Monday, 8 October 2012

Witty Will-power and Bardic Gender Politics

Shakespeare in Love with Puns

The second part of my exploration of rudeness in Shakespeare couples Sonnet 135 with a discussion of his work written by Dr Samuel Johnson in 1765

In this poem 'Will' is punned in a variety of senses: (1) willpower; (2) Will Shakespeare; (3) a bequest; (4) the penis; (5) future/s. Sense (4) is the one that you are least likely to encounter in discussions that want to shield readers from the reality of the eroticised encounter with the male genitalia. 

Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will,
And Will to boot, and Will in overplus;
More than enough am I, that vex thee still,
To thy sweet will making addition thus.
Wilt thou, whose will is large and spacious
Not once vouchsafe to hide my will in thine?
Shall will in others seem right gracious,
And in my will no fair acceptance shine?
The sea, all water, yet receives rain still,
And in abundance addeth to his store;
So thou, being rich in Will, add to thy Will
One will of mine, to make thy large Will more.
Let no unkind, no fair beseechers kill;
Think all but one, and me in that one Will.

(As Michel Foucault pointed out, the erotic "gaze" resulted in "perpetual spirals of power and pleasure"...)

In Johnson's discussion below,  Shapespeare's tendency to pun (or quibble) is presented in sexualised terms as a undesirable temptation and procreation of meaning. Johnson then proceeds to deconstruct further the risk of vulgarity and triviality. There is the sense of a downward motion (stooping/falling) beneath bardic dignity. But Johnson's preface also plays on the idea of bulky and swelling wit/will and seems to me to provide a scandalous  reconstruction of the mine/treasure of erotic discovery and exploration. And so at every turn the witty willpower hints at a risky grotesque quality that offends decency.




Preface to Shakespeare

Samuel Johnson (1765)


  It is incident to him to be now and then entangled with an unwieldy sentiment, which he cannot well express, and will not reject; he struggles with it a while, and if it continues stubborn, comprises it in words such as occur, and leaves it to be disentangled and evolved by those who have more leisure to bestow upon it.        

  Not that always where the language is intricate the thought is subtle, or the image always great where the line is bulky; the equality of words to things is very often neglected, and trivial sentiments and vulgar ideas disappoint the attention, to which they are recommended by sonorous epithets and swelling figures.          

  But the admirers of this great poet have never less reason to indulge their hopes of supreme excellence, than when he seems fully resolved to sink them in dejection, and mollify them with tender emotions by the fall of greatness, the danger of innocence, or the crosses of love. He is not long soft and pathetick without some idle conceit, or contemptible equivocation. He no sooner begins to move, than he counteracts himself; and terrour and pity, as they are rising in the mind, are checked and blasted by sudden frigidity.
           
  A quibble is to Shakespeare, what luminous vapours are to the traveller; he follows it at all adventures; it is sure to lead him out of his way, and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible. Whatever be the dignity or profundity of his disquisition, whether he be enlarging knowledge or exalting affection, whether he be amusing attention with incidents, or enchaining it in suspense, let but a quibble spring up before him, and he leaves his work unfinished. A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career, or stoop from his elevation. A quibble, poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight, that he was content to purchase it, by the sacrifice of reason, propriety and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.


   The work of a correct and regular writer is a garden accurately formed and diligently planted, varied with shades, and scented with flowers; the composition of Shakespeare is a forest, in which oaks extend their branches, and pines tower in the air, interspersed sometimes with weeds and brambles, and sometimes giving shelter to myrtles and to roses; filling the eye with awful pomp, and gratifying the mind with endless diversity. Other poets display cabinets of precious rarities, minutely finished, wrought into shape, and polished into brightness. Shakespeare opens a mine which contains gold and diamonds in unexhaustible plenty, though clouded by incrustations, debased by impurities, and mingled with a mass of meaner minerals.
           
  It has been much disputed, whether Shakespeare owed his excellence to his own native force, or whether he had the common helps of scholastick education, the precepts of critical science, and the examples of ancient authours.     

  There has always prevailed a tradition, that Shakespeare wanted learning, that he had no regular education, nor much skill in the dead languages. Jonson, his friend, affirms, that he had small Latin, and no Greek; who, besides that he had no imaginable temptation to falsehood, wrote at a time when the character and acquisitions of Shakespeare were known to multitudes. His evidence ought therefore to decide the controversy, unless some testimony of equal force could be opposed.   

  Some have imagined, that they have discovered deep learning in many imitations of old writers; but the examples which I have known urged, were drawn from books translated in his time; or were such easy coincidences of thought, as will happen to all who consider the same subjects; or such remarks on life or axioms of morality as float in conversation, and are transmitted through the world in proverbial sentences.

© Samuel Johnson,


© Dr Ian McCormick
 

1 comment:

  1. William Shakespeare is one of the best poets and playwrights most of the people known. Even up to this generation, most of the mightystudents admire this man especially the one he made as his masterpiece, Romeo and Juliet.


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