The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 17.0441 Thursday, 11 May 2006
Date: Wednesday, 10 May 2006 08:59:03 -0400 (GMT-04:00)
Subject: 17.0431 Characters
Comment: Re: SHK 17.0431 Characters
It seems to me that semiotics (and linguistic distinctions like
denotation and connotation) play a role in this discussion of character.
Say the word "mother" out of context: to someone who had an abusive
mother, the word itself conjures up images of pain (psychic and/or
physical); to someone who had a loving mother, it generates a feeling of
happiness/nostalgia/security; to someone whose mother was gone before
he/she was old enough to know her, it likely results in no reaction at
all; and to a street-wise kid, it will be heard as but half of a
All of those interpretations are legitimate for the hearer experiencing
them, within the context of his or her perceptions of the world--but
none of them are (to use Hardy's term) the ULTIMATE meaning of "mother."
Similarly, we are trained from the moment we gain cognitive capabilities
to categorize and discriminate between this object and that--so we tend
to judge what we see by what we already know. Theodore Roethke's "My
Papa's Waltz" offers an interesting opportunity to investigate this sort
of phenomenon: nearly to a man, my male students and colleagues have
typically read the poem as a rough-housing romp between a loving father
and his son; almost all the women in my life (including me) have read it
as child-abuse. (When he performs it, Roethke himself reads the poem
from the latter perspective: there is nothing joyful or ebullient in his
nearly funereal voice.) But are both interpretations legitimate, given
the data presented in the poem? Yes. Does even Roethke's reading
preclude the alternative? No. Human beings tend to be ambivalent in
their relationships with one another--and just as much as the poem
expresses the little boy's terror as his drunken father whirls him into
kitchen walls "clinging like death" to his shirt, there is also the
suggestion of delight in daddy's attention in the little boy speaker's
word-choices. His mother merely frowns while all of this is going on.
Can we posit from this that the mother doesn't intervene because the
father has abused her, too? That she is terrified for her son, but
helpless to intervene? Or that she's worried about the precious china
that is rattling on the walls every time the father slams the boy into
them? All Roethke says is that the child's "mother's frown could not
unfrown itself." How old is the boy? We know he's young and/or small for
his age, because every time the father lurches, his right ear scrapes
dad's belt buckle--but is he 5? 10? a 15 year old dwarf? There isn't
enough data in the poem to say.
Nonetheless, we retain our impressions, embrace them, even, and make
them "truth" until someone says, "But wait: you've misread that
phrase"--or, "But what about [this line?] [that image?]" and we have to
rethink our position.
I think Hardy is asking us to be sensitive to our own critical
subjectivities, and open to the critical sensibilities of others. We
should be testing the truth--not proclaiming it from the mount.
Best to all,
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