Meaning by Shakespeare

Meaning by Shakespeare

Meaning by Shakespeare

Meaning by Shakespeare

Synopsis

We traditionally assume that the 'meaning' of each of Shakespeares plays is bequeathed to it by the Bard. It is as if, to the information which used to be given in theatrical programmes, 'Cigarettes by Abdullah, Costumes by Motley, Music by Mendelssohn', we should add 'Meaning by Shakespeare'.
These essays rest on a different, almost opposite, principle. Developing the arguments of the same author's That Shakespearean Rag(1986), they put the case that Shakespeare's plays have no essential meanings, but function as resources which we use to generate meaning. A Midsummer Night's Dream, Measure for Measure, Coriolanus and King Lear, amongst other plays, are examined as concrete instances of the covert process whereby, in the twentieth century, Shakespeare doesn't mean: wemean byShakespeare.
Meaning by Shakespeareconcludes with 'Bardbiz', a review of recent critical approaches to Shakespeare, which initiated a long-running debate (1990-1991) when it first appeared in The London Review of Books.

Excerpt

Ophelia: What means this my lord?

Hamlet: Marry, this is miching malicho. It means mischief.

(Ill, ii, 134-5)

Into the Mousetrap

The Prince's reply has more than a touch of mischief about it. Ophelia's question is about the dumb-show that precedes the performance of The Murder of Gonzago. She wants to know what such an 'inexplicable' (1. 12) pantomime signifies, the extent to which 'this show imports the argument of the play' (1.136). As the spectacle ends and the actor playing the Prologue strides forth, she nervously raises the issue of signification again: 'Will' a tell us what this show meant?' (1. 139). the oddity of Hamlet's response to Ophelia's question comes about because he chooses to answer it from a slightly different ground. in the process, he introduces a dimension of the word 'means' that she had not thought to reach.

Ophelia's focus is on what might be termed the argument of the play 'itself', on the essential, unchanging message she presumes that it carries, one which actors or critics like Hamlet can be looked to to expound. Hamlet's own view of that sense of meaning is derisive. the mild initial expletive of his reply is suddenly shocking in this context: 'Marry'. Is he really going to answer Ophelia's query about signification head-on? Is 'Marry' the daring opening of a carefully aimed tirade? Is it a verb, the one the play seems to turn on? Will Hamlet use it to point out that the dumb-show mimes the tragic history of one marriage and his mother's subsequent decision to marry a second time? No: that nerve is merely touched, not probed, and the rest of the sentence quickly shifts into an opposite mode. There will be no direct engagement with 'meaning' on the level

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