The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 22.0014 Tuesday, 11 January 2011
Date: January 8, 2011 5:20:24 PM EST
Subject: Page / Stage
On December 21, 2010, in the Shylock the unChristian thread
<http://www.shaksper.net/archives/2010/0454.html> William Godshalk wrote:
>There is a difference between words on a page and the reality of
During enactments of Shakespearean plays, people have been known to cry.
>All the suffering in the world will not turn the printed word into the
The people who built those camps were acting on orders, which very often were written.
>This is not to say that words on a page cannot be
>interpreted -- if you have a functioning brain and know the language in
>which the words are written. In fact, the words on the page can often be
>interpreted in many different ways. They have no inherent meaning.
If words have no inherent meaning, as you say, and we are all free to interpret text freely, then isn't
it fair to say what you really mean is that words have inherent meaning, and there is only one correct
interpretation of any given text?
I'm told that there's a post-modern thing, where a thesis is understood to imply its antithesis. But
that's not what I'm doing in the above paragraph. (Nor in this one.)
No, I'm in earnest: how can you say words have no inherent meaning and interpretation is free-and mean
it? How can you mean anything, if it's all in the interpretation?
William Godshalk also wrote:
>[..] I think we all three agree:
>"I cannot separate my own perceptions of the play from 'the play'. A
>cursory re-reading of Terry Hawkes' 'Meaning by Shakespeare' would
>remind us all of that. But if you want to apply that logic to my
>reading, then you will need to apply it to your own..." And that's the
>hard part. Words against words.
I can't separate my perception of you from you, but that doesn't mean I don't understand there's a
difference. That is, the argument you've posted has nothing to do with Shakespeare, but it's an argument
Interpretations by their nature can be correct or incorrect. Or let's say adequate or inadequate. An
interpreter who believes otherwise would never make it into the U.N., and if he did he'd be a menace.
The fact that evaluating an interpretation of a Shakespearean drama is difficult -- is "words against
words" -- does not mean all and any interpretations are equally good, nor that it comes down to whether
we like them. Rather, it means that we largely lack a standard by which to evaluate them.
Interpretation is not free. Even where people have interpretations that are at odds with one another's,
those misinterpretations are not free. And it is work-sometimes a great struggle -- to alter an
interpretation, just as it can be work to alter a perception. Even when we understand the perception, the
interpretation, is wrong.
Meaning is a reflex. Interpretation is knee-jerk. We are conditioned to assign meanings to words, and the
meanings we have conditionally attached to any given word will have shades of difference. Standardized
meanings are artifice. Language is an artifice.
In my opinion, there are a few primary questions we should be asking when we talk about interpreting
passages as difficult as those in Shakespearean texts:
What ideas do they put in the mind of the audience?
What ideas would they have put in the mind of the original audience?
What ideas are they meant to put in the mind of the audience?
How can you tell?
I have no doubt that Shakespeare intentionally created something like Rorschachs. But while Rorschachs
are random in their construction, Shakespearean plays are highly structured. Therefore, central to the
project of understanding Shakespeare is sorting out when we are projecting meaning and when culling it
from the text.
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