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Shakespeare at Work: 'Attributed Dialogue'

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6661

Shakespeare at Work: 'Attributed Dialogue'

E. Pearlman, University of Colorado, Denver

Here is some familiar dialogue from The First Part of King Henry the Fourth:

Hotsp. Fie vpon this quiet life, I want worke.Lady. O my sweet Harry, how many hast thou kill'd to day?Hotsp. Giue my Roane horse a drench. Some fourteen, a trifle, a trifle.

In this carefully drawn domestic picture, the Percies, husband and wife, engage in tense but affectionate banter. Kate is all admiration, while Hotspur is unaccountably aloof—less interested in his wife than he is attracted by a favorite horse and by the "worke" of warfare. He is also more than a bit megalomaniacal, airily dismissing a morning's murderous exercise as a mere "trifle."

Although these lines may sound authentic, they are quite obviously a counterfeit, for neither Hotspur nor his lady ever speaks such words in propria persona. In actual fact, what happens is that playful Prince Hal amuses his friend Poins with a piece of extremely accomplished mimicry:

Prin. I am not yet of Percies mind, the Hotspurre of the North, he that killes me some sixe or seauen dozen of Scots at a Breakfast, washes his hands, and saies to his wife; Fie vpon this quiet life, I want worke. O my sweet Harry says she, how many hast thou kill'd to day? Giue my Roane horse a drench (sayes hee) and answeres, some fourteen, an houre after: a trifle, a trifle.

(I.4.97-102; TLN 1065-71)1

The conversation between Kate and Hotspur is, therefore, dialogue that is not spoken by the characters in question but instead consists of lines that are improvised and then attributed to them by the prince. In this fabrication, Hal plays (and therefore plays at being) both Hotspur and Kate. As Hal imagines the Percy family, Kate is doting and submissive, Hotspur thrasonical. By placing Hotspur's lines in the prince's mouth, Shakespeare can succinctly delineate not only Hal's envy but also his admiration for his great antagonist. The prince's mimicry is persuasive because the dialogue that Shakespeare has so adroitly wrought sounds almost like real Percy as it might be transmitted by an equally real Hal. It is all so effortlessly achieved that the playwright's remarkable artistry remains both unobtrusive and unacknowledged.

"Attributed dialogue" of the sort that Hal employs is a sophisticated playmaking technique that Shakespeare adopted and refined over the course of his career. It must be confessed that Shakespeare did not know how to make use of attributed dialogue when he took his first tentative steps as a playwright. Except for an occasional moment in which an otherwise anonymous messenger reports some second-hand news, the earliest plays seldom exploit this device—and they certainly never do so with the ingenuity of Hal's impersonation of the Percies. (The only regular appearance of attributed dialogue in the apprentice plays is the clownish monologue in which the latter development of this technique may very well have its roots.) What, then, are the general characteristics of attributed dialogue, and how did Shakespeare learn to put this technique to good use?

In essence, attributed dialogue configures a relationship between the speaker, a ventriloquist, and another character (or characters) who serves as a foil to him. So in Hal's satirical excursus on Hotspur and Kate in 1 Henry IV, Hal is the ventriloquist and Hotspur and Kate the foils who become the targets of his mockery.

By the second half of the 1590s, when he was engaged in the great venture of the second series of history plays, Shakespeare had devised some fairly subtle strategies to manage the relationship between...

(This entire section contains 6661 words.)

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the two figures. For example, in the naturalistic but carefully crafted sentence "Giue my Roane horse a drench (sayes hee) and answeres, some fourteen, an houre after: a trifle, a trifle," the phrases that Hal ascribes to Hotspur are separated and discontinuous. They appear as three distinct units of direct quotation. In the interstices Hal has inserted phrases ("[sayes hee] and answeres" and "an houre after") that are designed to characterize the object of his satire. By breaking the sentence ascribed to Hotspur into punctuated segments, Shakespeare contrives it so that the focus remains on Hal the narrator. Hotspur—the Hotspur of Hal's invention, that is—is therefore both controlled by Hal and subordinated to him.

In so representing the conflict between Hal and Hotspur, Shakespeare uses a technique akin to classic fiction's "suspended quotation."2 If a nineteenth-century novelist were to write about Harry Percy, she might tell her tale in this way:

"Give my roan horse a drench," cried Hotspur. He waited a few moments. "Some fourteen," he murmured. A short while later he added, almost negligently, "a trifle, a trifle."

A suspended quotation is a rhetorical device that serves to maintain the continuity of the "authorial" voice. By bringing to bear such descriptive terms as "cried," "murmured," and "almost negligently," the narrator enters the story as the omniscient guide—, or moralist perhaps, or social critic—, who regulates, or attempts to regulate, the responses of her readership. In a similar way, Hal also suspends (so to speak) Hotspur's quotation by interspersing parenthetical modifiers. And he does so for aims similar to those of the novelist: the great Boar's Head scene in which these lines appear engages Hotspur only tangentially but takes as its principal subject the education of the prince—so that Hal begins by unconscionably tormenting the lowly drawer Francis but eventually takes a step or so toward reconciling himself to the inevitability of his future kingship. Honoring the priorities of the scene as a whole, Shakespeare suppresses (syntactically speaking) the northern youth, the foil, in order to enfranchise the ventriloquist prince.

In 1 Henry IV, the ingenious exploitation of attributed dialogue is not confined to this speech alone. The prince's impersonation of Percy, it will be remembered, comments directly on a preceding event—an extended conversation between Kate and Hotspur. In that scene, Hotspur had been both abrupt and negligent ("How now Kate, I must leaue you within these two hours" [II.3.34-35; TLN 884]), engrossed by things military, and even ("That Roane shall be my Throne" [67; TLN 920]) preoccupied with a favorite horse. (Hal's knowledge of the Percy household is so intimate that it almost seems as though he has been eavesdropping at the tiring-house door.) The domestic scene is also, and surely not inadvertently, another of those in which Shakespeare employs attributed dialogue to great advantage—although this time it is dialogue of a different species than that invented by Hal. In this case, Kate is the ventriloquist who repeats by light of day the words she has heard Hotspur mutter in the course of his agitated sleep:

In my faint-slumbers, I by thee haue watcht, And heard thee murmore tales of Iron Warres: Speake tearmes of manage to thy bounding Steed, Cry courage to the field. And thou hast talk'd Of Sallies, and Retires; Trenches, Tents,   Of Palizadoes, Frontiers, Parapets,   Of Basiliskes, of Canon, Culuerin,   Of Prisoners ransome, and of Souldiers slaine, And all the current of a headdy fight.

(44-52; TLN 895-903)

While Hal improvises his pillorying of the Percies, Kate (an audience is to presume) reports on phrases that she has heard in Hotspur's own mouth. Unlike Hal's account, hers is delivered as indirect discourse. Hotspur, exclaims his loyal but neglected lady, has told "tales of Iron Warres." Yet Kate never reveals the particular tales that Hotspur has recited. Hotspur murmured "of various "tearmes of manage," "of "Prisoners ransome," and "of "Souldiers Slaine." But even though his words are given only indirectly, an audience hears not Kate's but Hotspur's intonations. Kate remains invisible and subordinated to the image of Hotspur that she begets; only the partitive "of forestalls her complete obliteration. In an expression such as "Speake tearmes of manage to thy bounding Steed,/Cry courage to the field," the patterns of reported speech replicate Hotspur's idiom, not Kate's; "bounding steed" is perfect Percy, while "Cry courage to the field"—which might even be repunctuated as "Cry 'courage' to the field"—is so energetic an outcry that Kate's intervention can scarcely be detected. The litany of military terms—"Sallies, Retires, Trenches, Palizadoes, Parapets, Basiliskes"—comprises the technical vocabulary of warfare, and is therefore far wide of what is later affirmed to be Kate's customary style—an idiom mocked by Hotspur as a "protest of Pepper Ginger-bread" only suitable to "Veluet-Guards, and Sunday-Citizens" (III. 1.253-4; TLN 1801-02). While Hal, speaking others' lines, retains his prominence, Kate (saving the crucial "of) fades into little more than a translucency through which the dazzling Harry Percy may shine.

An equally accomplished use of "attributed dialogue" occurs a few scenes further on in the play, when, the tables turned, Hotspur himself becomes for a brief moment the agent who speaks in the vocabulary and rhythms of the Welsh guerrilla Owen Glendower. "He angers me," blurts Hotspur, unable to rein in his disdain for marcher superstition,

With telling me of the Moldwarpe and the Ant, Of the Dreamer Merlin, and his Prophecies; And of a Dragon, and a fmne-lesse Fish,   A clip-wing'd Griffin, and a moulten Rauen, A couching Lyon, and a ramping Cat,   And such a deal of skimble-skamble Stuffe, As puts me from my Faith.

(146-153; TLN 1678-85)

Reciting the great magician's roll call of mythical creatures, Hotspur momentarily speaks English with a Welsh or Glendowerian lilt—or, at least, he does so up until the irascible irruption of "skimble-skamble Stuffe," in which both iterative compound and sibilance celebrate his momentary recapture of the rhetorical initiative. It is not long after that the out-talked Hotspur is reduced to recapitulating his own irritable grunts of the previous evening: "I cry'd hum, and well, goe too,/But mark'd him not a word" (156-7; TLN 1689-90). Shakespeare portrays with great precision a clash of idioms in which the braggart mage chases the braggart soldier from the field of language.

There is also a superbly climactic instance of attributed dialogue at the end of the play, when Hotspur, having been defeated in single combat by the prince, finds himself unable to bring his own sentence to completion:

O, I could Prophesie, But that the Earth, and the cold hand of death,   Lyes on my Tongue: No Percy. thou art dust And food for [ .. . ]Prin. For Wormes, braue Percy.

A prince whose competition with Percy has earlier led him to mimic his rival's speech finds it easy to imitate it still one last time; an audience that has witnessed so many instances of attribution can therefore be confident that Hotspur's thoughts are revealed in Hal's words. Hal triumphs not in woes only but in words also.

Attributed dialogue in 1 Henry IV and in the plays written after it can be both sophisticated and complex. In the earlier dramas, on the other hand, its occasional manifestations are on the whole flat and monochromatic. A representative instance: Talbot describes (in I Henry VI) his mistreatment at the hands of the ignoble French.

With scoffes and scornes, and contumelious taunts,   In open Market-place produc't they me,   To be a publique spectacle to all:   Here, sayd they, is the Terror of the French, The Scar-Crow that affrights our Children so.

(I.4.39-43; TLN 506-10)

The lines attributed to a generic and unparticularized citizenry do very little more than exemplify the scorn that Talbot has already described. Another uncomplicated kind of attributed dialogue appears in Richard III when the doomed George of Clarence relates a neoclassical dream of foreboding; in the process he includes a series of attributed Senecan sentences, prominent among them those of the ghost of Henry VI's son Edward, who

came wand'ring by, A shadow like an Angeli, with bright hayre Dabbel'd in blood, and he shriek'd out alowdClarence is come, false, fleeting, periur'd Clarence, That stabb'd me in the field by Tewkesbury: Seize on him Furies, take him vnto Torment.

(I.4.52-7; TLN 888-93)

A more promising early instance of attributed dialogue occurs when hapless Lady Anne recalls her initial reaction to Richard's offer of marriage:

O, when I say I look'd on Richards Face, This was my Wish: Be thou (quoth I) accurst,   For making me, so young, so old a Widow: And when thou wed'st let sorrow haunt thy Bed: And me thy Wife, if any be so mad, More miserable, by the Life of thee, Then thou hast made me, by my dear Lords death.

(IV.1.68-74; TLN 2550-6)

Anne's actual words were slightly less vivid; she had in fact prayed of Richard that "If euer he haue Wife, let her be made/More miserable by the death of him,/Then I am made by [the death of] my young Lord, and thee" (I.2.26-28; TLN 200-02). Overlooking an opportunity to create stereoptic effects, Shakespeare did not further explore the tension between the words Anne assigned to her earlier self and the words she had actually spoken.

Attributed dialogue, it is clear, becomes a potentially powerful device when Anne reports on Anne, Hal on Hotspur or Hotspur on Glendower—that is, when both the ventriloquist and the foil are well known to the audience. It is less suggestive when Talbot tells of "the French" or Clarence quotes the words of a wraith-like Edward. In the earliest plays, such attributions as Shakespeare contrives are generally of the less challenging sort. With rare exception the audience hears only the words of characters with whom it is otherwise unfamiliar: characters who are 'projected' by the speaker and who are not embodied on the stage.3 An instance: when, in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Launce tells how Crab disgraced himself in the company of "three or foure gentleman-like-dogs, vnder the Dukes table" (1835-6), Shakespeare gives his clown the opportunity to perform four different staccato voices in rapid succession; all, to be sure, are anonymous:

[Crab] had not bin there (blesse the marke) a pissing while, but all the chamber smelt him: out with the dog (saies one) what cur is that (saies another) whip him out (saies the third) hang him vp (saies the Duke).

(IV.4.17-21; TLN 1837-40)

And then Launce proceeds to re-enact a conversation between himself and the dog-disciplinarian:

I hauing bin acquainted with the smell before, knew it was Crab; and goes me to the fellow that whips the dogges: friend (quoth I) you meane to whip the dog: I marry doe I (quoth he) you do him the more wrong (quoth I) 'twas I did the thing you wot of: he makes me no more adoe but whips me out of the chamber. .. .

(21-7; TLN 1841-6)

The various speakers (saving the clown himself) appear just this one time and exist only as they are projected by Launce. Launce's monopolylogue is a marvel of colloquial exuberance in which vulgar ethical datives ("goes me," "makes me no more adoe") jostle against pious but ill-aimed euphemisms ("hauing bin acquainted," "the thing you wot of). Launce is a superb anecdotalist and a splendid stand-up comedian, but as an attributer of dialogue, he still has much to learn before he will be capable of competing with Kate or Hotspur or Hal.

In The Merchant of Venice, written four or five years later than Two Gentlemen, Shakespeare employed attributed dialogue in inherited ways but also in new and adventurous reconfigurations. An example of old-fashioned attribution occurs when Launcelot Gobbo, working in the clownish tradition of Launce and Dromio, speaks the words of the types of morality figures who a decade earlier might have appeared on stage in their own persons. (It is characteristic of the early Shakespeare, incidentally, to attribute dialogue to abstractions; other examples occur in Richard III, when one of Clarence's murderers converses with 'conscience,' and in King John, when the Bastard Faulconbridge parodies polite conversation in the form of a discourse between 'question' and 'answer': "O sir, sayes answer, at your best command,/At your employement, at your seruice sir" [I.1.196-7; TLN 207-08]). In The Merchant of Venice, young Launcelot Gobbo might easily pass for a cousin of old Launce:

Certainely, my conscience will serue me to run from this Iew my Maister: the fiend is at mine elbow, and tempts me, saying to me, Iobbe, Launcelet Iobbe, good Launcelet, or good Iobbe, or good Lancelet Iobbe, use your legs, take the start, run awaie: my conscience saies no; take heede honest Launcelet, take heed, honest Iobbe or as afore-said honest Launcelet Iobbe, doe not runne, scorne running with thy heeles. . . .

(I.2.1-8; TLN 568-75)

Yet unlike the inarticulate dog-whipper, the "fiend" at Gobbo's elbow has developed his own sputtering and repetitive style; when he exhorts Launce to defect, he makes use of three separate but similar locutions: "use your legs, take the start, run awaie." Before he concludes, Gobbo manages to add still another voice to his monopolylogue, for in addition to fiend and conscience, he plays himself in the act of debate with the two abstractions: "wel, my conscience saies Lancelet bouge not, bouge saies the fiend, bouge not saies my conscience, conscience say I you counsaile well, fiend say I you counsaile well . . ." (16-20; TLN 583-6). But even in this very capable show, "fiend" and "conscience" speak in the familiar vernacular copia of the clowning from which they descend—nor does Shakespeare make an effort to generate real individuality of speech or to create complex links between ventriloquist and foil.

Yet in the very same play, cheek to jowl with Gobbo's traditional performance, the technique of attributed dialogue takes a great forward leap. One of Shylock's most familiar speeches deserves to be looked at afresh for its unprecedented and exceedingly deft deployment of attributions:

Signior Anthonio, many a time and oft In the Ryalto you haue rated me About my monies and my vsances: Still haue I borne it with a patient shrug, (For suffrance is the badge of all our Tribe.) You call me misbeleeuer, cut-throate dog, And spet vpon my Iewish gaberdine,   And all for vse of that which is mine owne. Well then, it now appeares you neede my helpe:   Go to then, you come to me, and you say,Shylocke, we would haue your moneyes, you say so:   You that did voide your rume vpon my beard, And foote me as you spurne a stranger curre Ouer your threshold, moneyes is your suite. What should I say to you? Should I not say, Hath a dog money? Is it possible   A curre should lend three thousand ducats? or Should I bend low, and in a bond-mans key With bated breath and whispering humblenesse,   Say this: Faire sir, you spet on me on Wednesday last: You spurn'd me such a day; another time You cald me dog: and for these curtesies Ile lend you thus much moneyes.

(I.3.102-25; TLN 434-56)

Preserving the outward shell of traditional clowning but reforming its content, Shylock performs as both ventriloquist and foil in order to act out a dialogue of his own device. Mulling over (in a kind of past imperfect tense) the abuses of "many a time and oft" that so rankle him, he returns Antonio's own words, rendered both directly ("You call me misbeleeuer, cut-throate dog") and indirectly ("you haue rated me/About my monies and my vsances"), against their speaker. He imagines phrases with which he might reply to Antonio's proposals ("Should I not say,/Hath a dog money?"). Shylock answers both Antonio's recalled and imagined words with affected astonishment, and he casts his response in what might be called a reported conditional: "What should I say to you? Should I not say,/Hath a dog money? Is it possible/A curre should lend three thousand ducats?"

Shylock's longish speech moves rapidly, in large part because of its imaginative use of various species of attributed dialogue. For example: the two lines "Go to then, you come to me, and you say,/ Shylocke, we would haue your moneyes, you say so" are quite ingeniously constructed. Shylock rails against the irreconcilable contradiction between Antonio's principles and his practices (that is, between his hatred of usury and his hunger to borrow). His impersonation of Antonio—"Shylocke, we would haue your moneyes"—distills to its essence the Christian merchant's hypocrisy. When the moneylender puts his own name in Antonio's mouth, he implies that Antonio lays claim to some sort of intimacy with him—or at least he suggests that the Venetian would be willing to mortify his scruples for the sake of personal advantage. But the fraudulent intimacy of "Shylocke . . ." is immediately overthrown by the domineering "we would haue. . . ." The regal plural—the "we"—utterly belies whatever claim to personal relationship "Shylocke . . ." makes. The verb itself—"would have"—is exceedingly peremptory; in Shylock's ventriloquy, Antonio cannot be permitted a gracious or mannerly locution such as "Shylock, I would beg," or "Shylock, I seek to borrow." The incongruity between the hypocritical "Shylock . . ." and the utterly imperious "we would have your moneyes" generates the derisive irony—irony so caustic that it allows abominable manners to be characterized as "curtesies"—on which the entirely of the speech pivots. "Shylocke, we would haue your moneyes" carries such great moral weight in part because of its position of emphasis, embedded as it is within two lines of entirely unadorned, unornamented demotic monosyllables. It is introduced by "Go to then, you come to me, and you say" and subtended by a realistic if hypermetrical growl—"you say so"—that expresses Shylock's astonishment (whether feigned or genuine is impossible to establish) at Antonio's presumption. The entire speech, a truly masterful achievement, is fluent and natural; although they are engulfed and concealed by the flood of Shylock's passion, its subtle but revolutionary technical innovations deserve notice.

Why does the playwright lean so heavily on attributed dialogue at this particular juncture? Much has to do with the way Shylock is portrayed. The materialist moneylender is neither theorist nor philosopher; Shakespeare grants him little or no capacity for abstract thought or generalization. Shylock can only comprehend the past by recalling, or re-imagining, or reproducing phrases that have been (or might have been) spoken. The dialogue that Shylock recollects and renders is therefore in its own way as physical and material as other concrete markers of his character—the three thousand ducats, the knife, the pound of flesh, the turquoise. In this unpleasant speech Shakespeare appeals equally to the compassion and to the bigotry of his audience; he employs an unobtrusive but very accomplished technique to lay bare the process by which Antonio's poisonous words provoke (although they do not excuse) Shylock's intransigent villainy.

Shylock's counterpoint of voices may serve to direct attention to other illustrious instances of attributed dialogue in The Merchant of Venice. A notable use: the consecutive and cleverly juxtaposed episodes in which first Shylock's words are reported by Solanio and then, immediately afterward, Antonio's are reported by Salerio. According to Salerio (although why he should be privy to so intimate a matter is mysterious), Antonio has instructed Bassanio, his attractive young protege, to pursue Portia assiduously. Antonio is reported to have said (and Salerio cites the exact words), "Slubber not businesse for my sake Bassanio, / But stay the very riping of the time" (II.8.39-40; TLN 1094-5). Moreover, Antonio is said to have added (once again in Salerio's redaction):

And for the Iewes bond which he hath of me, Let it not enter in your minde of loue:   Be merry, and imploy your chiefest thoughts To courtship, and such faire ostents of loue As shall conueniently become you there.

(41-4; TLN 1097-101)

These high and ennobling sentiments appear just after another narration composed almost entirely of attributed dialogue. The two speeches are clearly designed to be considered in tandem, not only because both are instances of attribution but also because Solanio (to whom Shylock's words are given) is as empty a vessel as his counterpart Salerio. In deliberate contrast to Antonio's impossibly fastidious and elevated exhortation, Shylock's sentences are ludicrous and degraded. Solanio tells his tale:

I neuer heard a passion so confusd, So strange, outragious, and so variable, As the dogge Iew did vtter in the streets; My daughter, O my ducats: O my daughter, Fled with a Christian, O my Christian ducats! Iustice, the law, my ducats, and my daughter; A sealed bag, two sealed bags of ducats,   Of double ducats, stoln from me by my daughter,   And iewels, two stones, two rich and precious stones,   Stolne by my daughter: iustice, finde the girle, She hath the stones vpon her, and the ducats.

(12-22; TLN 1067-77)

As frivolous as it may be to dispute the ascription of fictional speech, and with all due respect for Solanio's solemn testimony, it must nevertheless be doubted whether Shylock ever said any such thing. Solanio asks the audience to believe that Shylock railed in the Venetian streets not in his own well-developed idiom, but in clownspeak—in the language of Launce or Launcelot Gobbo. "O my Christian ducats," although amusing, is not Shylockian—it is very obviously the embroidered fibbery of an interventionist reporter.

Moreover, the trope on which the speech rests is an elongated equivocation in which bags stand for the scrotum and stones are testes—and while it is not surprising that Shylock should be unconscious of his own metaphor, he does not elsewhere sustain a figure—let alone a bawdy one—at such length. Solanio speaks not in the voice of Shylock, but as a generic jealous senex with whom the stereotype of the Jewish usurer has been forcibly conflated. Shakespeare sacrifices Shylock's particularity of language to crude punning because it is the clowning itself that is his purpose; the playwright wants to provoke as well as to legitimatize an Elizabethan audience's howls of triumph. It is just as well that the speech is attributed rather than enacted, because in Shylock's own mouth the lines would strain credibility and the nasty guffaws that are the speech's aim might thereby be defeated.

Once Shakespeare had achieved fluency with attributed dialogue, he created a number of characters who were virtuosi at the art. Hostess Quickly, for example, is not only a prodigious attributer but she is also the queen of the suspended quotation. It is not unusual, in fact, for her to suspend far more than she quotes: "I was before Master Tisick the Deputie, the other day: and as hee said to me, it was no longer agoe then Wednesday last" (2 Henry IV I.4.78-80; TLN 1112-14), she begins, and then breathlessly reports Tisick's words:

Neighbour Quickly (sayes hee;) Master Dombe, our Minister, was by then: Neighbour Quickly (sayes hee) receiue those that are Ciuill; for (sayth hee) you are in an ill Name: now hee said so, I can tell whereupon: for (sayes hee) you are an honest Woman, and well thought on; therefore take heede what Guests you receiue: Receiue (sayes hee) no swaggering Companions. There comes none heere. You would blesse you to heare what hee said. No, Ile no Swaggerers.

(80-8; TLN 1114-21)

Quickly's disorderly consciousness teems with parenthesis and digression and interjection and reminiscence, but she is an indifferent ventriloquist and the boundary between her own words and those of her foil is easily breached. As a result an audience may come to suspect that Master Tisick exists nowhere but in her own addled imagination. In a later play, incarnated once again, she employs attributed dialogue even in so crucial a context as the death of Falstaff:

How now Sir lohn (quoth I?) what man? be a good cheare: so a cryed out, God, God, God, three or foure times: now I, to comfort him, bid him a should not thinke of God; I hop'd there was no neede to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet.

(Henry V II.3.17-21; TLN 939-44)

Even if its technical brashness is not immediately apparent, it is nevertheless a very daring moment. Shakespeare allows Quickly to report not only her own expressions but also the words of one of literature's most talkative characters—one whose habits of speech are extremely familiar—and yet the only phrase poor moribund Falstaff is allotted is the thrice-repeated moan, "God, God, God." At the same time, the Hostess's self-quotations, suspensions, and misadvised compassion are so unobtrusively and naturally rendered that they do not obscure the larger resonances of her narrative.

In the second half of his career. Shakespeare was still capable of inventing new varieties of attribution. An innovation in the art occurs when Hamlet, a frequent attributer, describes how Horatio and the other watchers of the night might use hints and suggestions to violate their oaths of secrecy. They should not betray him, instructs Hamlet, by standing

With Armes encombred thus, or thus, head shake; Or by pronouncing of some doubtfull Phrase; As well, we know, or we could and if we would,   Or if we list to speake; or there be and if there might,   Or such ambiguous giuing out. . . .

(I.5.173-7; TLN 869-73)

The embedded phrases, 'well, we know,' 'we could and if we would,' 'if we list to speake' 'there be' and 'if there might' are, exactly as Hamlet claims, not specific but typical. There is a similar but even more daring use of exemplary attribution in Timon of Athens, where a series of imaginary or projected persons are realized and then almost immediately discarded. Flavius the steward has been sent to Timon's friends to seek relief. "They answer," says Flavius, his heap of fragments the achievement of a supremely confident playwright,

in a ioynt and corporate voice, That now they are at fall, want Treasure[,] cannot   Do what they would, are sorrie: you are honourable,   But yet they could haue wisht, they know not, Something hath been amisse; a Noble Nature May catch a wrench; would all were well; tis pitty.

(II.2.200-05; TLN 885-90)

As monopolylogue, this passage is a lineal (but highly evolved) descendant of Launce's defence of Crab.

This survey of the maturing of attributed dialogue would be incomplete if it failed to consider Shakespeare's single most suggestive instance of the art. In Othello, Iago "proves" Desdemona's infidelity:

I lay with Cassio lately, And being troubled with a raging tooth, I could not sleepe. There is a kinde of men, So loose of Soule, that in their sleepes will mutter   Their Affayres: one of this kinde is Cassio: In sleepe I heard him say, sweet Desdemona, Let vs be wary, let vs hide our Loues,   And then (Sir) would he gripe, and wring my hand:   Cry, oh sweet Creature: then kisse me hard, As if he pluckt vp kisses by the rootes,   That grew vpon my lippes, laid his Leg ore my Thigh,   And sigh, and kisse, and then cry cursed Fate That gaue thee to the Moore.

(TLN 2061-73; III.3.419-31)

Iago attributes three telling phrases to Cassio: "sweet Desdemona,! Let us be wary, let vs hide our Loues," "oh sweet Creature," and "cursed Fate/That gaue thee to the Moore." Because he knows that Othello is maddened by jealousy, Iago makes only a half-hearted effort to counterfeit Cassio's style of speech. "Sweet creature" sounds like the Cassio who so admires Desdemona, but the apostrophe "cursed Fate" sacrifices mimicry to melodrama. lago's impersonation of Cassio does not consist of these phrases only; it is supplemented by what might be called 'attributed acts.' According to the fabrication, Cassio grips lago's hand, kisses him, lays his leg over his thigh, sighs and kisses again. The coupling of attributed speech and attributed action creates the illusion that Iago totally metamorphoses himself into his foil. He imagines the Florentine lieutenant so vividly that it almost seems as though he inhabits his body.

What renders this particular instance of attributed dialogue so pregnant is lago's malignant versatility: he plays not only the part of Cassio but that of Desdemona as well, and by doing so acts out both the male and female roles in sexual conjunction. In lago's sentence, "And then (Sir) would he gripe, and wring my hand," the "he" is Cassio, the "my" is Desdemona. More precisely, the "he" is Iago/Cassio, the "my" Iago/Desdemona. So that while the fantasy overtly renders a vision of Cassio and Desdemona in bed, it also subsumes two other pairs of lovers: Iago and Desdemona and also Iago and Cassio. As a consequence, Iago does far more than simply attribute a handful of sentences to Cassio. The dream he has invented expresses a desire to be and at the same time to penetrate the two characters who are closest to Othello: the Moor's wife Desdemona and the lieutenant whom he continues to love even after he cashiers him. It becomes clear that when Iago pretends to be Desdemona, he betrays a desire to share a bed with Othello himself and therefore to supplant both Cassio and Desdemona in the general's heart (as he succeeds in doing at the climax of this aptly nicknamed "seduction scene").

Iago's simultaneous identification both with Cassio and with Desdemona generates a long menu of irregular sexualities. It enacts both narcissism and masturbation, for it depicts Iago in the act of making gleeful love to himself: the leg that is thrown over lago's thigh is his own. It is certainly homoerotic, in the sense that Iago imagines himself and Cassio as the two backs that comprise this particular beast. It is also multiply adulterous. Without question, it generates a menage à trois consisting of Iago, Cassio, and Desdemona. And over and above its polymorphous sexuality is the scene's horrid alloy of sadism and voyeurism. Although he is repulsed by the idea that he might degenerate into a supervisor, grossly gaping on, Othello finds himself in just the position he most fears when he attends to lago's cruel invention. Shakespeare has employed the art of attributed dialogue so skillfully that he has succeeded in cramming almost all of the play's important characters and a nice selection of perversions into Cassio's crowded bedchamber. The horrors served up in this wicked but accomplished speech make the tragic loading of the bed with which the play ends seem by comparison pure and antiseptic.

Still another outgrowth of this technique—let it be called "putative" or "anti"-attribution—makes a first appearance in King Lear. Regan twice demands to know how Lear could have escaped to Dover. Gloucester, tied to the stake and bearing the course, at long last turns on his accusers; he brings his exhilarating response to conclusion with these crucial and imaginative words:

If Wolues had at thy Gate howl'd that sterne time,   Thou should'st haue said, good Porter turne the Key:   All cruels else subscribe: but I shall see   The winged Vengeance ouertake such Children.

(III.7.66-9; TLN 2135-8)

Gloucester imagines what Regan "should"—the auxiliary has the force of "must"—have said. On so cold a night she 'should' have welcomed even wolves to her fire. Gloucester is utterly wrong, of course; Regan would never do any such thing. Nor would she even employ so congenial an adjective as "good" to a servant; it is, after all, only a few seconds afterward that she calls Gloucester a "dogge" and the servant who stands up to Cornwall a "pezant." Neither the politeness nor the sentiment is in her vocabulary. It is difficult to imagine a more succinct demonstration of the contrast between Gloucester's good heart and the daughter's wickedness than the five words the beleagured old man wishes to put in Regan's mouth.

A second exceedingly proficient instance of attributed dialogue appears in this same play. An anonymous Gentleman describes Cordelia's reaction to the discovery that Goneril and Regan have abused her father; he represents Cordelia in terms that are both pictorial and highly artificial. The Gentleman sometimes borders on the allegorical: "patience and sorow [strive4]/Who should expresse her goodliest" (IV.3.16-17; TLN 2110-11); he further implies that Cordelia is a natural force who manifests herself as "Sun shine and raine at once" (18; TLN 2112). In addition, the Gentleman draws upon the metaphysical tradition: tears fell from Cordelia's eyes "as pearles from diamonds dropt" (22; TLN 2116). Even more hyperbolically, he depicts Cordelia as if she were a goddess of mercy who "shooke, /The holy water from her heauenly eyes" (30-1; TLN 2125). Although the Gentleman clearly delights in his own baroque exuberance, when he attributes dialogue to Cordelia he becomes simplicity itself:

Faith once or twice she heau'd the name of father   Pantingly forth as if it prest her heart, Cried sisters, sisters, shame of Ladies sisters:Kent, father, sisters, what ith storm ith night.

(26-9; TLN 2120-3)

According to the otherwise extravagant Gentleman, Cordelia cannot muster a complete sentence. She is capable only of sobs: "Sisters," "sisters"; "shame of ladies"; "sisters"/"Kent," "father" "sisters," "what, in the storm?" "in the night." Embedded as they are within the Gentleman's rhetorical overplus, Cordelia's unadorned phrases and monumental restraint seem even more truly heartfelt.

Of all Shakespeare's works, it is Macbeth—a play of foul whisperings, rumors, reports understood and misunderstood, and prophesy—in which attributed dialogue is deployed most extensively. Shakespeare brings to bear skills honed over the course of two decades of concentrated experimentation and technical achievement. Paraphrase, the narratives of projected persons, and the indirect and direct discourse of both real and supernatural beings are effortlessly integrated into the dialogue. It is truly an art that hides art—and yet an alert student may easily peer through the scrim to admire the craftsman at work:

Your Children shall be Kings. You shall be King. And Thane of Cawdor too: went it not so? Toth' selfe-same tune, and words.

(I.3.86-8; TLN 188-91)

But I haue spoke with one that saw him die:   Who did report, that very frankly hee Confess'd his Treasons, implor'd your Highnesse Pardon, And set forth a deepe Repentance.

(I.4.3-6; TLN 283-6)

Whiles I stood rapt in the wonder of it, came Missiues from the King, who all-hail'd me Thane of Cawdor, by which Title before, these weyward Sisters saluted me, and referred me to the comming on of time, with haile King that shalt bee.

(I.5.5-9; TLN 353-6)

Still it cry'd, Sleepe no more to all the House:Glamis hath murther'd Sleepe, and therefore Cawdor Shall Sleepe no more: Macbeth shall sleepe no more.

(II.2.40-2; TLN 698-700)

The Spirits that know All mortal Consequences, haue pronounc'd me thus: Feare not Macbeth, no man that's borne of oman Shall ere haue power vpon thee.

(V.3.4-6; TLN 2218-21)

When Lady Macbeth sleepwalks, her dreamworld is saturated with attributed speech that is distorted by the madness through which it has been filtered:

Wash your hands, put on your Night-Gowne, looke not so pale: I tell you yet againe Banquo 's buried; he cannot come out on's graue.... To bed, to bed: there's knocking at the gate: Come, come, come, come, giue me your hand: What's done, cannot be vndone. To bed, to bed, to bed.

(V.1.57-9, 61-2; TLN 2153-5, 2157-9)

This familiar and exceedingly able simulation of emotional torment leans upon Shakespeare's trials with Launce and Shylock and Iago; it could not possibly have taken its particular and glorious shape if the playwright had not served an arduous apprenticeship in the craft and art of attributed dialogue.


1 Quotations from Shakespeare's plays are drawn from the facsimile of The First Folio of Shakespeare ed. Charlton Hinman (New York: Norton, 1968) and are identified by Hinman's through line numbering (TLN) as well as by the lineation in William Shakespeare: The Complete Works ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969).

2 This novelistic technique is studied in detail by Mark Lambert in Dickens and the Suspended Quotation (New Haven: Yale UP), 1981.

3 See E. Pearlman, "Shakespeare's Projected Persons," Style 28 (1994), 31-41.

4 Q streme. This scene does not appear in the Folio. King Lear citations and TLN numbers are drawn from The Complete King Lear 1608-1623, prepared by Michael Warren. Part 2, The First Quarto (1608) in Photographic Facsimile (Berkeley: California UP, 1989).

Source: "Shakespeare at Work: 'Attributed Dialogue',' in Cahiers Élisabéthains, Vol. 51, October, 1997, pp. 39-52.


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