Identity of Meaning


Twenty Second Annual Darwin College Lecture Series 2007

Lecture 3   :   2 February

Adrian Poole

University of Cambridge



Figuring out what this title means could take the whole lecture. What does it mean to speak of people or things `meaning the same'? What are the implications of Wittgenstein's retort to a hair-splitting interlocutor, `I mean what you mean'? The phrase `identity of meaning' suggests a good dream in which the chaos of Babel and its confusion of tongues might be redeemed. But it also points to a nightmare in which the differences between us are overridden by force from on high. Umberto Eco notes that `the dream of a perfect language has always been invoked as a solution to religious or political strife'. `Identity' and `meaning' are both invested with a faith in or desire for something that `carries' through space and time. This associates them with words from Greek and Latin that have come down to as `metaphor' and `translation'. In the latter part of this lecture I shall focus on passages from Homer and Shakespeare that dramatize questions about the desirability and feasibility of a perfect language in which `I mean what you mean'. Over the past five hundred years the endless re-translation of Homer's epic poems poses questions about identity of meaning as it passes from one language into another. So too does the continual performance of Shakespearean drama in versions often violently at odds with each other, both in the texts they deploy and the interpretations to which they give rise. A couple of scenes from the Iliad and Henry V may help us to conclude that identity of meaning is an impossible dream we can't do without.



Adrian Poole is Professor of English Literature and a Fellow of Trinity College Cambridge, where he has taught since 1975. His work addresses a constellation of four fields: tragedy, literary translation, Shakespeare, and nineteenth-century English literature. He is particularly interested in the after-lives led by the classics and Shakespeare in the English literary imagination, the ways in which they are renewed by and a source of renewal for subsequent artists. His publications include Tragedy: Shakespeare and the Greek Example (1987) and more recently Tragedy: A Very Short Introduction (2005). With his late colleague Jeremy Maule he edited The Oxford Book of Classical Verse in Translation (1995); since then he has contributed to The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation (2000) and to the nineteenth-century volume of the Oxford History of Literary Translation in English (2006). Other works include a monograph on Shakespeare and the Victorians, two volumes of co-edited essays on Victorian Shakespeare (all 2003), and various essays on nineteenth-century novelists such as Dickens, George Eliot, Hardy, Stevenson, Gissing, Kipling and (a particular enthusiasm) Henry James. He hopes to survive his current term of service as Chair of the Faculty of English.

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