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Home :: Archive :: 2009 :: July ::
Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and on the
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0415  Thursday, 30 July 2009

[1] From:   Mari Bonomi <
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     Date:   Monday, 27 Jul 2009 17:14:42 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0408 SBReview_4: Margreta de Grazia's _Hamlet 
without Hamlet_

[2] From:   David Bishop <
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     Date:   Monday, 27 Jul 2009 21:47:41 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0408 SBReview_4: Margreta de Grazia's _Hamlet 
without Hamlet_

[3] From:   Sally Drumm <
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     Date:   Tuesday, 28 Jul 2009 09:32:25 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0411 Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and 
on the Nature of Thought

[4] From:   Arnie Perlstein <
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     Date:   Tuesday, 28 Jul 2009 12:46:40 -0400
     Subj:   Instability of Meaning in Hamlet

[5] From:   Bob Lapides <
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     Date:   Tuesday, 28 Jul 2009 14:20:29 EDT
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0411 Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and 
on the Nature of...

[6] From:   David Bishop <
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     Date:   Tuesday, 28 Jul 2009 19:49:41 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0411 Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and 
on the Nature of Thought

[7] From:   Sally Drumm <
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     Date:   Tuesday, 28 Jul 2009 22:31:53 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0411 Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and 
on the Nature of Thought

[8] From:   Joseph Egert <
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     Date:   Thursday, 30 Jul 2009 15:29:06 -0700 (PDT)
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0411 Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and 
on the Nature of Thought


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Mari Bonomi <
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Date:       Monday, 27 Jul 2009 17:14:42 -0400
Subject: 20.0408 SBReview_4: Margreta de Grazia's _Hamlet 
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0408 SBReview_4: Margreta de Grazia's _Hamlet 
without Hamlet_

As I read your post, Hardy, I immediately flashed on Archibald McLiesh's 
"Ars Poetica"  -

A poem should not mean
But be.

And yes, I think Hamlet (and Shakespeare's other work for the stage) is 
as much poem as play.

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 Bonomi
Going back to winkling out the meaning of the "quilt a purse" pattern 
I'm attempting to decipher...

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       David Bishop <
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Date:       Monday, 27 Jul 2009 21:47:41 -0400
Subject: 20.0408 SBReview_4: Margreta de Grazia's _Hamlet 
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0408 SBReview_4: Margreta de Grazia's _Hamlet 
without Hamlet_

If some people believe they understand any aspect of Shakespeare better 
than some others, must they be wrong because better understanding of 
Shakespeare is theoretically impossible, due to the instability of 
meaning? Is instability all that good teachers of Shakespeare teach? 
Somehow I doubt it.

I believe, on the contrary, that if one wishes to avoid argument, one 
very effective way is to fall back on "instability", or, to give it a 
more moral tinge, "tolerance". Hardy doesn't tolerate the authorship 
question, for which I applaud him. That intolerance helps make this a 
serious list. On the other hand, there are times when I disagree with 
Hardy's intolerance, as when, for example, he recently censored one of 
my posts. Of course it's his list, and he's free to run it any way he 
likes. There are times when I disagree, but he has the power, and he can 
do as he sees fit.

There's a difference between believing you're right and making careful, 
detailed arguments for your positions and against competing views. I 
think views do compete, and I believe in debate, even debate which may 
become slightly ungenteel, as a way of making progress in criticism. I 
don't know what finality would be, but I don't know of too many theories 
that make no claim to truth. However, no claim to truth, however 
absolute, can make your theory true. And that's final.

As beauty depends on ugliness, truth depends on error. We approach it by 
discovering errors, by making arguments from evidence. Of course I have 
long experience with the literary professional who, when told "What you 
say isn't true", rather than replying to the offered argument, replies, 
"Well, what is truth?" Then they return to their comfortable classroom 
and teach their pet theory for the next 40 years. Believe it or not, 
there are actual documented cases.

Personally I like dialectic, and the idea that our grasp of reality is 
essentially dual, if not plural. But sometimes dualism is itself one arm 
of a dualism. The Tao is not static. It rolls and  tumbles, like a wheel 
on fire.

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Sally Drumm <
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Date:       Tuesday, 28 Jul 2009 09:32:25 -0400
Subject: 20.0411 Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and 
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0411 Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and 
on the Nature of Thought

Hardy, the SHAKSPER dialog is never more delightful than when you jump in!

On all that you have written on the meaning of nature, I must include:

Some do bad that others may do good.

More to follow....

Sincerely,
Sally Drumm

[4]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Arnie Perlstein <
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Date:       Tuesday, 28 Jul 2009 12:46:40 -0400
Subject:    Instability of Meaning in Hamlet

"...the entire point of _Hamlet_ that _Hamlet_ is perhaps the foremost 
expression in western literature of the instability of meaning, of the 
inability to find fixity in language or thought. That _Hamlet_ is ALL 
about "the interrogative mode," as Maynard Mack said of _Hamlet_ -- To 
be or not to be -- THAT IS THE QUESTION!* Or is it that I have become so 
imbued with AN Asian perspective that nothing means, it just is.* "

Hardy, that statement is in accord with my own view of _Hamlet_, but, to 
use a poker analogy, I call you and raise you one crucial argument 
further. ;)

I believe that 90% of the furor that goes on so endlessly and so 
fruitlessly about _Hamlet_ , and has indeed been going on for centuries, 
arises out of what I assert is the fatally incorrect belief that there 
is one definitive interpretation of the play.

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 of 
the world prior to his time. Or, as Stephen Dedalus famously opined, 
Hamlet's grandson is Shakespeare's grandfather and that he himself is 
the ghost of his own father. Etc etc. Indeed, some of these possible 
interpretations are explicitly suggested in the text itself!

It seems as though interpreters all feel that they somehow bolster their 
own interpretations by showing that the other interpretations are wrong. 
But......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! They are fictional parallel universes.

That is what I am reasonably confident Shakespeare attempted to do, and 
brilliantly succeeded in doing, in _Hamlet_, and that is precisely why 
it is _Hamlet_ that continues to be the touchstone of Western 
literature, more present in the minds of lovers of literature around the 
world than any other single work! This is not a freak of literary 
critical history, it is a response to a play that demanded such a response!

And so, what that means for that 90% of the arguing about _Hamlet_ is 
that if Shakespeare intended his text to support a number of alternative 
interpretations, stop fighting over which one is the "true 
interpretation". That's a complete waste of time, and distracts from 
what really matters. Instead, let's spend our collective energy in 
answering "the question" we really should be looking at, i.e., in the 
case of each such interpretation, put aside for the moment the other 
plausible interpretations, and look at the one focused on its own 
merits. See how consistent it is in its approach to all elements in the 
text, see how many of the many cruxes of _Hamlet_ it sheds fresh light 
on, see whether it provides a coherent interpretation that covers the 
entire play, and not just particular characters or plot elements. Can 
anyone suggest any other criteria for a good interpretation of _Hamlet_ 
besides these?

This does not mean, of course, that each proposed interpretation should 
be accepted uncritically, in a kind of relativistic "all interpretations 
are valid" manner -- that would be absurd. In a nutshell, a claim that 
the Ghost is an alien from outer space should be defeated not by 
claiming that the Ghost is really a Ghost, but by showing that even if 
you assume the Ghost to be an alien, there are no hints or clues in the 
actual text which correspond to this interpretation. That is a crucial 
difference in critical analysis.

In such a way, one by one, it would eventually be possible to generate a 
series of such evaluations, and then to comparatively evaluate different 
interpretations of _Hamlet_ in terms of these criteria. I believe that a 
few of them would emerge, over time, as the consensus "best 
interpretations", but without any single interpretation ever holding the 
field exclusively.

Illustratively, to return to the mystery of the ghost as what I believe 
is one of the fulcrums of interpretation of the play -- -the one thing I 
am certain of is that Shakespeare wrote _Hamlet_ so that it would be 
plausibly interpretable as EITHER (i) the Ghost being a real Ghost 
(which is essentially the Dover Wilson version), OR (ii) as a Devil in 
disguise (I am not aware of whether any interpreter has actually made 
that case, does anybody know about one?), OR (iii) as Hamlet's 
hallucination (the argument most famously made by Professor Greg, 
although he did not make the argument plausibly enough to garner many 
supporters). Wilson missed that crucial point entirely! He didn't need 
to prove Greg wrong in order to prove his interpretation right.

My own book about _Hamlet_ will be about my own radical interpretation 
of the Ghost as Hamlet's hallucination, which then leads to a half dozen 
other complementary interpretations of certain characters and events in 
the play, and I will make the case for each of them based on evidence in 
the text of the play. But I will take pains to emphasize that such 
interpretation does NOT invalidate the other classes of interpretations. 
They are parallel fictional universes. My version of the shadow story of 
_Hamlet_ will stand or fall based on the quality of the evidence I will 
adduce, which, in my eyes, makes it clear that Shakespeare intended it 
to be one of the valid interpretations of his play. There should be a 
certain beauty in a really good interpretation, especially in regard to 
casting fresh light on apparent cruxes and anomalies which are not 
powerfully explained by other interpretations. My interpretation meets 
that test, and it will be my job to prove it.


Cheers,
ARNIE

[5]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Bob Lapides <
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Date:       Tuesday, 28 Jul 2009 14:20:29 EDT
Subject: 20.0411 Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and 
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0411 Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and 
on the Nature of...

Very nice, indeed, Hardy. Thanks.

Bob Lapides

[6]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       David Bishop <
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Date:       Tuesday, 28 Jul 2009 19:49:41 -0400
Subject: 20.0411 Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and 
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0411 Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and 
on the Nature of Thought

Hardy quotes Marx:

"The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human 
thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man 
must prove the truth  --  i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness 
of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality 
of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely _scholastic_ 
question."

I also believe that critics must prove their theories in practice: with 
practical, well-argued criticism, which involves more than making Grand 
Abstract Pronouncements, as for example about the instability of 
meaning. Some meanings are more unstable than others. The point is to be 
able to tell the difference. No proof is possible, in a mathematical 
sense, but you can make better or worse arguments. And, I believe, 
criticism can make progress -- can become, at least, truer.

Hardy also quotes Amnon Zakov:

"In my opinion this is THE REAL MEANING of the famous soliloquy: 'to be 
or not to be.../ to die,  --  to sleep,  --  no more'". (My emphasis.)

Maybe "In my opinion" cancels this claim, which otherwise might be 
mistaken for a claim to truth and finality. But I don't care whether the 
writer claims that his theory is true. I care whether it is true. Or 
first, whether it has enough intelligible meaning to make its truth 
arguable. Zakov's "real meaning" of the soliloquy is apparently that 
Hamlet wants to die. Exactly why, I'm not sure. It has something to do 
with black holes, and gravitation. Zakov says, for example, that Hamlet 
is "aware that none will believe him". I think this is important, and 
that's why it's important that on the voyage he gets evidence, in the 
commission, of Claudius's tyranny, evidence he entrusts to Horatio. Then 
final, conclusive proof comes at the end, with Laertes' testimony and 
Hamlet's death. This is only one place where I think Zakov says things 
about the play that are not true, or that fail to take account of the 
complexities of the situation. He may say that he makes no claim to 
truth but he contradicts himself, not only in positive statements like 
that quoted above, but in the tone of his paper. Again, I don't really 
care. I'm more interested in the argument, which I would say is not very 
interesting. It's odd that Phyllis Gorfain would speak so disdainfully 
of amateurs who think they have something of value to say about Hamlet 
when her friend Amnon Zakov would seem to be a quintessential example of 
the type. But of course friendship does demand a certain partiality.

Best wishes,
David Bishop

[Editor's Note:

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all:-
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
   So how should I presume?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all-
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
   And how should I presume?

And I have known the arms already, known them all-
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!
It is perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
   And should I then presume?
   And how should I begin?
       .      .      .      .      .
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?...

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
       .      .      .      .      .
And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep . . . tired . . .  or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head [grown slightly bald] brought in upon a 
platter,
I am no prophet-and here's no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worthwhile,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all"-
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
   Should say: "That is not what I meant at all.
   That is not it, at all."

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worthwhile,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along 
the floor-
And this, and so much more?-
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
   "That is not it at all,
   That is not what I meant, at all."

"That is not it at all,
   That is not what I meant, at all."

"That is not it at all,
   That is not what I meant, at all."

--HMC]

[7]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Sally Drumm <
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Date:       Tuesday, 28 Jul 2009 22:31:53 -0400
Subject: 20.0411 Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and 
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0411 Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and 
on the Nature of Thought

 >is the entire point of _Hamlet_ that _Hamlet_ is perhaps the foremost
 >expression in western literature of the instability of meaning

I really like this theory.

Sincerely,
Sally Drumm

[8]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Joseph Egert <
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Date:       Thursday, 30 Jul 2009 15:29:06 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 20.0411 Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and 
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0411 Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and 
on the Nature of Thought

Our gracious host writes:

 >And then there is the matter of those posts that treat the character
 >of Hamlet as a "real" person not a as character in a fictional
 >construction that is enacted by actors (who may or may not want
 >to imagine a "back story" to help them enact their character for
 >the stage).

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."

Professor Cook continues:

 >Now, either* I have finally grown up, or* have so bought into
 >post-modernist assumptions, or* have so accepted beliefs in the
 >instability of meaning that I am no longer, if I ever was to begin
 >with, capable of feeling assured that my assumptions are stable
 >enough to hold up to scrutiny  --  that my thoughts are even
 >worthy enough to utter ("I know that I know not"). I am not
 >sure if I have just come to accept that whatever I have to say
 >runs the risk of being expressed in such unstable terms that I
 >am virtually incapable of making a critical observation about
 >Shakespeare [...]

Is this self-doubt an example of that "intellectual paralysis" which 
John Drakakis assures us we need not fear from postmodernist thought?

Joe Egert

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