QotW (#60): Monday 29 October 2018

Elated, Validated, or just Deflated?

BH magic eye
image: wiki commons .  Now you see it …

This post forms part two of my Standing on the Shoulders of Giants debate … IS it possible to have an original thought about Shakespeare?

But first, a digression back to the early 1990s …

During those heady ‘salad days’ I worked in central London.  Occasionally, amongst the boozy lunches (far more acceptable then, provided you stayed awake all afternoon) and whirl of socialising, my friend Graham and I might wander down to Hatton Garden, about five minutes walk away from my office in Gray’s Inn.  At a little row of market stalls, I’d stare in fruitless yet enduring hope at enormous posters similar to the image above.  Magic Eye – they were called at the time, and it took hours before I learned the trick of unfocusing my eyes, and trying to look through the picture to see the hidden image.  I probably looked a complete pillock in the meantime, swaying back and forth as if I was on the way back to the office after one of those liquid lunches.

Twenty-five years later, and it’s only about six weeks since I gave in and finally accepted I need reading glasses, which I’m still getting used to.  So, today I spent another five minutes swaying back and forth, trying to see if I could decipher the image on a computer screen.  Otherwise this ‘angle’ into the post would be pointless.  Happily I can.  If you need to know what the ‘magic eye’ shows you, scroll down …

And – like that – we’re back in 2018.  It’s nearly a year since my memorable ‘pun-atomic particle‘ conversation with Aidan and Jamie.  Although the credit belongs to Aiden for the terminology, it was one of those energising moments when I felt I had stumbled upon some secret truth, when the seemingly random pattern had crystallised into something meaningful.  In the pub.  As often happens.

BH william empson NPG
image:  National Portrait Gallery

Which leads me on to William Empson (left).  A man I might not have taken seriously (not with a beard like that, which appears more to be part of his shirt than his face) were it not for Jonathan Bate.

The long and the short of it is that in Bate’s brilliant work, The Genius of Shakespeare, he references Empson and talks about the idea of meanings in language co-existing in the same manner as the sub-atomic particles I chatted about with the lads at the Bluebell.  What excited me most was the suggestion that these meanings are by no means mutually exclusive.


I’m a firm believer in serendipity, so it’s absolutely no coincidence that in the same week that I managed to buy Empson’s ‘Seven Types of Ambiguity‘ second hand for just a pound as part of my half-term book haul, I found this quotation by Lawrence Danson which nicely ties in my most recent Forensic Friday effort:

The quibble, or pun, said Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century, was Shakespeare’s ‘fatal Cleopatra’; he was ‘content to lose the world’ for the sake of a good, or even a bad, play on words. […] Punning is not necessarily a woman’s game and is certainly not confined to comedy, but it is a game that can be played as well by conventionally marginal characters as by their supposed social betters. […]

Where Doctor Johnson wants language to define and clarify, to make things simple, comedy complicates and splits, finds doubles […]; it makes language fertile, and the births are multiple.  A pun pushes more meanings into a word than the word can hold, and the result is that little explosion which the hearer acknowledges with an ‘ooph’ of recognition.  The pun is at the level of rhetoric what farce is at the level of plot: too much likeness in too small a place.  It splits apart meanings and brings them together in new combinations.  It is contemptuous of hierarchy, boundaries, and decorum.  It finds sex everywhere.

These discoveries, plus my Y12 marking, led to some soul-searching, which in fact resulted in part one of this internal debate – the idea of originality of analysis.  How should I feel, having got some real satisfaction from synthesising a theory, to find that I was unwittingly following a path laid by someone else, even if there was no question of my plagiarising their ideas?  What is the point of urging students to do the same, if there is, actually, nothing new to say?

Is there, in fact, nothing new to say about Shakespeare?  Should I feel validated, elated that someone articulated my ideas better than I can, or deflated because I was and can probably never be unoriginal?

I asked my other, better, half.  She who must be obeyed – or at least grudgingly acknowledged as more intelligent than I am.  Basically, our conversation ran along the lines of:

  1. feel validated by the fact that you’ve independently come up with something which broadly matches the thinking of your self-acknowledged betters (applicable to both me and my students;
  2. appreciate their ability to clearly articulate what you are thinking (see 4);
  3. acknowledge the fact that the source material you are dealing with is just too old for you to come up with something truly original which doesn’t break the ‘Continuum of Plausibility’™️; and
  4. rein in your  ego (‘as I have told you SO many times’);

What do YOU think?

[SPOILER ALERT:  If you’re struggling with the Magic Eye picture, it’s a shark.  Experience suggests this might not help, but at least you know.]


Lawrence Danson, Shakespeare’s Dramatic Genres (Oxford University Press:  Oxford, 2000)

Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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