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Home :: Archive :: 2007 :: October ::
Authorial Intention
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 18.0680  Wednesday, 10 October 2007

[1]	From: 	Larry Weiss <
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	Date: 	Tuesday, 09 Oct 2007 14:09:32 -0400
	Subj: 	Re: SHK 18.0671 Authorial Intention

[2]	From: 	Andrew Wilson <
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	Date: 	Wednesday, 10 Oct 2007 10:39:34 -0700
	Subj: 	Re: SHK 18.0671 Authorial Intention


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Larry Weiss <
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Date: 		Tuesday, 09 Oct 2007 14:09:32 -0400
Subject: 18.0671 Authorial Intention
Comment: 	Re: SHK 18.0671 Authorial Intention

Martin Mueller's description of Oakeshott's distinction between mindless 
"processes" and directed "procedures" calls to mind a rather hoary 
philosophical concept:  A human act has three essential elements, viz: 
Motive, Intent, and Conduct (not "to act, to do and to perform"). In 
other words, we are all subject to a sort of behavioral inertia; we do 
nothing until acted upon by an outside stimulus (motive), which inspires 
us to want to do something about it (intent) and then, as the last 
element in the chain, we engage in the desired conduct to satisfy or 
remove the motivational stimulus. So, if you see someone drink a glass 
of water, you may confidently assume that she wanted to do so (intent), 
and with slightly less certainly assume that she was thirsty (motive). 
The first inference is just as valid if she drank a glass of wine, but 
we cannot ascribe the motive to thirst with the same degree of 
confidence -- she might have wanted to savor the bouquet, get tipsy, etc.

In a sense, it is dead easy to infer an author's intent: Shakespeare 
made Hamlet vacillate because he wanted to. It is more difficult to 
ascribe motive. Did Shakespeare need to protract the action of the play; 
was this plot element something his audience was familiar with and 
wanted to see again; on the other hand, was it a new wrinkle that he 
needed to make the old revenge play fresh; etc.? Of course, all of these 
motivations translate to a goal we might characterize as a desire to 
produce a successful play. Whether the underlying cause of that desire 
is financial success, professional repute, something else, or a 
combination of these, is something we can only guess at.

But none of these questions is the one we are wrestling with in this 
thread; we do not care if Shakespeare was inspired by greed, ego, or 
something else. We are not asking why Shakespeare acted the way he did, 
but why his characters do and say the things they do. But the characters 
are no more than ink marks on paper; they have no intentions. 
Shakespeare's role was to write characters that we would understand as 
personifications of human beings, with human emotions, desires, etc. So, 
as I have indicated before, what we are really asking is what 
Shakespeare expected us to understand. He must have expected something. 
Since the essence of drama is the depiction of humans in conflict, it is 
reasonable to infer that Shakespeare expected us to understand his 
characters as human agents with human feelings. It follows that it is 
reasonable to attempt to infer, from the words and actions written in 
the text (perhaps informed by our knowledge of external conditions), 
what Shakespeare expected us to understand those feelings to be. Indeed, 
that may be the essential function of criticism.

[By the way, I would be grateful if anyone could let me know a source 
indicating that the philosophical concept mentioned in the first 
paragraph was known in Elizabethan England, I would be grateful.]

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Andrew Wilson <
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Date: 		Wednesday, 10 Oct 2007 10:39:34 -0700
Subject: 18.0671 Authorial Intention
Comment: 	Re: SHK 18.0671 Authorial Intention

I don't intend to jump into this debate. However, I would like to know 
whether or not SHAKSPERians find the following a tenable basis for 
discourse. Imagine the following to be spoken by a modern day, 
non-academic Shakespeare ponderer:

1)  I have been drawn to Shakespeare for a long time and ask myself 
"What am I getting out of his works?" The following (book, article, 
internet posting, conversation, whatever) is my attempt to put that into 
words.

2)  I make no claim that what I write represents what Shakespeare 
himself, four hundred years ago, intended for us to get out of his 
works. That, for a variety of sticky reasons, is almost completely 
unknowable, especially to the level of provable, incontrovertible fact.

3)  Most of my sentences should begin with "In my opinion." But that 
makes for tedious writing, so I won't do it. It is understood. Zillions 
of historians do the very same thing.

4)  That said, I make every effort to stay within the bounds of the text 
as presented to me by the (Arden, Oxford, whatever) editors. I make 
every effort to have my ideas grow out of those texts and always remain 
consistent with them. But of course, I am only human and editors are 
too. And alas, one of those sticky issues with Shakespeare's works is 
that all too often there is no such thing as a definitive text. Well 
that's interesting, but I can't do anything about it. So screw it, I'm 
gonna pick the (Arden, Oxford, or whatever) edition and do the best I 
can with it.

So what is untenable about this?

Thanks,
Andrew Wilson

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