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Interpretation versus Reading

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 26.005  Wednesday, 8 January 2015


[1] From:        Larry Weiss < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         December 29, 2014 at 2:28:03 PM EST

     Subject:    Re: SHAKSPER: Interpretation versus Reading 


[2] From:        David Basch < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         December 31, 2014 at 11:19:05 AM EST

     Subject:    Re: SHAKSPER: Interpretation versus Reading




From:        Larry Weiss < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         December 29, 2014 at 2:28:03 PM EST

Subject:    Re: SHAKSPER: Interpretation versus Reading


>Can you help me understand your formula?


>I read ___X___ as _______ from my perspective as ___Y___ .

>What is wrong about thinking one knows the meaning the poet

>tries to communicate from what he has written?


Those are two entirely different questions; in fact, they deal with inconsistent views of criticism. The first imposes the reader’s mindset on the author and strives to fit the latter’s language into the reader’s biases. The second seeks to ascertain what the author expected his audience to understand from his words. That to my mind is the most legitimate function of criticism. To combine the two notions is an almost solipsistic exercise; it equates the author with the reader: Shakespeare was like me; I am a Marxist; therefore, Shakespeare intended Jack Cade to be a hero.


We all seem to agree that it is a futile exercise in most cases to try to determine with absolute certainty what a long-dead author “intended,” if by that word we mean the recesses of his mind, things that he himself might not have been aware of consciously. But that is not the same thing as seeking to determine what the author expected his audience to understand from what he wrote, which, in most cases, we can do with a fair degree of confidence by reference to the words he uses. Where that proves inadequate due to the obscurity of the passage, a number of tools are available: Philology (what did the words mean at the time), context (what is happening in the play, what do the character and other characters say about the language in question, etc.), and the cultural context of the time (what are the common experiences of the audience). To illustrate: There is a passage in “Macbeth” in which the drunken porter invites an equivocator into Hell. The passage is incomprehensible to most modern readers, but a little background makes it perfectly clear. To begin with, equivocation has a meaning today which is very different from—nearly the opposite of—what it meant in the early 17th Century. Today it means expression of uncertainty or inability to make a definite assertion one way or the other. But in 1607 it referred to a species of prevarication in which the speaker makes a definite statement which appears to mean one thing when, in fact, he holds a secret understanding which negates that meaning. For example, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” is true because I do not regard fellatio as sexual relations; or “I am not having an affair with Mary,” as I have not slept with her since last night. In a scriptural justification offered by the Catholic Church for the practice, Jesus told his disciples that he did not know the date of Judgment Day, when, of course (being omniscient), he did know it but not for the purpose of disclosing it.


A fuller understanding of the passage in “Macbeth” is had when we refer the events of the day: The play was written about a year after the March 28, 1606 trial of Fr. Henry Garnet, the Jesuit Priest convicted of complicity in the Gunpowder Plot.  Garnet was deposed before the trial and denied that he participated in the plot, but the evidence offered at trial demonstrated that in fact he was intimately involved, such as by administering oaths to the other conspirators. He attempted to justify his lack of truthfulness by invoking the doctrine of equivocation, authorized by the Church in such cases. With this background, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Shakespeare intended his audience to think of Garnet when the porter damns an unnamed equivocator “who committed treason enough for God’s sake.”


Not every obscure passage can be clarified by these critical tools and it is not possible in every case to come to a definite conclusion about what Shakespeare expected his audience to understand. In some cases, in fact, he most likely thought his audience would apply more than one interpretation. Ambiguity is one of his hallmarks. But that is not to say that any interpretation of any passage or play is as valid as any other. For example, we don’t have to go too far out on a limb to conclude that Shakespeare did not make puns on classical Hebrew or that Shylock does not behave as he does as a deliberate scheme to secure his daughter’s patrimony. To use instances for which David Basch is not to blame, we can say with confidence that “Measure for Measure” is not a polemic for the gold standard, that the Pyramis and Thisbe interlude in MND is not really a passion play and that the entirety of that play is not an allegory about the emperor Titus’s war against Judea.



From:        David Basch < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         December 31, 2014 at 11:19:05 AM EST

Subject:    Re: SHAKSPER: Interpretation versus Reading



Dear Hardy:


Thanks for taking the time to give some background on literary analysis. Much of this is new to me. It seems to me that what you have shown is the variety of ways that have been used from time to time to analyze literary works. But does any new perspective necessarily annul the old? Cannot two or more approaches actually amplify one another and enable greater understanding of a literary object. For example, though early commentators may have zealously sought to find the moral components of poems and plays, we can today also analyze their poetic devices and read their themes that reveal a more secular side.


I kind of summarily reject approaches that focus so minutely on literary structure that they squeeze out what the literary object has to tell, which I imagine is the bent of the deconstructionists. Here I find a way that is too much of an overlay of a commentator’s narcissistic obsessions that fragment and destroy appreciation of an actual work.


I note that while Helen Vendler discusses in detail the literary structure and methods used in each of the sonnets, illuminating the variety of marvelous techniques used by the poet in crafting his poems, she still assays the context of the poems, trying to bring into it what the poet means to say and who the poet is saying it about and to whom he directs his poem. The problem I find with her latter attempts is that she presumes she understands the poet and therefore his intentions. She ends up assuming the poet has an obsessed devotion to a male friend as part of a perverse, homosexual involvement. In so doing she reduces the poet to exhibiting a sado-masochistic attachment and subservience to this friend as a result of an obsessive need for the love of this friend.


This picture of the poet throws out all that is told by the poet’s obvious mastery of psychology in the delineation of his characters and the high-minded brilliance in which he deals with the great issues of life. Surely we have here an unbridgeable gap between the two conceptions of the poet.


Stephen Booth also shares Vendler’s view of the poet. Thus, for all Booth’s minute, devotion to analyzing the words and lines of the sonnets, which I have found very helpful, is all too often given to seeing a sexual meaning in the poet’s words, like done by sex-obsessed teen-agers, contributing to Vendler’s picture of the poet as psychological disturbed.


But I, not having the burden of an over involvement in the psychological theories applied to the poet, take a more direct approach to his poems. Take for example Sonnet 30, a poem, world-admired, for its use of the technique of annamatopoeia. Reading it, one is moved by poet’s moans at the loss of friends in “death’s dateless night.” So intense are the feelings that the poet arouses that we really welcome the relief offered by his last lines:


     But if the while I think on thee (dear friend),

     All losses are restored and sorrowes end.


I and many others find in this a stirring ode to the restorative power of friendship. It is only later and secondarily that the question arises as to who this friend is that offers the poet such restoration and solace. And when it is posed that this friend is some homosexual lover, the reaction is disappointing. The sonnet becomes a “satire to decay” and adds a sour note that destroys, I think, the majesty of the poem.


However, I, driven by the work of the late Professor Leslie Hotson of Yale, who alleged (from examples he gave) that many sonnets parallel their correspondingly numbered psalm, I took a look at the Bible’s parallel Psalm 30. What then stood out is that the psalm also has a concern with death and that the psalmist experiences a similar restoration by his thoughts of the Lord. Here are some of the verses of Psalm 30:


      1  I will extol thee, O LORD; for thou hast lifted me up,...

      2  O LORD my God, I cried unto thee, and thou hast healed me.

      3  O LORD, thou hast brought up my soul from the grave: thou

         hast kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit....


A few verses later, we read of the same restoration and solace mentioned in the sonnet, but here given by the Lord:


     11  Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing: thou

         hast put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness;


The correspondence is striking and one must suspect that the friend mentioned in the sonnet is the Lord. What is more, the opening of the following Sonnet 31 seems to offer more confirmation. As the poet wrote:


        T   Hy bosome is endeared with all hearts,

            Which I by lacking haue supposed dead,

        And there raignes Love and all Lous louing parts,

        And all those friends I thought buried.


The bosom of the Lord offers a more compelling destination for friends lost than that of a male lover no matter how beloved. There is even a verse in parallel Psalm 31, verse 5, “Into thine hand I commit my (soul) spirit,” from an elaboration of which we may learn the destination of all souls that the poet mentions. With such a context, is there any reason to summarily dismiss that the "friend" the poet invokes is actually the Lord?


Vendler and Booth may be dismissive on the basis of how they regard the personality of the poet as seems to emerge from sonnets giving hyperbolic fealty to a human, male friend. But what is hyperbolic to a human friend is not that when applied to the Deity. There is also the advantage here that under this view the personality of the poet becomes coherent with that emerging from his authorship of his majestic dramatic works.


It is in such a context that I read in the Sonnets what appears to me to be an allegory of the “vying souls.” I can quote chapter and verse from the poet’s Sonnets the various lines that appear to describe this motif, especially Sonnet 144, in which it is explicit. This is a common motif that pervades the religious writing of many faiths. What obscures it in the Sonnets is that the love these poems express to their male and female objects seems so genuine coming from the pen of the great poet.


Sure there are rough spots in such interpretations. It was a later development that enabled me to find the coherence of the first 17 sonnets to the rest by reading these poems as directed toward the poet as a youth obsessed with a love for his higher soul which brings him close to the Lord through the pureness of his piety. This love has quite overpowered that of the lower soul so that now the youth needs to be awakened to the desires and lusts necessary for life on earth by the “dark lady” that represents these. A number of the sonnets tell of the young William’s chagrin at the power of these motivations that newly challenge him. In this context, the Sonnets are therefore an allegory depicting this primordial struggle going on in each person.


Anyway, I think that this interpretation, despite some gaps, has much to speak for it in explaining the dynamics of the Sonnets. However, these days, no doubt as result of the murkiness of the poet’s biography, too many commentators have been seduced by shallow popular psychologies into reading into his work a poet that goes against what his work tells of him, 


Hardy, thanks again for giving me the opportunity to spell out my views.


Yours for a Happy 2015 New Year,

David Basch

Rowan Williams: What I learned from the word of the Bard

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 26.004  Wednesday, 8 January 2015


From:        Hardy Cook < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         December 28, 2014 at 9:33:47 AM EST

Subject:    What I learned from the word of the Bard


From the Guardian:


What I learned from the word of the Bard, by Rowan Williams

The ex-archbishop of Canterbury is taking solace and inspiration from Shakespeare as the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death nears


As Christmas approached, the Observer found Rowan Williams, the right reverend, the Lord Williams of Oystermouth, former archbishop of Canterbury, primate of All England, and author of The Poems of Rowan Williams (Perpetua Press), relaxing at home in Cambridge, merrily extemporising Dogberry’s lines from Much Ado About Nothing in a passable rustic accent: “Though it be not written down, yet forget not that I am an ass.”


This, your reporter is bound to note, is not a side of this distinguished theologian that’s familiar to any but his inner circle. It turns out, however, to be authentic. Like several men and women of the cloth, Williams once nurtured an ambition to go on the stage, has preached on Macbeth and King Lear, and venerates Shakespeare.


If there’s one play that intersects at so many levels with the Church of England, it must be The Winter’s Tale. Happily renowned for its stage direction “Exit pursued by a bear”, it was first performed before the court in January 1611, the year in which the King James Version of the Bible was published. Ever since, Shakespeare and the Good Book have been informally linked as supreme expressions of the English language. Acknowledging the deep association of this play and the church, the former archbishop speaks passionately about The Winter’s Tale.


“It is,” he says, “one of the most linguistically dense, emotionally demanding and spiritually rich of all the plays.” He finds “a great deal of religious symbolism” running through a story of reconciliation that culminates in a secular resurrection with the coming to life of Hermione’s statue. King Leontes’s “O, she’s warm” is – for Williams – “one of the greatest lines Shakespeare ever wrote”.


Williams freely admits to the youthful temptations of the stage and to “a fleeting ambition” to be an actor. “I come back to Lear compulsively,” he says, and recalls that “of all unlikely things, I once played Dogberry”. Having rehearsed some favourite lines, he adds: “With all due humility, that was casting against type. I usually got the authority roles, such as Theseus [in A Midsummer Night’s Dream].”


Did he find Shakespeare any guide to being archbishop? “There’s plenty in Shakespeare,” he replies, “about the gulf between the robes and the reality. That’s helpful. And also the sense of paying attention to words. I’m glad I’d done some acting: it’s a way of feeling the words. You’re playing a role, but that does not mean you are falsifying. It just means, ‘This is what I have to do to keep this community fulfilling its purpose’.


“One of the problems for the church today is we don’t know what we’re for.” Shakespeare, by contrast, was a master of the compelling presentation of complex themes. “I don’t happen to be Shakespeare.”


[ . . . ]


Looking back at his time as archbishop and his frustrations over the ordination of women bishops, does he have regrets? He certainly seems to concede being conscious of a lost role and of a part given to another actor. “It’s odd,” he says, “when I see a photo of Justin [Welby]’s enthronement. I think, ‘Gosh, that’s the same scene, the same costumes and the same dramatic moment’.” This tradition stretches back to St Augustine. “But,” he says, with a slightly wistful expression, “now there’s a different person in the middle of it. The faces change, but Augustine’s seat doesn’t.” In retirement from the cut and thrust of church politics, which was never his forte, Williams is Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. Now, with more than a hint of Prospero about him, he’s immersing himself in Shakespeare. In the approach to Twelfth Night, he will, with Salley Vickers and Stanley Wells, lead a four-day reading retreat on The Winter’s Tale, open to the public, at Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Great Park, Berkshire, from 2-5 January.


Williams says he is strongly drawn to this late “romance”, with its themes of reconciliation and renewal explored by a writer who, he observes, was intimately acquainted with conflict and jeopardy.


“Shakespeare loves living dangerously, doesn’t he?” he says with relish. “Look at Macbeth. A new play for a new king [James I] which speaks directly to his paranoia about witchcraft. Here’s Shakespeare, standing on a knife edge. He’s writing a play about James’s ancestors. And what does he do? He puts in this shameless bit of dynastic propaganda where he says, ‘Look, there’s Banquo’s line’, and it culminates in the best king [James] since sliced bread. You can almost see him turning to his patron, beaming and bowing, before getting on with the rest of the play.”


The archbishop breaks off. For a moment I wonder if he is going to search out some matching biblical reference. “It reminds me,” he says, with a rush of secular excitement, “of a moment in The Simpsons, an episode about the press. Mr Burns is talking about the evils of newspaper proprietors when he turns to the camera and says, ‘Except for Rupert Murdoch’, and then carries on with the scene.”


Speaking of jeopardy, there’s an old debate about whether Shakespeare was a secret Roman Catholic. Williams has views on this. “Shakespeare knows exactly where he does, and doesn’t, want to go, in matters of church and state. He deliberately puts some of his plays right outside the Christian, Tudor/Jacobean framework. For instance, King Lear takes place in a pre-Christian Britain. Again, some people argue that Cymbeline is about a rupture with Rome, leading to a reconciliation. I think Shakespeare did have a recusant Catholic background. My own hunch is that he didn’t go to church much.”


[ . . . ]


The archbishop’s fascination with Shakespeare has recently taken tangible literary shape in what he nervously calls “a bit of imaginative writing”. He confides that this is a short play, entitled Shakeshaft, in which he reconstructs a dialogue between the young poet and the great Jesuit theologian Edmund Campion. “We know they both stayed at the same house in Lancashire,” he says. “I found this a wonderful idea to play with: what might a Jesuit martyr and Shakespeare have said to each other?”


The perils of former church politics are vivid in his mind, which may help explain his reluctance to be drawn on the great issues of his tenure, especially same-sex marriage and the ordination of women bishops.


The conversation swerves into the fate of Thomas Becket, hacked to death by four knights on the steps of Canterbury cathedral in 1170. Williams admits that he can’t help identifying with Becket.


“You can’t not be aware of previous archbishops,” he says. “Every year we’d commemorate Becket’s martyrdom. We’d have prayers and readings, and I’d stand there, thinking …” His voice tails off. “Inhabiting that history was extraordinary. I found it one of the most intense moments of the year, a reconnection. We would read from Murder in the Cathedral and actually open the door of the north cloister, as Becket had done. I would listen to the bolts being drawn and think: those bolts … that door ... this stone …” An addict of meaningful silence, Williams hardly needs to add the chilling words of the chronicler of that act of high clerical murder, “the crown of his head was separated from the head in such a way that the blood, white with the brain, and the brain no less red from the blood, dyed the floor of the cathedral”.


In more secular times, but at the end of an equally dark year, does he have a message? Williams frames an ironic smile. “A Christmas cracker?” A pause. “Well, one of the great legacies of our culture is that we have a supremely great poet who keeps reminding us how words make us who we are. This means that having good words around us – an imaginative context that feeds us – is not a luxury but a necessity of life.” Another pregnant pause. “The amazing thing about our language and imagination is that we can never say, ‘We’ve done that’. There is no last telling.”


In the absence of scripture, could he teach his faith from Shakespeare? Williams considers the idea carefully. “I’d have a jolly good try.” He smiles enigmatically, before reprising his role as Dogberry.

Making Links: Texts, Contexts, and Performance in Digital Editions of Early Modern Drama

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 26.003  Wednesday, 8 January 2015


From:        Hardy M. Cook < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Subject:    Making Links: Texts, Contexts, and Performance in Digital Editions of Early Modern Drama


When you register for the SAA in Vancouver, please consider staying a few days longer to explore Vancouver and Victoria and to register for the ISE Conference Making Links: Texts, Contexts, and Performance in Digital Editions of Early Modern Drama at the University of Victoria. I’ll be there.





Making Links

Texts, Contexts, and Performance in Digital Editions of Early Modern Drama


Call for papers and expressions of interest

Dates: April 7-8, 2015

Location: University of Victoria, BC, Canada


The conference will be an opportunity to share ideas, and to learn how to use and apply the growing number of digital tools that are available to the scholar


Sharing ideas

As well as sessions of traditional papers, we are planning one or more "slams": sessions where each presenter is given a maximum of eight minutes to present a problem, and idea, or a thesis of some kind, followed immediately by seven minutes of questions and responses. These sessions have proven immensely useful in providing scholars with immediate feedback on ideas that are still in the process of development.

Using and applying digital tools


We will also be calling on the expertise of those familiar with digital tools, from the relatively simple to those that are more powerful. Through a number of workshops, this gathering will be a great opportunity to learn about the many digital resources that are available to the modern scholar, including those developed at the University of Victoria for the Internet Shakespeare Editions and its associated websites, Digital Renaissance Editions and the Queen's Men Editions.


Workshops will focus on strategies for linking texts within these sites to each other, to supporting materials in many media, and to the growing number of stable scholarly sites on the web.

Submitting a proposal


Please submit the following information by December 1, 2014 to < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >. 


Title of paper/presentation: 


Abstract (150-250 words for a paper, 100-150 words for a short, "slam," presentation): 








Accommodation will be available at the Laurel Point Inn, on Victoria’s inner harbor. The conference rate will be $99 per night.

25,000 EEBO TCP Texts Now Available

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 26.002  Wednesday, 8 January 2015


From:        Al Magary < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         January 6, 2015 at 1:45:57 AM EST

Subject:    25,000 EEBO TCP Texts Now Available


Great news for all early modern researchers, especially those without strong institutional connection, from the Early English Books Online/Text Creation Partnership (EEBO-TCP):


The Text Creation Partnership is quickly arriving at a major milestone: starting January 1, 2015, all restrictions will be lifted from EEBO-TCP Phase I, which consists of the first 25,000 texts transcribed and encoded by the TCP from 2000-2009.


These 25,000 (plus a few hundred) texts will be freely available to anyone wishing to use them, and there will no longer be any restrictions on sharing these files. They will be licensed under the Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication (CC0 1.0 Universal), which will be indicated in the header of each text.


But what does this news mean for users of the EEBO-TCP Phase I texts?

  • On January 1:
    • If you already have a local version of the raw EEBO-TCP Phase I SGML or XML files, or derivative files that you have created from these, you may copy, post, publish, distribute, and otherwise share these files without restriction and without seeking special permission.
    • If you are already hosting the EEBO-TCP Phase I texts online in a platform that has previously restricted access to them (for example, PhiloLogic@NU), you may at any time remove the access restrictions and make this resource available to the public. However, you are not required to do this.
    • You may download the full corpus of EEBO-TCP Phase I files, as produced by the Text Creation Partnership, from Beginning January 1, anyone may “join” the folder on and download the files.
    • Thanks to the efforts of James Cummings, Sebastian Rahtz, Magdalena Turska, and Martin Wynne at the University of Oxford, each of the texts will be available as HTML, ePUB, and TEI P5 XML via the Oxford Text Archive.
  • The week of January 5:
    • When the University of Michigan re-opens from its holiday break, we will open up public access to the EEBO-TCP Phase I texts  on our platform, which makes it possible to do targeted full-text searching across the entire corpus.
    • Keep an eye out for announcements from Michigan Oxford, and ProQuest about this milestone.
  • All the time:
    • It is important to remember that this public release applies only to the electronic texts created by the TCP in its first phase of work. The facsimile page images that go along with each text will still be available only to users who have access to EEBO or the JISC Historical Texts platform.
    • If you are affiliated with an institution that has access to the EEBO database and was an EEBO-TCP Phase I partner, nothing about your EEBO access will change: you will still be able to access the TCP texts via EEBO and search the texts in the same way you have been doing for years.
    • For the time being, the EEBO-TCP Phase II texts are still available only to users at Phase II partner institutions.

More at


Al Magary

Welcome to the New Year

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 26.001  Wednesday, 8 January 2015


From:        Hardy M. Cook < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Subject:    Welcome to the New Year


Dear SHAKSPER Subscriber:


Happy New Year to all, and welcome to the 26th year of SHAKSPER’s service to the academic Shakespeare community.


If you would care to contribute to the support of SHAKSPER, please go to the SHAKSPER web page——and use the Donate button on the right hand side.


Last year, I provided a long history of SHAKSPER, one of the oldest academic conferences on the Internet. You may read it at .


Best wishes for the New Year,


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