Comic Twelfth Night, Tragic Othello (Part III)

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 traditional 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. 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, I think it is exactly what Shakespeare was up to in Othello, and I’m not surprised 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
However we choose to think about genre, I think it is safe 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.
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 labelled comic in keeping with the classifications of Shakespeare’s editors. I repeat the diagram from the earlier post here:

Shakespeare Plays in Scatter Plot rated in Principal Components in R

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 exchanges we examined from Twelfth Night, particularly the exchange between Cesario and Olivia. 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:

Open Source Shakespeare, Othello 3.1
Open Source Shakespeare, Othello 3.1
Docuscope Tagged Othello 3.1
Docuscope Tagged Othello 3.1

The first thing to notice here is that this is yet another passage in which I/you interaction (blue and red strings) is occurring quickly, at the expense of concrete description. This is what, statistically speaking, is pushing the passage up and to the left in the scatter plot above. 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 body movements on a similar footing or stance.

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 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 can’t count in its perpetual “now.”

Open Source Shakespeare Othello 4.2

Open Source Shakespeare Othello 4.2

Docuscope Tagged Othello 4.2

Docuscope Tagged Othello 4.2

“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 reasserting who (not what) she is in the face of something like a disguise that has been 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.

What fascinates me 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 counting machine can “see,” but it is also something that a sensitive critic can see as well. But a critic might not describe that matrix in the way that I 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? This latter claim would, of course, be a matter of interpretation. But it is possible, by splitting up the plays into smaller bits or “chunks” to see how often they stray into other generic territories, and to quantify just how convergent they are with a given anti-type. Here, Othello shares quite a bit with the other comedies in its vicinity, and this high degree of linguistic similarity could be demonstrated quantitatively using something called a dendrogram.

In future posts, we will look more at “outliers,” since this is perhaps an area where we can text what Docuscope sees against what critics would accept or have already asserted. As far as I know, no literary critic has suggested the similarity between Love’s Labour’s Lost and the histories (see below), so this might count as a “discovery” for Docuscope. In the meantime, I will begin posting on the status of these imaginary objects — the texts as coded by Docuscope and arrayed in the two dimensional space of a diagram or map.

This entry was posted in Shakespeare. Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Tom Merriam
    Posted February 8, 2010 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Using Dominique Labbe’s intertextual distances, I find he comes up with a tree diagram which shows Othello close to Twelfth Night (as well as Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well).

    Other genre anomalies in the diagram are Lear between Tempest and Winter’s Tale, Romeo between Midsummer’s Night Dream and Merchant of Venice.

    Tempest is between Hamlet and Lear.

  2. Michael Witmore
    Posted February 22, 2010 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    I would very much like to see this diagram. I also enjoyed reading your piece, located here —

    about intertextual distances between Shakespeare and Middleton. I’ve just begun working with Martin Mueller on a modernized version of the TCP renaissance drama holdings. I suspect we could compare results at some point. Many thanks for this post.


2 Trackbacks

  • By Shakespearean Clustering « Work Product on December 16, 2009 at 10:28 am

    […] have much to add, but comments are disabled on the site, and I do have a question: In his earlier work using principal components, he found that Othello clustered with the comedies. Using the new method reported today (based on […]

  • […] and in a different area, what if statistical analyses of Shakespeare’s texts suggest that Othello looks much like a comedy? This certainly doesn’t mean that Othello is a comedy, but it might give us new reasons to […]

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>