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Home :: Archive :: 2009 :: August ::
Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and on the
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0417  Friday, 31 July 2009

[1] From:   Hardy M. Cook <
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     Date:   Friday, July 31, 2009
     Subj:   Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and on the Nature 
of Thought

[2] From:   John C Zuill <
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     Date:   Friday, 31 Jul 2009 11:32:12 +1000
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0415 Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and 
on the Nature of Thought

[3] From:   Will Sharpe <
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     Date:   Friday, 31 Jul 2009 12:54:34 +0100
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0415 Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and 
on the Nature of Thought

[4] From:   Geralyn Horton <
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     Date:   Friday, 31 Jul 2009 14:05:53 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0415 Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and 
on the Nature of Thought

[5] From:   David Bishop <
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     Date:   Friday, 31 Jul 2009 20:08:18 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0415 Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and 
on the Nature of Thought


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Hardy M. Cook <
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Date:       Friday, July 31, 2009
Subject: Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and on 
Comment:    SHK 20.0415 Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and on 
the Nature of Thought

Dear SHAKSPEReans,

Yesterday, Thursday (SHK 20.0415), I sent out the responses to my 
posting of Tuesday (SHK 20.0411).

For various reasons, not the least of which was simply to have fun, I 
made assertions that stirred many up. I did not seriously respond to 
them with the exception of my quoting T. S. Eliot since I did not have 
the time and was not feeling particularly well. Now, I will.

My first response is to ask anyone moved to write back about what I had 
written to please be sure that you are responding to what I actually 
wrote and not what you imagined that I wrote.

Mari Bonomi was reminded of Archibald McLeish's "Ars Poetica" -- A poem 
should not mean / But be. Okay, but I haven't got the time to explore 
the differences between what I was implying and what "New Criticism" is 
implying by McLeish's not meaning but being.

However, Mari was spot on when she wrote: "But there is joy in 
attempting to winkle out the meanings, nonetheless. / One must hope that 
the winklers will be satisfied to accept their morsels as "my meaning" 
rather than "the meaning" -- too often, as you note, that is not the case."

Mari here reflects the main point I was attempting to make. I was 
maintaining was that we need to distinguish between THE and A/N 
interpretation. We need to have the humility to acknowledge that our 
interpretations are just "an" interpretation that we are offering from 
our own perspectives.

When I was an undergraduate in the mid-1960s, most of my professors had 
been trained as New Critics. When they published, their articles were 
efforts at proving their predecessors wrong in order to establish their 
readings as THE BEST, to claim as it were the poem/work as their own. 
When New Critics published an interpretation of a poem they were 
maintaining that their interpretation was capturing THE meaning of that 
poem better than anyone who preceded them. In "Irony as a Principle of 
Structure" (1949), Cleanth Brooks offers an explication of Wordsworth's 
"A slumber did my spirit seal" revealing ways the poem is congruent with 
life, with experience in that it is a product of a complex, ambiguous 
yet organic whole. F. W. Bateson (_English Poetry: A Critical 
Introduction_, 1950) offers another interpretation that comes to an 
entirely different conclusion about the poem's meaning. E. D. Hirsch, 
Jr., ("Objective Interpretation." 1960) adjudicates between the two 
meanings, ultimately judging Bateson's interpretation more probable than 
Brooks' even though both are permitted by the text. All three of these 
critics are not offering readings from critical perspectives, but 
fighting to determine which of their interpretations is THE 
INTERPRETATION. I am urging us to see our contributions as being 
readings from our perspectives not expressions of THE ULTIMATE TRUTH.

In the 1980s, when I began reading the theoretical work of folks like 
Terrence Hawkes and John Drakakis, what I found to be most refreshing 
was the essential honesty with which postmodern critical territory was 
streaked out -- this is who I am, this is where I stand, this is how my 
orientation affects my reading of this or that text. Postmodern critics 
normally begin by acknowledging their critical perspective. No longer 
were the views of privileged, white males attempting to be passed off as 
the universal truths for all people, in all places, for all times.

David Bishop seems to find little to agree with in anything that I have 
said in my Ramblings while Arnie Perlstein appears to be in accord with 
me, teasing out the implications of what I have maintained.

David Bishop seeming not satisfied with his earlier critique offers 
another, isolating specifics of what I quote under the category of "the 
Nature of Thought." Eventually David Bishop turns to my quoting Amnon 
Zakov; his ad hominem comments and his twisting my remarks beyond the 
simple point I was making neither merit nor deserve a response.

Below Bishop offer more snide remarks about my quoting "Prufrock," which 
I included to make the point that I thought Bishop had missed about the 
point I was making -- "That is not what I meant at all. / That is not 
it, at all." -- and to interject some humor, since I stop quoting just 
before lines that I have cited to myself over the years to describe how 
I feel about myself and how I feel about the work that I do for SHAKSPER:

    No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
    Am an attendant lord, one that will do
    To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
    Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
    Deferential, glad to be of use,
    Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
    Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
    At times, indeed, almost ridiculous-
    Almost, at times, the Fool.*

*It is ironic that I identified with Prufrock when I was in my early 
twenties and now that I am in my, gasp, early 60s I not only still 
identify but seem to have been transmogrified into the character.


Joseph Egert, after kind words, turns to my mentioning the perpetual 
characterization thread that has appeared on this list in a variety of 
forms over the years:

 >But, Hardy, how else are we as audience to be moved and
 >engaged at all levels of feeling and intellect but by entering
 >into the real world of the characters as portrayed? Especially
 >as Shakespeare at every turn invites us to uncover hidden
 >motives, subtext, and backstory -- or "that within which
 >passes show", beyond its "trappings and suits."

Joseph, I am NOT suggesting that we do not discuss characters. This body 
of writings we call Shakespeare contains some of the most memorable 
characters in western literature. I just want us to acknowledge that 
they are JUST characters. Remarkable creations, but creations 
nevertheless. Let's be precise when we are talking about them.

There are some fascinating video and textual records on the Internet of 
John Patrick Shanley's discussing his play _Doubt_ and the remarkable 
movie made of it. In these interviews, Shanley is careful not to reveal 
his own feelings about his characters actions that are not enacted on 
the stage or in the film. Along these same lines, Philip Seymour Hoffman 
reveals in one interview that he made a decision about the guilt or 
innocence of his character, Father Flynn, but he does not reveal what 
that decision was. _Doubt_ is a play/film whose theme is the issue of 
doubt and certainty. It is particularly interesting to discuss what we 
are given in the play/film and to discuss what we as spectators/viewers 
who come from specific backgrounds, born in specific eras and living in 
others -- what we feel about the guilt or innocence of Father Flynn, of 
Sister Aloysius Beauvier, or of the struggles of Sister James. This is 
without a doubt a play/film about doubt and certainty, the characters 
and our own. And John Patrick Shanley and Philip Seymour Hoffman should 
be applauded as for "not giving IT [sic] away."

I bring this play/film up for a variety of reasons that parallel issues 
of this discussion. Shanley and Hoffman have chosen not to give away 
important elements of the plot or the characters actions. Similarly, 
unless someone is channeling Shakespeare neither do we have access to 
Shakespeare's authorial intentions. We are left with having what is in 
the text itself as the source of tangible evidence for discussion. Not 
having access to surety is one of the reasons I find discussing these 
works worthwhile, that Shakespeare's meaning is unstable is a reason 
these discussions are so interesting.

I have just been making a plea that we be more intentional in our 
discussions.

I can testify that I for one, as I am sure many others in the list have 
also wished, either wanted to be or to play Hamlet and that I considered 
the play as one of if not THE most interesting of Shakespeare's canon. I 
can also testify that becoming Lear and looking into the abyss of 
existence is as if not more interesting than _Hamlet_. Having plummeted 
the depths of depression of the characters Hamlet, Lear, and Gloucester, 
when I now faced with

Is this the promised end?
Or image of that horror?

I would like to answer that life is just the way it is.

Hardy's sarcastic version of the Four Noble Truths:

1: Life is suffering.
2, 3, and 4: Get on with it.

Hardy's serious version of the Four Noble Truths

1: Life is suffering.
2: The cause of suffering is clinging and grasping to a desire for life 
to be different from the way it is.
3: Overcoming suffering is possible.*
4: The Eightfold Path is the way to overcome suffering.

*Pain comes and goes; suffering is optional.

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       John C Zuill <
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Date:       Friday, 31 Jul 2009 11:32:12 +1000
Subject: 20.0415 Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and 
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0415 Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and 
on the Nature of Thought

Hamlet is unstable from an academic point of view. To enjoy it, of 
course, one may ignore the whole issue. But that is a persistent problem 
with academia. It often seems to rush toward irrelevance. But rather 
than get snarky about education which is so justly abused elsewhere, I 
would point out that most (but not all) performances of the play, 
require the actor to take some stable view. She or he must  decide what 
they are doing and why. This tends to move them toward an absolute 
decision about the play.

Hamlet is very hard to do if you follow all the delightful digressions. 
When I first discovered I had some facility for simulating people that I 
am not, on stage, I took an acting course. The teacher assigned me a 
Hamlet soliloquy and proceeded to do what most teachers do, which is to 
occult their own vast ignorance by taking my performance to pieces. I 
could nothing right. And since I had an American education, language of 
this caliber was quite unfamiliar, blinding, astounding, and endlessly 
distracting. The correct approach might have been to forgo the display 
of bile and concentrate on one idea; to admit our present incapacity and 
get on with the verse like peaceable creatures. But you can't grade that 
can  you? So I didn't take another acting class for many years. My 
acting improved considerably. Most acting teachers are useless.

Sorry, I did get snarky after all.

In any case, Hamlet is unstable. But not particularly fun if it is 
accepted as such. It must constantly move toward resolution or narrative 
justification or stability and so on. Otherwise it turns into soup. 
Instead of our good Billy being our blessed angel, he becomes a demon of 
diversion and confusion. Perhaps that's the point. The movement is all. 
You have to start somewhere. I guess some rehearsals start with "Well... 
I don't know. Put him in a big white flouncy shirt and see where it 
takes us." The play reminds me of a thing a friend of mine said:

Art is a mess you can't clean up.

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Will Sharpe <
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Date:       Friday, 31 Jul 2009 12:54:34 +0100
Subject: 20.0415 Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and 
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0415 Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and 
on the Nature of Thought

I think the real point of all this -- and I've said it before on this 
list -- is that Hardy has to spend a lot of his time every day editing 
and preparing these digests. Let's not question the humane applications 
of the "instability of meaning" and try fighting for our right to air 
views and opinions; let's take it out of the realm of abstraction and 
picture one miserable man sitting in front of a keyboard feeling 
ethically pulled and pushed around by the hundreds of competing voices 
squirming for precedence in his inbox. If you put a handful of fairly 
smart people in a room and tell them to argue a point in Hamlet it would 
inevitably go on for hours, spill over into other aspects of the play, 
invoke past critical work etc. etc., but that discourse doesn't have to 
filtered through one person, in written form no less. If the poor guy 
doesn't want to talk about Hamlet any more, then just leave him alone. 
It's his list. To be very fair though, I think the current Hamlet 
discussion -- as Hardy conceded -- has its roots in a specific question 
which is potentially enlightening, but anything with Hamlet in the title 
inevitably causes a landslide and it's back to the "Hamlet blog" scenario.

All best,
Will Sharpe

[4]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Geralyn Horton <
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Date:       Friday, 31 Jul 2009 14:05:53 -0400
Subject: 20.0415 Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and 
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0415 Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and 
on the Nature of Thought

 From Arnie Perlstein <
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 >

 >The ghost is real, says A. The ghost is a devil in disguise, says B.
 >The ghost is a hallucination, says C. The ghost is really a
 >representation of _______ (you fill in the blank with your favorite
 >historical personage) from Shakespeare's contemporary world, or
 >from the history ..........what if Shakespeare took particular pains
 >to make SEVERAL interpretations plausible? What if he deliberately
 >constructed the play so that it would be plausibly interpretable by a
 >variety of viewers/readers in a variety of ways? What if that deliberate
 >raising of mystery, and then delivering of multiple plausible meanings,
 >was Shakespeare's way of showing (as opposed to telling) that the
 >world is a mysterious place which can be plausibly interpreted in a
 >variety of ways, and that these many alternative explanations and
 >interpretations ARE NOT MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE! ...
 >This is not a freak of literary critical history....

It's not a freak of literary construction, either. 2 examples from a 
host: 1) I am adapting Mary Webb's  1920s novel, "Precious Bane" for 
musical theatre. It is set in the 1820s. There is a Wizard in it, one of 
the 3 literate people in the rural community, who is an illusion-rigging 
snake oil salesman and constantly wrong in his opinions and actions  -- 
  yet he believes himself to have magical powers and all his prophecies 
come true. (he doesn't heed any prophecies that to an objective observer 
resonate as warnings to him personally -- he thinks they are aimed at 
others) The heroine, Prue, works for him in exchange for being taught to 
read and write -- she regards him as a harmless fraud, and separates the 
real knowledge he opens up for her from his tricks and delusions. But he 
gives clear evidence by prophecy and threat that he intends to destroy 
her brother -- and he does. Multiple characters see signs and ghosts. 
The forebodings are fulfilled, but never in quite the way they are 
interpreted by the see-ers, and not without a plausible psychological 
explanation. I love these mystical elements, which are felt, not argued. 
My libretto preserves them, and in workshop so far nobody has questioned 
them. They say things like "a deep 3 dimensional world" and "vivid 
characters" -- which is a welcome change, because most of my scripts are 
criticized as over-clever illustrated sociology, in the manner of G.B. 
Shaw  (which, being a Shaw lover, I may misinterpret as a compliment. 
And he too wrote of ghosts (Don Juan in Hell) and mystics (St. Joan) and 
imaginary pasts and futures...)

2) A couple of years ago I wrote a play about a poet and composer who 
get a site-specific Tanglewood grant to create an opera about Sophia and 
Nathaniel Hawthorne. It's titled "Hawthornes' Ghosts"  --  the couple 
lived there, briefly, and some claim they haunt the place. It was 
inspired by a tourist visit when my husband believed that he had 
heard/sensed these ghosts. Raised Catholic, he senses ghosts. Raised 
skeptic, I never do. However, as a writer/actor I'm accustomed to 
extended imaginary relationships with characters living, dead, or purely 
literary -- and plenty of these or their ghosts have appeared in my 
dreams. In my play, the ghostly Hawthornes try to influence the 
librettist and composer to tell the story the in the Transcendental way 
the couple framed it, as an Ideal Marriage in service to a High Art of 
Truth and Beauty, instead of the post-modern debunking in the poet's 
grant proposal. The poet's own marriage(s) render(s) some 
interpretations problematic. The ghostly communication comes with the 
force of revelation -- but it consists of words Nathaniel and Sophia 
said in life, words that likely were part of the research. Why do they 
come Now? What does it all Mean?

That it all Does Mean Something is the dramatic premise. That what it 
means is wider and deeper than any individual's take on it is a good 
reason to gather as an audience and experience it as a community, yes?

G.L. Horton
<http://www.stagepage.info>

[5]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       David Bishop <
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Date:       Friday, 31 Jul 2009 20:08:18 -0400
Subject: 20.0415 Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and 
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0415 Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and 
on the Nature of Thought

Maybe we should all carry around in our quivers an assortment of 
generalizations, of high sentences, for use on appropriate occasions. No 
one knows the absolute truth, for example, or, Sometimes a mind can get 
so open the brains fall out. Or maybe Look before you leap and He who 
hesitates is lost. These can all be helpful reminders when we swerve too 
far one way or another, but exactly when and how they fit will always 
call for that mysterious quality of judgment.

I enjoyed revisiting the Love Song. I can see how a Zen-like attitude 
could be of value to an editor.

Best wishes,
David Bishop


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