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Shakespeare at Work: 'Attributed Dialogue'

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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 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...

(The entire section is 6,661 words.)