Irony, Ambiguity, Paradox, Comedy, and Voice: Why you should read literature aloud

        Scholars must work very hard to consciously detect the New Critics' most important tropes or "turns" of words' meanings that pack additional meaning into words.  Ordinary readers tend to experience irony, ambiguity, paradox, and even comedy more as "feelings" than as consciously recognized components of meaning.  Just as the non-biologist looking at a tiger might feel frightened, whereas a biologist might think past the fear to analyze whether the animal was a fully-grown adult or a less dangerous juvenile, hunting or resting, aware or unaware of human presence, so the literary scholar uses emotional cues as "insight detectors" to locate places in the text where these tropes are affecting us as we perform the text.  One important aid to analysis is punctuation, but modern punctuation only dates to about the Sixteenth Century in European printed books and manuscripts.  Before that time, early printed and manuscript texts use only virgules (/) or, later, quotation marks ("") to indicate shifts in voice, changing the text's source from the narrator to another character, for instance. 

        Even when you are reading a Modern English text, with heavy pointing, you will detect more meaning in the text if you read it aloud to yourself.  Some readers "hear voices" even when reading silently, but it is difficult to attend to and remember information coded in those voices when racing through a text silently.  Reading aloud fully activates your aural/oral language skills, by far your oldest and most sophisticated linguistic acquisition in your native or "cradle" tongue.

        Without the full range of modern punctuation, like question marks and exclamation points, indications of how the text should sound only can be derived from the author's verbal cues, like "Miranda suddenly shouted, 'Snakes'" or "'You're good.  You're very good,' Sam Spade repeated, mockingly."  To inexperienced readers who cannot yet hear early literature's "voices," texts can seem "flat" or "uninteresting" because silent reading hides irony, ambiguity, paradox, understatement ("litotes"), or humor, precisely the techniques that the New Critics taught us were poets' favorite means of packing complex meaning into great literature.  After the spread of texts produced by moveable type printing (c. 1450-1600), the multiplication of readers of all levels of ability and texts of many new types caused printers to increase the frequency of "pointing" (punctuation) in the text, and to standardize the use of others (e.g., ; : "" etc.).     Modern musical notation after roughly 1700 was far more heavily "pointed" for performance, and now it often indicates the performance of a passage's speed (tempo) and intended emotional effects with a range of words above the staff bearing the musical notes, like "andante maestoso" for "at a walking pace, majestically," or "allegro agitato" for "quickly and restlessly."  Medieval music manuscripts, like medieval spoken-word texts, carry no such verbal interpretive notations--singers/readers were expected to bring the performance alive by their own interpretive insights. 

        Living poets could provide exemplary interpretive strategies for their audiences.  During Chaucer's lifetime, for example, people who heard him perform the Canterbury Tales "live" would have experienced a number of the tales' potential performance styles, much like a famous popular music performer might elect to transform an old hit by playing it "up-tempo" to draw out a work's capacity for excitement or amusement, or using acoustic instruments in place of electric, perhaps to give the work a more "earnest" or "spare" sound.  Chaucer's narrator, "Chaucer-the-Pilgrim," is especially vulnerable to such performance "tweaks," but every one of his other pilgrim-narrators can be performed in a variety of ways. 

Kalamazoo 2008 Web Pages: Varieties of Middle English Pronunciation Aids and Goals; Types of passages which easily reward comparative performance; Friar Huberd's lisp; the PrioressT "O Alma Redemptoris Mater"