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Home :: Archive :: 1995 :: December ::
Re: Abhorson
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 0948.  Thursday, 7 December 1995.
 
(1)     From:   David Jackson <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 06 Dec 95 12:44:18 EST
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0946  Re: Abhorson
 
(2)     From:   Thomas Clayton <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 6 Dec 95 00:03:11 CST
        Subj:   Abhorson's "mystery"
 
(3)     From:   Porter Jamison  <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 6 Dec 1995 16:14:03 -0800
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0946  Re: Abhorson
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Jackson <
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Date:           Wednesday, 06 Dec 95 12:44:18 EST
Subject: 6.0946  Re: Abhorson
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0946  Re: Abhorson
 
At the risk of appearing to be a literalist, reading the Abhorson-Pompey
exchange simply suggests to me the following:
 
Abhorson is using the word "mystery" in the archaic sense of "trade or
profession" (based on an etymological foul-up between Latin and Middle English
on the word forms that give us "ministry"). Indeed, it seems that Abhorson is
proud of his work, and thinks that having a bawd work with him would demean it.
I think he uses "mystery" in the same way as many people today use "profession"
to elevate what they do above the rank of a mere "trade". Note the contrast
between Abhorson's repeated use of "mystery" (read, in Abhorson's mindset,
"Profession") and Pompey's use of "occupation" (which Abhorson equates with
"trade").
 
On the other hand, I don't think Pompey gets this distinction, or else he is
making fun of it, because he seems to be using "mystery" in a more modern,
"mysterious" sense, either alongside or instead of the sense of
"profession/trade". His joke about painting and whoring arguably combines the
two senses of the word (although it is not clear whether Pompey is doing this
wittingly or unwittingly, and thus this is left to the reader/actor/director to
decide).
 
But Abhorson doesn't get the joke, or just ignores it, and insists that his
work is a "mystery" (Profession). Pompey asks him for proof of this statement
(so we know we're being set up for one of those thigh-slapping (in the 17
century) but usually incomprehensible (in the 20th) gems of wit that WS
periodically gives us as comic relief).
 
And what is the punchline? Something about apparel and the fit. Now, I know we
could look for deep meaning and symbolism, but this is Abhorson we're dealing
with here, and while I wouldn't cast aspersions on his philosophical or
syllogistic prowess, let's look at what he says (as interpreted by yours truly,
albeit): Statement: Every true man's apparel fits your thief. Proof: If it's
too small for the thief, the true man deems it satisfactory (for the thief).
But if it's too big for the thief (in the true man's estimation), the thief
deems it satisfactory.
 
So, regardless of the size, it'll be ok for the thief. either in the eyes of
the thief or the true man.
 
I think we're talking about class and fashion sense here. The true man thinks
that apparel which he would consider too small (were the thief of his standing)
is fine for the thief, because, hell, he's just a thief. On the other hand, the
lowlife thief has terrible fashion sense (in the true man's eyes), and likes to
wear clothes that the true man would consider too big.
 
But what has this got to do with hanging being a profession (or, indeed any
other meaning of "mystery")? Absolutely nothing. (I hasten to add that use the
word in its modern, nihilistic (rather than anatomical) sense). It seems pretty
clear that somewhere between the original performance script and the posthumous
printed text something went awry.  There's something missing here, or else some
odd cut-and-pasting going on. Or, WS just lost his thread and never went back
to correct it. But the Apparel syllogism is self-contained (he states the thing
to be proved at the beginning and end), and doesn't appear to have anything to
do with Hanging being a Mystery. It's as if Pompey said: "Prove that the Earth
is round." and Abhorson replied: "What goes up must come down; now, here's why
...." There's no connection. Just bad editing.
 
Or, maybe I'm wrong.
 
          David Jackson
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Thomas Clayton <
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Date:           Wednesday, 6 Dec 95 00:03:11 CST
Subject:        Abhorson's "mystery"
 
Concerning Abhorson's "mystery," if this communication is redundant, I
apologize. I have had time for only fleeting acquantance with the "mystery"
thread, but recent postings by Richard J Kennedy (4th) and Sara Jayne Steen
(5th) lead me to believe that there has been some barking up the wrong tree
that could use a little redirection, as from OED2, which N W. Bawcutt
incorporates well in the pertinent note in his Oxford World Classics edition of
*MM* (1994: 182a):
 
      *mystery* craft, profession (OED *mystery* 2.2). This
      is etymologically distinct from *mystery* 1.8, a
      "secret" or skilled practice in a trade, known only to
      the initiated, but the two usages were often confused
      and Abhorson may have both in mind [if Abhorson can be
      said to have anything in mind!]. Pompey however finds
      it difficult to regard those who hang other people as
      belonging to a highly skilled profession.
 
The usages may have been often confused, but 2 is almost always concrete,
specific, and work related: 2.2.a is "hand- icraft; craft; art; (one's) trade,
profession, or calling," the meaning in most of the uses in the passage in MM.
In that context (4.2.26-38), "mystery" is used seven times, all but one or two
times in the primary sense of *mystery* 2, "craft, trade, profession." The
exception is in Pompey's speech(es): (Pompey 36) "what mystery there should be
in hanging" probably has the sense of *mystery* 1 (mysterious- ness, the
esoteric, etc.); and (Pompey 31) "do you call, sir, your occupation a mystery?"
could be thought to draw on *mystery* 1, but it is ambiguous.
 
There may be a secondary joke or two in the exchange between Pompey and
Abhorson in 35-38: Pompey's doubt expressed in "what mystery there should be in
hanging, if I should be hanged, I cannot imagine" (he could not imagine, and if
he were hanged he especially could not imagine-- anything) is virtually
confirmed by Abhorson's obstinately insistent reply, "Sir, it is a mystery,"
which also concedes inadvertently that "it *is* a mystery what mystery there
should be in hanging." I wouldn't press that very hard, but Pompey has
evidently brought Abhorson down from his high scaffold--unless it is the
arrival of the provost--because there is no more talk of "mystery" in
Abhorson's "Come on, bawd, I will instruct thee in thy *trade.*"
 
Pursuing the tenor before the vehicle is wholly available can lead to
speculation as doubtfully relevant as it often is fascinating, sometimes even
apprehending more than cool reason ever comprehends, perhaps.
 
Cheers,
Tom
 
PS: I usually reach for the latest responsible edition, hence Bawcutt's 1994
edition of *Measure for Measure*, but Brian Gibbons's earlier note (New
Cambridge, 1991) is succinctly instructive in its own way: "*mystery* skilled
trade (from Latin *ministerium*) distinct from from the word meaning 'secret
rite' (which derives from Greek *mysterion*) which is played on equivocally
here" (152).
 
(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Porter Jamison  <
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 >
Date:           Wednesday, 6 Dec 1995 16:14:03 -0800
Subject: 6.0946  Re: Abhorson
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0946  Re: Abhorson
 
Every true man's apparel fits your thief: if it be too little for your thief,
your true man thinks it big enough; if it be too big for your thief, your thief
thinks it little enough: so every true man's apparel fits your thief.
 
In the previous lines, Pompey suggests that prostitution constitutes a
"mystery" (which means a skilled, rather than an unskilled craft) because it is
similar to painting.  Abhorson counters by suggesting that being an executioner
is a "mystery" because it's like being a thief (which was a skilled craft)--
executioners commonly received the clothes of those they killed.
 

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