Comic Twelfth Night, Tragic Othello (Part 2)

Here is a second comic exchange from Twelfth Night. Maria’s plan has worked wonderfully. Malvolio has arrived cross-gartered and is quoting to Olivia little bits of the love letter he believes she has written to him. The blue and red strings, First Person and Interaction, are again appearing fast and thick as the incomprehension builds. As in the previous passage, which dealt with Cesario’s resistance of Olivia, we have a resistant “you” here who keeps the game going. (Had she succumbed, dismissing Maria to go practice her penmanship, the dialogue would look very different: first and second person singular pronouns would most likely disappear.)



A few things worth noting about the coding in this passage. Docuscope is ignoring the single quotation marks from the Moby Shakespeare. It does not matter that these words are being “mentioned” rather than “used” in the Austinian sense: all “sightings” by Docuscope occur in a kind of weird citational indicative: there is no way for the machine to catch the fact that the speaker, Malvolio, is note really telling Olivia “Go to, thou art made.” This is a flat earth in the rhetorical sense: no ironic depth can be perceived when every item is tagged because it occurs, not because its use in a certain context means a certain thing. One should not be mislead about Docuscope’s powers of interpretation here.

Switching analogies, we might say that – like a Spinozan deity – Docuscope contemplates words from the perspective of eternity: it does not itself follow events from the standpoint of a moving present against which it measures temporally marked events as they arrive and withdraw through time. (Docuscope does not engage in phenomenological protention or retention in the Husserlian sense.) Nor does it situate events in space in any perspectivally located way. The history of what happens in the world of the play, if we were to think of it that way, is a history of “mentioned happenings.” No one does anything; rather, words are mentioned, and Docuscope keeps track of which kinds of words are used (but never how).

Another interesting feature of the passage. Malvolio really doesn’t say anything directly to Olivia in this passage: he is talking past Maria, and is reciting to Olivia what he believes she actually wants to say to him. This sort of indirection, when it is not a group effort, also seems to be contributing to the proliferation of Interaction and First Person strings: the “how,” “what,” “what” paired with the “you” “thou” “thou.” We would expect to find a lot of passages like this in other plays that have disguise and supposition, most of all in Comedy of Errors. I suspect that in the future I will be able to put my finger on a number of passages which parallel this one in terms of their performance on the comedy factor that Docuscope found for the full plays.

A final observation. Here and elsewhere in the play, Malvolio is often the one who supplies the Description strings, which as I have mentioned below, this play lacks in comparison with other plays (just as it has more, on average, Interaction and First Person). Is there anything about this passage that shows us why one cannot put one’s weight on both sides of this equation – Description on the one hand, First Person/Interaction on the other – in a single play or passage? Is there something about the comic posture, linguistically, that prevents such combinations? Malvolio and Feste are the two characters in the play who use the most Description strings, and during the fabulous speech in which Malvolio fantasizes about being married to Olivia while Toby and Maria look on, the linguistic texture of the scene is that of a History play. But as principal component analysis tells us, such moments of “historical” writing – oversimplified as the definition is – may occur occasionally in Comedy, but they will not occur repeatedly. Malvolio can only give so many such monologues, and Feste can only produce his rich, descriptive banter for so long.

But isn’t it important that there is a “dash” of Description in the play, indeed, in this passage? One issue that we need to explore as we think about what it means to find “a lot” of something in a particular type of play is what it also means to find “a little” of something. Is there a sense in which things that occur in small amounts are important as well, and if so, how should we think about those “dashes” of a certain type of word?

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