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Home :: Archive :: 2003 :: June ::
Re: Deconstruction
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.1143  Tuesday, 10 June 2003

[1]     From:   Richard Burt <
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        Date:   Monday, 09 Jun 2003 11:51:28 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.1123 Mea Culpa (Maybe)

[2]     From:   Gabriel Egan <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 10 Jun 2003 00:21:02 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.1123 Mea Culpa (Maybe)


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Richard Burt <
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Date:           Monday, 09 Jun 2003 11:51:28 -0400
Subject: 14.1123 Mea Culpa (Maybe)
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.1123 Mea Culpa (Maybe)

>Will Mr. Egan help us to clarify this matter of Deconstruction by giving us
>a Deconstructionist's analysis of Shakespeare's Sonnet 73?

For a deconstruction of any Shakespeare sonnet, go to Stephen Booth's
edition of the sonnets.

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Gabriel Egan <
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Date:           Tuesday, 10 Jun 2003 00:21:02 +0100
Subject: 14.1123 Mea Culpa (Maybe)
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.1123 Mea Culpa (Maybe)

L. Swilley wrote,

>Will Mr. Egan help us to clarify this matter of Deconstruction by giving
>us a Deconstructionist's analysis of Shakespeare's Sonnet 73?  That, I
>believe, would be very helpful.

With pleasure, squire. Please note the indefinite article: what follows
is what a deconstructionist might do and is not meant to be
prescriptive.

The sonnet, then, goes like this:

1 That time of year thou mayst in me behold
2  When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
3  Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
4  Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.
5  In me thou seest the twilight of such day
6  As after sunset fadeth in the west,
7  Which by and by black night doth take away,
8  Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
9  In me thou seest the glowing of such fire
10  That on the ashes of his youth doth lie
11  As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
12  Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
13  This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
14  To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

A useful starting point would be some binary oppositions, say:

summer/winter
vigour/decrepitude
leafy/denuded
day/night
awake/asleep
day/night
young/old
consumed/nourished
here/gone

A structuralist would start lining these up into four-term homologies
and claim that the poem does this. A four-term homology is a structure
of the kind 'A is to B as X is to Y', and one might describe some of the
sonnets central metaphors thus:

i) summer is to winter as youth is to old age

ii) young is to old as leafy (or hairy) is to denuded (or bald)

iii) day is to night as life is to death

These analogies have a long history in literature, but we should note
what's wrong with two of them: summer comes back again, and day follows
night, but youth does not return*. A structuralist would tut at the
over-literalism of such an observation, but a post-structuralist (i.e.
deconstructive) critic would see there an opportunity to lever open some
of the complementary structures of which the sonnet is supposed to be
composed.

Looking for evidence that the 'doesn't-come-back' principle might
actually be a current running against the main flow of the sonnet, our
deconstructivist might observe that the syntax of line 2 seems awry:
surely it should be "or few, or none", indicating "steadily diminishing
order" (as Duncan-Jones for the Oxford Shakespeare observed). Reversing
the order is just what seasonal renewal can do and our human existence
can't, and where the structuralist sees binate opposition (all or none),
the poem insists upon a third term (a few leaves), and refuses to put it
in its proper place of the middle between all and none. In other words,
the poem makes its point by resisting the binary categorization that it
appears to be made of; this is sometimes called the poem being not
identical with itself. (A sceptic might say that the poem just isn't as
simple as the structuralist imagined, but is still self-identical.)

Something similar is happening with the day/night opposition, for the
'I' of the poem calls himself that intermediate term, twilight, and
messes with our customary associations by having 'night' be 'Death's
second self' when, of course, it should be sleep, which as we know from
Macbeth "knits up the ravelled sleave of care". 'Ravel' is one of those
marvellous English words that means the same thing when you try to makes
its opposite: ravel means unravel just as flammable means inflammable.
Our deconstructive critic is by now experiencing the jouissance of
sliding signifiers, the climax occurring in the paradox of "Consumed
with that which it was nourished by". References to people being cooled
by what heats them and lovers being made hungry by what feeds them can
be brought in to show that to Shakespeare the paradox is always a
fertile Cleopatra, as Johnson said.**

In short, one may construct (as the structuralists did) neat oppositions
and parallels that the poetry is supposed to be forming in its
rhetorical devices. The deconstructive critic exposes these as
constructs (rather than simply being the way the world is) and shows
that they can only be held together with some force, since in fact life
isn't so orderly.  Not only are there shades of grey (a few leaves)
between the extremes, many binary oppositions turn out on close
examination to be not so oppositional after all. The words 'blackened'
and 'bleached', for example, are cognate and hence hardly the stuff from
which to make an opposition. (In _Specters of Marx_ Derrida pointed out
that every 'first time' something cyclical happens is also a 'last
time', since it's the last time that it'll be the first time.)

Either on their own, or with a slight nudge from our deconstructive
critic, binary oppositions break apart and one can see the labour
(indeed, in some cases the violence) needed to hold them together.  For
an example of the violence one might consider the binary opposition
gay/straight that many people who are otherwise quite liberal seem
intent on preserving. Or put another way, running against the main voice
of a literary work is always at least one other quieter voice,
contradicting it analogies and muttering profanities to mock its
pieties. The deconstructive critic is more interested in the second,
quieter voice.  Her detractors think she's hearing voices that aren't
there.

Any use, L.?

Gabriel Egan

* The Greeks saw another problem in these metaphors and couldn't agree
when Persephone was supposed to be in Hades.

** Yes, I know he didn't. Sliding 'fatal' under 'fertile' deconstructs
the binary opposition of poet/critic.

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