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Knowing aforehand: Audience Preparation and the Comedies of Shakespeare

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"Knowing aforehand": Audience Preparation and the Comedies of Shakespeare

Ejner J. Jensen, University of Michigan

Some years ago at Ontario's Stratford Festival, I attended a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. At the close of the performance, two spectators seated a row or two behind me rose from their seats still applauding and, moved by the play's comic energy, launched into a celebration of the skills of its author. At a pause in this chorus of praise, one suddenl y asked the other, "When did Shakespeare live?"

Her friend replied, "In the fourteenth century, I think."

"No," said the first, "I think it was the fifteenth." After a series of such assertions, queries, and guesses, the initial poser of the question brought such irrelevancies to an end by cutting through to the key matter. "Well," she said, "it doesn't matter; he's still as funny as he always was."

On that matter, my fellow spectator was, I think, on target. Shakespeare is still as funny as he always was. Sometimes, though, twentieth-century critics have asked him to bear a larger share of our burdens of anxiety than is quite fair and have made his comedies, even the most joyous among them, no laughing matter.1 But this is a familiar story, and most of us recognize the impulses that have led critics to render nearly all of the comedies problematic and (more or less) dark. Less familiar is the curious phenomenon that results from the encounter between stage-centered criticism and the comedies of Shakespeare.

The emergence and nearly universal acceptance of stagecentered criticism has generated a wide variety of effects. One of the more common and, on the surface, more trivial of these has been the ubiquity of the phrase, "but in the theatre." We all know what follows the phrase: an assertion about how some matter that seems to be less than well managed comes to theatrical life with no trace of a problem, or a contention that some glaring inconsistency simply disappears in the sweep and excitement of performance, or a confident claim about the wondrous magic that a skilled actor can effect with even the most stubbornly knotty role.

Ordinarily the assumption behind these arguments is available to us and even clearly stated. Those who believe that Shakespeare was, above all else, a writer for the stage want us to see thata reading of the plays attentive to their theatrical qualities will clarify difficulties, cause apparent inconsistency to disappear, and bring the plays to new and robust life. Such a reading, in other words, will restore to us what Shakespeare intended.

When critics turn their attention to the comedies, however, the assumption seems to undergo a shift that is subtle enough to go unattended. Skillful actors, the argument goes, can bring the comedies to life. If Love's Labor's Lost has passed beyond retrieval for today's readers, a sprightly performance can bring new vigor to the play on stage, giving point to its witty exchanges and a stylish energy to its turns of plot. But somehow the process being described is not a matter of the restoration of the Shakespearean score to its rightful performance platform; rather, it is a matter of inventive actors supplying something no longer available to a modern audience in the Shakespearean text. What we have, to put a rather crude gloss on it, it is not so much a resuscitation as a transplant.

My argument in this essay, therefore, is both straightfor-ward and narrowly focused. I look to a few comic texts in an effort to show how Shakespeare himself guarantees the continuing life of his plays. He does so, I believe, by creating within the plays the very conditions of our response. As we read any of the great comedies, we may see how key scenes again and again satisfy us and achieve their comic triumphs by playing off expectations created earlier in the play's unfolding. In many ways this experience has elements in common with stand-up comedy and with our experience of familiar comic figures in our popular culture. The difference, of course, is that Shakespeare achieves his effects within the limited time available for the staging of a single play.2

My examples are drawn from a few plays chosen rather arbitrarily: I like them. But I think that I could make the same case with nearly any of the comedies in the canon. Comic preparation is a tactic within the larger, more encompassing, strategy of Shakespeare's comic designs, but it is a central tactic and a key to the plays' success. Shakespeare the comic dramatist is the best guarantor of the comedies' continuing life in the theatre; and a close look at his comic tactics makes clear why this is so. Most modern criticism of the comedies has attended chiefly to their structure, throwing light on matters of overall comic design. But the actual working of comedy is primarily a matter of tactics, and it is in this realm that Shakespeare achieves his master strokes. Preparation is the key matter here, the means by which Shakespeare orders events in a way that focuses and in large part defines our response.

In The Merchant of Venice,' comic preparation focuses our perspective on scenes of testing and helps to create throughout the play a tone of joyousness. In Much Ado About Nothing, the same technique, employed somewhat differently, enables Shakespeare to repeat a single convention with no loss of effect in the twin spying scenes. In Love's Labor's Lost and Twelfth Night, the playwright employs the tactic variously to shape our responses to characters, emphasize central moments in the design of his plot, and reinforce similarities among comic events.

Let me begin with Love's Labor's Lost, the earliest of these plays and the source of my most straightforward example. Berowne, with flourishes of wit and rhetoric that are the hallmarks of his character and finally, no doubt, with a flourish or two of his pen, subscribes to the oath, "Not to see ladies, study, fast, not sleep" (1.1.48).3 His agreement, however, hedged with conditions and delivered in tones that mock the courtiers' enterprise, ends in the same spirit with an appeal for relief: "But is there," he asks, "no quick recreation granted?" (1.1.161). The King offers immediate assurance, and he goes on to de-scribe in considerable detail "a refined traveller of Spain, / A man in all the world's new fashion planted, / That hath a mint of phrases in his brain" (1.1.163-65). This account of Armado, concluding with the King's resolution to use the Spanish knight "for my minstrelsy" (1.1.176), gets further emphasis in the action that follows. Dull, stumbling over the Spaniard's name, delivers a letter to the King; and the document itself, unread but apparently a potent sign of the writer's character, prompts the courtiers to anticipatory merriment. The letter itself, a magnificent hors d'oeuvre to the feast of language the play as a whole provides, is a final element in the elaborate preparation that Shakespeare employs to set up the character of Armado.

Shakespeare wastes no time in exploiting that preparation, for 1.2 opens with Armado and his page in a scene that combines elements of vaudeville-like repartee, farfetched classical allusion, and (at its close) a wonderful solo turn by the love-struck knight. I want to emphasize the closeness of preparation and performance here, the way that Shakespeare no sooner gives us the "character" of Armado than he delivers the character itself, acting out the previous description with a precision that allows us as spectator to share in full measure the mocking pleasure that the courtiers have already taken in their recollection of the knight's excesses. We areright to imagine that Shakespeare here wants an immediate return on his investment or that he is less confident than he will be on later occasions in his ability to fix in his spectators'minds the images that he wants to turn to account later in the unfolding of a comic design.

Nevertheless, the return is there in good measure in the second scene; and as a comic practiceit represents a kind of success that Shakespeare will continue to achieve with this tactic throughout his caeer. What the first scene of Love's Labor's Lost provides is a pattern of expectation communicated to us through characters whose values and whose judgments we are invited to share. As the King and his fellows talk of Armado, we find ourselves responding to their jokes and, in the theatre (that phrase again) perhaps watching them mimic the Spaniard's gestures, or posture, or intonation. Thus when he appears on stage we have no doubt of his identity; and his behavior, far from opening new dimensions of his character, is successful precisely because it is limited to and thus deeply confirms what we already know. Our pleasure in this first encounter with Armado, then, is the pleasure of spectators who can be gratified by being given what they have been taught to expect.

The actor playing Armado is thus in a position not unlike that of any of our popular comics. Like them, he has the benefit of a ground of expectation from which he can work, secure in the knowledge that some of his lines are almost certain winners because his audience has been primed to respond to them. I used to tell my students at this point that they should think of how Jack Benny had only to mention money, or going to the bank, or (an extreme example) paying the check to have his audience in chuckles. Like all such allusions, that one is dated, and Jack Benny seems to have gone the way of other icons of our cultural past. But I have confidence that most readers of this essay could pass one of Professor Hirsch's quizzes and thus offer my example without the worry of searching for a more telling contemporary instance. Having made that connection, I want to invite attention to the ways in which 1.2 then becomes less a stage in the play's plot development than a performance space for Armado. From his opening query to Moth, "Boy, what sign is it when a man of great spirit grows melancholy?" through "O well-knit Sampson, strong-jointed Sampson! I do excel thee in my rapier as much as thou didst me in carrying gates. I am in love too," to "Assist me, some extemporal god of rhyme, for I am sure I shall turn sonnet. Devise, wit, write, pen, for I am for whole volumes in folio," Armado trades on the expectations established in 1.1, delighting us with a comedy as welcome as it is familiar.

Comic preparation in later plays becomes a more elaborate matter and, in some cases, a more significant part of the comedy's overall design. In The Merchant of Venice, the casket scenes owe a great deal of success to this tactic; and though they are built on the same ground, they manage to develop a wide range of comic effects. The scenes with Morocco and Arragon, though they ask for far different treatments in the theatre, may be discussed together. Morocco's attempt to choose the right casket (2.2) is especially well prepared for. Shakespeare mentions him first in 1.2, when Portia responds to news of his impending arrival with a racial remark:"if he have the condition of a saint, and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he should shrive me than wive me" (1.2.129-31). Act Two, scene one is a short scene, given over to formal exchanges between Morocco (who enters with his followers) and Portia (with Nerissa and other attendants). It allows Shakespeare to spell out the conditions that the suitors must accept, but more significantly it allows him to illustrate Portia's scrupulous attention to the terms of her father's will. She is gracious and polite to Morocco, assuring him that the man whowins her, whatever his color, "then stood as fair / As any comer I have look'd on yet/ For my affection" (2.1.20-22). Yet at Morocco's subsequent appearance (2.7) and at the trial of Arragon (2.9), neither the harshness of the will's conditions nor Portia's willingness to stick to her share of the bargain have the dominant effect on our perception. Instead, the primary shaping forces of our view are Portia's earlier satiric descriptions of the retiring suitors and the mingled attitudes of Portia and Nerissa, compounded of mockery and trepidation, as they watch each suitor approach the caskets and attend to the logic that will direct his choice. Certainly the influences I have just described control most stage versions of these scenes. The Morocco in Olivier's National Theatre production was only an extreme version of the ethnocentrism and racial stereotyping that customarily define the character's role. Arragon, often a mustachioed dandy, may be asked to lisp his way through a thicket of "s's" in the schedule he finds in the silver casket. But it is not merely theatrical tradition that leads us to see the scenes in this way; a more fundamental cause is Shakespeare's use of comic preparation in a way that both shapes and determines the scenes' tones and directs our judgment.

Preparation for the comic dimension of the two casket scenes begins in 1.2 with Portia's catalogue of the unwelcome suitors: the Neapolitan prince, the County Palentine, the French lord, Monsieur le Bon, Falconbridge, the Scottish lord, and the Duke of Saxony's nephew makeup a gallery of stereotyped portraits. While the Neapolitan prince is obsessed with his horse, a creature that provides his sole source of converse and value, the French suitor is devoid of ideas and so given to mimicry that he has no character at all. The young baron of England borrows hisclothing from all the countries he visits but seems incapable of gathering even a scrap of their language. Each figure has the faults of his country, and Portia ends her comic analysis with the drunken German, telling Nerissa in mock horror, "I will do any thing, Nerissa, ere I will bemarried to a spunge" (1.2.98-9). Thus when the unwelcome suitors, Morocco and Arragon, cometo take their chances in choosing a casket, Shakespeare has already provided a context in which to judge them. In 2.7, Portia says little; she seems content to direct Morocco in his task, open the golden casket once he makes his choice, and express her relief at his departure. The bulk of the scene is taken up with Morocco's speeches: his lengthy process of decision making, and his reading and response to the scroll. But the scene enacts a contest, even a kind of ritual, witnessed by the trains of Portia and the prince. As observers of that contest, Portia and Nerissa watch the performance put on by Morocco. Shakespeare gives us few verbal clues to their behavior, yet it seems clear that the combination of earnest concern and mockery seen in 1.2 operates in this instance as well. Portia's derisive account of her earlier suitors prepares for her attitudes toward Morocco here, and though that mockery is not articulated verbally, it has full opportunity for nonverbal expression during the ponderous and heavily rhetorical self-questioning of the prince. John Styan suggests that "The ceremonial of the three fairy-tale casket-scenes in The Merchant of Venice … may have matched the rhetoric of the foreign princes' speeches with suitably exotic splendour" (Styan 1967, 134). This is undoubtedly the case, but that splendor is itself necessarily viewed in the context of the xenophobic jesting of 1.2 and the byplay allowed to Portia and Nerissa as Morocco enacts his laborious decision making.

While Morocco's scene is well prepared for both by the comments of 1.2, which provide acontext of mockery, and by his arrival in 2.1, Arragon's casket scene (2.9) is a hastier affair. Yet it takes advantage of the same dramatic preparation that governs our view of Morocco's performance. If the earlier suitor offers a target for ridicule in his self-important oratory, a comic Othello expending rhetorical riches in a little room, Arragon provides an even moreinviting mark in his boasting self-righteousness. Distracted easily by the appeal of simile ("like the martlet," 2.9.28 ff.), he loses his way like some doddering figure from Chekhov when a didactic point claims his attention:

Let none presume
To wear an undeserved dignity.
O, that estates, degrees, and offices
Were not deriv'd corruptly, and that clear honor
Were purchas'd by the merit of the wearer!
How many then should cover that stand bare?
How many be commanded that command?
How much low peasantry would then be gleaned
From the true seed of honor? and how much
Pick'd from the chaff and ruin of the times
To be new varnish'd? Well, but to my choice.

And Portia, her mocking judgment confirmed, pronounces finally on both unsuccessful suitors:

O, these deliberate fools, when they do choose,
They have the widom by their wit to lose.

Bassanio's casket scene (3.2) is another matter altogether. One of Shakespeare's great gifts as a comic writer is a sure control of tone. Here that gift is revealed in the strikingly different atmosphere of a scene that we have already witnessed twice. Mockery is behind us. Gratiano and Nerissa, great talkers both, keep silence. Portia, having declared her love, but having declared too her commitment to the terms of her father's will, sends Bassanio to the contest:

Live thou, I live; with much, much more dismay
I view the fight than thou that mak'st the fray.

Suspense joined to mockery defined the tone of the earlier casket scenes. Now the tone is suspense and a sort of constrained joyousness that struggles for release. Portia is emotionally with Bassanio in his deliberations; and Nerissa, formerly her partner in mockery, is now one with Gratiano, silently hoping for a choice that will ratify their own election. The performance of Bassanio, enriched by the music Portia calls for at line 43, is a meditation on that most familiar of Shakespearean themes, appearance and reality. Dismissing "ornament" from the beginning, Bassanio moves inexorably to choose the leaden casket and, by his choice, to release in Portia the joy that is the consequence of his right determination:

O love, be moderate, allay thy ecstasy,
In measure rain thy joy, scant this excess!
I feel too much thy blessing; make it less,
For fear I surfeit.

The comedy of this third casket scene, then, once again works through the device of comic preparation joined to another tactic that is a constant in the casket scenes, the use of an onstage audience. Here, the primary effect is not mocking laughter; indeed, nothing in the scene grows out of that dimension of the comic experience that involves our superiority as audience. This is a kind of participatory comedy in which we share the characters' elation.4

Much Ado About Nothing affords comic pleasures different from those available in The Merchant of Venice, pleasures less tinged with near-sadness and free from that nervous exultation that still holds an awareness of dangers narrowly avoided. But they are, like the delights of the earlier play, still derived from the skillful use of comic preparation. Before nearly every major event of Much Ado, and preceding most of its significant comic moments, Shakespeare prepares his audience for what they are about to witness.

Benedick's introduction affords the first illustration of the tactic in this play. After twenty-seven lines of dialogue between Leonato and the messenger, during which time Hero and Beatrice presumably register to each other and to the audience their reaction to the news, Beatriceinquires, "I pray you, is Signior Mountanto return'd from the wars or no?" (1.1.30-31). Why Beatrice should identify Benedick in this way remains unclear, though the usual explanations—"fencer, duellist" (Arden), "from Italian montanto, a fencing term meaning blow or thrust" (Riverside)—seem less than persuasive. But Hero knows full well that "My cousin means Signior Benedick of Padua" (1.1.35-36) and Leonato, excusing his niece's mocking, explains to the messenger that "There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her; they never meet but there's a skirmish of wit between them" (1.1.61-64). Somewhere between Beatrice's account of Benedick as boaster, coward, trencherman, and affliction and the messenger's report of a "good soldier" and one who "hath done good service … in these wars" (1.1.48-49) exists the Benedick who will emerge later in the play. But for the moment, and for the sake of his audience's immediate pleasure, Shakespeare gives us a Benedick whose entire function is to fulfill the expectations set up for him at this point in the play. How completely this is so appears in the fact that it is Leonato, not Beatrice, who first exploits the preparation of the scene's opening section.

When Benedick chirps up in response to Leonato's somewhat hackneyed but incongruous joke about his wife's fidelity—Hero's mother "hath many times told" him that he was Hero's father, says Leonato, and Benedick follows this with "Were you in doubt, sir, that you asked her?"—the old man delivers a smart verbal counterblow: "Signior Benedick, no, for you were then a child" (1.1.105-108). But if Leonato's remark is the first to capitalize on Shakespeare's well-prepared expectations about Benedick, it stands as the briefest preliminary to Beatrice's fuller exploitation of the audience's receptivity. As Don Pedro and Leonato "talk aside,"5 leaving Claudio and Balthazar to amuse themselves, Don John to chafe at the affability that surrounds Leonato's reception of his brother, and Hero to discover her own response to the "young Florentine called Claudio" who "hath borne himself beyond the promise of his age" (1.1.10-14),Beatrice throws out one of the surest winning lines Shakespeare ever provided a female comic character.

The energy of that line, its saucy assurance, impels the whole of the Beatrice-Benedick connection and defines its character: "I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick, nobody marks you" (1.1.116-17). With its utterance, we recognize that the preparation for Benedick's entrance was necessarily entrusted to Beatrice; for, however telling Leonato's retort may seem, the quintessential Benedick appears only after he engages fully with "Lady Disdain." Like other great comic pairs, they nourish one another, and it makes little difference whose serve it is in this game of wit. Hal and Falstaff, creations of the same period,function in the same, way, striking sparks off one another, energized by their playful antagonism.

As the comic action of Much Ado unfolds, the ground prepared in the play's opening scene serves effectively to give other comic episodes the same energy and vividness it provides for the initial encounter of the two witty lovers. Especially in the spying scenes (2.3, 3.1), with their brilliant challenge to the notion that "art abhors duplication," Shakespearegives his spectators full measure of comic enjoyment. I haven't the space here to explore in detail the working of those scenes; but I would assert, and invite others to test that assertion, that in them Shakespeare brings to triumphant maturity the tactic I have been describing in this essay. Not the least of the pleasures afforded by the spying scenes is the range of their comedy. That range is defined in part, of course, by the plotters, both the men and the women; but Benedick and Beatrice themselves reveal its full extent: "The world must be peopled"; "Benedick, love on, I will requite thee."

I want to come to my last example indirectly, by way of Ben Jonson, and particularly by way ofThe Alchemist. Coleridge, of course, praised Jonson's play for its plot; and the overarching plot of the comedy, with its attention to the demands of the unities, is undeniably masterful. But a critic intent on discovering the sources of pleasure in Jonson's play would not find them in plot considered as overall design. Instead, such a critic would locate Jonson's primary achievement in his plotting, comic preparation that leads to ends predictable to an audience or reader, but hidden at least from some of the play's characters. Even such a minor matter as Mammon's entrance in 2.1 affords an instructive example, for its effect isto a very great extent dependent on Subtle's description of him in the preceding scene:

Methinks I see him, entering ordinaries,
Dispensing for the pox and plaguy houses,

Reaching his dose; walking Moorfields for
And off ring citizens' wives pomander-bracelets,
As his preservative, made of the elixir;
Searching the spittle, to make old bawds young;
And the highways for beggars, to make rich:
I see no end of his labours. He will make
Nature asham'd of her long sleep: when art,
Who's but a step-dame, shall do more than she,
In her best love to mankind, ever could.
If his dream last, he'll turn the age to gold.

Having enjoyed this preview of the character, we are primed for Mammon's imaginative and linguistic excesses as he enters with Surly: "Come on, sir. Now you set your foot on shore / In novo orbe" (2.1.1-2).

Almost any of Jonson's plays could supply a similar incident. What Twelfth Night shares with Jonsonian comedy is an abundance of such comic events subsumed to the requirements of the play's major action, but generating an energy that makes them almost independent episodes. I want to focus on just one instance of plotting of this kind. It is, like Jonson'scomic preparation for Mammon, a matter of introducing a character, in this case, Olivia. But, as with most comparisons of Jonson and Shakespeare, the differences are instructive. Subtle'sspeech has a vivid particularity about it. He captures Mammon's habits of imagination, joining a view of alchemy as art beyond nature with the action of "Searching the spittle, to make old bawds young" (1.4.23). Further still, Jonson's construction of the speech encourages the actor playing Subtle to treat the audience to a physical parody of the knight'sfigure and gestures before Mammon himself appears: "Methinks I see him." Finally, the payoff in The Alchemist is immediate. After Subtle has given the audience a lesson on how to read Mammon, the knight himself appears, palpable and transparent. In many ways, Jonson's management of the tactic here resembles Shakespeare's introduction of Armado.

Shakespeare's introduction of Olivia develops differently, and it does so in a way thatreinforces the play's connection with the Feast of Epiphany; Sebastian is not alone in making a miraculous appearance in Twelfth Night. In the play's opening scene, we learn of Olivia through Orsino, who gives first an unprompted view of her magical powers—"O, when mine eyes did see Olivia first, / … / That instant was I turn'd into a hart,"—and then an interpretation of Valentine's report, in which Orsino chooses not to see a rejection of his suit but "a heart of … fine frame" (1.1.18, 20, 32). The next three scenes of the play continue this line of plotting. Shakespeare never lets us forget Olivia's importance, and through the use of a marvelous dramatic retard he increases our eagerness to see her even as he increases the demands on the actress playing the role. She must meet the high expectations the playwright has set for her in scenes one through four. In this respect, Shakespeare exploits the experience of delayed gratification, with the attendant risk of disappointing hisaudience, while Jonson, in the case of Mammon at least, is so eager to please that he unwraps hiscomic gift immediately.

Twelfth Night's fifth scene is the culmination of this plotting line considered as a discrete episode. Shakespeare unveils Olivia at last. But even here the retard continues, for the scene begins with Feste and Maria, who warns the clown, as she had earlier warned Sir Toby,of her lady's displeasure. Olivia's initial verbal jousting with Feste performs twofunctions: it helps to separate her from the earnest solicitude of Malvolio, and it prepares her for the whimsical act of admitting the messenger, that figure described by Malvolio as "between man and boy," one who is "very welfavor'd," "speaks shrewishly," and looks as if "his mother's milk were scarce out of him" (1.5.159-62). Defeated in her contest with Feste, she chooses to continue the sport with a competitor who promises to be less skillful. What follows, of course, is one of the great comic confrontations in all of Elizabethan drama. As comic preparation, the whole of Act One, up through 5.26, works magnificently to establish a context for Olivia's appearance. When she does at last enter, she ought to be both as wonderful as Orsino suggests and more real than the creature of his delicate imaginings. She does not disappoint us. At once removed from the world and in it, she jokes with Feste and pronounces her authoritative judgment on Malvolio: "You are sick of self-love." Then she turns, or Shakespeare turns her, to enact yet another miraculous appearance, this time to Orsino's clamorous messenger.

The examples I set out here constitute a very small selection from just one tactic in Shakespeare's comic repertoire. They suggest, I hope, his mastery of the tactic; but they also suggest the range of comic responses he could generate through this single means. It seems useful to recognize that Shakespeare is just as funny as he always was; it seems equally useful to recognize the variety of ways in which he could be funny.7


1 See Richard Levin in New Readings vs. Old Plays (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979).

2 Although some of the points I make here are related to his idea of "discrepant awareness," my focus is not on the matters treated by Bertrand Evans in Shakespeare's Comedies.

3 My text is the Riverside Shakespeare.

4 We need to be more attentive than we ordinarily are to comedy of this sort, a comedy that invites us as spectators to share in the delight of the characters.

5 This stage direction is supplied in the Arden edition, ed. A. R. Humphreys (London: Routledge, 1981). Though it has no textual authority, appearing in neither quarto nor folio, it does describe the scene accurately.

6 My text is the Revels edition, ed. F. H. Mares (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967).

7 Parts of this essay appear in my book Shakespeare and the Ends of Comedy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991).

Source: "'Knowing Aforehand': Audience Preparation and the Comedies of Shakespeare," in Acting Funny: Comic Theory and Practice in Shakespeare's Plays, edited by Frances Teague, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994, pp. 72-84.

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