The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 17.0123 Monday, 6 March 2006
Date: Friday, 03 Mar 2006 13:26:57 -0500
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.
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