The comic ‘I’ and the tragic ‘we’?

In our Shakespeare Quarterly paper, we used Docuscope to come up with a description of Shakespeare’s comic language which centres on the rapid exchange of singular pronouns: I/you and my/your. We claimed there that Shakespearean comedies typically involve people arguing about things, striving to arrive at a ‘we’ of agreement, but not being able to until the final scene. Here’s what we said in more detail (we’re discussing Twelfth Night):

The quick trading of I/you and my/your strings in Comic dialogue suggests a world in which predicates are 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 in this exchange. She says, “do not extort thy reasons from this clause,” and earlier, “I would you were as I would have you be!” (3.1/1392, 1381). The “thy” and “you” 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 exchanged 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 and me/my, since she uses 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 remainin I/you dialogue…

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 start 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? It appears when a resistant individual, a “you,” prevents another “I” from arriving at an interpretation of a relationship that might be referred to as a “we” before others. Let’s call this the “resistant-you” hypothesis. Linguistically, the effect manifests itself in the assertion of the self (“FirstPerson”) and the rejection of suggested mental and emotional realities (“DenyDisclaim”).

We’ve been finding that high frequencies of first person pronouns, and other features associated with rapid dialogue, are characteristic of most types of Early Modern comedy. But what of the implied correlative to this? If comedies are the genre of ‘I’; are tragedies the genre of ‘we’?

A quick way to test this is to use Martin Mueller et al.’s excellent Wordhoard tool to run a log likelihood vocabulary test on Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies. This type of test takes an analysis corpus (in this case Shakespeare’s comedies), and compares it to a reference corpus (Shakespeare’s tragedies). The output flags those words that are either more or less frequent in the analysis corpus than we would expect, given the frequencies found in the reference corpus.

The results in this case are as follows:


What we are interested in here is the list of lemmas in column 1: ‘she’, ‘I’, ‘master’, ‘a’, ‘sir’ etc; and the symbol in column 3 ‘Relative use’ – which tells us if the frequency is greater (+) or less (-) than expected. (Column 4 gives the log likelihood value, and a number of asterisks indicating degree of statistical significance, but all the results we are looking at here are highly significant, so we can ignore this.)

Behold: pronouns used more in the comedies than the tragedies are the singular ‘she’, ‘I’, ‘you’ (let’s assume these are mainly singular uses) – these are all marked + in column 3. Now look at the results for the plural pronouns ‘our’, ‘we’, ‘they’: all marked -, and so lowered in the comedies/raised in the tragedies.

This is a very strong finding (especially considering how frequent pronouns are), and it invites further exploration of the dialogic nature of comedy in comparison with the communal nature of tragedy.

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  1. Posted August 1, 2011 at 4:26 am | Permalink

    I was intrigued by the notion that plots might leave a linguistic signature of the progress towards a particular climax and wrote a program to test this idea with I/you/we groups on a set of early modern plays from the TCP-EEBO corpus. The preliminary results can be seen here and seem to confirm that such intra-textual progression can be traced as an indicator of genre.

  2. Jonathan Hope
    Posted August 12, 2011 at 5:02 am | Permalink

    Anupam Basu has a fascinating follow-on post to this on his blog:

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