4. Three Plums: Othello, Richard II and Romeo and Juliet
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 1 Once we have established reliable descriptions of what Shakespeare does most of the time, we can look at some results which a statistician would probably class as outliers, but which a literary critic is likely to pick out as the most interesting. Again it is worth stressing the absolute difference in approaches here. Statistics expects outliers in any population of results due to natural variation (a set of results with no outliers is likely to be viewed suspiciously). Crucially, statisticians are generally not interested in such results, and may even employ measures to exclude them from the analysis. This makes sense: if you are trying to establish what Shakespeare’s comic language is typically like, including a play nominally termed a Comedy, but in which the writer behaves (for whatever reason) as if he were writing a History, may skew your results and leave you with an unclear picture of comic language. Perhaps, too, you would be put off by a play that was in statistical terms an extreme example of Comedy—which manifested its signal features in ridiculous abundance. Outliers can be distractions in statistics: in literary studies, they can, on the contrary, strike us as exceptions that illuminate a convention or shared expectation.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 To a literary critic, then, a Shakespearean experiment, even a failed one, is highly interesting in itself — and worthy of particular study. Here we can begin to see the need for interchange between digitally-based and more traditional research techniques. There is no basis on which a purely iterative or algorithmic method can distinguish between genuinely interesting outliers (which are significant in a non-statistical sense), and the expected but meaningless statistical blips any data set includes. Only traditional reading can identify those outliers with something to tell us about Shakespeare’s language. But iterative techniques applied to a digitized text can call attention to outliers, and thus potentially tell us more than “what we already know” from our own reading.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 3 Literary critics such as Susan Snyder have noted genealogical links to comedy in Othello, one of the “high tragedies,” so it is particularly intriguing to find unsupervised statistical analysis of the language coming to a similar conclusion. One of the aims of this kind of work is to find new things to think about or appreciate in texts that have been analyzed with traditional methods of literary criticism. But one does not always need an outside prompt like statistics to begin exploring counterintuitive ideas about how literary or dramatic texts work. Among literary critics, some very distinguished readers (or auditors) of Shakespeare’s plays have argued that he sometimes builds one type of play on the foundations of another. Susan Snyder, for example, argued in the late 1970s that there is a comic “matrix” underlying Shakespeare’s tragedies. Shakespeare, that is, built some of his tragedies — Othello in particular — on structures that would ordinarily be employed in comedy, and in doing so heightened the emotional effect of downturn in the plays when things deteriorate.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 There is thus a certain, almost structural irony to Othello. Some of what you see happening on stage seems to evoke the expectations of comedy (and its happy conclusions), but what eventually transpires is the opposite. While this may sound emotionally perverse, linguistically speaking it is exactly what Shakespeare was up to in this play, and it should not be surprising that a reader as careful and informed as Snyder was able to figure this out. One of the most interesting consequences of this reading is that we begin to think of genre as something dynamic: a transaction between a spectator and a company that is full of false starts, head fakes, and allusive gestures. Perhaps rather than a recipe or essence, theatrical genre is really an oscillation between certain generic possibilities at a given moment in time. The insight that genre is comparative or differential is not in and of itself new: it is implicit in Fowler’s analysis of genre in terms of Wittgensteinian family resemblance, an approach carried forward by Barbara Mowat in her analysis of Shakespearean romance. What is new is the idea that this dynamic difference is legible at the level of the sentence: that genre goes all the way down to where an author plants his or her feet in the ground, and can be tracked like a dance step if we keep our eyes on the floor rather than on the gestures of the hands and upper body. What Docuscope is finding is thus something like the massive vertical integrity that holds among differing layers of language, from the most particulate (pronouns, pronoun verb combinations) to the more semantic (words drawn from particular fields of use, such as motion or description), to the transactional units of plot (go here and do this) all the way to the level of imagery that critics are often drawn to as “emblematic” of some larger experience of the play’s structure.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 1 But however we choose to think about genre, it is safe to assume that we never encounter specimens that are “pure to type.” As with the case of illustrators of botanical species, the artist may have one or many individual specimens at hand, but the question is always whether or not to “idealize” or “mix” the specimens in order to depict the ideal type. Such types do not really occur in nature. Or if one settles on a particular example as the ideal, then it will be — strictly speaking — a class of one, since all other specimens will deviate slightly from the illustrated example.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 When we turn to the population that is mapped by Docuscope, we see immediately that Othello is not “true to type.” Othello is placed, as perhaps Snyder would have predicted, in the same sector where many comedies gather, a sector that we have shown is host to items that Shakespeare’s editors identified as Comedy. We repeat Figure 1 with a new color scheme; now all of the plays are red dots—we are using the same principal components (1 and 4) — but Othello is now highlighted in blue:
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 So, is Docuscope “right” in calling Othello a comedy? Was Snyder “right” in saying that the play was built on a comic “matrix?” Is there anything to be learned from the fact that Docuscope and a particularly distinguished critic agree on where Othello belongs? We should begin thinking about these questions by looking at specific passages. Below is an exchange between Othello and Iago, a dialogue between two individuals that looks a lot like the comic exchange we examined from Twelfth Night. This is the beginning of what some critics have called the seduction of Othello by Iago, a seduction that culminates in Othello’s kneeling before his former servant in a new misogynistic alliance:
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Iago. I am glad of it; for now I shall have reason
To show the love and duty that I bear you
With franker spirit: therefore, as I am bound,
Receive it from me. I speak not yet of proof.
Look to your wife; observe her well with Cassio;
Wear your eye thus, not jealous nor secure:
I would not have your free and noble nature,
Out of self-bounty, be abused; look to’t:
I know our country disposition well;
In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks
They dare not show their husbands; their best conscience
Is not to leave’t undone, but keep’t unknown.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Iago. Why, go to then;
She that, so young, could give out such a seeming,
To seal her father’s eyes up close as oak-
He thought ‘twas witchcraft—but I am much to blame;
I humbly do beseech you of your pardon For too much loving you.
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Iago. I’ faith, I fear it has.
I hope you will consider what is spoke
Comes from my love. But I do see you’re moved:
I am to pray you not to strain my speech
To grosser issues nor to larger reach
Than to suspicion.
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Iago. Should you do so, my lord,
My speech should fall into such vile success
As my thoughts aim not at. Cassio’s my worthy friend—
My lord, I see you’re moved. (3.3/1845-81)
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 The first thing to notice here is that this is yet another passage in which I/you interaction (characterized by “FirstPerson” and “Interaction” strings) is occurring quickly, at the expense of concrete description. This is what, statistically speaking, is pushing the passage up into the zone normally occupied by chunks of Comedy in our other analysis. If there is a comic matrix here—and not just in the happy set-up of the early acts—it is, from a linguistic point of view, the continued stance that allows a “withholding speaker” (Iago) and an eager listener (Othello) to push back and forth on one another. Othello here is playing the role of Olivia in Twelfth Night, trying to delve further into the thoughts of his interlocutor (which is keeping the I/you, I/thee pronouns coming) while Iago is playing a sort of Cesario, refusing to give the speaker something he wants (and in doing so, goading the speaker on). The parallel is perverse, but it shows that a very different emotional trajectory can take shape on a similar linguistic footing, much as a dancer can perform different upper body movements on a similar footing or stance.
¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 The next passage deepens the analogy in disturbing ways. In this scene from the fourth act, we have close exchanges between Othello and Desdemona that are structurally similar to those of the recognition scene in Twelfth Night. Notice how Othello’s complaints echo the type of complaints one hears from a Petrarchan lover, although they emerge from a type of alienation and tragic emotional development that Docuscope cannot count in its perpetual “now.” Here is the passage:
¶ 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Othello. [To EMILIA] Some of your function, mistress;
Leave procreants alone and shut the door;
Cough, or cry ‘hem,’ if any body come:
Your mystery, your mystery: nay, dispatch.
¶ 28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 Othello. Come, swear it, damn thyself
Lest, being like one of heaven, the devils themselves
Should fear to seize thee: therefore be double damn’d:
Swear thou art honest.
¶ 33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 Desdemona. Alas the heavy day! Why do you weep?
Am I the motive of these tears, my lord?
If haply you my father do suspect
An instrument of this your calling back,
Lay not your blame on me: If you have lost him,
Why, I have lost him too.
¶ 34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 Othello. Had it pleased heaven
To try me with affliction; had they rain’d
All kinds of sores and shames on my bare head.
Steep’d me in poverty to the very lips,
Given to captivity me and my utmost hopes,
I should have found in some place of my soul
A drop of patience: but, alas, to make me
A fixed figure for the time of scorn
To point his slow unmoving finger at! (4.2/2770-2803)
¶ 35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 “What art thou,” Othello asks. And Desdemona answers, “Your wife, my lord; your true / And loyal wife.” Like Viola declaring who she is to Sebastian in Twelfth Night, Desdemona here is asserting who — not what — she is in the face of something like a disguise, here forced upon her by the accusations of Iago. She is trying to puncture the veil of Othello’s illusion. Yet, instead of the gladness of recognition, we get a strange catalogue of personal suffering, a lover’s complaint over a loss he has never really suffered. This could, in other words, be a catalogue of suffering that has ended, but instead Shakespeare writes it as a kind of torment that has just begun. Linguistically, it contains all of the strings that Docuscope sees as key in clustering this play together with others we would call Comedies. But comic it is not.
¶ 36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 What fascinates us about passages that are anti-generic in type is that they show the deep flexibility of anything we might call a structure or matrix on the linguistic, statistical level. There is no “essential structure” of comedy here, since tragedies can exploit the same postures or stances that comedies use to comic effect. This is something a machine can “see,” but a sensitive critic can see it as well. Yet a critic might not describe that matrix in the way that we have here—as a collection of present and absent linguistic tokens classed by type—and this is where Docuscope begins to throw up new questions about the play, about genre and about reading. When Snyder said that Othello has deep affinities with comedies, was she reacting to the linguistic cues described above? Are these features “co-occurrent” with the more intensive features that she as a critic did read for? What is the nature of this co-occurrence or shared footing of particular linguistic patterns and generic types? And how much anti-typical language can there be in a play of a given type—for example, how much “comic” language can a tragedy like Othello tolerate? Finally, what does this type of linguistic borrowing say about the ways in which genre is staged, cued, and self-consciously manipulated by authors? Would it be self-defeating to say that Othello is a good tragedy because it uses comic linguistic features to novel effect? This latter claim would, of course, be a matter of interpretation. But it is possible, as we saw in the chunking experiment above, to see how often parts of a particular play stray into other generic territories, and to quantify just how convergent certain parts are with a given anti-type.
¶ 37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 Consider, for example, our original graph of the two principal components that are most effective at separating out Comedies from Histories when the plays are divided into 1000 word chunks:
¶ 39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 We see that in the lower left-hand quadrant an extreme specimen of History writing appears, Richard II, circa 1.3. Strings that are responsible for pushing this play piece of the play down and to the left (i.e., which account for its low rating on PCs 1 and 4) are highlighted in yellow, olive and green:
¶ 42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 Second Herald. Here standeth Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk,
On pain to be found false and recreant,
Both to defend himself and to approve
Henry of Hereford, Lancaster, and Derby,
To God, his sovereign and to him disloyal;
Courageously and with a free desire
Attending but the signal to begin.
¶ 44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 King Richard II. Let them lay by their helmets and their spears,
And both return back to their chairs again:
Withdraw with us: and let the trumpets sound
While we return these dukes what we decree.
A long flourish
And list what with our council we have done.
For that our kingdom’s earth should not be soil’d
With that dear blood which it hath fostered;
And for our eyes do hate the dire aspect
Of civil wounds plough’d up with neighbours’ sword;
And for we think the eagle-winged pride
Of sky-aspiring and ambitious thoughts,
With rival-hating envy, set on you
To wake our peace, which in our country’s cradle
Draws the sweet infant breath of gentle sleep;
Which so roused up with boisterous untuned drums,
With harsh resounding trumpets’ dreadful bray,
And grating shock of wrathful iron arms,
Might from our quiet confines fright fair peace
And make us wade even in our kindred’s blood,
Therefore, we banish you our territories:
You, cousin Hereford, upon pain of life,
Till twice five summers have enrich’d our fields
Shall not regreet our fair dominions…. (1.3/403-439)
¶ 45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 Here we see the formal settings of royal display, a herald offering Mowbray’s formal challenge, exactly the kind of stage transaction we would expect from a History play, in which the rituals of court and aristocracy are central to the dramatic action. Words underlined in yellow are categorized under the LATs “SenseObjects” “SenseProperties” and “Motion”; those in olive are tagged as “Inclusiveness”; and those in green are classified as “CommonAuthority.” Chairs, helmets, blood, earth, gentle sleep, drums, quite: we don’t think of history as the genre of objects and adjectives, but linguistically it is. “Inclusive” strings, in the olive colored green, are perhaps less surprising given our previous analyses. We expect kings to speak about “our council” and what “we have done,” and of course, “we” here represents a presumed community that cannot be assumed in the back and forth dialogue of frustrated love in the comedies. Indeed, such an inclusive plurality is exactly what was missing from the comedies, dominated as they are by singular first person.
¶ 46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 But look now at the tragedy chunk that scores lowest on Prin1 and Prin4 — the brown item that sits up and to the right of the Richard II fragment in the Figure 7 above. This is the opening of Romeo and Juliet, the most historical piece of tragic writing that Shakespeare produced, according to this linguistic analysis. Here again we give the marked up Moby Text as we view it in Docuscope, which helps call attention to precisely the strings that are pulling this piece of the text down into the historical quadrant (lower left):
¶ 48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 Prince. Three civil brawls, bred of an airy word,
By thee, old Capulet, and Montague,
Have thrice disturb’d the quiet of our streets,
And made Verona’s ancient citizens
Cast by their grave beseeming ornaments,
To wield old partisans, in hands as old,
Canker’d with peace, to part your canker’d hate:
If ever you disturb our streets again,
Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace.
For this time, all the rest depart away:
You Capulet; shall go along with me:
And, Montague, come you this afternoon,
To know our further pleasure in this case,
To old Free-town, our common judgment-place.
Once more, on pain of death, all men depart.
Exeunt all but MONTAGUE, LADY MONTAGUE, and BENVOLIO
¶ 50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 Benvolio. Here were the servants of your adversary,
And yours, close fighting ere I did approach:
I drew to part them: in the instant came
The fiery Tybalt, with his sword prepared,
Which, as he breathed defiance to my ears,
He swung about his head and cut the winds,
Who nothing hurt withal hiss’d him in scorn:
While we were interchanging thrusts and blows,
Came more and more and fought on part and part,
Till the prince came, who parted either part.
¶ 53 Leave a comment on paragraph 53 0 This scene is the linguistic cognate of the one from Richard II: a voice of authority (here, the Prince) is being called on to adjudicate a conflict between nobles. We have the same preponderance of sensuous objects being given particular qualities — Tybalt is fiery, defiance is breathed, we hear of heads, windows, thrusts, and blows — and this reality of things and persons is counterpoised by that of the aristocratic community implied in the Prince’s “we.” Words like “citizens” and “civic” attest to the presence of communally sanctioned authorities rather than the private passions that govern love. Furthermore, we see a lack of words indicating uncertainty (“perhaps” “seems”) and acts of self-disclosure (“I am” “I have”) prevalent in the comedy fragments examined above. But this linguistic convergence suggests a different kind of overlap as well. As the Oxford editors suggest, Romeo and Juliet and Richard II were written in close historical proximity to one another, probably in the year 1595. It is possible, then, that — as he was setting out to write his second tragedy in a career filled with successful history plays — Shakespeare wrote the type of scene and language that was very familiar to him in his previous plays, but this time used it as the setting off point for a play that would develop along different generic lines.
¶ 54 Leave a comment on paragraph 54 0 This last instance of cross-generic filiation in Shakespearean writing introduces an interesting possibility which we could now begin to explore in iterative criticism: that Shakespeare deliberately writes across generic lines at different points in his career, and that individual plays arc into and out of zones of generic intelligibility while occasionally leaning out over the waters, so to speak, in order to incorporate material that is generically contrary to type. To what degree is any one of Shakespeare’s genres tolerant of such anti-typical generic behavior, and how does this tolerance expand or contract with reference to the broader literary or textual field? If genre is as deeply embedded in a linguistic matrix as we believe it is, how might certain types of writing “travel” over time or even geographically, in something like a mobile, dynamic field of writing?
¶ 55 Leave a comment on paragraph 55 0 Such questions are not entirely foreign to literary studies, having been broached by Franco Moretti, Robin Valenza and Brad Pasanek. Perhaps the deeper significance of the findings offered here and further questions they pose is this: given that literary critical constructs are densely comparative and registered at potentially every level of our language, is there not a broader set of questions available to us now that we can study these interrelations at multiple levels of abstraction and conscious attention? The language of design might be helpful here, particularly the notion of “affordances” or ranges of activity that are not precluded by the properties of a given material medium or arrangement of things. What are the affordances of Shakespearean drama, and how are they registered or constrained by massively iterated linguistic activities, activities that we can track over a truly expansive range of texts in the growing corpus of digitized works? To what extent is linguistic filiation merely stylistic? Are there times when a writer, deciding to build a new sort of story on an old linguistic framework, is registering something like a measurable cultural or ideological solidarity with past forms, or attempting to stabilize emerging ones? These are not questions that can be answered simply by gathering data and counting things: they are fully interpretive, as is — we believe — all the work that goes under the name algorithmic, digital or iterative criticism.
¶ 56 Leave a comment on paragraph 56 0 Nor does this type of criticism “invalidate” previous forms of literary inquiry. If anything, it demonstrates that well-read, well-trained human beings are the most sensitive contraptions imaginable to massively differential phenomena like genre, and that this kind of judgment is only approximated (but provocatively so) by disaggregated tagging techniques coordinated by mathematical models. There is thus some basic similarity between the techniques that we are using, techniques that call attention to exemplary patterns in the text (albeit patterns that have been statistically discerned), and the kind of search for exemplarity that characterized the work of a great close reader like Eric Auerbach. Auerbach, relying often on memory as he was writing his landmark study of mimesis in Istanbul, himself toyed with the idea that the exemplary patterns he was discerning in particular passages emerged from the occcasional suspension of his own deliberate modes of attending to literary texts:
¶ 57 Leave a comment on paragraph 57 0 …[T]he great majority of the texts [for my study] were chosen at random, on the basis of accidental acquaintance and personal preference rather than in view of a definite purpose. Studies of this kind do not deal with laws but with trends and tendencies, which cross and complement one another in the most varied ways.
¶ 58 Leave a comment on paragraph 58 0 Auerbach is saying something very powerful about the fluid nature of filiation among texts, a kind of filiation that is expressed in tendencies and crossings rather than “laws.” Crucially, his way into this world of variation is at least partly arbitrary: he was helped by the fact that his materials could not be deliberately configured to support his intuitions. Iterative criticism deliberately incorporates this arbitrary feature in the form of a structured accident, where a mixture of deliberation and alienating distance characterize our encounters with the text. What differentiates such criticism from, say, the analysis of tropes or semantic play within and across texts from a given period—for example, the more historically inflected work of Patricia Parker—is that the patterns being sought are diffused so deeply into the built environment of the text that they cannot be attended to without some kind of (inhumanly) structured assistance. But as we have seen from this study, those things that we do attend to as readers, and that with great subtlety, are often connected to the linguistic rumble underneath.
¶ 59 Leave a comment on paragraph 59 1 In a way, the iterative study of Shakespeare and his genres offer us a new window — a window framed in humanities learning — onto the study of complexity. We have thought more than once been told by mathematicians that texts are some of the most complicated multivariate objects in the world: genre may be one stratum of that complexity. Indeed, there was an enormous amount of information transmitted in the simple decision, made by Shakespeare’s friends Heminges and Condell, to divide thirty-six of his plays into three groups. Given the complexity of these linguistic objects, the simple act of drawing circles around groups of plays speaks gigabytes about how and why the experience of drama can be one of “kinds.” We have, in effect, reverse engineered some of the complexity of these kinds out onto the page using Docuscope, but there is much more to be done. Shakespeare’s plays, for example, need to be compared with those of his contemporaries, and the filiations of genres within and across different authors’ works needs to be understood. Just as important, we need to understand how genres change over time, when and how they accommodate variation and anti-typical diversions. And of course, we need to understand better how to represent this information to an interested group of scholars needing to make reasonable comparisons among different results. In the end, reading diagrams may prove to be as difficult as reading texts: both are strategic re-dispositions of elements that can be experienced another way.
¶ 60 Leave a comment on paragraph 60 0 We close this essay, then, with a provocation. Below is a diagram of a large portion of Renaissance drama currently available in the Text Creation Partnership, tagged by Docuscope and arrayed in terms of degrees of similarity in a form of family-tree-like illustration known as a dendrogram. The vertical lines linking pairs of plays listed along the left-hand margin indicate the degree to which paired items are similar based on what Docuscope counts: when the lines sit to the far the left, the similarity between items is greatest; when they are farthest right, it is least. Exactly what is a “population” of texts, what are its natural or conventional temporal limits, and its generic subdivisions? To what extent is any qualitative difference discovered in a text a function of the population — generic, temporal, geographical — within which that difference becomes intelligible? A diagram like the one below may not itself provide the answers to such questions, but like any prosthetic, it points us toward better formulations of them and the provisional answers that criticism thrives on.
¶ 62 Leave a comment on paragraph 62 0 Figure 10: Dendrogram Produced using Ward’s clustering method on scaled data using 99 LATs to profile 318 plays written between 1519-1659, color coded by genre and separating out the works of Shakespeare as a category of their own: Red=Comedy, Blue=Interlude, Green=History, Cyan=Tragedy, Purple=Tragicomedy, Orange=Masque, Gold=Shakespeare. The item names follow the protocol: (genre)-(date)-(author)-(title). Judging from the larger clusters of which his works are a part, this diagram suggests that — with respect to the much larger corpus of early modern drama — Shakespeare’s writing most resembles that of other comedies.