The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.0201 Tuesday, 30 January 2001
Date: Friday, 26 Jan 2001 12:47:17 -0500
Subject: Re: Johnson's Shakespeare
It seems to me that Simon Mallock's contribution to this thread poses
the right questions about Johnson/Shakespeare. If Johnson's criticism
simply discloses information about him and his culture, then, in one
important sense, his criticism is worthless: it tells us nothing about
the "entity" Shakespeare. At issue here is Socrates's seeming
confidence that the mind, if exercised properly and vigorously, can
perceive the Truth (with a capital "T.") Science is aided by
experimentation on the natural world that can validate or invalidate its
claims. But those of us who work in the liberal arts cannot design
experiments to "prove" the truth-value of our claims. Instead, we
endlessly engage in rhetoric to "persuade" others that we are right.
Our situation is much like that of US Constitutional scholars. Some of
them believe that "the Constitution says whatever the Supreme Court says
it says." Others firmly believe in original intention and seek to read
this document to discover the framers' "intent."
The person who has done the most work in comparing literary and legal
studies is Stanley Fish. He comfortingly argues, "not to worry," for
"the truth you have is the only truth you'll ever need." But I'm not so
sure. What if the truth we have is just the opposite of what we really
For example, what if we could prove that Shakespeare's plays do not
endorse comforting (to some), ultra-conservative values? That would
make a difference to many of us.
There is, however, a ray of hope emerging. The new discipline of
evolutionary psychology argues that our minds are perfectly suited (by
evolution) to understand the environment in which we live, including
what we read. If so, then Simon is right: sometimes Dr. Johnson may be
simply disclosing an aspect of himself or his culture, but sometimes he
may be perceiving the Truth about Shakespeare's intention in a
But even so, a problem remains: how can we tell when he is doing the
former and when the latter?