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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Jane Austen Learned to Sigh for (Cipher) Words from Her Ciphering (Sigh-for-ing) Mentor, Shakespeare

So, in my two posts earlier today, which I combined here….

…I started from Anielka Briggs’s very sharp discovery of Jane Austen having punned homophonically on the word “cipher” as “sigh for” in Northanger Abbey, and took that punning in a variety of directions of interest to me.

But after I was done with that, I immediately wondered whether Shakespeare, the greatest punster in literary history, the fount of puns, if you will, might have provided the inspiration for Jane Austen’s punning on “sigh for”?

This post is the result of my following up on that hunch. Turns out, he did it, she recognized it, and it’s all very cool, so sit back and enjoy the paranomosiacal ride!

Some quick word searching confirmed to me that Shakespeare only played on the homophonic pun of sigh-for standing in for “cipher” on a handful of occasions, and he also only used the actual word “cipher” a handful of  occasions, and pretty much each of these examples is interesting, a few are extraordinary, and they’re all connected to each other in various ways.

I will begin with the exchange between Benedick and his friends in Act 3, Scene 2 of Much Ado About Nothing, in which we see Benedick and his pals exchange puns faster than a speeding bullet, over Benedick’s alleged toothache:

Other than enjoying the wit, it brings a smile to read  Don Pedro’s question as “What! Cipher the toothache”?”, which translates as “What! Making puns on a toothache?”

In that regard, it’s very interesting to think about Harriet Smith’s alleged “toothache” in Emma, and to wonder what it might actually signify.

But let’s move on to the one Shakespeare play in which both the “sigh for” pun and the word “cipher” both appear. That just happens to be the Shakespeare play which is most self-conscious taken up, from one end to the other, with multiply-layered puns and other wordplay, Loves Labours Lost.

First, in Act 1, Scene 2, we have Moth and Don Adriano exchanging puns at a rapid clip while playing with the number “three”, and Moth takes the punning cake, when he refers to Don Adriano as a “cipher”, which can not only refer to the number “zero”, it also means that Moth insults Don Armado as a cipher, or a zero, a nobody, and….Moth can also be understood to call him a “sigh for”, meaning a man who makes a career out of ‘sighing for” women.  Three meanings in one word meaning “zero”, not bad brainwork for a flying insect!:

Then later, in Act 3, Scene 1, we have Biron curiously also speaking about the number three, and speaking literally about ‘sighing for’ his lady love, but also, more subtly, talking about ciphering her, or making up riddling wordplay about her.  For purposes of this post, it’s a clear pun on “sigh for” of exactly the same kind that Jane Austen used in her 1813 letter and in NorthangerAbbey:

…And, among three, to love the worst of all;
A wightly wanton with a velvet brow,
With two pitch-balls stuck in her face for eyes;
Ay, and by heaven, one that will do the deed
Though Argus were her eunuch and her guard:
And I to SIGH FOR her! to watch for her!
To pray for her! Go to; it is a plague
That Cupid will impose for my neglect
Of his almighty dreadful little might.
Well, I will love, write, sigh, pray, sue and groan:
Some men must love my lady and some Joan.

Next, in Act 3, Scene 2 of As You Like It, below, Richard Grant White, wayyyyyy back in 1883 identified the pun on cipher/sigh-for in Orlando’s witty reply to the self absorbed Jaques. Orlando first gulls Jaques into referring to his reflection in a brook, and then springs his two-edged joke, which is that Jaques would see in the water both a “cipher” (himself, a humorless person with no personality) and also a “sigh for” (again Jaques himself, who would by staring at himself in a brook be just like Narcissus, who fell in lover with his own reflection in water and drowned.) So score this one as a direct hit:

And the following might just be the most remarkable example of Shakespeare’s hiding his homophonic punning on the word “cipher” in the plainest sight possible, without coming right out and just telling the reader explicitly. It occurs in Act  2, Scene 5 of Twelfth Night, in the prose portion of the letter that Maria has actually written in so clever a disguise as to successfully gull Malvolio into thinking it was written to him by the great lady he serves, the Countess Olivia, for whom he of course carries a huge torch. Just read it and marvel at Shakespeare’s witty punning in full flight.

'If this fall into thy hand, revolve. In my stars I am above thee; but be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em. Thy Fates open their hands; let thy blood and spirit embrace them; and, to inure thyself to what thou art like to be, cast thy humble slough and appear fresh. Be opposite with a kinsman, surly with servants; let thy tongue tang arguments of state; put thyself into the trick of singularity: she thus advises thee that SIGHS FOR thee. Remember who commended thy yellow stockings, and wished to see thee ever cross-gartered: I say, remember. Go to, thou art made, if thou desirest to be so; if not, let me see thee a steward still, the fellow of servants, and not worthy to touch Fortune's fingers. Farewell. She that would alter services with thee,

What makes this a certainty as a pun ---“she thus advises thee that [she] CIPHERS thee”---is that in the poetry portion of the letter which Malvolio has also been reading aloud to the great amusement of his secret tormentors hiding in the box-tree, we read the following, which must be the most famous bit of overt  “ciphering” in all of Shakespeare:

So, here we have a letter which contains an overt cipher, the attempted solving of which occupies Malvolio for a while before he turns to the prose portion of the letter; and then we have, in that prose part of the letter, a disguised homophonic pun on the word “ciphers”---“sighs for”. 

From a quick check online, I don’t see any sign that this pun has previously been detected by Shakespearean scholars, but I will check more thoroughly later, as it would, I think, be quite surprising if I were the first to identify it, given that Shakespeare has, again, hidden it in the plainest sight possible, ie., in a context where his character is engaged in trying to solve a different cipher! And it’s been out in view for nearly 400 years.

And finally, we have not one but two reversals of the direction of the punning in The Rape of Lucrece, where the two following passages both use cipher as a verb, and both make sense with the actual word, cipher, as well as the homophone, “sigh for”. The second one is particularly elegant, in that it is profoundly true that the illiterate don’t know how to “cipher” what is written in learned books (i.e., they don’t know how to decipher the hidden meanings in such works, such as this sophisticated punning in  The Rape of Lucrece itself!), but the illiterate also don’t know how to “sigh for” what is written in learned books, i.e., they also haven’t learnt how to love what is written there, especially the hidden meanings that have to be sussed out:

'Yea, though I die, the scandal will survive,
And be an eye-sore in my golden coat;
Some loathsome dash the herald will contrive,
To CIPHER me how fondly I did dote;
That my posterity, shamed with the note
Shall curse my bones, and hold it for no sin
To wish that I their father had not bin.
'Make me not object to the tell-tale Day!
The light will show, character'd in my brow,
The story of sweet chastity's decay,
The impious breach of holy wedlock vow:
Yea the illiterate, that know not how
To CIPHER what is writ in learned books,
Will quote my loathsome trespass in my looks.

And it seems more than likely that the above passages in Lucrece (an earlier work) constitute the very reason why the letter to Malvolio refers to a “Lucrece knife”, which in turn prompts him to observe:  

“Soft! and the impressure HER LUCRECE, with which she uses to seal: 'tis my lady. To whom should this be?

So….I believe it fair to infer from all of the above that Shakespeare definitely did play, on a number of occasions, with the pun on cipher/sigh-for, and when you put that conclusion alongside Jane Austen’s play with the same pun throughout her career, and even in one of her letters, it tells you that Jane Austen recognized Shakespeare’s punning on cipher, and emulated it in the most sophisticated way, as I have come to expect from her.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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