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Home :: Archive :: 2003 :: December ::
Bottom, Weaving Metaphors, Language and Reality
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.2354  Friday, 12 December 2003

From:           John Webb <
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Date:           Friday, 12 Dec 2003 11:08:14 -0000
Subject:        Re: Bottom, Weaving Metaphors, Language and Reality

For the origin of the word "bottom", The Oxford Dictionary of English
Etymology gives the Sanskrit word "budhna", meaning "foundation" and
"base".

The same Sanskirt root "budh" actually means "to awaken" and
"knowledge". The knowledge referred to by this word is not primarily
factual knowledge, but the "reawakening of consciousness" and
"enlightenment".

Interpreting the play in terms of Platonic symbolism, this is actually
the meaning of Bottom's (Shakespeare's) own divine mystical revelation,
symbolised in the relationship between Bottom and Titania, and for which
human marriage is also a symbol.

The name Buddha means the same thing.

The name Bottom, at some deep level in the matrix of language, contains
the whole essence of the play.

We might also ask whether this linguistic connection is simply something
static, or whether the name has any dynamic role as part of some living
process.

Dana Wilson posted a reply on this thread, and also a follow-up topic
"Nouminal Composition Structures in Shaksper", about how single Greek
nouns could contain the essence of character and plot:
http://www.shaksper.net/archives/2003/2341.html

May I offer a few more ideas to consider, about the creative power of
language, and the nature of Shakespeare's Art....

Caliban tells us how Prospero taught him language. When Prospero speaks
of his "art", and presumably this is Shakespeare's Art, how closely is
this Art connected with language and names in themselves? And is this
Art confined to the theatre, or is it connected, in any way, with
reality?

From my own limited knowledge, the idea that words and names have some
fundamental relation to reality, and to human character, goes back to a
common body of ideas shared by the Ancient Egyptians, the Hebrews, and
the Greeks, possibly with some slight cultural variations.

The Ancient Egyptian onomasticon (encyclopedia) consisted of simply the
names of things, without any descriptions, in the belief that the name
itself contains the full knowledge of an object or an idea.

The Ancient Egyptian pantheon included a deity whose function was
connected with names and the power of speech, now known by the Greek
name, Thoth. In "The Gods of the Egyptians", by Wallis Budge, Vol 1,
p403, Budge states: "The commonest name given to Thoth is h*b... From
one aspect he was speech itself... In every legend in which Thoth takes
a prominent part we see it is he who speaks the word that results in the
wishes of Ra being carried into effect."

In "From Fetish to God in Ancient Egypt", by Wallis Budge, p155, Budge
states: "the theology of Thoth is well described by the opening words of
St John's Gospel: In the beginning was the Word."

The "commonest" name for Thoth, h*b, is similar to Hob, an old English
name for Puck, Oberon's messenger, though there can't be any real
connection (?).

There is a lengthy treatment of ideas about the creative power of
language in "Old Testament Theology", by Gerhard von Rad, Vol 2,
pp80-98. He states: "In modern European languages the almost exclusive
function of the word is to convey meaning. It is a phonetic entity used
as a vehicle for intellectual self-expression. This noetic function of
the word is far from covering the meaning that language had for ancient
peoples... According to ancient ideas, a name was not just "noise and
smoke": instead there was a close and essential relationship between it
and its subject... In many highly developed cultures language was not
restricted simply to the description of objects... language could
produce something; language itself became creative; and this is a
possibility which language has never lost, even to this day. Countless
examples to be found in comparative religion rest on a conception of
language which we can call dynamistic, since here a word is thought to
possess a power which extends beyond the realm of the mind, and may be
effective in the material world... in her most ordinary statements, in
magic, and in the deepest insights of theology alike, Israel took as her
starting point the conviction that word possessed creative power... the
Greeks too believed that their language was mightier than they."

Some SHAKSPERians may not be impressed by the works of J R R Tolkien,
but he too subscribed to the idea of the creative power of language.
The following quotes are from "The Road to Middle Earth", by T A
Shippey, pp80-87:

"Tolkien used [language] in an extremely peculiar, idiosyncratic and
daring way... Tolkien had a private theory... This was Tolkien's major
linguistic heresy... It was like him to think that there might be a
"true language", one "isomorphic with reality"...  The thing we would
like to know about Tom Bombadil is what he is, but this is never asked
or answered directly. Frodo raises the courage to ask... "Don't you know
my name yet? That is the only answer". He [Tom Bombadil] seems to be a
lusus naurae, a one-member category.... [his language] tends to be
onomastic, mere lists of names. But though the hobbits may not know the
language they understand it; and when Tom names something (as he does
with the hobbits ponies) the name sticks - the animals respond to
nothing else the rest of their lives. There is an ancient myth in this
feature, that of the "true language"... It is this which seems to give
Tom his power.  Like Adam, "whatsoever he called every living creature,
that was the name thereof".

Is this "lusus naurae" connected with Plato's belief that the name-giver
and king was the "rarest of all artisans"? Was Shakespeare himself a
member of that exclusive club?

Incidentally, Tolkien's "hobbit", is that Hob name again.

The film Forbidden Planet is loosely based on The Tempest, and has been
previously been discussed in this Conference. e.g.:
http://www.shaksper.net/archives/2000/2141.html
http://www.shaksper.net/archives/2002/0530.html
In this film, note that Morbius is described as the "expedition
philologist". The film brings out an idea that thoughts in Morbius' own
subconscious are materialising themselves in the real world. You might
draw a simple parallel with the playwright's art. The theatre enables a
playwright to have his own thoughts made real, in the performance of the
play. But how deep does that analogy run? When Shakespeare tells us "all
the world's a stage", what is he saying?

To what extent is Shakespeare's Art related to language and names in
themselves? Or does his art consist largely in the arrangement of the
drama (telling a story)? Or is it a combination of the two? And are we
just talking about the theatre, or the world itself?

John Webb

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