Shakespeare - Allegory and Symbolism

Shakespeare (Brice Stratford)
Credit: Brice Stratford
(Wikimedia Commons)

Shakespeare: Allegory and Symbolism

“Shakespeare and the Renaissance Concept of Honor” is based on a thesis presented to Harvard University in 1950. Curtis Brown Watson divides his work into two parts. The first discusses the Renaissance idea of honor, the second addresses William Shakespeare’s use of this concept.

A good source that presents original analysis, this study is essential for students of history and English literature. Published by Princeton University Press in 1960, the text is important to understand the definition of honor in Shakespeare’s time and encourages the scholar to develop an independent interpretation of the playwright’s work.

Watson provides a list of seven critical approaches in “Foreword to Part II: Does Drama Have a Moral Function?” He invites us to judge which position has the greatest relevance.

6. “Part of Shakespeare’s greatness lies in his ambiguity. Therefore we can consider his plays a rich mine for a wide variety of interpretation of ‘meaning’ and ‘pattern.’ The critic should seek for allegory and symbolism and thus discover meanings which will be suggestive, though not necessarily definitive or final.”

Not everyone values vagueness. For a critic, an ambiguous work is a blank page waiting to be filled. The more interpretations that can be gleaned from a play, the better it is for an academic. Some scholars carry this procedure to an extreme, reaching for symbols and allegories where none exist.

All literature is potentially ambivalent. Life itself is contradictory with hidden meaning. A savvy reader must be aware that every piece of criticism is as much a statement of the pundit’s personality as it is a valid interpretation.

The lack of finality, the never-ending hashing over of any writer’s words, does nothing but provoke new criticism and encourage new scholars. As time passes, the accumulation of material on Shakespeare has become overwhelming, even intimidating, giving the impression that his work is incomprehensible to the majority. Shakespeare wrote for the majority. It is only today that he has been classified as a literary, opposed to a commercial, playwright. Looking for meanings that are suggestive, though not definitive, is an activity engaged in by colleges and universities.