed typical of the shorter sentences throughout, the unpredictable caesurae, the sharp enjambments. (Is this a breathless play?) We lingered over the rhythms of “Call to me / All my sad captains.” How to scan the four words after the line break: two iambs? Trochee and iambs? A slow double spondee—as though to linger out this heroic fatalism; or to slow down, to compensate for—formally, affectively?—the hurry of an anapest in “Call to me”? And Majel wondered if the solution wasn’t simply dramatic, or dare we say, musical, to read it with feeling for its immanent rhythms, without getting hung up on the metrical contract. When is it, or is it ever, licit to do so reading Shakespeare? Questions to carry into the next week, when the pentameter will be under still greater stress, and we’ll have some additional resources for thinking about it.

Let’s see: also some interesting discussion about disappointment, Jeewon’s term; a very very interesting attitude, affect, whatever it is, to consider in relation to a play that keeps trying again and keeps failing, that gives us so many characters so variously engaged in propping each other up for their own purposes. (Does music, because of its strong and visceral expectation for certain cadences or rhythms, do a particularly good job of generated and perhaps of imitating disappointment?) Whitney I think observed that there was a subject-verb-object drumbeat (“set my teeth” etc.) that felt like it became a parody of the grammar of action. We talked some about the play’s interest in threeness vis a vis the treble-triplet at the beginning. (In re the triumvirate, the doubleness of A&C and the play’s political momentum toward a single emperor.) Then there was Maddy’s observation about “stop me”: is that a subjunctive (“would stop me”) or an indicative? A beautiful moment, in which Antony’s strength and weakness, his bravery and his fatalism, flicker in the grammar.

So let’s see: Sarah took us to another exchange between the principals, and suggested that, as a rule, the rhetorical power of each came at the expense of the other (with a couple of interesting exceptions, as Mary P pointed out). That struck me as an interesting parallel with the soothsayer’s sense that Caesar will always cast Antony in shadow. (Interesting to think of scenes in Shakespeare where two speakers are well matched, adequate to one another; when a high style, that is, does not gain its elevation at the expense of someone else. The paired speeches of Hal and Henry IV, after their reconciliation, would be an interesting example. Isabella and Angelo in the heat of their debate? Others? Very often a commanding high style is interrupted by an insurgent speaker in a very different idiom: see Hamlet.) We noted again in the passage the strong enjambment, good pentameter lines willfully interrupted across the breaks. Eli then took us in a hurry to Cleopatra and the Messenger, as she tries to force her desires back through the news channel. We didn’t have much time with this one but the play’s problems with communication (does Antony listen to anyone?) seemed to come to a head, and we also saw, again, how many short lines, simple strong sentences there are—as jagged syntactically as the short scenes are narratively.

After the break, music! An amazing display of ingenuity, once again—Majel and I listened to the exercises with wonder on Tuesday night. Still it was a difficult assignment to make work, at least if the idea was to produce, in musical terms, some sort of analysis of properties of the language beyond tone, affect, etc. Eli’s example certainly got us there (past affect), by adopting an arbitrary mapping of letter to pitch/duration/dynamics on the model of the new rules of serial composition a la Schoenberg or, even more, Milton Babbitt (of Princeton). As Majel helped us realize the idea, it had real acoustic charisma, but the lesson seemed to be more the limits of music for our purposes. (Limits that have something to do perhaps with our stylometric inquiries earlier in the term—with counting things that cannot be heard? These procedures are perhaps most interesting when they show us something we could learn to hear, as I think we sometimes felt in the sound week with e.g. vowel color; but there’s still something instructive when the result is unhearable, even if it’s only a lesson in the limits of hearability.)

Mary N gave us a king of Schaferian soundscape of Enobarbus’s last words, a mix of acoustic allegory (there were some significant correspondences of sound and word) and mood-painting. It was a striking thing in itself, and also captured something important about the tone of the play in Act IV, the gathering despair. But as she said, it couldn’t be said to have canceled or controlled for the affective dimensions of the speech—on the contrary. This difficulty was a finding for many, the thrust of the exercise notwithstanding.

At the end, Majel’s exercise!—scoring a line with some basic vocal effects, rising or falling or modulated pitch, changes in volume. Our various uses of the techniques she gave us were intriguing for what they could emphasize, or maybe notate, in the lines, structurally or in terms of repetitions. Most surprising to me was how good we sounded together, how rich that soundscape was; a lot of that is Majel’s experience wrangling amateurs, I suspect, and I was a little mesmerized. Did it get us further into Shakespeare’s language? I’d be interested to hear what others think after some reflection. I did learn some things about language and music, but they were more general than our customary inquiry yields—more about the faculties/kinds themselves than about the texts with which we interacted. Is music simply too much the language of the emotions to be a language of analysis for anything else? (For what is picked out by the various technical vocabularies we employed?) That’s very different, if so, from the broader category of sound, which seemed, back in week 8, to be both susceptible of imaginative representation and itself a relatively supple representational medium. Perhaps with respect to the assignment (with its call to avoid relying on affect), it was, net, a negative result; that is, fascinating material that failed to confirm the hypothesis. Maybe those are undervalued in the humanities? I greatly appreciate everyone so gamely making the wager…I was instructed by the obstacles and also smitten with the sounds, whatever they meant.

AC Passage for Emphasis (Eli)



Messenger He’s married, madam.
CLEOPATRA Rogue, thou hast lived too long.
[Draws a knife]
Messenger Nay, then I’ll run.
What mean you, madam? I have made no fault.
CHARMIAN Good madam, keep yourself within yourself:
The man is innocent.
CLEOPATRA Some innocents ‘scape not the thunderbolt.
Melt Egypt into Nile! and kindly creatures
Turn all to serpents! Call the slave again:
Though I am mad, I will not bite him: call.
CHARMIAN He is afeard to come.
CLEOPATRA I will not hurt him.
These hands do lack nobility, that they strike
A meaner than myself; since I myself
Have given myself the cause.
[Re-enter CHARMIAN and Messenger]
Come hither, sir.
Though it be honest, it is never good
To bring bad news: give to a gracious message.
An host of tongues; but let ill tidings tell
Themselves when they be felt.
Messenger I have done my duty.
CLEOPATRA Is he married?
I cannot hate thee worser than I do,
If thou again say ‘Yes.’
Messenger He’s married, madam.
CLEOPATRA The gods confound thee! dost thou hold there still?
Messenger Should I lie, madam?
CLEOPATRA O, I would thou didst,
So half my Egypt were submerged and made
A cistern for scaled snakes! Go, get thee hence:
Hadst thou Narcissus in thy face, to me
Thou wouldst appear most ugly. He is married?
Messenger I crave your highness’ pardon.
CLEOPATRA He is married?
Messenger Take no offence that I would not offend you:
To punish me for what you make me do. 125
Seems much unequal: he’s married to Octavia.
CLEOPATRA O, that his fault should make a knave of thee,
That art not what thou’rt sure of! Get thee hence:
The merchandise which thou hast brought from Rome
Are all too dear for me: lie they upon thy hand,
And be undone by ’em!
[Exit Messenger]
CHARMIAN Good your highness, patience.

In truth I’m interested in the whole of 2.5, but this is an exemplary passage. The scene begins with Cleopatra’s call “music, moody food / Of us that trade in love” – an odd internal echo of Orsino’s famous opening speech in Twelfth Night – passes through the comic-erotic-nostalgic reminiscence about Antony and the salt fish, and then develops into a violent farce of a messenger scene. Cleopatra wants to script what the messenger will say and in attempting to do so delays and disrupts his report. When he finally does get to the gist of his dispatch, she attacks him and drives him from the stage before calling him back to repeat it again and again. As often happens in Love’s Labour’s Lost, the language here develops a kind of self-consciousness or meta-textuality. The passage plays at being a messenger scene. It  also is asking something about the limits of communication—about whether it’s possible to have dialogue, to convey and receive packets of information. Dialogue in elsewhere in the play can have a fragmented quality: there are so many scenes of little reports and retorts on seemingly inconsequential subjects that leave one puzzled about the semantic/dramatic purpose. Act II, with its recurrent trope of the ‘hoop’ (cf. 2.2.122, 2.4.37) and its uneasy commingling of speeches with conversation seems to be asking something about how language between people holds—or doesn’t hold—together. Perhaps Cleopatra’s call for music is a call for another mode of communication altogether?

Antony and Cleopatra 1.3


Now, my dearest queen.


Pray you, stand further from me.


What’s the matter? 


I know, by that same eye, there’s some good news.
What says the married woman? You may go:
Would she had never given you leave to come!
Let her not say ’tis I that keep you here:
I have no power upon you; hers you are.


The gods best know—


O, never was there queen
So mightily betrayed! yet at the first
I saw the treasons planted.




Why should I think you can be mine and true,
Though you in swearing shake the throned gods,
Who have been false to Fulvia? Riotous madness,
To be entangled with those mouth-made vows,
Which break themselves in swearing!


Most sweet Queen—


Nay, pray you, seek no colour for your going,
But bid farewell, and go: when you sued staying,
Then was the time for words: no going then;
Eternity was in our lips and eyes,
Bliss in our brows’ bent; none our parts so poor,
But was a race of heaven: they are so still,
Or thou, the greatest soldier of the world,
Art turned the greatest liar. 


How now, lady?


I would I had thy inches, thou shouldst know
There were a heart in Egypt.


Hear me, Queen:
The strong necessity of time commands
Our services awhile; but my full heart
Remains in use with you. Our Italy
Shines o’er with civil swords: Sextus Pompeius
Makes his approaches to the port of Rome:
Equality of two domestic powers
Breed scrupulous faction: the hated, grown to strength,
Are newly grown to love: the condemn’d Pompey,
Rich in his father’s honour, creeps apace,
Into the hearts of such as have not thrived
Upon the present state, whose numbers threaten;
And quietness, grown sick of rest, would purge
By any desperate change: my more particular,
And that which most with you should safe my going,
Is Fulvia’s death.


Though age from folly could not give me freedom,
It does from childishness: can Fulvia die?

What I find so humorous about this scene is that the exchange between Cleopatra and Antnoy epitomizes the claim that, despite Shakespeare’s title, this is Cleopatra’s play.  If we isolate Antony’s lines leading up to the reveal that Fulvia has died, this is what we get:

Now, my dearest queen.

What’s the matter?

The gods best know—


Most sweet Queen—

How now, lady?

If left unlabeled, these lines might seem more aligned with the speech of a servant speaking to his mistress instead of the words of a respected general reasoning with his lover.  The speech of Cleopatra, in contrast, dances across the page with charisma and a certain degree of childishness, something Cleopatra claims to be rid of.

Using these lines, I would like to consider freedom in Shakespeare’s language: How strict are certain character parameters?  How much flexibility do readers and actors have when delivering a character as dynamic as Cleopatra?  Take Cleopatra’s last two lines: “Though age from folly could not give me freedom, / It does from childishness: can Fulvia die?”  These words carry a lot of weight, but how “should” they be delivered?  (With the glee of an adolescent, a degree of snideness, etc.)

Week 10 afterthoughts

It was very interesting, was it not, to be interrupted by Aynsley’s invitations to reflect on our bodies, postures, comfort and discomfort etc. over the first half of class? I’d like to keep that alive in our final two sessions. I think it’s so interesting for all of us as teachers, to pay attention each of us to our own bearing and also that of everyone else in the room—I wonder, too, how it might be more integrated into the thinking and talking we do together. Lord knows there is plenty for us to do in the last two weeks, but let’s not forget that.

As for King Lear, Jessica has us now (after Eli’s initial coup) on a two-week streak of choosing the perfect passage for our opening exercise in description. Not least for its variety: Lear’s railing, Kent’s plain rebuke, Edgar’s tetrameter charm against the barking dogs of Lear’s imagination. The play’s constant collision of levels and kinds of style seems important. That’s a Shakespearian trick from the beginning (think of Antipholus and Dromio), but here it is so much more various and chaotic, and the kinds of speech acts involved are so different. There were some interesting comments about the meter (the difficulty accommodating that line “Arms, arms! sword! fire! Corruption in the place!” to iambic pentameter). The Frenchness of the passage struck Whitney, maybe having to do with Edgar’s pose as a maddened courtier? Will had a crazy theory about “sweetheart” and Coeur-delia; we expect to find him on the heath before long. (But I love such theories! And there are some deep sound-plots in these plays; I made a note to look out for other instances of this one.) The interruption of the play’s action by the folk-spell was striking. And a proliferation of r’s. I’ll repeat John Porter Houston’s observation, which I cited in class, that there is in Lear more of “the principle of parallel accumulation common to many Elizabethan playwrights rather than the syntactic complexity peculiar to Shakespeare.”

Maddy then brought us to consider Kent’s unexpected rant at 2.2.64ff., and especially all the animals. That’s particularly interesting in a play so preoccupied with the nature of “nature” (of which there are at least four varieties: a total order that includes and sponsors hierarchies of family and state; a vital impulse that is the opposite of culture [Edmund’s goddess]; the self, one’s own nature, as a guarantee of the quality and consistency of actions; and the human minimum, man as a poor bare forked animal, whether as a mode of suffering or of escape from aristocratic pain.) Maddy put this in the general context of excess, and we talked some about the plain style, how it is torn between decorum and honesty—one of many potential contradictions exposed by the collapse of patriarchal authority in the play. We compared Kent to Falstaff; does he bear comparison with other out-of-control speakers in plays we have read, even the nonsensical ones like Elbow? He says some weird things, like the Sarum Plain bit or “Lipsbury Pinfold,” whatever that means. The failure of the plain style is a question we could well follow into Antony and Cleopatra, especially with Enobarbus. We wondered what to make of the grammar of the animals and the apparent confusion of their traits with one another, whether this might be a signature of the play’s approach to figuration, a kind of illicit transfer of attributes (in keeping, perhaps, with the free movement of authority in the play, all the disguise, etc.). And all of this, Maddy suggested, circling around “knowing naught”? Cordelia’s nothing, Edmund’s “nothing, my lord,” so many others.

We might have spent more time with the passage, as with Jessica’s: Lear’s reckoning with the plight of his people on the heath. Her basic question was how we get from a Lear who cannot feel the storm on his skin for the storm in his mind, to the Lear, a few lines later, who prays, it would seem, to the poor wretches who bear the pelting of the pitiless storm. I’ve been thinking about it since: is this sympathy another mode of escape from his particular, aristocratic and paternal pain, an escape into the general from the self? (Which brings me back to the curious observation in class, about Edgar’s dog-charm, that he turns particular names to general breeds.) Or is his epiphany the common need for more than nature gives us? How exactly does he get from one to the other—is it the speech act of prayer itself? Hmmmm. We talked some about the hectic self-interrogation of the early lines, the internalization of dialogue. And yet, none of it is really soliloquy, or at least not the way we know it from Hamlet, is it? Why does Lear never get a proper soliloquy? It seems important to the language of the play that it will not accommodate such a speech. (Do Edgar and Edmund have them? An interesting question—certainly, they talk to themselves…)

The play does seem like the right one for thinking about body, given the physical reductions in this scene—to the minimum, the poor bare forked animal; and the general interest in pain and the evasion of pain. Those are questions usually and appropriately referred to the embodied actor. I thought that the exercises rose to the challenge of how choreography might get at other registers of the play. Mary N’s tap-dancing made her lines sound ritualistic and a little hypnotic, and the capacity simultaneously to capture verse rhythm, phrase rhythm, and to suggest the recurrence of semantic motifs was an impressive surprise. (Jackie’s twirling, which we did not see in class, had a similar impact on me; and both are modes of display in a play that is so concerned with performance, self-dramatization, disguise, unmasking etc.) The sign-language of Mary P’s exercise parsed things differently, with the peculiarity that ASL is a language, but 1) a language that no one in the room knew and 2) that borrows some of its signs from a repertory of iconic gestures, which can look like ritual to the untrained eye. I was fascinated by how it cut up the words of the speech, with units of its own. Aynsley’s suggestion to decouple the signs and words was strange and powerful. Almost anti-acting? And that seemed to fold the speech in on itself in ways that made its figurations denser. Eli’s minimal scripts picked out particular knots of body-position and affective experience (the confinedness of the cell, the hope for a kind of free sociability there, etc.) in ways that brought out the ambivalences of the “We two alone” speech, such a dream for Lear, perhaps such a nightmare for Cordelia. And then Jeewon’s storm-duet, amazing in its analysis of the complex interdependence of storm and king, Lear’s attempt to outshout and even puppet the winds and the rains, and the resistance of nature. (And then the revelation of the storm as the Fool, the “natural”—another meaning of that complex word.)

We didn’t talk much about Johnson, but I thought his book was helpful, and it’s valuable I think to add his account of meaning to the two basic paradigms (referential and relational) that we’ve been working with so far. That is, words mean, for Johnson, not by virtue of their reference to things, or their relation to other words, but their grounding in basic somatic experience, in lifting, twisting, and so on, the unreflective body. A couple of people, in exercises, pointed out what a strangely asocial account of meaning resulted—but that limitation may pick up something in the play. At all events, I was moved by what we discovered.

So, special thanks to Aynsley; and we’ll benefit next week from another new expertise, Majel Connery’s work as composer and singer. She and her group Oracle Hysterical did a setting of The Passionate Pilgrim, which you may remember from Week 2, worth a listen here.


Scores and videos from week 10. (Only mp4 files embed on the site it seems, so most of the videos here you will have to download to view.)

Scott: score and video.

Jackie: instructionsGonerilRegan, and Cordelia.

Yan: score.

Will: score.

Andrew: score.

Maddy: score.

Eli: score.

Whitney: score.

Mary N: score and video:

Mary P: score and video.

John: score.

Jeewon: score.


Lear 2.2.64-78

Cornwall: Why art thou angry?

Kent: That such a slave as this should wear a sword
Who wears no honesty. Such smiling rogues as these
Like rats oft bite the holy cords a-twain,
Which are t’intrance t’unloose; smooth every passion
That in the natures of their lords rebel,
Being oil to fire, snow to the colder moods,
Revenge, affirm, and turn their halcyon beaks
With every gall and vary of their masters,
Knowing naught, like dogs, but following.
A plague upon your epileptic visage!
Smile you my speeches as I were a fool?
Goose, if I had you upon Sarum Plain,
I’d drive ye cackling home to Camelot.

Cornwall: What, art thou mad, old fellow?

I’m interested in this moment as one in which communication seems to break down entirely, in part because of an excess of language, not a lack of it. Kent’s speech here embodies excess to a tee: it describes an excess of servitude (“oil to fire, snow to the colder moods”), there is an excessive amount of metaphor and figuration, and as a (non) answer to Cornwall’s question, the speech is in itself excessive. What I find particularly skillful—and what I think has bearing on the play as a whole—is the foundation of “naught” upon which this excess is built. Not only does this 13 line speech fail to answer Cornwall’s question, there is also (at least in the eyes of everyone else on stage) no apparent reason for it, and its string of metaphors builds into one involving dogs which both know “naught” and follow nothing, syntactically as well as metaphorically. I like the use of this in a play that in so many ways has “nothing” at its center but an old man’s folly, sparking an excessive chain of events.

What’s more, and what’s particularly pertinent to this week’s theme, this passage deals with multiple transformations of the human body into animal form. Is this merely a complement to “poor, bare, forked animal” that seems to me to be the center of this play—“unaccommodated man”? Or is there something more organized or developmental to this progression of curious and consistent animal metaphor? Each featured animal has a specific physical or verbal trait assigned to it (rats biting, birds with beaks, dogs following); there is an order and symmetry to the animal-metaphors in a rant that is otherwise made up of unstable outbursts. What’s more, this passage suggests itself as an extreme counterpart to Edgar’s more famous and more subdued speech in Act 2.3, in which he “take(s) the basest and most poorest shape / That ever penury in contempt of man / Brought near to beast.” We also have another strangely symmetrical and specific animal-laden speech by the fool at 2.4.6, commenting on Kent’s position in the stocks as a result of the encounter in question.

I’m not sure what to make of all of this beastly figurative transformation, except that I find it appropriate in this moment where people begin to thoroughly misunderstand each other, and particularly apt in a play in which civilization all but breaks down. The fact that Cornwall’s questions develop only from “why art thou angry” to “art thou mad”—two simple lines to Kent’s 13—helped me to think about the exchange that follows this speech in terms of this week’s exercise, as well. I decided to think about how Kent and his interlocutors might abandon communication altogether and staged the passage following this one as a fight.

King Lear 3.4.1-36


Here is the place, my lord: good my lord, enter;

The tyranny of the open night’s too rough

For nature to endure. Storm still.

LEAR Let me alone.


Good my lord, enter here.

LEAR Wilt break my heart?


I had rather break mine own. Good my lord, enter.


Thou think’st ’tis much that this contentious storm

Invades us to the skin: so ’tis to thee.

But where the greater malady is fixed,

The lesser is scarce felt. Thou’dst shun a bear,

But if thy flight lay toward the roaring sea,

Thou’dst meet the bear i’ th’ mouth. When the mind’s free,

The body’s delicate: this tempest in my mind

Doth from my senses take all feeling else,

Save what beats there, filial ingratitude.

Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand

For lifting food to’t? But I will punish home;

No, I will weep no more. In such a night

To shut me out? Pour on, I will endure.

In such a night as this? O Regan, Goneril,

Your old, kind father, whose frank heart gave you all –

O, that way madness lies, let me shun that;

No more of that.

KENT Good my lord, enter here.


Prithee, go in thyself. Seek thine own ease.

This tempest will not give me leave to ponder

On things would hurt me more. But I’ll go in;

[To the Fool.] In boy, go first. You houseless poverty –

Nay, get thee in. I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep. Fool exits.

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,

Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you

From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en

Too little care of this. Take physic, pomp,

Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,

That thou may’st shake the superflux to them

And show the heavens more just.

I include Kent’s lines to Lear at the beginning of 3.4 for context, but I’d like to track the psychological distance covered between – and within – Lear’s first two speeches in the scene. I was impressed by the number of ramifications generated from the basic source of conflict or tension here: Kent’s struggle to lead Lear into shelter. Lear’s monologues are, functionally, justifications for resisting Kent’s efforts, and the first speech in fact identifies Kent as its audience through direct address; when Lear invents a rather spontaneous analogy for preferring the lesser of two proverbial evils, we can assume that he is still addressing Kent. Thereafter, though, “the tempest in my mind” appears to coopt the properly dialogic capacity of Lear’s speech and Lear begins to refer to himself in posing a series of self-directed challenges or internal struggles. Lear can’t come to grips with Regan’s and Goneril’s ingratitude, so he vacillates – between restraining and venting emotion, between expressing indignation and disbelief, and, into the second speech, between following Kent and braving the storm. The progress of the action here depends on Lear’s remaining undecided (and so, delivering his lines outdoors), whereas the characterological effect of his insecurity might serve to underscore his frailty, or foreshadow his madness, or demonstrate the extent of his grief, or perform all three functions at once: the point being, Lear does not know his mind, and he speaks and acts accordingly.

But one transition over the course of this passage struck me above all, which involves the extension of sympathy or feeling (such a crucial term in the play) Lear undergoes between his first and second monologues. “[T]his tempest in my mind / Doth from my senses take all feeling else, / Save what beats there, filial ingratitude,” Lear initially declares, after explaining that, “where the greater [mental/psychological/spiritual/emotional] malady is fixed, / The lesser [physical] is scarce felt.” Lear’s frame of reference at the outset of the scene is only as wide as his personal experience, despite the amplification achieved by setting his domestic, paternal afflictions against his physical suffering during the storm. Lear’s admission to feeling nothing but the sting of “filial ingratitude” attests to a kind of sensorial obstruction that apparently deteriorates by the time Lear is incapable of even registering his daughters’ cruelty (“In such a night / To shut me out? Pour on, I will endure. / In such a night as this?). This suggests both an imaginative sterility* and a degree of self-concern that Lear reverses in his apostrophic second speech to an altogether different, drastically expanded audience. Lear’s unexpected invocation of his public, political sphere of influence – his reign, no more successful than his fatherhood – introduces another dimension to the representation of irresponsible authority in the play and adds depth and complexity to the humanity personified in the figure of Lear. We’ll talk about feeling in terms of identification or sympathy and in connection with seeing, I hope (recall Gloucester at 4.1.70-74, especially), but we can also discuss the status of obligation and loyalty, and even justice, as considered here. And might we push as far as love?


*I make this observation about Lear’s circumscribed point of view without any sound explanation for the fanciful bear analogy. Speculations are welcome.

Afterthoughts: Week 9

First off, I enjoyed that opening exercise much more than anyone should; my appetite for that kind of noticing/scrupling is basically bottomless, for better or worse, and I appreciate everyone’s gameness. Eli did us a great service with that passage of Elbow, the Duke, and Pompey, and we saw so many things: the running sentences (though with their feints at suspension—Pompey in particular is a complicated speaker); the various discourses implicated (law, religion, medicine); the parataxis (what of all the ands in a play of substitution?); the negative constructions, in relation to problems of consent and refusal throughout; the basically plain style; the hectic figuration, such a feature of this play (and Maddy’s interesting suggestion that, even if the various nonce-figures do not gather into a conceit, there might nonetheless be some significant order, a local figure-plot); and the habit of personification, which seemed to be constant, and also quite interesting in a play that broods over the problem of punishing the sinner or the sin. Also all the r’s!

With luck, next time we’ll light on a passage of verse—I do want to keep prosody alive with us (though the exercises would suggest that it is not only alive but well).

The rest of the class was challenging in two basic ways, I thought; first, the challenge of the conceptual category of discourse, especially Foucault’s version; and second, the play’s handling of coercion, consent, and rape. Discourse first, though they’re not really separable. Jeewon took us right into the argument between Isabella and Angelo, and it was amazing to watch how forensic discourse moves through the exchange—first, an impediment for Isabella, who uses languages of love (both Christian and erotic) against Angelo’s rigorism, then as a refuge when he turns against her. If a discourse is a linguistic regime for the production of truth, of agreement, then Shakespeare’s anatomy of how it is upheld and how it is violated, how it serves villain and victim (as Berger would put it), is exacting.

That phrase “we speak not what we mean,” to which Jeewon pointed us in particular, keeps coming back to me as an expression, or is it symptom, of that moment of being caught between discourses—in a space where language may, at any moment, give way to force; and where the threat of Isabella’s eviction into madness (or at least someone who can never be believed) is already present.

Perhaps one could say, following remarks by Eli and others, that one of the marks of the later Shakespeare is his versatility in juxtaposing different discourses. The Foucauldian account emphasizes the situation of being inside a discourse, and the kind of power exercised over a speaker who is enabled to say certain things and not others—discourse being productive but also (often impalpably) constraining. The situation of a Shakespeare play is increasingly, as his career proceeds, one of the intersection or competition of discourses, which generates considerable confusion (comic and not) but also an openness that is perhaps critical in itself, or at least creates opportunities for critical inquiry (in a Frankfurt sense of that word, as well as more generally literary-critical). Which is to say: one of the things we may value in Shakespeare is his extraordinary capacity for discursive detachment and investment at once; perhaps in something of the perspectival way implied by Burke’s definition of irony as a dramatisistic figure (remember that?). What—we talked a bit about that—might this have to do with his powers of figuration? When are figures subordinated to discourse, constitutive of it; when to they challenge discursive order? Is that a difference between metonymy and metaphor?

Whitney brought us to Isabella’s testimony in that strange scene of the Duke’s return; I thought the question of whether Isabella’s dialogue was hysterical (was that Mary N’s observation?) was especially powerful. The gendered category of hysteria: is it a symptom of exclusion, extra-discursive and hence powerless? Or is it a discourse itself, with formal features (like word repetition) that are familiar, conventional, available to writers who would represent such female outrage and helplessness? Or perhaps it is both—or rather, a convention that is not a discourse; it has rules, but no power to produce truth or agreement? We might, by the way, keep the category of hysteria in mind as we get to Lear—he suffers from it, or says he does.

So much more! But it’s certainly worth making note of Sarah’s description of the discourse around rape and harassment in the undergraduate community—the language of consent and saying no that you reproduce, and sign, when you enter a party at an eating club. The whole question of discourse and consent is such a deep one, and the extent to which discursive participation preempts consent—aren’t you already inside, already implicated? If you are talking this way, haven’t you already agreed to so many things? The difficulty of interrupting a discourse to institute a choice—surely that is one of Shakespeare’s interests. The no that is inside a discourse and the no that is outside it. (And the yes too, for that matter.) All of this bears heavily on Isabella’s silence at the end of the play. And, maybe a little more optimistically, on other moments of refusal—especially Barnadine’s refusal to die, to join in the juridical/theological discourse that would reconcile him to his end. (From which Claudio, too, dissents, though with somewhat less existential clarity or conviction.) Does the play offer any hope that Isabella would find such a voice for herself, somewhere in Act VI? At least the resource seems to be somewhere in the play.

Wonderful exercises. Mary P’s raised questions about discourse and words, vs discourse and syntax. It seemed possible to switch from religion to law with some slight adjustments of diction (and there were some words clearly held in common, like “faults”). Other discourses might require very different sentence structures. Jeewon asked a challenging question: if discursive translation is possible, are the discourses really separate at all? Shouldn’t it be the definition of a discourse that its truths can only be produced from inside? Which might incline us to say that both parts of Mary’s exercise are operating within a joint legal-religious discourse which perhaps only pretends to distinction. I loved the general problem of a translation test for the independence of discourses—whether that independence admits of degrees or not.

I thought it was very interesting that several people observed the blurring of this exercise into others, the exercise in figuration and in character in particular. Perhaps that teaches us something about the difficulty of discourse as an analytic category generally—it is easy to displace onto other categories, by definition difficult to bring into analytic consciousness. The full implication of a discourse (say, literary criticism!) is very challenging to measure and to compass. Will’s question about what such analysis gets us is also a durably important one. Adorno might speak of the endless work of an ideological alertness, not transcendental, but immanent to the culture—you cannot stand outside discourse per se, but you can at least recognize the differences among discourses and their seams. (“Discourse” is not his word, but Foucault owes a lot to Adorno, and Althusser.) Alex reminded us too of Nietzschean impulse—toward freedom itself, a disdain of the limits of culture which might have aristocratic inflections (as it does for him) or proletarian, utopian etc. Raymond Geuss’s The Idea of a Critical Theory has been a useful treatment of these general questions for me—skeptical, at the end of the day, but mostly clear and generous in its framing.

Well—it remains perhaps just to appreciate Eli’s Elbow, and his sense of this disruptive undoing of the legal discourse, even as we wonder what it comes to; Scott’s syntactically virtuoso discourse of rumor; Jackie’s neat transposition of Claudio into the Duke’s idiom (with a couple of specially expert pentameters); and Whitney’s ingenious mix (!) of Lucio and the Duke.