Historicizing Shakespeare's Language: Social Discourse and Cultural Production (seminar)

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For more past programming from the Folger Institute, please see the article Folger Institute scholarly programs archive. For more past programming from the Center for Shakespeare Studies, please see the article Center for Shakespeare Studies program archive.

This was a spring 2002 semester seminar sponsored by the Center for Shakespeare Studies and led by Lynne Magnusson.

Critics have long echoed Francis Meres' powerful claim that Shakespeare extended the resources and tapped the potential of the English language. But since the advent of the new historicism and cultural poetics, little attention has been paid to the language, and important questions remain about what a newly historicized engagement with the complex language of Shakespeare's plays and poetry would look like. Participants' interests helped shape the configuration of individual sessions of the seminar, and Folger materials helped explore how the varied social discourses of Shakespeare's time-discourses, for example, of religion, mercantile exchange, or law-are appropriated, assimilated, or reaccented within his plays. A session that focused on Love's Labor's Lost, for instance, might ask what historically specific experiences within speech communities or contexts recognizable to early modern Londoners might account for the mockery and scoffing that greets virtually every remark or utterance, as well as every theatrical performance, within the play? Shakespeare's company almost certainly performed The Comedy of Errors to a scornful reception during the 1594 Christmas revels at Gray's Inn, and it may be the verbal bonding practices-the scoff power and scoff proofing-of the elite young men at the Inns of Court that helped to shape the social discourse of Love's Labour's Lost. Another session focused on conversational interaction in King Lear: to what extent does the play explore dislocations in conversation, and to what extent are characters' identities tied to the reciprocal self-fashioning of conversational repair work? A third session considered the language of women's suitors' letters with reference to the Elizabethan women's letters in the Bagot or Bacon-Townshend manuscript collections or the Salisbury microfilm collections at the Folger Library. What varying power relationships are reflected in their language, and how might the language of Elizabethan suitors' letters illuminate the persuasions of the love goddess in Venus and Adonis or Desdemona's suit to Othello to reinstate Cassio? What historically specific speech interaction scripts might be reflected in William Shakespeare's sonnets? The seminar's reconsideration of early modern language were informed by readings concerned with social discourse, including Bakhtin on dialogism, Bourdieu on the economics of linguistic exchange, Brown and Levinson on politeness, as well as writings on the history of language, ethnography of speaking, discourse pragmatics, philosophy of language, and rhetoric.

Director: Lynne Magnusson is Professor of English at Queen's University at Kingston, Canada. She is the author of Shakespeare and Social Dialogue: Dramatic Language and Elizabethan Letters (1999) and a co-editor of Reading Shakespeare's Dramatic Language (2001). She is currently editing Love's Labor's Lost for the New Cambridge Shakespeare and writing a book on the language of letters by early modern women.