[Milton-L] Milton's Deliberate Ambiguities

Hannibal Hamlin hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com
Sun Sep 3 11:09:59 EDT 2017

Actually, I think both lines from the sonnets that Prof. Richmond quotes
are ambiguous.

"Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment." Does this mean
the speaker cannot think of any impediment, can think of some but doesn't
want to mention them, would like to think that there is no impediment (even
though there might be)? And is there in fact a marriage of true minds
(whatever that is), or is this just wishful thinking? A good deal of
ambiguity is introduced when the sonnet is considered in context, not just
in isolation as anthologized. In context, it's not at all clear that there
is a marriage of true minds, and it may be that this is a fantasy on the
part of the speaker, faced with the fickle but lovely young man before him.
(The allusion to the marriage service is also somewhat ambiguous, since it
seems that the speaker is playing both groom and celebrant at once.)

"My mistress eyes are nothing like the sun." This sonnet is ambiguous to
the core, since the final couplet can be read either as a declaration of
love and esteem beyond false comparison, or as a more cynical statement
that all women are what they are (no better than they should be). Again, in
the context of the whole sequence, it's hard to believe that the speaker is
praising the honest virtues of his dark lady. Even sticking to the opening
line, in what way are her eyes not like the sun? Are they lacking in
radiance, warmth, nurturing energy? Or is this just a critique of the
(tired) metaphor, pointing out that eyes are really not likely anything but

I agree that language, even in poems, is not always ambiguous, since
otherwise we should hardly be able to communicate. But it often is, in
various ways.


On Sat, Sep 2, 2017 at 6:55 PM, Salwa <skhoddam at cox.net> wrote:

> Dear Professor Richmond,
> My example of ambiguity in Lear’s words about poverty is totally rash and
> incorrect. The ambiguity is certainly in the reader’s mind. I apologize for
> that.
> But the other examples I gave about Shylock, Hamlet, Adam, and Eve, etc.
> are, I believe, non-linguistic ambiguities, “large, and general,” in the
> words of Professor Hamlin. The dangers of focusing on linguistic
> ambiguities is over reading, and the dangers of focusing on moral and
> psychological ambiguities is incomplete understanding of the literary work.
> All literary elements are linked. Balance is all.
> Salwa
> Salwa Khoddam, PhD.
> Professor of English, Emerita
> Oklahoma City University
> *From:* milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu [mailto:milton-l-bounces@
> richmond.edu] *On Behalf Of *Hugh M. RICHMOND
> *Sent:* Saturday, September 2, 2017 5:26 PM
> *To:* John Milton Discussion List <milton-l at richmond.edu>
> *Subject:* [Milton-L] Milton's Deliberate Ambiguities
> 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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Hannibal Hamlin
Professor of English
The Ohio State University
Author of *The Bible in Shakespeare*, now available through all good
bookshops, or direct from Oxford University Press at
164 Annie & John Glenn Ave., 421 Denney Hall
Columbus, OH 43210-1340
hamlin.22 at osu.edu/
hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com
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