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At, I’ve posted about the joy of reading an edition of Hamlet that surfaces hundreds of years of scholarly disputes about the meaning of Shakespeare’s words, disputes that often are without resolution. We don’t know what the old bird/bard meant, but that’s all the more reason to love him! [Tags: ]

3 Responses to “What Shakespeare meant”

  1. […] Original post by David Weinberger […]

  2. on 22 Apr 2008 at 5:16 pmChristianGameLover


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I’ve been having an unnaturally good time going through the Hamlet Variorum (Horace Howard Furness, ed.), which annotates the play with the commentary and disputes that have gone on for hundreds of years. For reasons I don’t understand, I’m made quite happy by reading that the great scholars have suggested that when the Gentleman in Act IV, Scene 5, line 101 says “The ratifiers and props of every word,” there are reasons to think that Shakespeare might actually have meant the last word to be ward, weal, work, worth or wont. Likewise, I am brought joy by the nearly two pages of fine-print dispute over the line “He smote the sledded Polacks on the ice” (I,i, 63). “Sledded Polacks”? Sliding Polacks? Sleaded battle axe, although we don’t know what “sleaded” meant? A pole-axe lined with lead? And if he meant Poles on sleds, what the hell were they doing on sleds? What with three folios to choose from, and the possibility that errors were introduced in transcription and by compositors, not to mention the lack of spelling standards, there’s no shortage of ways the existing texts could misreflect Shakespeare’s intentions.

I truly don’t understand why I enjoy this so much. It is not a devilish delight in finding that we really don’t understand a prominent member of the canon. I love Hamlet all the more for having its ambiguity exposed. Truly. Obviously, the richness of Shakespeare’s work has always meant there are an indefinite number of ways a performance can make sense of the script. A performance can always surprise you. The fact that Hamlet can either be indecisive or a man of action, crazy or feigning, a person of feeling or reason — and, yes, I have my own preferences — is not a weakness of the play. It means there’s always more to discover. And each successful interpretation thrills us with sense-making as the ultimate creative act. But finding that there are historical ambiguities that are simple matters of fact — Shakespeare meant something by “sledded Polacks” — should diminish our enjoyment of the text, like finding out that Bach spilled coffee on the original score of one of his cantatas so we can’t be sure what some of the notes are.

But it doesn’t feel that way to me. Perhaps it’s because the difficulty of Shakespearean language has always meant that I can’t understand it word by word. The meaning has always had to emerge line by line, scene by scene; the language’s distance requires work on our part to hear it at all. Discovering a set of possible meanings for words adds clarity without determination: Here are five different things Shakespeare might have meant by a phrase I didn’t understand, didn’t pay attention to, or had projected the easiest meaning onto: Poles on sleds.

The Hamlet Variorum comes in two volumes. The first contains the full text of the play, including notes on the differences in the quartos and the critical annotations. The second contains source materials. I only have the first volume. It’s a Dover reprint so it’s even moderately priced at $13. I highly recommend it. [Tags: ]

4 Responses to “What Shakespeare meant”

  1. on 15 Mar 2007 at 4:28 pmBill K


    No, this is not a headline from the NY Post. It’s the title of an article by Sidney Warhaft from the 1961 ELH journal.

    I love the language in this text :

    Talking about Fredson T. Bowers and how he “plumped emphatically for ‘sullied’…”, Warhaft opines, “…Bowers’s imposing lucubrations lack light as well as sweetness, for they are not only logically and factually vulnerable, but also incomplete.”

    Why does this remind me of Deadwood?

  2. on 16 Mar 2007 at 8:43 amDavid Weinberger

    And then our sullied flesh can resolve itself into … a dieu!

  3. on 16 Mar 2007 at 12:28 pmBill K

    Very clever, David!

  4. on 16 Mar 2007 at 3:04 pmKoranteng Ofosu-Amaah

    Serendipitously, William Grimes makes an analogous point on the appeal of annotated editions (in this case Jane Austen) in today’s Times.

    There is evident pleasure in scribbling in the margins and in looking over other’s scribblings.

    Sidenote: I’ve been wondering about how to preserve this propensity for annotation as we move from analog to digital. When I worked on forms on the web what kept me up at night was the question of where and how to store possible annotations. Mark Pilgrims Headers and Soul is one geeky (and metaphysical) take on such questions.

    Lastly: I recall reading Anthony Grafton’s curious history of the footnote a couple of years ago – now that was delicious.

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