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Home :: Archive :: 1993 :: September ::
Shakespeare's Universality
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 4, No. 602.  Tuesday, 28 Sept. 1993.
 
From:           David Schalkwyk <
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Date:           Tuesday, 28 Sep 93 15:52:07 SAST-2
Subject:        Shakespeare's Universality
 
I've only just joined SHAKSPER and caught the tail end of the discussion about
Shakespeare's politics/universality, so I don't know if this intervention is
either oportune or even permissible. However, here goes.
 
The conflict between the universalists and the historicists about the
universality (and, by implication, the politics) of Shakespeare's plays may in
part be traced to two incompatible conceptions of language: an empiricist view
which regards the meaning of a concept ("love") to be the name for a particular
kind of human behaviour or set of feelings on the one hand, and a Saussurean
view in terms of which the concept is the creation of a linguistic system,
which then "cuts up" or constitutes the world as we think we know it.  In the
former case the concept is "given" with the behaviour, in the latter it is
either entirely independent of it or constitutes that behaviour.  Since
intuitively there appears to be a large degree of consistency in the ways human
beings act and feel across time it appears to the first group that concepts
have not changed and that Shakespeare speaks for all time.  To the second the
opposite is the case.  As the relations between the sigifiers in the system
change, the concepts themselves change, carving up a new and different
"reality".
 
The mistake made by the universalists is to assume that concepts are the names
for entities in the world; the problem that arises for the historicists is to
bring reality and concepts together without reducing the former to the latter.
I think Ludwig Wittgenstein can help here because he suggests not merely that
the meaning of a word is its use in the language, but also that a word is
sometimes explained by pointing to its bearer.  In other words, while
Wittgenstein denies the empiricist notion that concepts are the names of
things, he avoids the linguistic idealism of Saussure by showing how things are
appropriated into language.  Thus a word may be defined by using an aspect of
the real world (no scare quotes) as a sample, as when I show a child a red
patch and say by way of definintion "This is red".  The sample then becomes a
rule of representation, a paradigm for the use of the word.  It is the use,
explained in this way by reference to real samples, that is the meaning, or the
concept.  The samples are therefore criteria, mobilised in historical and
social circumstances, by which the concepts are established.  These criteria
can and do change with different material, political, philosophical, economic
conditions. The world is therefore being continually appropriated and
reappropriated in different ways to define, criterially the concepts we use.
The signifiers, however, remain the same, giving the impression that the
concept has not changed.
 
Back to Shakespeare:  is it not possible that in Shakepeare we see concepts
that are being used criterially with regard to particular kinds of human
behaviour and emotion, i.e. that certain kinds of behaviour (real behaviour,
especially on stage) are being held up (or reexamined) as samples or paradigms
of a range of concepts, but that the kinds of behaviour which *we* regard as
paradigmatic of those concepts may have changed.  The behaviour may have
maintained a certain degree of historical continuity (universalism), but its
appropriation as the grounds of concepts may have changed (historicism).  What
is interesting about Shakespeare is that he may be holding up the criterial
paradigms up to scrutiny and reexamination, or showing the tensions between
competing concepts and their realtion to behaviour?  Is there only one concept
of love in *Much Ado*, for example, and how is the concept of love established?
 
Finally, of course, I am trying to offer an alternative conception of language
for the historicist camp which can come to terms with indisputable contuities,
continuities which the universalists see, but mistake for conceptual
continuities.  Language and reality can be brought together without reducing
the one to the other (in either direction) and at the same time the nature of
historical change may be pinpointed more exactly, with reference to all the
issues of politics, economics and so on that materialists emphasise.  I think
that this model shows why universalism seems to be so palpable to empiricists,
while indicating the blind spot at the heart of that position, and also where
historicists are mistaken in turning a blind eye to the continuities
(*material* continuities) of human behaviour that make different conceptual
appropriations possible.
 
This is very sketchy, and requires further elaboration.  I am currently working
on an extended piece on Wittgenstein, Saussure and the problems of reference
and history and invite anyone with similar interests, or constuctive criticism,
to continue the discussion.
 
David Schalkwyk
University of Cape Town
 

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