[Milton-L] Milton's Deliberate Ambiguities

Hugh M. RICHMOND hmr at berkeley.edu
Sat Sep 2 18:26:03 EDT 2017

As a Miltonist/Shakespearean (aren’t we all?) I am loath to deflect a
Milton discussion, but the sweeping assertion of universal ambiguity
requires examples of the absolutely unambiguous, of which Shakespeare is
full (pace Stephen Booth): “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit
impediment “; “My mistress eyes are nothing like the sun.”

We may agree similarly that what Lear says about poverty is “linguistically
unambiguous” which seems to mean it can only be read one way. But the issue
is then raised that wealth does not obligate social blindness. That is not
the literal sense of Lear’s lines, which is surely that wealthy people can
buy themselves off crime, while the poor cannot afford to hire to win
justice. So the ambiguity lies not in the text but the reader’s desire to
supplant the text by her own views. This means that for an ambiguity to
appear we must in such cases prefer her views to Shakespeare’s sense. Just
as “beauty lies in the eye of the beholder” “ambiguity lies in the mind of
the critic.”

I may seem dreadfully archaic, even primitive in saying that initially at
least I am mostly interested in what a major author literally means than
some ingenious appeal to a different authority or some undemonstrable
subconscious. I have written up this and all the other Shakespeare issues
raised at greater length in *Shakespeare’s Tragedies Reviewed.*
Incidentally as to the original debate about justifying God’s ways to man,
I think both meanings are simultaneously relevant intentionally, a kind of
intellectual pun: offering economically richer meanings not ambiguous ones.
With best wishes, Hugh Richmond.
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