1. Iterative Criticism
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 The Merry Wives of Windsor features Shakespeare’s richest depiction of varieties of spoken English, but it also dramatizes — at a crucial point — the multiple processes of textual analysis, close reading, bibliographic description, and authorship attribution, all of which depend on the availability of written texts. Shakespeare’s textual analysts are Mistresses Ford and Page, each of whom has been the independent object of Sir John Falstaff’s romantic attentions. As Mistress Ford notes, Falstaff used his rhetorical skills to play the part of a gentleman:
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 2 he would not swear; praised women’s modesty; and gave such orderly and well-behaved reproof to all uncomeliness, that I would have sworn his disposition would have gone to the truth of his words; (2.1/620-24)
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 But when the knight moves from speech to writing, his “by the book” method of seduction can be compared by Ford and Page. The comparison provides a hilarious moment of parallel reading and recognition. Mistress Page quotes the lover:
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 ‘Ask me no reason why I love you; for though Love use Reason for his physician, he admits him not for his counsellor. You are not young, no more am I; go to then, there’s sympathy: you are merry, so am I; ha, ha! then there’s more sympathy: you love sack, and so do I; would you desire better sympathy? Let it suffice thee, Mistress Page,–at the least, if the love of soldier can suffice,–that I love thee. I will not say, pity me; ’tis not a soldier-like phrase: but I say love me. By me,
Thine own true knight,
By day or night,
Or any kind of light,
With all his might
For thee to fight, JOHN FALSTAFF’’ (2.1/572-86)
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Falstaff’s descent into doggerel shows him to be a better speaker than writer. The impression is confirmed in the other plays in which he appears, where he is obviously one of Shakespeare’s most linguistically successful characters, able to bend the world to his will through words. Here he misjudges his quarry, however, and with this unintended iteration of his letter beyond its original addressee, the comic reversal is set in motion. Mistress Ford knows the limits of her own charms (“What, have I scaped love-letters in the holiday-time of my beauty…?”) and so can readily call Sir John’s tune:
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 I would have sworn his disposition would have gone to the truth of his words; but they do no more adhere and keep place together than the Hundredth Psalm to the tune of ‘Green Sleeves.’ (2.1/622-27)
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The creation of a physical document, one that both preserves what was written but allows that record to circulate, is the condition for forensic analysis. We thus have a model on stage for a kind of iterative analysis made possible by the creation of a document:
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 2 Letter for letter, but that the name of Page and Ford differs! To thy great comfort in this mystery of ill opinions, here’s the twin-brother of thy letter: but let thine inherit first; for, I protest, mine never shall. I warrant he hath a thousand of these letters, writ with blank space for different names–sure, more,–and these are of the second edition: he will print them, out of doubt; for he cares not what he puts into the press, when he would put us two. (2.1/632-41)
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Mistresses Page and Ford do not need to see the comparison to recognize Falstaff’s lewd intentions, of course: the formal textual analysis simply confirms what their separate close-readings have already told them. Capture and comparison are enough. As readers and “users of texts,” this pair provides us with a model for both the practice and benefits of the prosthetic analysis of language. As the Renaissance knew very well, writing itself is a prosthetic: it allows us to overcome the physical limitations of the medium of speech and the psychological constraints of human linguistic processing. Similarly, digitally-based research in the humanities expands the possibilities of iterative comparison glimpsed here, not just because more items can be stored and compared, but because it is more productively indifferent to linear reading and the powerful directionality of human attention.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 2 We begin with the Merry Wives scene of reading because it illuminates our larger purpose in this essay, which is to ask what it would mean to harness the potential of textual comparison modeled here and extend it to where human readers simply cannot go. We are interested, that is, in a kind of “iterative criticism” that links the wayward properties of documents–those provisionally bounded objects whose material form allows them to travel–with the inhuman power of arbitrary repetition proper to computation. What if everything Falstaff had ever said were transcribed–in a play, for example — so that it could be compared with every other utterance in the Shakespearean dramatic universe? And what if a congregation of canny readers, a klatsch of Mistress Pages or the chorus of Shakespeare scholars, were ready with a list of comparisons they wanted to see made? Both the archive and the critical chorus are available to us now, either through the medium of print (the annals of scholarship) or through digitization, which has provided us with primary texts whose contents can be manipulated and compared in ways that the original writer never intended. We might not be respecting the “original context of utterance” when approaching the Shakespearean archive in this way, but respect in criticism can mean a lot of different things. Critics frequently stray from the text in order to return.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 2 “Iterative criticism” as is a good name for our digital work with Shakespeare and the computer program Docuscope, which we describe in detail below, because it makes explicit three assumptions about texts and our interactions with them: (1) that texts must be “alienable” from their original contexts in order to be compared, as in the case of Falstaff’s letters; (2) that the digital form these texts take is just a special case of a broader “juxtaposability” latent in language (Falstaff’s words could also be overheard; that’s what makes them words); and (3) that comparisons are not self-instantiating: a critic or group of critics must always introduce a salient distinction for any repetitive technique to produce results (there must always be a critic or critics in iterative criticism: Mistress Page is not herself an algorithm, even if Falstaff’s flattery is).
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 1 Such work builds on the prosthetic notion of texts we began with, taking digital tools that count or aggregate features among texts to be extensions or formalizations of this prior technical augmentation of the human condition that is already found in writing. Our prosthetic is a computer program called Docuscope, which was created at Carnegie Mellon University in the late 1990s and early 00s by David Kaufer and Suguru Ishizaki. We have used this tool to provide detailed linguistic re-descriptions of critically attested genres of Shakespeare’s writing, particularly those of Heminges and Condell (Shakespeare’s friends and editors) and the nineteenth-century Shakespeareans who argued for the existence of a distinct genre of Shakespeare plays, the so-called late plays or romances. In part, our past published work was designed to demonstrate that a phenomenologically based architecture for tagging English words–essentially, a collection of word-buckets or dictionaries like Docuscope–could make genre visible on the level of the sentence. Thus the intensive definitions we use to discriminate plays into groups—“comedies end in marriage,” for example, or “the mood of these plays is similar” —can be tracked through a set of linguistic operations that take place in parallel to these perceptions but cannot themselves be consciously attended to. Nor, we would add, can one be reduced to the other.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 1 Human consciousness is vectored, our attention scarce: we aggregate our perceptions into powerful impressions that interlace a vast number of comparisons, like the lightning fast recognition of a family resemblance. Unlike the operations of consciousness, the operations of language–at least in drama–are more steady and deliberate. Shakespeare’s language, we discovered, “does certain things” and does them repeatedly when a certain kind of story is being told. These linguistic doings are multiple, coordinated, and susceptible to statistical analysis. The critical prostheses we use to apprehend this other level of activity, then, are just extensions of the initial technologies of writing and comparison on display in our opening discussion of Merry Wives. Those prostheses include not simply the computer program itself, but the linguistic, rhetorical and cultural assumptions built into that program; the body of digitized texts we study; the codices and terminals that allow us to retrieve critical opinions from past and present writers; and the utilities of Skype and e-mail that we used to compose this paper between Kyoto, Japan and Madison, Wisconsin. The result is a new kind of attention to texts and what they do with words, one that points us toward abstract representations of those linguistic activities only to return us to the texts themselves with renewed interest and questions.