The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 17.0123  Monday, 6 March 2006

From: 		Larry Weiss <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date: 		Friday, 03 Mar 2006 13:26:57 -0500
Subject: 	Polonius

I think the fundamental difference between the interpretive approaches 
adopted by Mssrs Basch and Kasten and those I follow is that the former 
enjoy the unbounded fun of seeing how many patently absurd speculations 
they can try to make seem reasonable by reference to coincidences in 
unrelated (and probably unknown) works, while I focus on the likely 
impact the text would have had on the minds of the hearers.

"Polonius" is a good example.  The name strikes me -- and would have 
struck an educated member of the original audience -- as an agnomen 
which would have been awarded in classical times to a warrior or 
politician who was instrumental in overcoming Poland.  That this custom 
existed in classical times must have been known to at least the educated 
portion of Shakespeare's audience, as he saw no need to explain it in 
Coriolanus. The references to Poland as a former enemy of Denmark which 
in the play was being invaded with Denmark's assistance tend to support 
this view of the character's name.

But Basch and Kasten find this too simple.  They prefer to surmise -- 
or, in the case of Basch, assert categorically -- that WS was somehow 
sufficiently familiar with Hebrew to know that "Poloni" was the ancient 
judaic version of "John Doe."  Where is the evidence for such profound 
knowledge?  It is circular to say that WS must have known Hebrew because 
he uses the name Polonius and that sounds like Poloni.

Kasten's assertion that he is "convinced" that WS "knew at least as much 
Hebrew" as Kasten knows of "various foreign languages, living and dead" 
tells us nothing.  He doesn't tell us the depth of his knowledge of 
other languages or even why he is "convinced."  We believe WS knew some 
Latin and a little Greek because the curricula of grammar schools at the 
time emphasized those subjects, and we have the testimony of Ben Jonson. 
We know he knew some French and Italian because a few of the plays have 
passages in those tongues.  But Hebrew?  If that was taught in any 
school WS was likely to have attended it would be an easy thing to 
present the evidence. Maybe there were books in general circulation 
teaching the Hebrew language to native English speakers or providing 
side-by-side English and transliterated Hebrew texts of the Talmud, but 
Basch and Kasten do not identify them or offer any evidence that WS 
would have had a copy.

Even if we assume, without the slightest evidence, that WS knew Hebrew 
and studied the Talmud, that still wouldn't mean that "Polonius" has the 
significance Basch ascribes.  The Latin meaning is still there and that 
is the one the audience would have understood if they stopped to think 
about it at all.  Or are Basch and Kasten telling us that a significant 
portion of the Elizabethan audience were Talmud scholars and Shakespeare 
was writing inside jokes for their special delectation?  What proportion 
of the audience would have been in on it?  How do you know?  Where are 
the enrollment records of the Elizabethan Talmud academies showing 
widespread knowledge of those texts?

P.S. for Robin Hamilton:  I know that "forte en bras" is French.  By 
"Latinization" I intended to refer to the entire breadth of Latin 
tongues, not just the ancient Roman one.

S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List
Hardy M. Cook, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
The S H A K S P E R Web Site <http://www.shaksper.net>

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