Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 5, No. 0529. Monday, 13 June 1994.
From: David Joseph Kathman <
Date: Saturday, 11 Jun 94 18:12:02 CDT
I see the canopy issue has taken on a life of its own, so let me add my
thoughts to the din, in the event that anyone cares.
First, Pat Buckridge is, I think, justified in taking some umbrage at the
wording of my last post. I dashed it off in a hurry, and in my rhetorical
flurry I used some terms, such as "disingenuous" and "presumptous", which I
would have left out of the posting had I reflected on it for a day before
sending it. Mea culpa. I should perhaps mention that I knew from our previous
private correspondence that Pat would not be offended by such rhetorical
flourishes, and that he has informed me that he was not, in fact, offended by
them, despite his disagreement with the substance of what I was saying.
But I still think Pat is being at least a little dogmatic on the issue of
conditionality. I believe him when he says he can't get the conditional
reading of the first four lines of Sonnet 125, but I think his characterization
of this reading as a "gross misreading" is just not accurate, and that his
implication that generations of scholars have been blindly led into such a
reading by their Stratfordian assumptions is a little unfair to those scholars.
Let me try to explain how I, at least, can get the conditional reading. I
apologize for the tedium of what follows.
First of all, these four lines are not particularly easy to parse. Let me give
them for reference as they appeared in the 1609 Quarto:
Wer't ought to me I bore the canopy,
With my extern the outward honoring,
Or layd great bases for eternity,
Which proves more short then wast or ruining?
I think it's the "or" in line 3 that throws me. Leaving aside the subordinate
phrases in lines 2 and 4, under one reading (which Pat seemed to be suggesting
in an earlier posting), the main sense can be paraphrased as, "Does it mean
anything to me that I bore the canopy, or laid great bases for eternity?" To
me, that would sound better with an "and" instead of the "or", i.e. "Does it
mean anything to me that I bore the canopy and laid great bases for eternity?";
however, I can see this reading as a possible one. As near as I can figure
out, Pat now seems to be suggesting a reading along the lines of, "Would it
mean anything to me that I bore the canopy, or laid great bases for eternity?",
based on the "were" of line 1 being conditional. I find this a little less
plausible, since the second part of the condition appears to be missing (I find
myself asking "Would it mean anything --- if what?"), but I wouldn't object to
someone reading it that way. The combination of "were" in line 1 and "or" in
line 3, though, suggests to me another reading which can be paraphrased roughly
as "Would it mean anything to me had I borne the canopy or laid great bases for
eternity?", regardless of whether the word "if" is overtly present or not.
I could try to dig though English grammars to try to justify this reading, but
I don't think that's really necessary. I'm a native speaker of English, I've
read some poetry in my lifetime, and the conditional reading seems fine to me
as one of several possible ways of interpreting the ambiguous syntax here.
It's a poem, for God's sake; you can't put the grammar under a microscope and
dissect it. Poets take all kinds of liberties with grammar, word order, etc.
when it suits their purpose, and Shakespeare is no exception. When I mentioned
all the commentators listed in the Variorum who got the conditional reading, I
wasn't trying to hurl a thunderbolt from on high, to say in effect, "Look at
all these authorities who say it's so; how dare you question them?" Rather, I
was saying that if all these speakers of English independently got this
reading, there might be at least something there, despite Pat's undoubtedly
genuine astonishment at such an interpretation. As any linguist knows, people
can vary greatly in whether they accept a given sentence as grammatical, or
what interpretation they put on an ambiguous sentence; I've sometimes been
genuinely astonished in linguistics classes at the syntactic intuitions of
other native speakers of English. I think Pat's implication that all those
scholars in the Variorum only got the conditional interpretation because the
"dominant paradigm" had "disarmed their reading competences", while undoubtedly
reflecting his genuine beliefs, involves an unwarranted assumption that there
is only one "right" reading of these four lines (namely, Pat's reading). In
that sense, I still think he is being a bit presumptuous, though I'll gladly
I think I've rattled on long enough, so I won't go into any of the other issues
that have been raised. Timothy Bowden's list is a useful addition to the
discussion, and I could go on all day in reply to William Boyle, so I won't
even start. I hope the above is clearer than my last, admittedly hasty