David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: shakespeare (page 1 of 4)

John Marston and Joshua Sylvester: Renaissance Rewriting

John Marston was one of the nastier Renaissance playwrights, and his lack of restraint eventually appears to have gotten him in so much trouble that he had to leave the stage altogether and enter the clergy. His play The Malcontent, which was probably performed in 1603 and then published in 1604, is a severe melodrama of a deposed Duke, Altofronto, grouchily plotting to regain his rulership by pretending to be a truth-telling counselor and misanthrope–named Malevole, just to make that point clear–and bringing out the worst tendencies of those in the court. They don’t need much encouragement, since the court’s “minion” Mendoza, who is sleeping with the current Duke’s wife, has plenty of Machiavellian plans of his own, and Altofronto/Malevole just needs to tap him to push him over the precipice. The expected “happy ending” is more reassuring than that of Measure by Measure, but even less convincing.

But there are two poetic, though somewhat out of place, soliloquys reflecting on the wretchedness of man that caught my attention. They have the typical gnarled flow of Marston’s prose, which seems to be closer to its Roman Silver Age antecedents than anyone else’s (Seneca was a huge influence at the time). And thanks to the notes of G. K. Hunter in my Revels edition, I see that both speeches were adapted from a single source: Joshua Sylvester’s translation of Du Bartas’ epic religious poems. Marston alters them both in style and tone, but he appropriates structure and imagery freely. The first invokes the title of the play and is a looser borrowing:


I cannot sleep ; my eyes’ ill-neighbouring lids
Will hold no fellowship. O thou pale sober night,
Thou that in sluggish fumes all sense dost steep ;
Thou that giv’st all the world full leave to play,
Unbend’st the feebled veins of sweaty labour!
The galley-slave, that all the toilsome day
Tugs at his oar against the stubborn wave,
Straining his rugged veins, snores fast ;
The stooping scythe-man, that doth barb the field.
Thou mak’st wink sure : in night all creatures sleep ;
Only the malcontent, that ‘gainst his fate
Repines and quarrels, — alas, he’s goodman tell-clock !
His sallow jaw-bones sink with wasting moan ;
Whilst others’ beds are down, his pillow’s stone.


The Night is she, that with her sable wing,
In gloomy Darkness hushing every thing,
Through all the World dumb silence doth distill,
And wearied bones with quiet sleep doth fill.
Sweet Night, without Thee, without Thee, alas,
Our life were loathsome; even a Hell to pass.
He that, still stooping, tugs against the tide
His laden barge alongst a River’s side,
And filling shores with shouts, doth melt him quite ;
Upon his pallet resteth yet at Night.
He, that in summer, in extremest heat
Scorched all day in his own scalding sweat,
Shaves with keen Scythe, the glory and delight
Of motley meadows ; resteth yet at night,
Only the learned Sisters’ sacred Minions,
While silent Night under her sable pinions
Folds all the world, with painless pain they tread
A sacred path that to the Heavens doth lead.

Where he borrows images, Marston sharpens the prose: “The galley-slave…tugs at his oar against the stubborn wave” in Sylvester becomes “He that, still stooping, tugs against the tide” in Marston. “He that shaves with keen scythe the glory and delight of motley meadows” becomes “The stooping scythe-man that doth barb the field.” The drastic difference is that into Du Bartas’ picture of sleep’s respite from the cruel world, Marston injects the malcontent, “goodman tell-clock,” who can’t sleep. (I admit I don’t know what Sylvester is getting at with “painless pain.”)

The second speech is more unquestionably plagiaristic. It is delivered by Pietro, Malevole’s successor and target. Pietro, here, is describing to his wife Aurelia the terrible hell she’s brought to him by sleeping with Mendoza.


My cell ’tis, lady ; where, instead of masks,
Music, tilts, tourneys, and such courtlike shows,
The hollow murmur of the checkless winds
Shall groan again ; whilst the unquiet sea
Shakes the whole rock with foamy battery.
There usherless the air comes in and out :
The rheumy vault will force your eyes to weep,
Whilst you behold true desolation :
A rocky barrenness shall pierce your eyes.
Where all at once one reaches where he stands,
With brows the roof, both walls with both his hands.


Who, Full Of wealth and honour’s blandishment,
Among great Lords his younger years hath spent ;
And quaffing deeply of the Court-delights,
Us’d nought but tilts, tourneys, and masks, & sights –
If in his age his Prince’s angry doom
With deep disgrace drive him to live at home
In homely cottage, where continually
The bitter smoke exhales abundantly
From his before-un-sorrow-drained brain
The brackish vapours of a silver rain :
Where usherless, both day and night, the North,
South, East and West winds enter and go forth,
Where round-about, the low-roofed broken walls
Instead of Arras hang with Spiders’ cauls,
Where all at once he reacheth as he stands.
With brows the roof, both walls with both his hands.

This Sylvester source passage is far harsher than the earlier, with knottier syntax to match. (“His before-un-sorrow-drained-brain” seems worthy of Marston. Or Robert Walser.) The context is a long simile for the expulsion from Eden, comparing it to a Prince who’s been reduced to living in poverty. Again, Marston roughs up Sylvester (Marston gets a “rheumy vault” out of Sylvester’s “homely cottage”), but Sylvester has already done half the work in making his prose so jagged. Marston had far less distance to go in adapting it into his style. The final image, of the inhabitant virtually trapped in a tiny room no taller nor wider than he is, is grim enough that Marston leaves it outright.

In both cases I prefer Marston for the sharper-edged and more visceral prose. Hunter cites an earlier critic from the 1930s using the passages as evidence of Marston’s lack of talent, so maybe we’ve finally caught up with Marston. (I think Eliot was a fan.)

Hunter points out that at least one other writer of the period, Thomas Tomkis, borrowed from the first Du Bartas passage. Hence one of the more common homilies of the Renaissance, lost in our originality-obsessed age: if you see a good image or a memorable theme, no matter how different the context to what you’re writing, don’t hesitate: steal it.

Shakespeare’s Sick, Twisted Troilus and Cressida

From a Maori production of Troilus and Cressida

From a Maori production of Troilus and Cressida

Troilus and Cressida is certainly sick and twisted, but not in the same way that Measure for Measure is. They are nearly perfect complements to each other, as if Shakespeare had set himself twin challenges: for Measure for Measure, to write an unfunny comedy, and for Troilus and Cressida, to write a silly tragedy. People very nearly die in the “comedy” Measure for Measure, while Troilus and Cressida survive their “tragedy,” albeit unhappily. In both cases the cross-genre pollution doesn’t yield a healthy hybrid, but a self-conscious mutant.

But the two don’t mix their enzyme and substrate in the same way.

  1. Measure for Measure sucks the life and humor from its antics while leaving plot and character more or less intact and merely darkening them, while Troilus and Cressida trivializes the Trojan War by lowering the intelligence and dignity of its characters.
  2. Measure for Measure is overseen by a frequently malevolent manipulative demigod, the Duke, while absolutely no one at all seems to have much of a clue in Troilus and Cressida, and everyone is out of their depth.
  3. And while Measure for Measure holds together narratively and tonally, Troilus and Cressida fragments like mad, frequently and jarringly shifting tone, moving into abstract philosophy at times and ending with a ten car pile-up in the last act that ends the play quickly and clumsily.

At some point mid-20th century, people didn’t believe Shakespeare had written the messy, chaotic last act with its dozen short scenes, but that claim seems to have died down.

The fragmentation and general confusion makes Troilus and Cressida less powerful than Measure for Measure, which has a cogent and visceral build-up of increasingly serious horrors. Troilus and Cressida doesn’t even attempt that, since whenever something “serious” occurs, it’s quickly followed by something that makes it much harder to take it seriously. The question then is what to make of it, since the lack of coherence is clearly a deliberate strategy but only seems to be make things more diffuse.

I’ve read a fair number of analyses claiming that it holds together in spite of itself or that the chaos powerfully subverts narrative expectation, but they’ve all been quite unconvincing (though I. A. Richards’ “Troilus and Cressida and Plato” is memorably strange), since we aren’t dealing with King Lear here. Jan Kott’s assessment in Shakespeare Our Contemporary is probably the most powerful–he makes the play sound amazing, more amazing and coherent than it actually is. Rosalie Colie, having made extensive studies on Renaissance paradox, was especially well-suited to analyze the play, and her explanation of how the play undermines the very shared conventions of linguistic use is brilliant:

The lovers demonstrate the reduction of expressive intentional language to social and linguistic counters. As they milk language of meaning, so their names lose private, individual meaning too, to signify impersonal morality-functions.

Rosalie Colie, Shakespeare’s Living Art

The language, which Colie and others treat at great length, is often remarkable at a conceptual level. I won’t dare analyze it here, other than to say that the excesses of the language make the banality of the plot and character that much more evident. Trivialization clearly seems to be the order of the day, but the question of why one would write a play that merely trivializes its subjects remains. Shakespeare shows off his genre-savvy here, but to what end?

My answer is that the play is a reductio ad absurdam, an attempt to mimic the analysis and response of the most jaded and cynical theater-goer, and yet let some modicum of human dignity remain. I think that unlike Measure for Measure, which leaves an uneasy sick feeling, Troilus and Cressida is ultimately affirming of something, though not a lot. By taking a Euripidean plot but writing it in the style of Aristophanes (via Plautus or Terence), he makes it difficult to cling on to anything without suspecting that there’s one more level of irony underneath it. But remember that Aristophanes came out exalting Aeschylus.

Certainly, most of the play undermines any ideals its characters purport. On the Greek side, Ulysses comes off as the classical Burkean/Rumsfeldian conservative, speaking eloquently and with seeming intelligence, but advocating for awfulness. Achilles is a joke. On the Trojan side, romantic lead Troilus lacks any common sense and intelligence. Here is his “argument” for fighting for Helen, which boils down to “Less thinking, more ass-kicking!”

TROILUS You are for dreams and slumbers, brother priest;
You fur your gloves with reason. Here are your reasons:
You know an enemy intends you harm;
You know a sword employ’d is perilous,
And reason flies the object of all harm:
Who marvels then, when Helenus beholds
A Grecian and his sword, if he do set
The very wings of reason to his heels
And fly like chidden Mercury from Jove,
Or like a star disorb’d? Nay, if we talk of reason,
Let’s shut our gates and sleep: manhood and honour
Should have hare-hearts, would they but fat their thoughts
With this cramm’d reason: reason and respect
Make livers pale and lustihood deject.

Helen and Paris are about as worthy of fighting over as ever. Hector does appear to act with dignity, but all that signals is that dignity can’t exist in a vacuum. He is speaking for a virtue that the rest of the characters don’t even understand, and he can’t uphold it in a vacuum, and eventually he doesn’t. So he’s useless too in the face of the “Most putrefied core” of the anonymous Greek he slaughters in 5.8. Hell, the whole play could be said to be concerned with the absurdity of holding up any virtue that isn’t valued by the surrounding community, be it honor or fidelity–or love itself.

What is fascinating is that into this hybrid, Shakespeare stuck one of his most assertive and complex women. The reaction to her over the centuries has been predominantly scathing. Personal preference grants me a strong affection for Cressida. In her first appearance she engages in a long stint of Groucho-Chico/Bob and Ray doubletalk with her sleazy uncle.

CRESSIDA What, is he angry too?

PANDARUS Who, Troilus? Troilus is the better man of the two.

CRESSIDA O Jupiter! there’s no comparison.

PANDARUS What, not between Troilus and Hector? Do you know a man if you see him?

CRESSIDA Ay, if I ever saw him before and knew him.

PANDARUS Well, I say Troilus is Troilus.

CRESSIDA Then you say as I say; for, I am sure, he is not Hector.

PANDARUS No, nor Hector is not Troilus in some degrees.

CRESSIDA ‘Tis just to each of them; he is himself.

PANDARUS Himself! Alas, poor Troilus! I would he were.

CRESSIDA So he is.

And so on and on. She is witty, coy, and apparently savvy. She adapts to her changing circumstances, none of which are under her control, perhaps covering up inexperience with raw smarts.  She resists Troilus at first and then, after she falls for him, seems to think somewhat more of him than he deserves, as her dialogue switches from doubletalk to inflated rhetoric. While he still forces more of a unity than I think can be assigned to her, Jan Kott captures something of what makes her uniquely modern among Shakespearean characters, comparing her to Hamlet:

This girl could have been eight, ten, or twelve years old when the war started. Maybe that is why war seems so normal and ordinary to her that she almost does not notice it and never talks about it. Cressida has not yet been touched, but she knows all about love, and about sleeping with men; or at any rate she thinks she knows. She is inwardly free, conscious and daring. She belongs to the Renaissance, but she is also a Stendhal type akin to Lamiel, and she is a teen-age girl of the mid-twentieth century. She is cynical, or rather would be cynical. She has seen too much. She is bitter and ironic. She is passionate, afraid of her passion and ashamed to admit it. She is even more afraid of feelings. She distrusts herself. She is our contemporary because of this self-distrust, reserve, and a need of self-analysis. She defends herself by irony.

Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary

Were she in a less self-reflexive play, she’d easily be one of the best characters in the canon. As it is, she lacks the space to fully become what Kott describes her as being, yet even the partial portrait is sui generis.

Troilus and Cressida in Stephen Wangh's aerial production

Troilus and Cressida in Stephen Wangh’s aerial production

As for the lovers together, their pledges of love to each other are very odd and epistemological:

TROILUS O virtuous fight,
When right with right wars who shall be most right!
True swains in love shall in the world to come
Approve their truths by Troilus: when their rhymes,
Full of protest, of oath and big compare,
Want similes, truth tired with iteration,
As true as steel, as plantage to the moon,
As sun to day, as turtle to her mate,
As iron to adamant, as earth to the centre,
Yet, after all comparisons of truth,
As truth’s authentic author to be cited,
‘As true as Troilus’ shall crown up the verse,
And sanctify the numbers.

CRESSIDA Prophet may you be!
If I be false, or swerve a hair from truth,
When time is old and hath forgot itself,
When waterdrops have worn the stones of Troy,
And blind oblivion swallow’d cities up,
And mighty states characterless are grated
To dusty nothing, yet let memory,
From false to false, among false maids in love,
Upbraid my falsehood! when they’ve said ‘as false
As air, as water, wind, or sandy earth,
As fox to lamb, as wolf to heifer’s calf,
Pard to the hind, or stepdame to her son,’
‘Yea,’ let them say, to stick the heart of falsehood,
‘As false as Cressid.’

Are there any passages in Shakespeare that use the words “true” and “false” as incessantly as these two do, respectively? It’s numbing. And overblown: Cressida herself undermined the distinction in an earlier gabfest with Pandarus when she said “To say the truth, true and not true.” Troilus himself undermined it in the previous scene when he tautologically declared, “I am as true as truth’s simplicity,” spelling out the meaninglessness of the comparison with truth-values.

The speeches do set up Troilus later shrieking “False, false, false!” at Cressida in the last act, which, again, doesn’t quite rise to the level of King Lear here, especially considering that Cressida was just sold into slavery by her own people in exchange for the return of a prisoner. There’s no secret escape plan for Cressida this time, unlike in Chaucer, and her father Calchas, a defector to the Greeks, seems indifferent to her arrival. Her pledge to Diomedes is a bitter tactical move designed to save herself from becoming one of the “sluttish spoils of opportunity,” in the words of that fine fellow Ulysses. In light of the chaotic movement of the play and Troilus’ character, Cressida’s resignation and compromise with circumstance seems far more realistic than Troilus’ cloddish tantrums–although Troilus’ breakdown while Thersites jeers at him does contain genuine pathos. No, Cressida didn’t have to give Diomedes Troilus’ sleeve, but Shakespeare consciously weakened the case against Cressida (also by having her affair with Troilus last for hours rather than months, as in Chaucer).

Troilus and Cressida as American Indians because why not?

Troilus and Cressida as American Indians because why not?

And then there is Thersites on the Greek side. Thersites is pretty insufferable. At first he may seem like the truth-teller of the Iliad, but soon reveals himself to be far less. In the Iliad, he was clearly a threat. Moses Finley observed that Homer wouldn’t have bothered having Thersites speak out and be smacked down if what he said weren’t dangerous to the warrior caste. In Shakespeare, Thersites is ridiculed, beaten on, but generally tolerated, because he is defanged. His words have no bite, no matter how much he tries to give them. The deeper he digs himself into ridicule and cynicism, the more impotent he becomes. Not that he even seems to care about making a difference. Unlike his somewhat more decorous Trojan counterpart, Pandaraus, who turns from bawd to malevolent force over the play, Thersites just rants from the bleachers, amusing himself but no one else.

I think he is meant to be the point of identification for smug audiences who think themselves above it all, who want to laugh at the archaic heroics of Hector as well as the dumb romance of Troilus and Cressida (ably assisted by Shakespeare portraying them rather badly). But Thersites represents a dead end as much as Hector does. Both signify polar positions, dignity and cynicism, in a world that is too chaotic and stupefied to justify either.

So what do I see as the ultimate purpose here? A play that is designed to tempt the viewer with cynicism and then throw it back in its face. Yes, be apathetic and say a pox on all their houses, yes, be like Thersites. And look at who you’ll be: a prude, sex-hating and joyless, unable to affirm anything, ignored by everyone. This is what makes the play so apt today, because while it was just confusing to earlier audiences, recent productions have embraced Thersites’ position to the hilt, not realizing that a certain race-to-the-bottom critical mindset that refuses to endorse any clear values, lest they then be trumped by the next subversion, will produce nothing that any one will ever care about.

Yet when Cressida is led away to become a sex slave for the Greeks, some care has survived, that despite the hardened cynicism of nearly everyone, you would have to be a monster to embrace Thersites’ or Ulysses’ points of view. So maybe that is the challenge Shakespeare set himself: to trivialize things as much as possible and then at the end say, “Look, I still made you care.” It hasn’t always worked, judging by how hard people have come down on Cressida, but it works on me. The fatuous “True Troilus” and “False Cressida” speeches are an analogy for that goal–that even in light of the linguistic nonsense and exaggerated silliness of True and False made by Troilus and Cressida, we still aren’t willing to give up the very robust distinction between truth and falseness, and so even this very cynical and sophistic play has left us still giving them some affirmation.

Euripides’ Bacchae: Two Boys at Play

The Bacchae has a reputation as Euripides’ greatest play. It’s hard for me to say. Even for a wildly eccentric and subversive playwright like Euripides, it is very odd. It was one of his very last plays, written quite late in life (in his 70s possibly), but even the contemporaneous Iphegenia at Aulis is nothing like it. It is concertedly archaic and much more soaked in myth and paganism than most of his other, more “human” dramas like Medea and The Trojan Women, which give voice to tremendous amounts of pain and suffering on behalf of life’s losers and victims.

The Bacchae lacks a certain type of immanent universality, though it has plenty of blunt impact. It is still overwhelming and shocking, and ends with one hell of a memorable image: King Pentheus’ severed head impaled on a very phallic thyrsus held by his mother, who has disemboweled him in the midst of Bacchic ecstasy. (The thyrsus is a fennel staff with a pine cone or bunch of leaves on top, a Dionysian symbol.)

Agave (center) and part of her son Pentheus (left), from Brad Mays' production

Thematically, however, it deals in more abstract universalities. Since abstract universalities are more prone to change over the millennia than concrete notions of pain and death, it is more difficult to grasp just exactly what is going on with the Dionysian cults and rituals that occur, even if you’re familiar with how they operated. Add to that Euripides’ inevitable perversions of received values and ideas, and the drama is baffling.

It is quite unusual (even unique?) in surviving Greek drama in making a god not only a spectator and an agent of the action, but the actual protagonist. (Other tragedies with Dionysus as protagonist have been lost.) He is Dionysus returns to Thebes with a group of maenad followers, having returned from the east where he had been establishing his mysteries and rites. His Theban mother Semele was killed by his father Zeus on account of Hera’s jealousy (long story), but the rest of her family has been slandering her by saying she lied about Zeus being her lover, and that that is why Zeus killed her. Dionysius’ cousin Pentheus, son of Semele’s slandering sister Agave, is now king of Thebes and has banned worship of Dionysus.

Dionysus is extremely angry about all of this and eagerly tells the audience, in proto-Richard III style, that he is going to take serious revenge. We follow him as he brings most of Thebes under his spell, Pied Piper-like, causes a major earthquake, and then disguises himself as a human and torments Pentheus at length. Eventually he tempts Pentheus with talk of the maenads’ orgies and has Pentheus cross-dress as a maenad so that he can spy on them. (Here Dionysus certainly anticipates Shakespeare’s similarly twisted Duke in Measure for Measure, as well as that other puppet-master Prospero.)

As expected, the maenads rip Pentheus to shreds, thinking he’s a wild animal—animal dismemberment was part of Bacchic rituals. Agave proudly brings back Pentheus’ head, thinking that she’s slaughtered a lion for a feast. Dionysus removes the spell from Agave so she can see what he has done to her own son, and Dionysus exiles the remainder of the family. Dionysus prophecies that Semele and Agave’s parents, Cadmus and Harmonia, will be turned into serpents.

These grim antics are accompanied by joyless songs from the chorus of maenads, but much of the play is just Dionysus (disguised) and Pentheus onstage in dialogue, occasionally with a visiting messenger, until Dionysus sees Pentheus off to his doom and returns only in the guise of a god in the denouement to pronounce doom. The chorus, as well as some of the other characters, incessantly remind the audience that one does not anger a god and get away with it, ever.

Yet Dionysus’ behavior is perplexing. He hardly seems like the good-times god of wine, and certainly not the buffoon of other myths. His Hermes-esque (Hermetic?) trickery and plotting seem calculated and malevolent. In a bit of mythological overlap, Cadmus and Harmonia’s transformation into serpents echoes the two serpents of Hermes’ symbol, the caduceus. To push that point a little further, Dionysus prophecies their fate simultaneously, emphasizing the pairing, whereas in the traditional account, Harmonia wishes herself to be transformed only after Cadmus transforms (by his own wish).

[The confusion of the diabolical caduceus and the healing staff of Asclepius persists, and Thomas M. Disch had some fun with the confusion in his apocalyptic novel The M.D.]

Even more strangely, Dionysus lets himself be humiliated by Pentheus, who temporarily imprisons him and cuts off his hairlocks. (Dionysus will later cause Pentheus to grow girlish hair.) Yes, it’s a setup, but why? Dionysus is already hellbent on revenge and manipulating events, Pentheus has already refused to allow worship, and Pentheus has no need to indict himself further.

None of this is enough to make you ultimately sympathize with Dionysus, who gets very nasty indeed. The sheer vigor of his revenge rhetoric as the play goes on is enough to make him unpalatable, like someone crushing ants for not staying out of his way. But in the facts, he is a victim, not of Pentheus but of other gods, particularly his wicked stepmother Hera. His obsession with revenge is not so different from that of Medea and Hecuba and Electra, Euripides’ vengeful women, but they were all more sympathetic than Dionysus. They weren’t gods.

Pentheus, for his part, is impetuous, arrogant, and unyielding, but unlike Creon in Antigone, he’s just a kid: he’s described as beardless and Agave reports she has killed “a lion’s cub,” not a full-grown lion. He argues with Dionysus and readies for war against the maenads, but is abruptly distracted by the promise of seeing the secret Dionysian rites. (Has he even been with a woman?)

PENTHEUS: Bring my armor, someone! And you stop talking.

(Pentheus strides toward the left, but when he is almost offstage, Dionysus calls imperiously to him.)

DIONYSUS: Wait! Would you like to see their revels on the mountain?

PENTHEUS: I would pay a great sum to see that sight.

E. R. Dodds describes the moment in a Freudian fashion:

What happens is rather the beginning of a psychic invasion, the entry of the god into his victim, who was also in the old belief his vehicle. In the maddening of Pentheus, as in the maddening of Heracles, the poet shows us the supernatural attacking the victim’s personality at its weakest point—working upon and through nature, not against it. The god wins because he has an ally in the enemy’s camp: the persecutor is betrayed by what he would persecute—the Dionysiac longing in himself.

These Dionysian rites then destroy Pentheus. He has inherited the sins of his ancestors without even the capacity to understand them clearly. Just before sending him off to his doom, Dionysus tells him he will return cradled in his mother’s arms, a happy regression to infancy.

Dionysus (left) and Pentheus

The result is a peculiar portrayal of a god very unlike the irritable but invulnerable deities for whom nothing is of lasting consequence. It feels closer to the Old Testament God, with his mysterious contradictions, hurt feelings, and inconsistencies. As Dionysus sets up Pentheus repeatedly, I think of God hardening the Pharaoh’s heart against Moses. Greek gods usually aren’t so roundabout, not even Hermes. (“My ridiculously circuitous plan is one-quarter complete!“)

Aristophanes portrayed Dionysus as an idiotic buffoon in the comedy The Frogs, and he normally stands apart from the other major gods in lacking jealousy and gravitas. Euripides evens the balance in The Bacchae, but the standard account still persists as well. Dionysus is a child with a dead mother, a wicked stepmother, and a disputed and absent father. The Greek gods are irrational and jealous, but they are not children. (Even Hermes is older than Dionysus.)

Here, though, Dionysus is an illegitimate child, even by the standards of Greek gods. Dionysius himself not accepted, not legitimate in Olympus, not even properly born to his mother before she died but incubated in Zeus’s thigh. He cannot take out his mourning and rage on other gods, but he can on the humans who ridicule his mother. In the myth, Hera motivates Semele’s sisters to slander Semele, but here they do it out of pure pettiness and spite, further stressing the emphasis on the human plane of events. Greek gods normally lash out at humans who are favored by other gods, but Dionysus is the only god in play here. And since the sin against him is that of questioning his very legitimacy, birth, and godhood, that he is defending himself against such accusations puts his status in doubt.

And so Dionysus is a neglected and resentful child, less legitimate than the other gods (much in the way that Dionysiac cults were viewed suspiciously and as illegitimate), punishing his action figures because he has power over them. The story is two boys having tantrums, one of whom happens to be a god.

The nature of Pentheus’ final sin is that of a man (or boy) thinking he is punishing another human, not a god. At that single point, Dionysus is humanly sympathetic, before the power shifts. I think that the need for Dionysus’ humiliation comes from theme and structure. Dionysus and Pentheus must be put on an equal level for a time, so that Dionysus is not only disguised as a human but is acting as one as well. (This also seems unprecedented in Greek literature, to the best of my knowledge.) That is to say, Dionysus can capture the audience’s sympathy only until he exerts his powers–his ability for revenge–at which point he is monstrous. He becomes a god, can only be recognized as a god, by becoming a monster.

What it all means I doubt anyone can say. That we are all children? That we have sympathy not for victims, but for the powerless? That our expressions of sympathy are as irrational and unjust as our expressions of revenge? Because I’ve tried to speak about the less culturally-bound aspects of the play, I’ve barely touched the difficulties and confusions around the Bacchic cults and rituals themselves. It is the most complicatedly ambiguous drama I can think of until Shakespeare came on the scene.*


*As with Hamlet, we also lack crucial context as to predecessor plays around the Dionysus myth and exactly which parts of the myth Euripides altered, and consequently don’t know precisely what audiences of the time would have been surprised at.

Quantitative Methods in Literary Criticism: Franco Moretti and Brian Vickers

The million-fold increase in computing power over the last few decades has made possible types of quantitative analysis that were previously available only to rulers with access to large amounts of menial but highly precise labor. Because the humanities generally tend to trail the sciences and the social sciences in adopting such new-fangled techniques. Instead, academics have preferred to write about such new technologies using existing frameworks: see the now-forgotten hypertext boomlet of the early-90s led by Stuart Moulthrop.

Here, I want to contrast two scholars who have seriously used quantitative analysis in literary criticism. My negative example is Franco Moretti; my positive example is Brian Vickers.

This piece is something of an appendix to my n+1 piece “The Stupidity of Computers,” because I found that the conclusions I presented there held just as true for literary analysis as they did for data mining, search engines, and online dating. Computers are still dumb, so we must be sure to be extra-smart in using them.


Moretti’s Materialism

Franco Moretti caused something of a splash in the last fifteen years by advocating a quantitative model for tracking literature’s paths. He seeks, in his notorious phrase, a “materialist sociology of literary form.” I’m not fond of the phrase, but it gives an idea of the overlapping circles that are at work here: quantitative, materialist (in the Marxist and positivist sense), sociological, taxonomic.

I do not endorse a never-the-twain-shall-meet split between natural sciences and human sciences, the Naturwissenschaften and the Geisteswissenschaften. Many literature departments and continental philosophers cling to the separation as though their jobs depended on it–which indeed they might. But the great inadequacy of quantitative methods applied to artistic and social forms (e.g., economics) still serves as a reminder that the human sciences are vastly more imprecise and variable than the most successful of the natural sciences.

I believe that the reasons for this, as I discussed at some length in my recent n+1 piece, “The Stupidity of Computers,” primarily have to do with language and the endlessly fine-grained distinctions and variances it forces upon us. The practical result is that almost any quantitative approach falls down, and I think Moretti’s is a particularly good example of such a failure.

Moretti’s work has foundered on two main points:

  1. Presuppositions of taxonomies, ontologies, and evidentiary relevance that are then set up to be “confirmed” by the statistical model at work.
  2. Sheer lack of evidence, caused by the vast scope on which Moretti is working.

I have written on the first issue of presuppsitions with regard to political issues: attempts to discern how “liberal” and “conservative” blogs link to one another rely on purely human classification of blogs into the two-category taxonomy selected by the researchers themselves, rendering the results highly dubious.

In the political sphere, complicated charts analyzing networks of links from one political blog to another show clusters of linkages tightly within sets of “conservative” and “liberal” blogs. Another chart from a separate analysis shows clusters using a different taxonomy: progressive, independent, and conservative. Who decided on these categories? Humans. And who assigned individual blogs to each category? Again humans. So the humans decided on the categories and assigned the data to the individual categories—then told the computers to confirm their judgments. Naturally the computers obliged.

The Stupidity of Computers“, n+1 13

The same principle is at work in classifying books and sentences, as Moretti does. This sort of ontological question begging is so ubiquitous it should be the first question anyone asks on seeing a pretty chart or graph purporting to represent some aspect of human society.

The second issue is more particular to Moretti, which is that even with unprecedented processing power at his command, I gather Moretti still doesn’t have the resources to do the requisite analysis at the level which would be required.

Cosma Shalizi, expert statistician, has written extensively on these failings with regard to Moretti’s two main books, and his articles elaborate the problems sufficiently that I won’t go into much detail here. He criticized the statistical methods of Atlas of the European Novel, but his review of Graphs, Maps, Trees, which attempted to make a statistical case that new genres of novel tended to occur in bunche, cuts closer to the theoretical problems at hand:

[Moretti should] give actual causal accounts of how macroscopic patterns emerge from the interaction of many material bodies (notably, people and books), of the sort we know to exist, endowed with the kinds of abilities we know them to have.

This commitment may sound harmless, because contentless, but it does actually have implications.  It means that you have to do a lot of work to justify functionalist explanations (though it’s not impossible). It should make you very dubious about ideal types.  It should make you more interested in exploring variation, and not dismissing it.  It should make you very dubious about “practices” and other shared mental objects, at least as ordinarily conceived.  And it suggests a lot of productive directions, investigating communication, cognition, and the collective patterns they produce.

Graphs, Trees, Materialism, Fishing

If anything, Shalizi understates the difficulty. There needs to be a huge amount of work, and it must be done with partial, often inaccurate data from biased observers. The hermeneutic circle holds sway here. It’s not impossible. But the data analysis is vastly easier than the data collection, which computers still can’t do.

Vickers’ Wissenschaften

I have a positive example, however. Studies of authorship attribution are nothing new. They have frequently employed quantitative methods, albeit frequently in a haphazard and unsystematic way. In English, at least, the writer who has been subject to more of them than any other is William Shakespeare.

There has not been a good track record. Two attributions of new (and rather poor) works to Shakespeare in the last couple decades, “Shall I die?” and “A Funeral Elegy,” seem almost certainly incorrect. In the second case, the original claimant, Don Foster, has retracted the claim. In the first, it appears that no one except the original claimant supports the attribution anymore. Unfortunately, the original claimant, Gary Taylor, is the editor of the Oxford Shakespeare, so you can find “Shall I die?” there. What are you going to do?

Against that, though, there is Brian Vickers and particularly his recent work Shakespeare, A Lover’s Complaint, and John Davies of Hereford. (A short overview is available behind the TLS paywall.) This is a distinctive case because it’s trying to pull authorship of A Lover’s Complaint away from Shakespeare. The long (329 lines) poem was published in the same book as the sonnets in 1609, attributed to Shakespeare, but it has never garnered too much attention. There have been some doubts but, over the last 50 years, general endorsement of Shakespeare’s authorship.

Work had already been done to identify Shakespeare’s co-authors on Titus Andronicus, Pericles, Timon of Athens, and others, but this is the first instance I know of pulling a poem away from Shakespeare.

Vickers is upfront in his biases: he thinks the poem is lousy, too lousy to be Shakespeare’s, uninventive and moralistic. He attributes it instead to a mediocre but prolific poet named John Davies, whom I’d never heard of. But his method is far more solid than most. He recognizes the need for a holistic/hermeneutic understanding of the period and its literature, and so Vickers’ book takes both a top-down and a bottom-up approach, deriving general regulative and evaluative guidelines from a comprehensive knowledge of the period, then using atomic, discrete metrics to attempt to make meaningful distinctions. I believe this bi-directional method to be the only one that has a chance of success. (Moretti, in contrast, is entirely top-down, while much philological work is bottom-up.)

Here is a brief sample, taken from the TLS overview:

Davies did so on over 160 occasions. The author of the Complaint used “th’-” elisions frequently, and twice clumsily, not on words beginning with a vowel -as in Shakespeare’s “Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame” -but before a consonant: “th’wel doing”, “th’smallest teene”. Davies regularly contracted the definite article without any concern for euphony, with such equally clumsy elisions as “th’reversions”, “th’reprobates” or “th’Gospel”. Critics have judged the contractions in “A Lover’s Complaint” to be a sign of Shakespeare’s later style, but here is a different explanation. The poet of the “Complaint” ended two lines with the formulaic phrase “forme receive”, once an infinitive (using the pleonastic do): “which did no forme receive”, and once a present tense: “all straing formes receives”, both times rhyming on “leave”. In John Davies’s poetry there are twenty-one instances of the rhyme word “deceive”; ten of them need a pleonastic do, twice rhyming with “leave”. The author of the “Complaint” took liberties with the English language to obtain a rhyme, coining the nonce-words “sawne” and “loverd”. In one poem Davies rhymed “wander” and “gander”, adding a marginal note justifying “The word . . . Gander for the Rime’s necessity”.

Brian Vickers, “A rum ‘do'”

So while the first section of the book, “Background,” is somewhat traditional literary criticism and close reading, the second section, “Foreground,” is tabulation across many metrics. Vickers downplays one of the most common (and easiest) forms of analysis, that of uncommon word occurrence, owing to the ambiguity of word placement and meaning. Vickers does use this analysis, but not to the exclusions of others, as some of his predecessors had in making the case for Shakespeare’s authorship.

Regardless, A Lover’s Complaint is only 329 lines long, so the sample size for any feature is quite small. Because of this, doubt should accompany any supposed distinction established along any one axis. Aware of this, Vickers is definitely trying for a preponderance of evidence, attacking the poem from different levels and angles. Those in favor of the attribution to Shakespeare (John Kerrigan and Katherine Duncan-Jones are the two most vocal, I believe) have not done a comparable study from the other side, which is what would be necessary to counter Vickers’ claims.

Similarly, statistical analysis is somewhat down-played, because the margins of error are so great. There are lists and collections, but they are presented in the sense of outlying features that distinguish the poem from other work. They are also presented in the sense of non-outlying features that are actually typical of work in the period against common knowledge. The presence of both types of claims is reassuring.

And it underscores something to bear in mind when reading the work of Moretti and others: beware statistical analysis on incomplete evidence. The challenge is in deciding on the metrics and applying them in the most exacting fashion, something that remains in the human sphere, not the computer. What computers have enabled is the ability to run some of the metrics on a large corpus rather quickly: a significant evidentiary boon, but not a paradigm shift. The most satisfactory uses are considerably less sexy than Moretti’s graphs: for example, searching for particular words and variations of a word across all (or most) Elizabethan literature.

(Again, I refer back to my n+1 article, where computers proved themselves most useful in dumb tasks performed in great quantity: lexical analysis rather than semantic analysis.)

For any analysis, there is also the ever-present problem of negative evidence. The significance of what words aren’t co-occurring is considerably harder to analyze, and so is frequently ignored. The case study Vickers gives is that of neologistic word formation with the prefix un-. Shakespeare indeed did form an awful lot of new words by attaching un- to existing words, a feature of A Lover’s Complaint. But Vickers cites Juergen Schaefer’s work in showing that the OED overrepresented Shakespeare (for assorted reasons) and that other writers had coined similar un- neologisms at a similar rate. Two of them were Thomas Nashe and…John Davies (133).

And in fact, when it comes to neologisms, A Lover’s Complaint introduces 11 Latin neologisms in 329 lines, including wackiness like annexions, fluxive, and Cautills (151). This is hardly sufficient evidence but it is the sort of heuristic metric that gives reason for doubt. Moreover, Vickers uses it to bash those who have claimed that the supposed lexical inventiveness of A Lover’s Complaint was unique to Shakespeare, when in fact it seems to have been a common feature among many writers of the period. Context is everything.

Above lexical and grammatical analysis, Vickers performs more complex rhetorical analysis. One striking example is Davies’ almost compulsive use of asyndeton (omission of conjunctions), helping to produce what’s been called the “cramped, gritty, discontinuous quality” of A Lover’s Complaint. Vickers has some fun citing instances of Davies piling on up to ten verbs in a row in his other work.

A high level of elision of other parts of speech and peculiar inversions of word order is also present. Here the qualitative element kicks in, as distinguishing “awkward” and “unnatural” inversions from “good” ones is simply not something that is uncontestable. Here Vickers returns to close reading and attempts to see what purpose inversions serve in the function and rhythm of the poem. This is not a positivistic method, but I’m with him in thinking it is more convincing than attempting to taxonomize inversions on a purely grammatical level as “unnatural” or not.

This alternation between the quantitative and the qualitative continues throughout the rest of Vickers’ book, and because Vickers is forceful in his aesthetic judgments, they do not always stand by themselves, but in tandem with the statistical evidence, they do gain a certain amount of force. Because I am not an expert in rhetoric and not an expert on the literature of the period, I cannot say how contestable some of the judgments are. But the work is there to be evaluated. Vickers also shows how metrics have been abused in the past to make other wrongful attributions, and so points out the pitfalls.

For rhetorical devices in particular, it helps a great deal that Vickers is immersed in the rhetorical taxonomy that Shakespeare and Davies themselves would have learned, and so applies metrics that they themselves would have used in constructing their works. This is where historical knowledge is crucial; the ready-made ontological categories that happen to be popular at a given time (structuralist tropes, for example) are less likely to line up as well as taxonomical devices that authors would have knowingly applied to their work at the time of creation.

Let’s look at some of the general metrics Vickers applies to A Lover’s Complaint, in order to see how that middle-ground is navigated:

  • A set of six rare words occurring in Davies work and in the Complaint
  • 21 common phrases like “high and low,” “wake and sleep,” and “gainst plus admirable moral principle” occurring disproportionately in Davies work and present in the Complaint
  • Six instances of poetic diction unique to A Lover’s Complaint and Davies other work
  • A reflexive fondness for a a handful of rhetorical figures, particularly the overuse of the word “all” (often twice in a line), occurring in the complaint and in Davies’ other work (and nowhere else save sometimes John Donne)
  • A certain overlap in metaphorical vocabulary, such as the “congestion” and “compounding” of individual appetites into desire
  • Of rhyme-word pairs in the Complaint not used by Shakespeare, 25% of those pairings do occur in Davies’ work

The last one gives an example of how inexhaustible the work is, since the analysis is only performed on rhyme-word pairs not occurring in Shakespeare and is not compared to other authors. Similar objections can be made to other metrics, but the thing to remember is that Vickers has still set the bar vastly higher than usual, and since such work is a progressive process, the details are at least there to be rebutted by someone who wants to perform some of the many remaining analyses. To use an apt legal analogy, such matters are always decided by the standard of a preponderance of evidence, not a K.O., and right now it appears that Vickers has presented the preponderance.

Harold Love, in the TLS, in fact criticized Vickers for not using more sophisticated statistical and computational tools, and disputed the certainty of the Davies’ attribution. Vickers’ response displays, in my opinion, the right attitude to take toward such tools and analyses:

Your readers are told that Vickers uses “an old-fashioned kind of testing”, and “lacks real understanding” of modern computational stylistics, such as “John Burrows’s Delta algorithm, based on complex statistical probing of lengthy frequency lists”.

To reply in brief: I am perfectly familiar with modern stylometry, but the Delta algorithm uses small vocabulary samples, such as the fifty most frequently occurring words, which are then treated as individual counters, deprived of semantic identity and grammatico-syntactical relationships with other words. It has achieved some success, but it is open to suspicion that two or more writers might favour the same fifty words. I am currently working with a team of medical statisticians who are applying to computational stylistics a technique developed for measuring irregular heart beats, which is able to use all the words in a text. It lists shared words in descending frequency and then uses a phylogenetic algorithm to create a tree, grouping similar texts on nearby branches and dissimilar texts on distant branches. (Intertextual distances are measured, applying a weighting function which is the sum of Shannon’s entropy–details on request.)

Brian Vickers, 13 July 2007

Love definitely erred in endorsing the Delta algorithm, which is indeed dangerously arbitrary in its metrics. Endorsing any one metric, in fact, is liable to be dangerously arbitrary because of evidentiary limitations. Fancy statistics run the danger of obscuring the anecdotal component of the work.

Vickers impresses, ultimately, because he bears three main points in mind: all such analyses are to be treated as incomplete, no one metric should ever be seen as definitive, and conclusions must be based on a pluralistic methodology utilizing both quantitative and qualitative metrics.

In conclusion: the human sciences are inexact and dismal, much like humans.


Afterword: Duncan-Jones and Kerrigan’s rebuttals to Vickers’ de-attribution were not sufficiently substantive to need addressing here. Kerrigan’s failure should not obscure my esteem of his panoramic study Revenge Tragedy: Aeschylus to Armageddon.)

In addition, I should say that Vickers’ critical sympathies are not necessarily my own. While I’ve learned a great deal from his work on the history of rhetoric, someone who can confidently announce of the sonnets, “These are, to state the obvious again, not homosexual poems”–and then cite Sonnet 20 as evidence–either sees friendship as a wildly fertile ground for manic jealousy, or else is using such a narrow definition of homosexuality as to make the observation tautological. I prefer Samuel Butler’s witty (though coy) formulation:

Fresh from the study of the other great work in which the love that passeth the love of women is portrayed as nowhere else save in the Sonnets, I cannot but be struck with the fact that it is in the two greatest of all poets that we find this subject treated with the greatest intensity of feeling. The marvel, however, is this, that whereas the love of Achilles for Patroclus depicted by the Greek poet is purely English,absolutely without taint or alloy of any kind, the love of the English poet for Mr W. H. was, though only for a short time, more Greek than English. I cannot explain this.

Samuel Butler

German Phrase of the Day: eines Echtheitskusses Unangekränkeltheitsdruck

eines Echtheitskusses Unangekränkeltheitsdruck

the non-sicklied-o’er pressure of an authenticity-laden kiss (tr. Susan Bernofsky)

Robert Walser uses this phrase in his wonderful short story “A Kind of Cleopatra,” available in his collection of Microscripts.

According to Bernofsky, Walser’s use of “angekränkelt” stems from Schlegel’s translation of Hamlet, where it is used at the end of the famous soliloquy.

And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,

Der angebornen Farbe der Entschließung
Wird des Gedankens Blässe angekränkelt;

Here used in the negative and applied to “pressure [druck]” for a seemingly positive descriptor. How very odd.

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