Comic Twelfth Night, Tragic Othello? (Part I)

Twelfth Night is one of the classic Shakespearean comedies and so it is unsurprising that it appears in the Comedy quadrant that we obtained in our initial analysis. What is it about the language in this play that pushes it toward this quadrant, and would we recognize this comic “itness” if we saw it in the form of an exemplary passage? That is the first question I’ll be looking in the next series of posts, entitled “Comic Twelfth Night, Tragic Othello?” But there is another, more interesting question to ask, given the results we have obtained: why does Othello look to Docuscope like a comedy? Literary critics such as Susan Snyder and Stephen Orgel have noted genealogical links to comedy in this “high tragedy,” so it is particularly intriguing to find unsupervised statistical analysis of the language coming to a similar conclusion. I will try to provide more than one exemplary passage in this series of posts, since these tend to be where the analysis gets interesting (or not).

So, Twelfth Night. In terms of plot, it has three interesting devices — a set of identical twins,  a shipwreck, and a disguise, all of which introduce a high degree of unintentional confusion into the action, driving it forward. In a plot that is driven on by accident and what you might call “congruent misunderstanding” (when two people don’t realize that they are speaking at cross-purposes), you expect to find a lot of back and forth between characters as they synch-up their erroneous suppositions (which is funny in and of itself), then more back and forth as they backtrack in order to rehearse why they didn’t understand what was going on when they were so deeply engaged with one another. I haven’t yet looked at the color coded play as I write this, but I expect to find the comic strings at the end, where the confusion is being unravelled, and in scenes of comic abuse (which I know from experience involves a lot of “I”/”thou” exchange characteristic of comedy). The exemplars are below, one from Open Source Shakespeare, the other a screen shot of the same passage as tagged by Docuscope:




The first thing I notice about this exchange is that it involves an extended miscommunication, culminating in the wonderful line “I am not what I am.”  The doubled first person is emblematic of the doubling of Viola’s person in Cesario (or in Olivia’s apprehension of Viola as Cesario). The underlined red passages refer to the Docuscope category First Person, which as we remember from the component loadings is high in all of the items on the upper half of the scatterplot.  The other type of strings that push plays upward are those underlined in blue, which are coded in Docuscope under the category of Interactions. First person is fairly self-explanatory here — look at the red items — but Interaction is worth pausing at. Notice first that question marks are being tagged here: a piece of punctuation and so not definitively Shakespearean. Maybe it matters that something that could have been added by a compositor is at work in this category, maybe it doesn’t. I don’t think question marks are as open to interpretation, grammatically, as say a comma or semicolon, but this is something for my colleague Jonathan to weigh in on. We see lots of “thee” and “thou” under Interaction, and these words seem to be the mainstay of comedy as a whole from what I’ve seen. “Thee,” “thou,” “thine,” “you,” and “your” are some of the most common words in the Shakespearean corpus that Docuscope tags, so we can be fairly sure that when we find First Person coming up as a relevant loading in a component, it is words such as “these” that are driving the underlying pattern.

Red and blue strings are pushing mostly comic plays up toward the top of the scatterplot. Yellow strings will push plays to the right, which means that the comedies clustering in the upper left exhibit a lack of yellow or Descriptive strings. The entire component that characterizes Comedy, then, is one in which First Person and Interaction strings are mutually elevated from the mean score of all plays, while Descriptive strings are (simultaneously) below the mean. Perhaps there is a reason that a linguist could provide that would explain this pattern as a general feature of the language. That is, someone might be able to show that our language is something that can only “bend” in certain ways, making it quite difficult to use a lot of concrete descriptive nouns and words describing motion or changes in states of objects while simultaneously juggling lots of I/you, my/your strings. But this would not be enough of an explanation for me. We need to say why this type of language pattern –whether or not it is constrained by limits in our grammar, cognition, or underlying semantic maps — coincides with genre classifications made by discriminating humans (Heminges and Condell, Shakespeare’s editors).

Returning the the passage above, I would point out two things. First, the quick trading of I/you, my/your strings in comic dialogue suggests a world in which predicates are being attached to subjects from two and only two points of view. This is not a universe of one, nor is it a crowd. It is not surprising that comic plotting — built as it is on sexual pairings — would favor this type of bivalent, perspectival tagging of action by speakers. But there is something else going on here. Olivia is trying to make something happen here. She says, “do not extort thy reasons from this clause,” and earlier, “I would you were as I would have you be.” The “thy” and “you” here are important because the speaker is trying to create or assert a particular interpretation of how these two individuals relate to one another (and the words traded between them). The essential drama in this situation is the asymmetry of desire that obtains between the two characters, an asymmetry that keeps Viola from assenting to Olivia’s advances. That resistance is actually what forces Olivia to make these statements that are rich with I/you, me/my, since she is using these words as anchors for a broader interpretation that does not yet obtain. She really wants to say we. And Cesario doesn’t, so they remain in I/you dialogue.

So we could offer a preliminary hypothesis here. Shakespeare writes comedies in which characters, sometimes quite perversely, find the wrong way to the ones they love. Often it is chance or an onstage helper who sorts this out. Shakespeare is actually quite reserved when it comes to showing love as naturally progressing through its obstacles unassisted. But given that, in the initial stages of courtship, Shakespearean lovers almost never meet and join in a perfectly symmetrical way — they don’t begin out as stones set in an arch, leaning perfectly on a keystone — we should expect this asymmetry to show itself in the language. Where does it show up? When a resistant individual, a “you,” prevents another “I” from arriving at an interpretation of their relationship that can be referred to as a “we” before others. Let’s call this the “resistant you” hypothesis. We can perhaps test it in the next passage, and in the passages we encounter from Othello.

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