Academic journal article Style

Shakespeare and "The I-Word"

Academic journal article Style

Shakespeare and "The I-Word"

Article excerpt

The idea that identification of literary intention is "neither available nor desirable" (Wimsatt and Beardsley 1375) has gained wide currency, despite the fact that everyday practice and common intuition tell us the reverse. Following Wimsatt and Beardsley's formalist assault on intention as an option for interpretation, essays by Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida seemed finally to put an end to the matter. Continental theory's radical dismantling of the writer as "subject" gave author-centered approaches like E. D. Hirsch's Validity in Interpretation (1966) an air of being outdated and too wedded to liberal-humanist, common-sense habits of mind. In early modern studies, collections of essays such as Alternative Shakespeares and Shakespeare and the Question of Theory popularized an anti-intentionalist viewpoint that has since become orthodox. Anti-intentionalists presumably do not deny the possibility of human intention per se but reject the claim that an author's intention should constrain the ways in which a text might be understood. In the recent SHAKSPER roundtable on intentionality, it has been said that since the author is "dead," he or she cannot "guarantee" the meaning of his or her work (Drakakis, SHAKSPER 1 May 2008). Living authors are no less defunct since human cognitions are notoriously complex, contingent, and uncertain. On this view, the strict impossibility of inhabiting another's consciousness means that interpretation cannot not be delimited on so flimsy a basis as intention. Meanings are constructed belatedly in acts of interpretation and so only a text's end-uses will count. The "death of the author" heralds the birth of the reader. This line of thinking is shared under a number of guises by reader-response critics of different persuasions and some "presentists." Accordingly, the work of criticism should be, and can only be, a political project of generating multiple readings, of cultivating diversity and incorporating as many social voices as possible. But it's an odd sort of multivocality that excludes the author's voice.

Few. I hope, would deny the benefit of widening the "Shakespeare" conversation. Yet what principle or "theory" could possibly rule out talk of authorial intention at all times and in all places? I shall not presume that any of my fellow contributors to this roundtable share such a position, but many are likely to know those who do. Readers' cognitions hold no logical priority over those of authors, and any thoroughgoing anti-intentionalist will face difficulty whenever an author's intentions are partly apparent (as Shakespeare's sometimes are). It is, perhaps, somewhat misleading to couch the debate in simple, binary terms of those for and against literary intention. Perspectives on literary intention are likely to fall by degrees on either side. The purpose of my contribution is to argue that Shakespeare's intentionality can sometimes be identified

and that this should be acknowledged. The conclusion that all claims to authorial intention are inadmissible does not follow from the premise that some are. That intentions can be unclear is no argument against the view that there are authorial intentions that matter. My modest proposal then is that Shakespeare's intentions can sometimes be known, if hazily, and, rather than being anything to worry about, this heartening fact can open up Shakespeare studies in rich and fascinating ways.

A further, related point worth stating at the outset is that, if the concept of intention comes with some difficulties, this does not mean it is fatally disabled or should be entirely disregarded. The difficulties are what make the matter interesting. The possibility of sharing in Shakespeare's ideas is animating (I imagine this is why there are Shakespeareans) and the process of weighing plausibilities in doing so is educative. The fact that literary intentions might be more accessible in some textual features and less so in others, or matter to different degrees, should hardly surprise us but gives no warrant for dismissing the concept outright. …

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