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Home :: Archive :: 2007 :: October ::
Authorial Intention
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 18.0687  Friday, 12 October 2007

From: 		Carol Barton <
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Date: 		Wednesday, 10 Oct 2007 18:56:14 -0400
Subject: 18.0680 Authorial Intention
Comment: 	Re: SHK 18.0680 Authorial Intention

Larry Weiss remarks in part that "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."

But therein lies the rub, Counsel. Suppose the reason the person was 
drinking the glass of water was that someone standing behind the 
individual had coerced him or her into doing so--at knifepoint, though 
you couldn't see the blade--knowing that one can actually die from 
drinking too much water?

Like a jury attempting to evaluate criminal intent ("premeditation") in 
a murder trial, the best we can do with regard to establishing authorial 
intent is make what seem to us to be reasonable inferences from the data 
available to us: about the contextual legitimacy (verite), about the 
appropriateness of connotation vs. denotation in the period in question, 
about possible historical or biographical influences, about the author's 
known beliefs or religious or political convictions--and so on. But we 
can never know for certain that "that's what Shakespeare meant," any 
more than the jury who acquits or convicts can be positive "beyond a 
shadow of a doubt" what the murderer's ultimate motives were. A 
preponderance of circumstantial evidence may be against him or her--and 
the murderer may go free, or the innocent accused be convicted--but the 
only one who has any hope of knowing why he did what he did is the 
individual (and even he may be acting on psychological impulses of which 
he himself is not entirely conscious). We can know that Jack the Ripper 
killed prostitutes . . . but whether he did it because his mother was 
one, or his sister had been abducted and forced to become one, or he had 
an unrequited (or impotent) passion for one who rejected or mocked him, 
we can't say (though any or all of those motives are plausible).

It has always seemed to me that Shakespeare wanted (intended) for every 
reader/audience member to see his or her own piggies in the clouds--a 
"mirror up to nature," whatever that individual's nature might be. But I 
don't know that for fact, either.

Best to all,
Carol

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