Death Of The Author English Literature Essay

1555 words (6 pages) Essay in English Literature

5/12/16 English Literature Reference this

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The word Author is broadly defined by the OED as, the person who originates or gives existence to anything, but does this mean that a text is produced solely by a single author? It is clear that the author of a text will have a defined idea of what they would like their text to achieve, but can we be sure that an author is capable of producing a text that is uninfluenced by external sources? In this essay I will examine the meaning of a text and distinguish whether it is produced solely by its author or if it is a complex collaboration of the author, text and the readers own subconscious understanding.

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New Criticism argued that authorial intent was irrelevant to understanding a piece of literature. In their essay ‘The Intentional Fallacy’, W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley wrote that ‘the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art’ [1] . They argued that an author could not be reconstructed from a piece of writing and that the only source of meaning came from the text itself, with any details of the author’s desires or life being purely extraneous.

Critics such as Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault have scrutinized the role of authorship to the meaning and interpretation of a text. In Barthes essay ‘Death of the Author’, he criticizes the method of reading and criticism that relies on aspects of the author’s identity to distil meaning from the author’s work. This ‘death’ is directed at the author expressing an inner vision, not at the idea of writing. He is opposing a view of texts as expressing a distinct personality of the author and despises the idea that they ‘consciously’ create masterpieces. Barthes states the idea that the explanation and meaning of a work does not have to be sought in the one who produced it, ‘as if it were always in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author ‘confiding’ in us’ [2] . The author can be disregarded when interpreting a text, because ‘it is language which speaks, not the author’; the words are rich enough themselves with all of the traditions of language. The words and language of a text itself determine and expose meaning for Barthes, and not someone possessing legal responsibility for the process of its production. The author is merely a ‘scriptor’. The scriptor exists to produce but not to explain the work, the ‘origin’ of meaning lies exclusively in ‘language itself’ and its impressions on the reader. Barthes notes that the traditional critical approach to literature raises a problem of which we cannot detect precisely what the writer intended.

Julia Kristeva invented the term intertextuality, suggesting that ‘no text is ‘free’ of other texts’. Intertextuality leads to speculations about the idea of a text guaranteeing stability and identity. If a text is partly explained by a whole series of other texts, then its meaning clearly does not reside wholly inside it, but is also produced by its relation with other texts. Every reader may have a different understanding of the meaning of a text depending on the external texts they associate with it.

Looking at William Shakespeare’s play intertextually, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ prompts literary criticism as the play shares a relationship with other literary texts. ‘Romeo and Juliet’s’ plot is based around more than one different source, making the audience question the originality of the play itself. Shakespeare based his play on an Italian tale, translated into verse as ‘The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet’ by Arthur Brooke in 1562. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is a dramatisation of Brooke’s translation, which Shakespeare has followed closely. We see this through Romeo’s dialogue as he says, ‘Is she a Capulet? / O dear account! my life is my foe’s debt.’ [3] Shakespeare literally mirrors the plot of Brooke’s tale in his own ‘So hath he learned her name, and know’th she is no geast, / Her father was a Capulet,’ [4] It is hard to claim that Shakespeare has ownership of this play along with the idea that this is not an original idea and the content of his play has come from influences around him.

Shakespeare was also heavily influenced by Ovid’s Metamorphoses, taking inspiration from the tragic love story of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’. In Ted Hughes translation, it is clear to see that Shakespeare has been influenced by Ovid, ‘The parents of each forbade their child / To marry the other. That was that. / But prohibition feeds love,’ mirroring the exact same family feud and passion in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ [5] , ‘Deny thy father and refuse thy name; / Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, / And I’ll no longer be a Capulet’ (Act 2, Scene II; ll 34-36). There are rumoured to be so many sources behind one of Shakespeare’s most well-known masterpieces, this certainly begs the question of whether Shakespeare was original and if he gave meaning to his own work.

It is appropriate to approach an Elizabethan play as a collaborative work, given the amount of people used to successfully ‘create’ a play. A piece of drama is inevitably constructed by many hands, adding to the meaning of the play. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ would not just be defined by William Shakespeare, but how the play was performed would have enormous effect on its meaning along with those involved in the making of it. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ was arguably not written by Shakespeare, he took influences from many different texts, collaborating with many other writers. The writing behind ‘Romeo and Juliet’ does not define the play, but it is the staging and performance that make the play what it is. Performance adds to the text in the sense of connecting to it gestures, symbols and staging, these all produce a definition not in the text itself. In a well-known quotation, Barthes draws an analogy between text and textiles, ‘the text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture’ (pp. 142-48) meaning that one persons work is never original. It is the reader/viewer that makes a piece of literature what it is, whether that is personal or not.

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It is difficult to judge whether a piece of literature successfully carries out what it means to attempt because we can never be certain of the writer’s intent in the first place. For example Robert Frost’s ‘The Silken Tent’ opened up to much debate about whether the poem was really symbolising a woman and questioned the possibility of its ‘supporting central cedar pole’ (l. 5) actually representing a boat with language rich in relatable words, for example, ‘guy ropes’ and ‘compass’. It should not be ‘wrong’ to have a different opinion of a text, finding meaning in literature is all about your personal tastes and experiences allowing you to relate to texts. Literature is all about what you as a reader make of a text in your own personal way.

There seems to be no guarantee in this process that the ‘origins’ of the text, the conventions of the message and the readers opinion are identical in any way. A piece of literature depends on the words and contexts which surround it, but these contexts are not always significant when looking for meaning in a text. The language of textuality itself will present an argument that is potentially counter to the author’s conscious intent.

The meaning of a text is not produced solely by an author; it is a complex collaboration between author, text and reader. Shakespeare did not give ‘Romeo and Juliet’ meaning, meaning was created through the text and performance of the play and by the viewer creating their own personal opinions about it. Shakespeare may have been the ‘origin’ behind ‘Romeo and Juliet’ but there are many different sources that could have been seen to be used, questioning the originality of the play. The essential meaning of a piece of literature depends on the impression it has made on the reader, the writers passions and tastes do not come into it. Meaning is a collaboration of all these different factors, it cannot be gathered purely from just the author because there may have been no authorial intent behind that text and literature is all about your own personal opinion and where you ‘take’ that text in your mind. Barthes makes an important point saying, ‘a text’s unity lies not in its origins […] but in its destination,’ (pp. 142-48) meaning that it all comes down to the reader and society, a piece of texts origins are unimportant.

Word Count: 1560

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