The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 19.0433 Thursday, 24 July 2008
From: David Schalkwyk <
Date: Wednesday, 23 Jul 2008 05:25:56 +0200
Subject: SHAKSPER Roundtable: Shakespeare's Intentions (Addendum)
I've just rejoined the land of electronic communication to see that I've being
able to contribute to Cary's last Roundtable Digest. I'm pleased to see,
however, his invitation to continue the discussion as part of the normal
conversation. I'd like to thank Cary for being a superb co-ordinator, as well as
my fellow contributors for their tough but open-minded engagement.
My desire to say one more thing stems from Larry Weiss's lament (on 10 July)
that the "distinction between what an author intended by his words (critical
analysis) and what words the author intended to use (textual analysis)" has not
been "addressed explicitly." I think that Larry is right that this distinction
is closely related to Duncan Salkeld's insistence that at "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." Clarifying this distinction will also, I hope,
cast light on my own "flip-flop" between declaring intention inescapable and
ultimately entirely heuristic or even redundant.
I responded to the distinction that Larry makes in an earlier post, where I
pointed out that the kind of intention that informs the words an author meant to
use is invoked by some philosophers as "categorical" intention. Such intention
also encompasses what Hugh Grady calls "aesthetic" meaning: that is to say, the
intention to write a play of a particular genre with a specific, but broadly
conceived, aesthetic effect and affect.
Leaving aside for the moment whether such "aesthetic meaning" is or is not
necessarily conceptual, I think a good case can be made for the position that to
speak of these things (this or that word? a play or an epic? a tragedy or a
comedy?) must involve an appeal to intention, or is considerably helped by an
appeal to what the author wanted to do (of course, the author may, for a number
of reasons, not have succeeded). However, I think an equally good case can be
made for the position that when it comes to deciding on the meaning of these
words, or that passage, or those images, an appeal to an author's intention is
not only unnecessary, but can in fact be positively unhelpful (see my argument
relating the heuristic nature of intention, its redundancy, and the fact that
the appeal to intention is in these cases a rhetorical ploy in an essentially
Now the intriguing question is: what is the difference? Why intention in one
case but not in the other? The answer, I propose, lies not in the nature of
intention, but rather in that of language. It's the introduction of meaning that
severely attenuates (even if it does not negate) the controlling reach of
intention. I can intend to use "solid" rather than "sullied", and it makes sense
to ask which word I meant to use (even if there is too little evidence to decide
the matter). But when an interpreter asks about the meaning of "solid" rather
than "sullied", he or she is invoking not a binary choice between two
signifiers, but rather a complex set of relations to other signifiers and
contexts (local and historical) through which a signified (or signifieds) are
produced that lie beyond the controlling or determining ambit of any intention.
The choice of signifiers is intentionally driven, but the production of
signifieds ultimately escapes intention. (The latter is Derrida's argument that
intention cannot control the filed of meaning.) Humpty Dumpty is wrong to say
that words mean what he wants them to mean; he would be right, however, to say
that only he can chose to use these rather than those words.
The interesting thing about this argument is that it shows that whether we can
know a particular intention or not is irrelevant in both cases. There may not be
sufficient evidence to determine whether Shakespeare intended to use "solid"
rather than "sullied", but that does not mean that it is illegitimate to
approach the question via the concept of intention. On the other hand, an author
may tell us what s/he intended a text to mean, but there is no reason to believe
him or her if our reading the text contradicts this (_Mansfield Park_ is about
ordination?) Here we trust the tale, not the teller. This means that the
question of knowledge of an author's intentions is irrelevant to the issue about
whether we should be talking about intentions at all. It's a conceptual, not an
Another noteworthy point is that in practice questions of a textual sort are
determined by decisions of an interpretive bent. So, in the absence of any firm
evidence about whether Shakespeare meant to use "solid" rather than "sullied"
(or "sallied"--or "rest" rather than "rust" in _R&J_) editors and critics will
decide on the basis of which signifier fits best with their overall reading of
the meaning of the speech, character or situation. It may be for this reason
that Duncan wishes to retain an appeal to intention as a necessity: to determine
the factual details of a text independently of a favorite interpretation of that
text, or to prevent a settled signified derived independently of what the author
wanted as a signifier from determining the signifier that he could well have wanted.
This is very rough, and belated. But I hope it will be of interest to some, and
I trust that I will be corrected where I have gone egregiously wrong.
S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List
Hardy M. Cook,
The S H A K S P E R Web Site <http://www.shaksper.net>
DISCLAIMER: Although SHAKSPER is a moderated discussion list, the opinions
expressed on it are the sole property of the poster, and the editor assumes no
responsibility for them.