Meaning by Shakespeare develops the arguments of the same author's That Shakespearean Rag (1986). By means of engagements with the work of influential critics, the earlier book questioned whether we could have any genuine access to final, authoritative or essential meanings in respect of Shakespeare's plays. Implicitly and explicitly, it argued that all we can ever do is use Sahkespeare as a powerful element in specific ideological strategies. Traditionally, critics, producers, actors and audiences of Shakespeare have assumed that the meaning' of each play is bequeathed to it by the Bard and lies within its text. Each account, or production of the play, claims to discover and lay hold of this meaning, hoisting it triumphantly, like buried treasure, into view. It is as if, to the information which used to be given in theatrical programmes, Cigarettes by Abdullah, Costumes by Motley, Music by Mendelssohn', we should add Meaning by Shakespeare'. These essays rest on a different, almost opposite, principle. If we have no access to any essential' meaning nestling within Shakespeare's texts and awaiting our discovery then what is their function and how do they work?
They have the same function as, and work like, the language of which they are made. That is, we use the plays in order to generate meaning. In short, Shakespeare doesn't mean; we mean by Shakespeare. The essays which follow look closely at A Midsummer's Night's Dream, Measure for Measure, Coriolanus and King Lear amongst other plays, as concrete instances of the process through which, in the twentieth century, the often covert business of meaning by Shakespeare' takes place. Meaning by Shakespeare concludes with Bardbiz', a review of recent critical approaches to Shakespeare, which initiated a long-running debate (1990-1991) when it first appeared in The London Review of Books .
Terence Hawkes is Emeritus Professor of English at Cardiff University. He is the author of a number of books, including That Shakespherian Rag and Meaning By Shakespeare, and is General Editor of the Accents on Shakespeare series.