The meaning of meaning


Probability maths says that given infinity, a random character generator (producing upper and lower case letters, spaces and punctuation marks) will reproduce the Complete Works of Shakespeare. Think monkeys and typewriters, if you like.

(Shakespeare is wheeled on for this thought experiment rather than, say, Charles Dickens because he’s the supposed apogee of literary creativity. The reductionist probabilitarians are saying: you think Shakespeare’s great – well, he can be reproduced by empty randomness.)

You can kind of see what they mean, and there’s probably not much point arguing with a probability mathematician (though there are valid questions about the abstract concept of infinity) – but it just seems wrong, doesn’t it? The first sentence or two, maybe – but the whole thing? Maybe some things will never happen by chance, even in infinty.

Then there’s the origin of DNA. Scientists say it can be explained by random chemical events occurring over a very long time. There are several different theories as to how this might have happened, but none of them sounds remotely plausible. As with the randomly reproduced Shakespeare, it just seems impossible.

I know it sounds like I’m on the slippery slope from intelligent design to creationism, but I’m not. I’m suggesting that the crucial element in both cases is meaning.

Henry VI, Part One
Scene I: Westminster Abbey. Dead March. Enter the funeral of King Henry V, attended on by Dukes of Bedford, Regent of France, Protector; and Exeter, Earl of Warwick, the Bishop of Winchester, heralds, etc.
Bedford: Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!

I’m yawning already, but that’s not the point. The works of Shakespeare, including that opening of the first play, exist because they have meaning. That meaning comes from human consciousness and its medium, language. The unique sequence of six million characters comprising that product of meaning could never be reproduced by chance, I’d suggest.

Wikipedia says DNA is a molecule that carries the genetic instructions used in the growth, development, functioning and reproduction of all known living organisms. Most DNA molecules consist of two strands coiled around each other to form a double helix. Both strands store the same biological information, which is replicated when the two strands separate. DNA molecules called chromosomes contain an organism’s genetic information.

Does that sound like something that came about by chemicals randomly bumping into each other without the post-DNA benefit of natural selection?

(Some say RNA, a similar but single-strand molecule currently synthesised from DNA, appeared first, and that DNA evolved from RNA. RNA is thought to be capable of self-replication. However, the appearance of RNA in a hypothesised pre-DNA ‘RNA world‘ presents the same problem.)

So how could such incredibly complex self-replicating molecules have come into existence? Perhaps it happened because – humour me – the universe (or multiverse if you like) has meaning, perhaps deriving from universal consciousness. Again, I’d suggest that meaning is never the product of random processes.

Random mutation, of course, fueled the natural selection which led from the first living organisms to humans capable of pondering the meaning of meaning. However, randomness and meaning are worlds apart.

Perhaps they’re in a hierarchy, with randomness subject to probability, and probability subject to meaning.

Try as it may, maths and science can’t yet explain the origin of life, what consciousness is, or the ultimate nature of the universe.

I’m a big fan of maths and science. I’d love science to have an explanation for everything; but perhaps some things are ineffable. Perhaps maths, for all its fundamental beauty, is the scaffolding rather than the be-all and end-all.

Perhaps the edifice supported by that scaffolding is a multiverse made of consciousness and meaning. If so, the meaning of life and the ‘purpose’ of DNA is to reflect multiversal meaning – a reflection exemplified by the works of Shakespeare.

Pseudo-academic footnote

I thought my post title was original – but, of course, it’s not. The Meaning of Meaning: A Study of the Influence of Language upon Thought and of the Science of Symbolism by Charles Ogden and Ivor Richards has been in print continuously since 1923.

The most recent publication is the critical edition prepared by Terrence Gordon as volume 3 of the 5-volume set C. K. Ogden & Linguistics (London: Routledge/Thoemmes Press, 1995).

Wikipedia says the book proposes a contextual theory of signs: words and things are connected by signs that are the source of our power over the external world.

(I’d say: sod the signs, it’s language that has the power – the power of meaning.)

The book has been used as a textbook in many fields including linguistics, philosophy, language, cognitive science, semantics and semiotics. Umberto Eco described it as ‘a seminal book, whose merit was to say certain things well in advance of its time’.


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Shall I compare thee to a lump of clay?

Shakespeare in love – with himself

Begun 2016 | 1,800 words | Contents | They say…

Guardian letter 7 (April 2016)

Me, me, me
The (disputed) ‘Cobbe’ portrait | Painter: unknown, photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/PA

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Shall I compare thee to a lump of clay?

They say…

Quotes from emails about this post

I think I partly agree

Professor Raphael Lyne
Cambridge University, UK

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post. I like your analysis – the wry tone is fun.

Professor Patricia Buchanan
Salem State University, Massachusetts, US

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Shall I compare thee to a lump of clay?



Casually heartless

Consolation prize

Poverty of meaning

The emperor’s new clothes

Stream of consciousness?

The bit at the end


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Shall I compare thee to a lump of clay?


Beer with Berkoff

In the late ’90s I went to Skyros, the Greek island known for its creative holiday resort.

The resort has the knack of getting famous people to teach classes there for free – for bed, board and the pleasure of being there. (Toyah was there, teaching radio production – presumably a phase she went through.)

I did Reciting Shakespeare, with Steven Berkoff. Our text was the famous Sonnet 18 – ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’

Studying it, I realised that, for all its beauty, it isn’t the love poem it’s supposed to be – it’s actually a paean of self-praise.

I put this to Berkoff over a beer on the terrace, but he was concerned about having left a notebook on the plane. He seemed disappointingly uninterested in my fascinating theory*.

Some 20 years after my beer with Berkoff, a 2016 article in the UK Guardian on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death said Shakespeare’s sonnets show his belief that art can give immortality.

I remembered my Skyros epiphany. That’s true, I thought, and Sonnet 18 shows that in claiming immortality for his art, Shakespeare could be heartless and selfish – oddly so, for the writer of what’s supposed to be a wonderful love poem.

I fired off a letter to the Guardian, and wrote this post.

    * Everyone else also seems uninterested. At the time of writing this after-thought preamble (June 2022), my post’s had only 41 views, no Likes and no Comments. (After reading this, a friend took pity and added a Comment. Thanks, Nige.)

    By (another!) comparison, my most-viewed post, Jackson Browne & Daryl Hannah, has had over 50,000 views in about the same time. Obviously, the time’s out of joint! 😉.

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Shall I compare thee to a lump of clay?

Casually heartless

Youth-fetishising bardic taxidermist

Shakespeare’s much-admired Sonnet 18 has a rapturous opening:

  • Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
  • Thou art more lovely…

But it doesn’t go on like that. Sonnet 18, digested:

    You’re more lovely than a summer’s day at the moment, but soon you’ll wither and age. However, luckily for you, my brilliant poem about you will live forever.

Having alluded in detail and with cruel eloquence – ‘Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May’ – to the lovely one’s imminent ageing (see below), Shakespeare gets to the point: the immortality of his poem. Death shan’t brag, but the poet shall.

  • …thy eternal summer shall not fade
  • Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st
  • Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade
  • When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st

The poem shows the writer’s love not for the supposed beloved, but for his own poetic skill in preserving their youthful beauty in his eternal lines.

It’s Shakespeare, the self-aggrandising youth-fetishising bardic taxidermist!

The question then arises: did Shakespeare write the sonnet as himself, or as a persona?

Oxford University Shakespeare specialist Professor Jonathan Bate, in the Guardian article that prompted this post, wrote:

    [Shakespeare] clearly believed that love is a powerful and complicated thing, that poetry is an effective way of exploring its many dimensions, and – if his lines are to be taken at face value – that creative art is a way of achieving a kind of immortality for the beloved and perhaps for creative artists themselves. But his lines are not necessarily to be taken at face value. The “I” who speaks a poem, even an intimate love poem, is not synonymous with the person who writes the line. All poets rejoice in creating a persona.

Just so. But Shakespeare, about 30 when he wrote Sonnet 18, was becoming a successful and popular writer who wanted social advancement for his family. Why risk that by creating a persona so casually heartless?

However, if Shakespeare wrote Sonnet 18 as himself, then why would he have written such a disturbingly narcissistic poem?

Cambridge University Shakespeare specialist Professor Raphael Lyne, replying to my email about this post, said:

    ‘Can anything make the perfection last? It’s an offer – maybe a poem can. It’s also staking a claim, and aiming for a poem that will last forever. I think there is a selfish claim involved, but it’s a knowing exchange, not pretending that writers are innocent when they make memories last, because they gain too.’

Good point. But whoever the ‘I’ is in ‘Shall I compare thee…’, whatever the writer’s motives, and however knowing the poem is, the problem is: if the writer loved the addressee of his poem, he’d say he’d always love them even when they got old and wrinkled.

Instead, he crows about how his precious sonnet will immortalise their youthful beauty.

Sonnet 18’s language is beautiful but the message isn’t. Was Shakespeare a crazy, mixed-up 30-year-old? Did he have emotional deprivation disorder. Or was he just full of it?

To be fair, Sonnet 116 does better:

  • Let me not to the marriage of true minds
  • Admit impediments. Love is not love
  • Which alters it when alteration finds

100 sonnets on and maybe a few years later, had Shakespeare found his emotional intelligence?

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Shall I compare thee to a lump of clay?

Consolation prize

Good Will

Still being fair, can Shakespeare be given the benefit of the doubt about this poetry-plugging sonnet (the first of a series assuring the loved one poetry would preserve their beauty)?

Sonnet 18 seemed to me heartless in saying, Never mind your lost beauty – it’ll live on in my timeless poem. (To which the appropriate response would be, ‘Well thanks for nothing’).

But perhaps Shakespeare was just being honest about a young person’s beauty and its inevitable fading. Perhaps such honesty would please a lover by reflecting their own feelings about their looks.

It might not please a childish romantic, but perhaps it’d comfort a mature youth.

So, Sonnet 18, re-digested (after a generous slug of the antacid of goodwill):

    Sadly, your youthful loveliness will fade – but let me console you by preserving it in my eternal lines.

In that reading, the implication is: You’ll lose your looks, but please accept my flawless poem as your consolation prize. I give you my love by giving you my art.

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Shall I compare thee to a lump of clay?

Poverty of meaning

Something twisted this way comes

With extreme leniency and goodwill, Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 18 can be seen as a heartfelt romantic gesture, rather than heartless PR.

But even then, it shows an uncharacteristic shallowness by addressing only the beloved’s skin-deep good looks, and pandering – perhaps with the desperation of an obsessed suitor – to the vanity of beautiful youth.

However you slice it, the sonnet’s richness of language obscures a fundamental poverty of meaning.

Other Shakespeare sonnets are more meaningful. They show the beloved as a real person – not just a pretty face. So perhaps emotional deprivation disorder (see above) is the wrong diagnosis. Perhaps, rather, the genius was on the autism spectrum – or bipolar.

Having scanned the sonnets (sorry – life’s too short), I’d say: they’re supposed to be love poems – but they’re actually dense and gloomy! They’re obsessed with desire, time and ageing. At times, they read (scan) like the diary of a mad man.

Perhaps Shakespeare was as sane and neurotypical as the next man (Christopher Marlowe). But the lavishly dressed emptiness of Sonnet 18 suggests there was something twisted about him.

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Shall I compare thee to a lump of clay?

The emperor’s new clothes

The king is in the altogether

This critique of Sonnet 18 as heartless self-promotion isn’t entirely original, of course – nothing written about Shakespeare can be.

However, most analyses which mention the self-praise also propagate the sonnet’s widespread but undeserved reputation as a great love poem.

This reputation rests entirely on the first line and a half. The whole 14-line poem hypnotises with dizzying imagery but the opening is especially ecstatic:

  • Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
  • Thou art more lovely…

It’s a brilliant start to a love poem – but that’s it. Instead of a lovingly sculpted likeness, the artist gives us a lump of clay. There’s no love for the addressee, only self-love for the poet.

After that lovely opening, it levels off with the dull…and more temperate‘, then, although the enchanting language continues to mesmerise, it’s all relentlessly downhill:

  • Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May
  • And summer’s lease hath all too short a date
  • Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines
  • And often is his gold complexion dimm’d
  • And every fair from fair sometime declines
  • By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d

Those six lines of doom, albeit beautifully written, cruelly overwhelm the opening enconium. Then comes the cocky twist:

    But it’s OK. My brilliant poem (with its line and a half of praise) will make your loveliness last forever.
  • So long as men can breathe or eyes can see
  • So long lives this, and this gives life to thee

That astonishingly confident forecast of longevity has come true, of course. Over 400 years later, the sonnet has not only survived – it’s world-famous.

By far the most popular of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets, Sonnet 18 is famous because of its sublime opening, and because it’s beautifully written. But it’s beautifully written rubbish.

Millions laud it as a great love poem, but they’re wrong. They’re like the townsfolk in the fable The Emperor’s New Clothes.

In Danish writer Hans Christian Anderson’s version of that tale, the new clothes don’t exist – they’re a confidence trick. But, not wanting to disrespect the emperor, everyone goes along with it – apart from one child.

In the song The King’s New Clothes from the 1952 movie musical about Anderson’s stories starring Danny Kaye, the child, on seeing the king, cries out:

  • Look at the King! Look at the King! Look at the King, the King, the King!
  • The King is in the altogether!
  • But all together the all together
  • He’s all together as naked as the day that he was born.

It’s not Shakespeare – it’s by award-winning Broadway songwriter Frank Loesser – but it’s the truth about the king’s supposed new clothes, and, in this (possibly overwrought) analogy, it’s the truth about Shakespeare’s sonnet.

Sonnet 18, supposedly one of the world’s greatest love poems, is actually all mouth and no trousers.

(Yes, I know it should be ‘all mouth and trousers’ – see my post All fur coat and trousers – but for once the misspoken version of that phrase is apt.)

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Shall I compare thee to a lump of clay?

Stream of consciousness?

Life is but a dream

Salem State University Shakespeare teacher Professor Patricia Buchanan replied to my email about this post. She said:

    I think you’re a bit hard on Will – you’re ignoring the stream of consciousness element in the poem. I.e: You’re as beautiful as a summer day. Hmm. Maybe not the best comparison after all because sometimes summer can be hot and unpleasant and then it doesn’t last very long even when it’s nice.

I took this to mean he was riffing on his metaphorical summer’s day and its pros and cons, without meaning to be cruel. But the poem is more carefully structured than that. It’s focussed on self-promotion.

Stream of consciousness is usually associated with more modern and less structured writing. Wikipedia suggests Laurence Sterne’s 1757 Tristram Shandy as the earliest example.

Shakespeare broke the rules and made them. He’s said to have used SOC in Macbeth. But can Sonnet 18’s summers-day riff be seen as SOC?

In Sonnet 18, the first of a series assuring the loved one poetry would preserve their beauty, Shakespeare briefly introduces a lovely young person, quickly moves on to how their loveliness will fade, and, having hammered that home in great detail, ends by trumpeting his poem’s immortality, bizarrely inviting the young person to share his exultation at their youthfull beauty being poetically embalmed.

There’s not much room there for stream-of-consciousness. I put this to Professor Buchanan. She replied:

    I was using [SOC] rather loosely — more in the vein of “hmm, let me think about what I just said.”

I don’t want to be too hard on Will. Perhaps his summer’s-day riff can be seen – loosely – as a stream of consciousness rather than calculated cruelty.

He compares a lovely young person to a summer’s day, then – consciousness a-streaming – realises his charming metaphor actually leads to thoughts of ageing. Oops! He offers his ageless poem as loving consolation.

🤨 Hmm…

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Shall I compare thee to a lump of clay?

The bit at the end

Smoke and mirrors

How has Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 fooled so many people and become the world’s best-loved love poem?

It can only be that we’re all entranced by those magical opening lines:

  • Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
  • Thou art more lovely…

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Shall I compare thee to a lump of clay?


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