Shakespeare and Donne: Generic Hybrids and the Cultural Imaginary

By Judith H. Anderson; Jennifer C. Vaught | Go to book overview

7.
Aspects, Physiognomy, and the Pun:
A Reading of Sonnet 135 and “A Valediction:
Of Weeping”

JULIAN LAMB

What follows is a series of short sections that, in many respects, comprise different ways of grasping the same phenomenon. And though every section will fail to grasp the phenomenon in its totality, I hope that their mitigated failures will amount to something of a success. Already, though, I may have engineered my first small failure: in saying that what I consider constitute examples of “the same phenomenon,” I am making an extraordinary and quite dubious claim that the phenomena I observe constitute a coherent and singular whole and one that (as my title assumes) is designated by a single word: “pun.” One of the desired effects of my writing in short sections is to indicate that the term “pun” designates (or ought to designate) a family of diverse phenomena rather than pinpoints an essential similarity common to them all.1 My method, deriving from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblances, is thus antiessentialist: it resists the temptation to unearth definitive criteria common to all puns and allows me (eventually) to argue that definitive criteria cannot even be ascribed to a single pun.2 When considering the occurrence of puns in early modern texts, in the present instance, specifically in the poetry of Shakespeare and Donne, we ought to be conscious that such an umbrella term is itself anachronistic, probably developed by those eighteenth-century detractors of punning language.3 Indeed, the homogenization of diverse phenomena under a single term would have made them a much easier target for attack: all the better for the enemies of the pun if the term itself subsequently collapses under the weight of its own equivocation, its lack of stable referent.4 But even for champions of the pun, it is very difficult to isolate what punning actually is, to say nothing of those nagging problems as to where an act of

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