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Home :: Archive :: 2008 :: July ::
SHAKSPER Roundtable: Shakespeare's Intentions
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 19.0385  Thursday, 10 July 2008

[Editor's Note: Because of the recent activity, Cary and I have decided to 
postpone, for a while, the concluding digest in SHAKSPER Roundtable 2. Since we 
do not foresee the current exchange lasting for a long time, we expect that the 
last digest will be appearing soon. As Cary puts the final touches on his final 
essay, anyone having any more to say in the Roundtable should do so quickly. -Hardy]

[1] From:   Kenneth Chan <
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     Date:   Tuesday, 08 Jul 2008 12:44:55 +0800
     Subt:   Re: SHK 19.0382 SHAKSPER Roundtable: Shakespeare's Intentions

[2] From:   Alan Horn <
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     Date:   Tuesday, 8 Jul 2008 04:59:45 -0400
     Subt:   Re: SHK 19.0382 SHAKSPER Roundtable: Shakespeare's Intentions

[3] From:   Duncan Salkeld <
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     Date:   Tuesday, 08 Jul 2008 10:21:24 +0000 (GMT)
     Subt:   Re: SHK 19.0382 SHAKSPER Roundtable: Shakespeare's Intentions


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Kenneth Chan <
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Date:       Tuesday, 08 Jul 2008 12:44:55 +0800
Subject: 19.0382 SHAKSPER Roundtable: Shakespeare's Intentions
Comment:    Re: SHK 19.0382 SHAKSPER Roundtable: Shakespeare's Intentions


  Hugh Grady writes:

 >In regard to Kenneth Chan's question, " to attempt understanding the
 >meaning of an entire play (as a whole unit) as the author intended?
 >Are the limitations of our language so severe that even the intended
 >aesthetic meaning of an entire play - carefully crafted to convey a
 >specific meaning - is rendered completely irretrievable?"
 >
 >We don't have to simply speculate about such an experiment. The
 >archives of Shakespearean criticism, and especially those dating from
 >c. 1900 on, represent a huge array of such attempts, following the widely
 >influential canons of positivist historical scholarship. The results: such
 >readings for Shakespeare's intentions are never conclusive and
 >continually change as history progresses.

The same, of course, can be said for the historical progress in physics, or in 
any other science. The theories of science have repeatedly changed throughout 
history, as paradigms shift, as new discoveries come to light, and as new ways 
of research and understanding are developed.

Physicists, however, do not declare, for example, that "a theory linking 
gravitation and electromagnetism together" is impossible just because, over the 
centuries, scientists have still failed to come up with such a theory. Such a 
declaration would presume that we, humans, are infallible, that we have already 
achieved all that can be achieved, and that further progress is simply 
impossible. Physicists, therefore, do not make such a declaration because they 
realize that it would be presumptuous and also that such a declaration would 
slam the door to further progress and development.

I am suggesting here that we, likewise, refrain from making a similar 
presumptuous declaration with regards to Shakespeare's works.

Kenneth Chan

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Alan Horn <
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Date:       Tuesday, 8 Jul 2008 04:59:45 -0400
Subject: 19.0382 SHAKSPER Roundtable: Shakespeare's Intentions
Comment:    Re: SHK 19.0382 SHAKSPER Roundtable: Shakespeare's Intentions

I agree with Robin Hamilton that there can be something circular about 
discussing what Shakespeare may have intended. What does it mean to take an 
author's intentions into account if the only direct evidence of these intentions 
are the works themselves? In doing so, is one doing anything more than simply 
reading in the normal way?

Similar questions come up even in the cases of authors whose intentions, unlike 
Shakespeare's, we do have direct, extra-textual evidence of. As Frank Kermode 
notes in his essay "The Single, Correct Interpretation" (in The Art of Telling), 
readers don't always take much account of such evidence, especially when it 
seems to conflict with their own intuitions. He gives this example: "Critics 
used to be troubled by a passage in a letter of Jane Austen to Cassandra which 
appeared to state that the subject of Mansfield Park was 'ordination,' for 
although Edmund's taking of orders, and Mary Crawford's attitude to the clergy, 
are certainly relevant to the design of the book, it would not have occurred to 
most readers that ordination was what the book was ABOUT."

It seems to me that the main value of speculation about an author's intentions 
is as a heuristic for getting at the specific social contexts in which and for 
which a given work was made. After all, it is quite true -- as Hugh Grady points 
out -- that over a century of historical scholarship on Shakespeare has failed 
to arrive at a "conclusive" account of his intentions. And in fact consideration 
of the original contexts of a work is less likely to lead to a singular, 
definitive reading than to the uncovering of an even wider range of semantic 
possibilities. But this is only a problem if one takes the narrow aim of 
recovering an author's intentions as one's ultimate goal.

Consider, for instance, how an awareness of the contemporary competing sectarian 
conceptions of the afterlife complicates our reading of Hamlet. This 
understanding raises questions about Shakespeare's intentions that will never 
finally be resolved. But are they therefore
not worth asking?

Alan Horn

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Duncan Salkeld <
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 >
Date:       Tuesday, 08 Jul 2008 10:21:24 +0000 (GMT)
Subject: 19.0382 SHAKSPER Roundtable: Shakespeare's Intentions
Comment:    Re: SHK 19.0382 SHAKSPER Roundtable: Shakespeare's Intentions

I have the utmost regard for Hugh Grady (whom I only know through his 
publications), but I am hard pushed to see how 'the nature of aesthetic 
knowledge' could be 'non-conceptual'. I find the category of 'aesthetic 
knowledge' enigmatic too. But I'd like to add that intention is significant as 
more than 'a set of clearly expressible concepts'. I tried to show earlier that 
where the evidence for Shakespeare's intention is unclear or contradictory, this 
matters (to bibliographers and editors at least).

It also seems possible to exaggerate the effects of historical change and 
under-rate the obstinacy of certain textual properties (eg. variants, false 
starts, duplications, speech prefixes, ghost or mute characters, kinds of 
indecision and so forth). Put directly and simply, how different is your or my 
'Shakespeare' to, say, Nicholas Rowe's 'Shakespeare' of 1685 (4th Folio) or 1709 
(Rowe's edition)? The answer to this question is not, 'We can never know' 
because then you can't make claims for historical change; nor is it, '100% 
different', because, if so, we could not even begin to make the comparison. 
Taking a via media is the difficult, puzzling and fascinating part. The point is 
not only how much alters, but what also is intransitive, what attributes or 
properties persist through time, or what products arise from the complex 
interaction between critic and text that are not reducible merely to a 
prevailing, temporary consensus. This requires thinking as a presentist and 
historicist all at once.

On a separate note, I'm not convinced by arguments that take the form:(a) 
Shakespeare might have had a single intention by a single and entire play/poem; 
(b) We can't know what that intention is; therefore (c) Shakespeare's intentions 
remain unknowable/not worth discussing. At such a naively holistic level, 
intentionality is entirely vapid. But when examining particular textual details 
and their relationships, intention becomes not only a question worth raising but 
sometimes essential. Naturally, one has a choice of whether to address it 
directly or indirectly, and a critic or editor still harping on intentionality 
would be tedious indeed. But to imagine possible a detailed analysis of 
Shakespeare without even the most latent regard for the writer's choices, 
strategies, indecisions, or intentions is unrealistic.



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