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Home :: Archive :: 2007 :: October ::
Authorial Intention
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 18.0693  Tuesday, 16 October 2007

[1] 	From:	Anthony Burton <
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	Date:	Friday, 12 Oct 2007 12:00:38 -0400
	Subj:	Re: SHK 18.0680 Authorial Intention

[2] 	From:	Larry Weiss <
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	Date:	Friday, 12 Oct 2007 12:09:49 -0400
	Subj:	Re: SHK 18.0687 Authorial Intention

[3] 	From:	Donald Bloom <
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	Date:	Friday, 12 Oct 2007 14:30:57 -0500
	Subj:	RE: SHK 18.0687 Authorial Intention


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:		Anthony Burton <
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Date:		Friday, 12 Oct 2007 12:00:38 -0400
Subject: 18.0680 Authorial Intention
Comment:	Re: SHK 18.0680 Authorial Intention

Even though I participated earlier in this thread, I confess to a weary 
lack of interest in debating whether an authorial "intention" exists or 
can be proven. Yet, I've been working for years on what may be an 
illuminating first cousin to intention, in the topic of thematic 
imagery. Since we all know Hamlet, let's take it as a starting point. 
The play is full of images of predators and aggressors defeated by their 
own devices: enginers hoist with their own petar, woodcocks caught in 
their own springes, mouse-catchers caught in their own mousetraps, 
archers having their own arrows blown back at them, canoneers whose 
canons explode with fatal results, and of course a villain who dies by 
drinking the poison and being stabbed by the sharpened and envenomed 
sword point he intended for another. Elizabethans would have reveled in 
the idea of the biter bit and trapper trapped; readers of Alciati's 
emblem book would have recognized the same pattern and moral in the 
emblem of "True Justice"; moderns might see it as an enactment of "what 
goes around, comes around." I have had occasion to describe it as an 
expression of the Golden Rule, not as a normative command but as a 
cosmic law in operation on earth:  "As you do unto others, so shall be 
done unto you."

Now, there is almost no limit to the different productions, spins, and 
interpretations that can be enacted without contradicting or rejecting 
this view, or that there is a common thematic and moral foundation which 
underlies everything that happens. Just as a ten-year old might think 
the Golden Rule means something like "Kids  should be allowed to stay up 
as late as their parents (and choose whether or not to eat broccoli)," 
while the Dalai Lama would probably say something different. 
Post-colonialists, feminists, Marxists, Freudians, and others might each 
have their particular take, while yet all desiring to affirm the Rule 
itself.

If I am right, the underlying image -- expressed in the examples I 
mention and many others -- was in some way Shakespeare's mental image; 
it was in his mind and guided his pen. It was, along with the pure story 
itself, what he desired to enact and present to his audience and also 
what he added to the story we believe he drew upon. I'm satisfied to 
describe that desire, combined with that guiding image, as a "meaning" 
(not purpose) to attribute to the author and the play. It may not be the 
most fundamental, although it is surely quite close being so. It is 
surely not the only meaning the play can support, either in the study or 
on stage. It is not precise and detailed nor even sufficient to explain 
the play or describe it. Nor should it be; if it were, it would be 
unrealistically reductive and simplistic. But it really is built into 
the text and structure; it is not ahistorical or anachronistic, nor is 
it tendentious, nor does it require one to ignore inconvenient details. 
But more important, anyone, whatever his or her cultural or personal 
biases, limitations and interests, can accept and gain personal insight 
from acknowledging "meaning" of this sort. Each might well leave a 
performance saying "I am Hamlet," and determined to do better.

Could these multiple examples of thematic coherence be accidental, or 
the result of ongoing collaboration and amendment? I don't think so, but 
I'll allow that an imaginative writer might make a case for it. Until 
that happens and probably long after, I will continue to accept the idea 
of "authorial meaning," in the sense described above as an indispensable 
concept and an essential foundation for disciplined literary criticism.

Tony Burton

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:		Larry Weiss <
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Date:		Friday, 12 Oct 2007 12:09:49 -0400
Subject: 18.0687 Authorial Intention
Comment:	Re: SHK 18.0687 Authorial Intention

 >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:  <snip>. 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.

(1) Premeditation and intent are different concepts; but that is a 
lesson for another time.

(2) I never made a claim that we can know for certain, only that it is 
reasonable to ask the question and, in most cases, to infer a likely 
answer. (Please re-review my prior posts to confirm this.) The jury 
analogy is imprecise, but helpful nonetheless: We do not ask juries to 
be certain "beyond a shadow of a doubt," it is enough in a criminal case 
that they can rule out every "reasonable" doubt and in a civil case (on 
which immense consequences frequently depend) the result is determined 
by a "mere preponderance" of the evidence. How silly is it to refuse to 
even argue about an author's likely expectations, on which nothing 
tangible depends, because we can't answer the question with metaphysical 
certainty.

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:		Donald Bloom <
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Date:		Friday, 12 Oct 2007 14:30:57 -0500
Subject: 18.0687 Authorial Intention
Comment:	RE: SHK 18.0687 Authorial Intention

Carol Barton writes "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."

Well, that really won't do. To mean anything is to mean nothing.

I think the problem-stated in many different ways in this recent 
discussion and in many others-may arise from not differentiating between 
"meaning nothing at all" and "meaning no one thing" on the one hand, and 
between "meaning no one thing" and "meaning anything at all" on the other.

The two extremes are, I believe, essentially the same and have, as far 
as I can tell, nothing to contribute. What remains are the meanings 
which the reader or hearer of the given set of words finds in them. They 
are neither absolute nor random, but exist that realm of uncertainty 
called human reason.

Cheers,
don

PS: The "nature" that the mirror is held up to would be the way things 
really are, not the way we might arbitrarily want them to be.

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