The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.0533  Tuesday, 22 March 2005

From:           Bruce Young <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Monday, 21 Mar 2005 11:36:03 -0700
Subject: 16.0477 Dictionary
Comment:        RE: SHK 16.0477 Dictionary

No doubt I won't be the only one to refer Mark Alexander to the Oxford
English Dictionary, now available online (at least by subscription).  Of
course, the OED is not infallible or complete, but it's a helpful guide.

Deciding on the meaning of many words in Shakespeare requires a degree
of literary and linguistic tact.  The decision, which may vary from one
informed reader to another, will be affected by a reader's past
experience and judgments about (among other things) a word's local
context, linguistic history, and use elsewhere by Shakespeare or other
writers.  In his introduction to Studies in Words, C. S. Lewis describes
the situation well:

"When a word has several meanings historical circumstances often make
one of them dominant during a particular period....  The dominant sense
of any word lies uppermost in our minds.  Wherever we meet the word, our
natural impulse will be to give it that sense.  When this operation
results in nonsense, of course, we see our mistake and try over again.
But if it makes tolerable sense our tendency is to go merrily on.  We
are often deceived.  In an old author the word may mean something
different.  I call such senses dangerous senses because they lure us
into misreadings....

"When the _dangerous sense_ is a sense which did not exist at all in the
age when our author wrote, it is less dangerous.  Moderate, and
moderately increasing, scholarship will guard us against it.  But often
the situation is more delicate.  What is now the _dangerous sense_ may
have existed then but it may not yet have been at all dominant.  It may
possibly be the sense the old author really intended, but this is not
nearly so probable as our own usage leads us to suppose.  Our task is
not the comparatively simple one of excluding an unqualified candidate;
we have to conquer our undue predilection for those who are qualified."

Lewis goes on to describe further complications, including the fact that
sometimes we may never know for sure which of several possible meanings
an author intended.  And, writing before the advent of reader-response
theory or the announcement of the death of the author, Lewis
nevertheless recognized that it is a personal (we might now say,
"readerly") decision to care or not to care about whether we understand
an old poem or play as its author intended it or its original audiences
would have understood it: anyone "is entitled to say he prefers the
poems he makes for himself out of his mistranslations to the poems the
writers intended.  I have no quarrel with him.  He need have none with
me.  Each to his taste."  Of course, Lewis really wants to defend his
approach, since only by being open to older and alien meanings can we
come to know something other than ourselves.  (Cf.  Levinas: "... to
receive from the Other beyond the capacity of the I ...  means: to be
taught. ... Teaching . . . comes from the exterior and brings me more
than I contain.")

Bruce Young

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