Monday, October 10, 2011

Shakespeare's Heteroglossia

This semester I am part of an Eng-L 314 time period class that is focused on certain tragic and comedic plays by Shakespeare. During our class sessions we not only discuss the content of the play, but how Shakespeare's usage of language comments on cultural and political sentiment of his age. We have read into passages and characters which symbolize the Queen Elizabeth's genius as a politician and a nation's figurehead. We have also discussed notions of racism, gender, and class that were particular to the time when Shakespeare lived. All of these observations and analysis we have derived from close readings of how Shakespeare used double voicing to express certain cultural beliefs or ideals through a character's performing lines on the stage.

Bahktin argues that language is heteroglot and in fact "cohabit with one another" (291). There exist boundaries in every circumstance which give birth to new languages and new conventions. Bahktin even states that the specificity of family jargon can be considered a new language of its own. Shakespeare's language is unique because it is considered not only an art form, but a source of cultural and political discourse. This creates in much of his script a double voiced nature which expresses the intent of the character as well as the playwright's authorial intentions. Where Bahktin describes Heteroglossia as expressing these authorial intentions in a "refracted way", Shakespeare's "refraction" is through whatever character and theme he has chosen to concentrate his play on.

In his passage on heteroglossia, Bahktin describes double-voiced discourse as two voices, two meanings, and two expressions. Our most recent play, Othello, is a tragic play about a black general falling in love with a Venetian nobleman's daughter, and facing the challenges of race and fate. Using an example from the script of Othello, he says (while he is alone),

"O curse of marriage, that we can call these delicate creatures ours, and not their appetites! Yet 'tis the plague of great ones; Perogatived are they less than the base. 'Tis destiny unshunnable, like death. Even then this forked plauge is fated to us when we do quicken." (272-277)

When reading this passage in context of the play, Othello is battered with frustration because he believes his newlywed wife is having an affair against him. His "destiny unshunnable" is his inability to escape the social expectations of marriage and the emotional pressure it puts upon those who marry one another. If, on the other hand you step back and think as to why Shakespeare had him say this specific line, you can read into the commentary on Othello's unshunnable destiny of being black. Although Shakespeare is white, middle class, and a playwright, he's utilizing the voice of a black general to comment on race and politics. At the end of the play, you're left wondering whether this tragedy would have happened if Othello had not been a black role. Shakespeare wrote these plays being fully aware that audiences would perceive and digest this material as they were seeing it on stage He used the notion of double voicing as a method to express cultural beliefs and engender some understanding of the power of the script. In this you can see how the refraction of discourse of character and narrator is yet another tool an author may use to manifest his intentions.


  1. I think that this is a great example of what Bakhtin was talking about when he said that an author can slip his voice or worldview into the words of a character. I would also agree that there is a possibility that Shakespeare is using Othello's agency (his being black) to speak about the issues of rascism.

    I wrote before that heteroglossia often limits agency, but now after reading this I think that I'd have to say it also can enhance agency. Shakespeare might not be qualified to speak to the experience of a black man during his time period, but because of heteroglossia, the ability to let Othello relay his words, he is able to put his opinion out there in a way it will be understood. I think if Shakespeare himself makes some of these observations about race it would signify something else from what he intended. Also, by allowing Othello to be the signifier of these ideas increases the ethos that the ideas have.

  2. I agree-- that Shakespeare used double voicing as a method to express cultural beliefs and to give audiences a chance to examine their own views. One example is in Shakespeare's "twelfth night" where there is so much confusion of identity and of who is dressed up and disguised as whom that it's difficult to keep the characters straight and so the premises they speak are freed to float above association and stand on their own. If I remember right, Shakespeare used heteroglot here mostly to comment on gender roles and human characteristics because characters were able to see admirable qualities in Violet dressed up as a man that they wouldn't have noticed if she weren't in disguise.

    I also enjoy heteroglossia in early novels written by women. I thought it interesting that women would sometimes assign controversial topics to other female characters, ensconsing the debatable term in a dismissable character. The words are spoken, the message gets out, but the author doesn't have to take a critical hit becuase "after all, it's just a woman speaking," or, "don't pay any attention-- she's a little lun-y." Even though the character might be dismissed critically, or meet an untimely demise in the novel, the message still makes it into print


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