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Home :: Archive :: 2006 :: March ::
Polonius
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 17.0145  Thursday, 9 March 2006

From: 		S. L Kasten <
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Date: 		Thursday, 09 Mar 2006 00:57:40 +0200
Subject: 17.0123 Polonius
Comment: 	Re: SHK 17.0123 Polonius

[Editor's Note: I distributed Larry Weiss's comments solely on the 
grounds of its being his critique of differing "interpretive 
approaches." I distribute Syd Kasten's response on the same grounds. I 
now consider this thread closed.]

  From Larry Weiss

 >I think the fundamental difference between the interpretive approaches
 >adopted by Mssrs Basch and Kasten and those I follow is that the former
 >enjoy the unbounded fun of seeing how many patently absurd speculations
 >they can try to make seem reasonable by reference to coincidences in
 >unrelated (and probably unknown) works, while I focus on the likely
 >impact the text would have had on the minds of the hearers.

Well, one thing Basch and Kasten have in common is that we try to 
familiarize ourselves with the text.

Consider the following:

 >"Polonius" is a good example.  The name strikes me -- and would have
 >struck an educated member of the original audience -- as an agnomen
 >which would have been awarded in classical times to a warrior or
 >politician who was instrumental in overcoming Poland.  That this custom
 >existed in classical times must have been known to at least the educated
 >portion of Shakespeare's audience, ***as he saw no need to explain it in
 >Coriolanus.*** (emphasis mine)

Weiss seems to have seen a different Coriolanus than I did.   In the 
version I saw, in tune with the text I have, the protagonist starts the 
play as Caius Marcius.  We see him disappear into the town, the gates 
close behind him, and he finally reappears bloodied but single-handedly 
victorious enough to open the gates for the rest of the army to do the 
mopping up.  We further see with our own eyes the bestowal of the eponym 
by Cominius.

As for what the "educated portion of Shakespeare's audience" knew or 
assumed:

1) Since the one name ends in -onius and the other in -anus they might 
not assume any connection.

2) The educated Shakespearean auditor would have assumed it to be a 
family name, possibly a Lithuanian with Polish antecedents.  Lithuanians 
today are in the habit of ending proper names with -ius. Since they were 
aware of many Romans whose name ended in -onius without its being a 
decoration for valour (e.g. Suetonius Tranquilus, the historian who got 
his name from his father who had indeed been a soldier but had not 
overcome Suetonia, or for that matter Suetonius aulinus who did conquer 
Queen Boudicca but is not on record as having overcome Suetonia or 
Pauline. Marcus Antonius... But why go on?  There was no need to make 
the connection Weiss makes.

3) The various English Bibles were written specifically for the use of 
literate English men and women.   Since the major portion of the body of 
English literature as we know it was yet to be written, the distracting 
television had not been thought of, I would expect they were popularly 
read. You can argue as much as you like, but I have no doubt that they 
were cognizant of the Book of Ruth, especially since the divine Right of 
Kings was based on descent from the House of David which had its 
beginning in the story of Ruth and Naomi and of Ruth and Boaz.  Again, I 
am not claiming that they would have connected Polonius with "such a 
one", Peloni Almoni's representation in the KJV (or "such one, such a 
one" in an earlier translation, in keeping with the double appellation 
in the Hebrew).  I certainly didn't until Weiss threw out his challenge. 
And still don't, although it is cute

 >The references to Poland as a former enemy of Denmark which
 >in the play was being invaded with Denmark's assistance tend to support
 >this view of the character's name.

I asked Weiss for some trace in the text of the war he proposes to have 
taken place and he offers a faulty reading of another play. When Caius 
Marcius overcame Corioli it stayed overcome.  If Polonius had been that 
successful why did Denmark need a Fortinbras to do the job again.   And 
I don't see any sign of "assistance" unless allowing a foreign army to 
troop through your territory can be termed assistance.

 >But Basch and Kasten find this too simple.

There he goes again!  With all due respect to David and Florence for the 
amount of time and effort they invest in the works of Shakespeare and 
their obvious knowledge of the texts, I thought I was quite clear in 
distancing myself from their methods and conclusions.  Lumping us 
together is not fair.  When Weiss threw out his remark about a Hebrew 
source for the name I presumed he was being funny.  In the same jocular 
vein I threw back at him the coincidental bits of information engendered 
by his attempt at humor.  Although "unbounded fun" might be a bit 
extreme, it indeed was and is enjoyable.  And everything I wrote was, 
and is true. Rather than thanking me for these bits of trivia he insults me.

 >Kasten's assertion that he is "convinced" that WS "knew at least as much
 >Hebrew" as Kasten knows of "various foreign languages, living and dead"
 >tells us nothing.  He doesn't tell us the depth of his knowledge of
 >other languages or even why he is "convinced."

In sharing my conviction I don't think I was implying that anyone should 
adopt it.  I didn't say why I was convinced because it wasn't to the 
point, and believe it or not I do try to keep my emails short out of 
consideration for the Editor as for the list-member, something both 
Basch and Weiss should keep in mind.

There existed in England word for word English translations of the 
Hebrew.  I have read that the Vulgate was so corrupt that the 
translators went to the original Greek for the New Testament and to the 
Hebrew for the Old.  So we can assume that there were Hebrew versions 
around.  Shakespeare was among other things a word man, the written word 
and the spoken word.  But the words that left his pen represented the 
words that he absorbed through his eyes and ears.  I presume a thirst 
and a curiosity, strong enough that if he saw a word in a foreign script 
he would seek out the sound of the word and the meaning of the word. 
With the Bible standardized in verses and chapters it would not be an 
insurmountable task to have the English version in his right hand and 
the Hebrew version in his left   I've had fun doing this sort of thing 
with Russian and Chinese, I won't say with what success, but then I'm 
not Shakespeare.  I agree that this isn't a strong case, but it's not 
important to me for anyone else to accept it.  The only reason I've said 
this much is that Weiss challenged me.

 >Or are Basch and Kasten telling us that a significant
 >portion of the Elizabethan audience were Talmud scholars and Shakespeare
 >was writing inside jokes for their special delectation?  What proportion
 >of the audience would have been in on it?

e.g.: When Shylock gushes at the seemingly complicit Balthazar "A 
Daniel!" few in today's audience would be aware that the Biblical 
Balthazar's Jewish name is Daniel.  I would expect that the Book of 
Daniel was important enough to Christians that a great portion of the 
Elizabethan audience would have been in on it.

Getting back to the issue, Weiss's attempt to differentiate between "the 
interpretive approaches adopted by Mssrs Basch and Kasten and those I 
follow" doesn't really have much to do with interpretive approaches at 
all.   What it boils down to is "my gut feeling is more valid than yours."

Best wishes,
Syd Kasten

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