Tuesday, February 13, 2018

First Words First

Image result for first words first 
 
                                             …fruits that blossom first will first be ripe
                     Iago, Othello (2.3)

“First place,” “first glance,” "first" anything"—birthday, date, car, taste of pomegranate—is “first and foremost.”  In other words that embody firstness: we forefront priorities—primarily prize what’s premium.  Once there is that first mark on a blank page, the paper is forever transformed.  First impressions last.

This is especially true in reading literature.  Let's take Horatio's first word in Hamlet: “Friends” is Horatio’s first word Hamlet.  Throughout the play, he is, scene after scene, Hamlet’s only and most abiding friend.  Using the concept of friendship as our first-word point of entry—we can read Hamlet through the character of Horatio.  We can characterize Horatio either deductively—identify core characteristics of friendship and find examples of them in Horatio’s words and actions.  Or, we can interpret inductively—discern what friendship means by describing Horatio’s character as he moves through the play.  The most interesting interpretations combine both a deductive and an inductive approach.

For those who prefer to interpret Horatio deductively, it’s helpful to find what experts have to say about friendship.  In his book Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships, Geoffrey Greif identifies four levels of friends: must, trust, just, and rust.  The must friend is the go-to guy for all things earth-shattering.  The trust friend is less close than the must.  The just friend is just that—a casual acquaintance.  The rust friend floats in and out of the relationship.  Which kind of friend might Horatio be, and what’s our proof?

When, at the beginning of the play, Horatio sees the ghost of Hamlet’s father, he is the one who says

Let us impart what we have seen tonight
Unto young Hamlet; for upon my life,
This spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him. (1.1.175-6)

A just or rust friend might run away both from the ghost and having to “get involved.”  A trust friend might be hesitant to get involved.  But must friend identifies the crisis, is aware of the context, informs his friend, and “has his back,” as they say.  The bearer of bad news is always at risk of the receiver’s reaction.  But Horatio will go boldly to his friend’s side. 

In the one expression “upon my life,” we can see how much Horatio would risk to empower his friend with information.  Note, as well, that Horatio does not say I will impart what I have seen tonight.  Horatio speaks in terms of us and we. He is a man who values connection.  He doesn’t say “Go tell him” or “I will tell him,” he says “Let us”—collaborative, respectful, inviting.

            And so we would proceed, seeking out scenes that either include or refer to Horatio, and considering each as proof or disproof of Horatio’s friendship.  We would apply Greif’s categories, deductively; and articulate, inductively, the various traits of friendship Horatio displays.  We might ask the question: “Is Hamlet a friend to himself?” We might compare and contrast how others treat Hamlet.  When we arrived at the scenes with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, we would further appreciate, because of their treachery, what a courageous friend Horatio is, in contrast.  In most productions of Hamlet, Hamlet dies in his arms at the end of the play.  How much more poignant and meaningful becomes Horatio’s final address to Hamlet because of our close attention to the course of their friendship:

                        Now cracks a noble heart.  Good night, sweet prince,
                        And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest! (5.2.361-2)

Notice that he uses thee and thy, instead of you and yours.  Originally, the form you instead of thou was used by the elite English to align them with the fashionable French tu and vous. It was distancing and asserted power positions above inferiors. Thee and thy were more intimate uses of the second person pronoun, as would be used in prayers.  In our time, philosopher Martin Buber used the more archaic thou to distinguish a reverent from a casual regard for another.  Interesting, especially in this context, is that those who practice Quakerism use the thee, thy, thou, thine form address during meetings, and call themselves “The Friends.”

            Because of the nature of interpretation and Shakespeare’s genius, first words will dependably clue us into his characters.  Horatio would never begin with I, as Katharina does in The Taming of the Shrew, nor would she be prompted to start with “Friends.”  And that makes sense.  Traditionally, readers have interpreted Katharina as the shrew of the play (for an alternate reading, check out the Titles chapter on pages #-#).  “Shrew,” when designating a person, means ‘violent, scolding, argumentative.’  Such a person would be self-centered, self-satisfied, selfish—all about “I” instead, as in the case of Horatio, “we.” 

When we trace Katharina through the first couple of scenes, we see her displaying what doctors Leonard C. Groopman and Arnold M. Cooper call “narcissistic personality disorder.”  Conducting a brief search, we find that the symptoms of this disorder include these:

  • envious
  • requires constant attention and admiration
  • calculating and manipulative
  • has no empathy for others 
  •  arrogant
  • expects special treatment

In 1.1, father Bapista calls Bianca, Katharina’s sister, “good,” and “my girl.” As we learned in the chapter on Rhythm, how a line varies from the classic ten syllable iambic pentameter is meaningful.  Katharina hesitates before she delivers these words, starting with a seven-syllable line:

                              A pretty peat! It is best
Put finger in the eye, an she knew why. (1.1. 78-9)

We can read that hesitation as proof of Katharina’s envy.  She feels slighted, and is calculating how to strike back at her father and sister.  Even without knowing what “peat” means, we can already discern the ‘scratch her eyes out’ violence of “put finger in the eye.” A quick dictionary check tells us that, in this context, “peat” means ‘a merry young girl’ and that “an” means ‘if.’ Katharina’s remark is sarcastic, devoid of empathy, angry that Bianca has their father’s affection.  In 2.1, Katharina ties up her sisters hands—in a gesture of bondage—and interrogates her as if Bianca were a criminal.  And does not relent when her sister pleads

                        Good sister, wrong me not, nor wrong yourself,
                        To make a bondmaid and a slave of me. (1-2)

In her book Identifying and Understanding the Narcissistic Personality, Elsa F. Ronningstam articulates the painful shame and insecurity that underlies the narcissist’s bravado.  In the rest of the play, we will see Petruchio humiliate, starve, isolate, and shame Katharina—thus reducing her to her underlying insecurities.  In the chapter on Dismounts, we will ask whether Katharina is ultimately tamed.

How do first words affect your life experiences?  How can focus on first words enrich your literary experiences?

14 comments:



  1. STUDENT INTERPRETATION

    Excerpt from “The King of Plateau: An Analysis of Pericles”
    by Andrea Arevalo
    William Shakespeare often wrote about men no real women would want. He gives the world Petruchio, Macbeth, and now…Pericles. Oh, Pericles! He’s the self-absorbed man who only worried about himself and his journey. Although he traveled, fought battles, and met new people, none of it held true substance for him. Pericles was on a plateau-like journey from beginning to end.
    When analyzing the character Pericles, it is impossible to ignore his first word, “I.” A man that is so self-absorbed and preoccupied in only his personal thoughts and hardships would rightfully begin with “I.” In the entire play, Pericles only worries about my pains, my losses, my troubles, and my wife’s death. Interestingly enough, although he is self-consumed in his own life, he devalues it, “I am too little to contend” (1.2.17).
    The most prominent point of his selfishness arises after the death of Thaisa, his wife. Pericles is presented with his daughter and he immediately avoids responsibility and questions it, “How? How, Lychordia?” (3.1.18) Oh, poor, pitiful Pericles! He makes it seem that he is far too devastated by the loss of his wife to worry about the “piece of your dead queen” (3.1.17). He uses the devastation as an excuse to disregard his responsibilities as a father. Rather than embracing “all that’s left living of your queen” (3.1.20), he pushes her away, literally. His selfishiness has him too far-gone to take on his own “little daughter” (3.1.21). So he does what he finds to be the reasonable thing to do—what he always does—run away. Shame on anyone for calling Pericles a hero.
    Shakespeare manages to sneak in and deliver a powerful message in the story of Pericles. The message is of how unfortunate is the life of a man who does not grow or change throughout time. A man must be pretty stubborn to stick to his tendencies and beliefs if his own child can’t change his behavior. He leaves the child behind to continue on his non-evolving path. It must be nice to live the life of Pericles, a man too selfish to learn and grow.



    ReplyDelete
  2. In the play Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare Benvolio’s first words is “part”. Benvolio acts as the best friend of Romeo, he is also the voice of reason. He tries to end violence and is willing to help his friends. By parting he is ending violence and trying to keep his friends safe. Another way parting is important to Benvolio’s character is he loses all his friends. He begins the play having friends like Romeo and Mercutio, they fool around, make jokes and pick fights with their enemies. As the play continues he first loses Romeo to Juliet because Romeo is no longer honest with him and he chooses to be with Juliet thus betraying their family. Afterwards he loses Mercutio during their final confrontation with Tybalt. As he begins dying Benvolio tries to save his friend but instead causes them to part ways. Benvolio parts with Romeo a second time, this time also through death. He loses him once Romeo commits suicide and he is last of their friends to survive the tragedy.
    Lastly, Benvolio by the end of the play he also parts from the family feud between the Montagues and the Capulets. The death of Romeo and Juliet end the rivalry between the two families, and the past is buried. As a member of the Montagues, Benvolio is parted from the violence that he tried to avoid and that rivalry no longer defines him.

    ReplyDelete
  3. In the play, Romeo and Juliet, the first word in the play is "two" and is in the prologue and I think that the concept of two plays a big part in this play. There are many different things can reference and support the two concept, even in the prologue itself. The story as a whole is about TWO families feuding and is about TWO people who are "star crossed lovers". You can even look that there are TWO people that know about Romeo and Juliet, which is the nurse and Friar Lawrence.

    When looking into the prologue and trying to find things that were in twos, there were parents, ears, two hours, their, etc. All of these things has two.

    I never really thought about how the first word in a play can mean something for the rest of the play, but it is definitely something cool to know. By focusing more on the first word in literature, it can give me a chance to have a different outlook on the literary piece that is being read.

    In the beginning, you said "First impressions last" and I really like that and it is totally true. First impressions are important and will last forever. Someone once told me, "People will forget what you said or maybe what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel." and to me, that kind of relates to first impressions. People will never forget the first impression they had of you.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Dr. Rich
    In the play "Twelve Angry Men", The first word spoken by the foreman is "He". Such a word along establishes the intense male dominance that encompasses the entire play. It sets the tone for the audience in the sense that there is also a strong individual importance to each "He" that will be mentioned. It invites the reader to paint a picture for each an every juror that there will be. The play does not start with "they" because that would take away from the complexity of the story to be unfolded. Each and every juror within this place is unique and carries many different important qualities that help the story develop and push forward. Each "He" struggles with something that create a tug-of-war kind of plot. It is examples such as this that highlight the importance of first words within a text. While reading your excerpt, I began to also think about just how much first impressions impact our lives and just how much consideration I give to them. Majority of the time, whenever I am meeting someone new, I pay lose attention to the words that come out of their mouths and the actions that they engage in. If it ends up not aligning with my morals then I am immediately uninterested in forming any type of relationship with them unfortunately.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Dr. Rich
    I never realized how much meaning the first word of something can be. In Hamlet, the first word is who's. As you go on to read the play, you begin to see that is the main theme of the entire play. Who's there? Who killed Hamlet? Who can Hamlet trust? The entire play, Hamlet tries to find out who killed his father and how he can get revenge for it. He also questions who his mother is since he not only betrayed her husband but her son also. It's hard to believe that one little word can have so much meaning. I never would have thought that the first word of something can foreshadow everything that is about to happen. Focusing on the first word in literature gives you the ability to see things from another perspective. When you said "once there is that first mark on a blank page, the paper is forever transformed. First impressions last," it really impacted my thinking. I knew first impressions where important but thinking of it as a word on a fresh page,it really changed my thought process. Once a word is there you can't take it back. It makes me wonder what my first impressions where to other people. Were they good?

    ReplyDelete
  6. I’ve never really taken notice of the impact first words have on anything. However after reading this post I’ve made some revelations about the significance of first words. Being first in our society , in any regard, is an accolade. Therefore, first words in life have always held a sort of significance. From the silent competition between two parents about whether of not their baby’s first words will be “DaDa,” or “MaMa” to the first words you say when you’re just meeting someone. This is because we believe as a humanity that first words set the tone. So from a literary perspective, focus on the first word of any piece of literature could alter a reader’s entire experience with a piece of work. It could set the tone. Like first word of the Bible in every version is the word “in,” which really compels you to read more. Even in class, when you edit our poems, you emphasize the first word. I remember you telling us to chose words that are unconventional and bold, that way the reader will be captivated and your poetry will be more memorable.

    I’ve been inspired through this post to experiment more and revel in the power of my first words, in conversation, and literature.

    ReplyDelete
  7. After reading this post, I never really thought to look that deeply into the first words of anything. It when taking the other Dr.Rich's class is where I heard about having the first line stick out to the reader. But in this class the first word to make a change to the story. Normally, people tend to think of first as being on top like first place, first one, only one and things like that. Now I am looking at the textbooks and novels I read and really exploring this idea of the first words saying it all. Now I will probably go as far as to look at slogans and public boards to see what the first words marketing associates would use to draw people's attention. To use word to give base and then the others describe it all. It almost sounds like a crazy mad scientist English experiment. Which I am willing to do my best and take on. Shakespeare, in my experience seems to be always the center of attention when it comes to go writing so bravo again to him. His use of words and hidden undertones is something all my teachers adored about him. But I have never looked at his work in regards to the first word in their first line.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I would have never thought of first words in a play being significant to the entirety of play before I read this blog. Again, your creative touch came out. I opened up Comedy of Errors right away and thought about the first word. The first word Egeon says is, "proceed."

    and I was thinking to myself, how does that reflect the entire play? I thought about it for a coupe of minutes until it dawned on me that it means move forward which is basically the whole play since everyone was always on the go in the midst of confusion. I think this way of seeing the story, through first words, is clever. You can predict the way a story might go through first words and that's awesome.

    ReplyDelete
  9. While famous last words are a popular topic, I've never heard of a discussion or analysis on a person or character's first words. After reading this I wanted to go back and check to find where this maybe could provide some insight or maybe foreshadowing within some of Shakespeare's plays. For my presentation on Shakespeare's tragedies, I focused on Macbeth, my favorite of Shakespeare's plays. The very first word of the play is incredibly meaningful in two ways. First, because it is said by one of the witches, which I've noted before are the puppet masters of the entire play. Without their handy work, there would be no play to speak of. Second, it is significant because it is the word 'when' which speaks volumes to the play. Throughout its entirety we're told prophecies of the turmoil that's soon to come, but the question is 'WHEN?'. WHEN will Macbeth actually take the throne? WHEN will this person or the next meet their tragic death? WHEN is this all going to blow up in his face already?!
    Examining more specifically down to a character's first word, Duncan's first line of the play begins with the word 'oh'. Oh, as an exclamation, can signify surprise, horror, or ecstasy. In Duncan's case, we know that his exclamation of 'oh' was probably, "OH God, please don't kill me".
    In searching for Banquo's first lines, we find that his first word was 'how'. A question that represents his character perfectly. 'HOW is this happening right now?' 'HOW can you not see that this is going to end very badly?' 'HOW can I avoid my son and I being murdered by my best friend who's losing his mind?'

    ReplyDelete
  10. The first word of Much Ado About Nothing is "I" — a notion that everyone in this play is so caught up with themselves and their own affairs. The constant miscommunications and deceptions occur because everyone is so wrapped up in their own lives and their own affairs that they make it easy for Don John to come in and plant his seeds of doubt in the young lovers.

    It's also spoken by Leonato, who puts his own life and reputation above his daughter, later, when she's "revealed" to be impure and unfaithful, and then states he'd rather her be dead than alive with this shame.

    First words are a fantastic gauge for the theme of a play as well as a theme for a character from the very beginning.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Dear Dr. Rich,
    I never really thought about the power of a first word. I always hear expressions like the last laugh or the last word, but reading this blog post has made me start to think more about the first word and its impact. The first word seems to go hand in hand with first impressions. Whenever you meet someone for the first time, your first impression will often affect how you perceive them in the future. Someone who greets you by cursing at you or insulting you the first time you meet will forever be remembered as a rude asshole. In films when a character is first introduced, their appearance and their lines change how we see them and whiter we like or dislike them. The example with Horatio was especially well said. Throughout the play he is one of the few characters I actually liked, and one of the few who didn’t actually die. He is immediately established as a good and loyal friend thanks to his lines and his actions which help to show the importance of the first word. This made me start to think about the people in my life and what our first interactions were like.
    Stephen Corrales

    ReplyDelete
  12. I went back and checked a couple of plays I read years ago and looking at Hamlet if looking at the first line you see the words “Who’s.” With this line I think about the concept of “who’s” it is like a game of clue. In the scenes like when Hamlet kills Polonius is was a question “who’s there” behind the curtain. Then when the ghost of the late King Hamlet is with the question of “who’s the person who killed you.” Later on when Ophelia kills herself, her brother asks “Who’s killed her.” The ending is a reflection of who the story of who did what. In the end the king asks “who has done this.” He is refereeing to the deadly battle with the dead bodies all over the throne room. Another question that can be asked by the audience with “Who’s left.” The ending of Hamlet is a reflection of what happened in the beginning where we meet a ghost and in the end the floor is littered with bodies most likely with the ghosts of people who have died.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Dear Dr. Rich,
    When reflecting on the very first words uttered by a character, I distinctly recall Romeo’s first words in Romeo and Juilet. “Is the day so young.” With just this simple quote we relate with hims because he seems to not be happy that he is up too early in the morning. But as the play progresses we learn that he allows the slightest events in his life change everything. He complains and weeps about how he will never find true love due to Rosaline not being interested in him and only wanting to pursue a career as a nun. Then he falls in love with Juilet and of course tragedy is soon to follow. But when he started off complaining about how early it was after being greeted by a friend, instead of greeting him back he chooses to just complain about the day that hasn’t really started yet. It paints a first impression that this isn’t a man, but merely a child who is too focused on himself and what he thinks he wants in life instead of actually knowing what is for the best. And this type of mentality of believing he is right is what leads to his downfall.

    ReplyDelete
  14. First words can set many different things that I would have probably never noticed if it wasn't for you Dr. Rich. I see how we took Romeo and Juliet and really broke it down starting from the prologue. As the semester went on I noticed in my other class how first words or first sentences can play a major role in most literary works. Firsts in almost anything is important such as first impressions. First impressions can show a lot about a person and those first impressions stay engraved into your mind for further impressions what will come after.

    ReplyDelete