I am concerned here with understanding precisely what Shakespeare meant. It is true that “when we read Shakespeare’s plays,” as one scholar says, “we are always meeting our own experiences and are constantly surprised by some phrase which expresses what we thought to be our own secret or our own discovery.” But the danger is that the meaning we find may really be our own secret, our own discovery, rather than Shakespeare’s, and the more precious and beguiling for being our own. The danger I have in mind can be illustrated by our attitude toward one of the most famous Shakespearean phrases, “Ripeness is all.”
… “After repeated disaster,” [one recent critic] says of Gloucester in King Lear:
he can assent, “And that’s true too,” to Edgar’s “Ripeness is all.” For man may ripen into fulness of being, which means, among other things, that one part of him does not rule all the rest and that one moment’s mood does not close off all the perspectives available to him.
In this way we discover in Shakespeare’s phrase the secret morality of our own times. It is a meaning I can enter into quite as deeply as anyone, but it is not what Shakespeare meant.
… In Thomas Wilson’s Art of Rhetoric (1560) we read:
Among fruit we see some apples are soon ripe and fall from the tree in the midst of summer; other be still green and tarry till winter, and hereupon are commonly called winter fruit: even so it is with man, some die young, some die old, and some die in their middle age.
Shakespeare has Richard in Richard II comment on the death of John of Gaunt:
The ripest fruit first falls, and so doth he:
His time is spent
That is, as fruit falls in the order of ripeness, so a man dies when his time is spent, at his due moment in the cosmic process. Again, Touchstone’s dry summary of life and time in As You Like It:
And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot
does not mean that we ripen to maturity and then decline, but that we ripen toward death, and then quite simply and with no metaphors rot.
… the [ripeness is all] metaphor shifts our point of view from a man’s attitude toward death, from the “readiness” of Hamlet and the “Men must endure” of the first part of Edgar’s speech, to the absoluteness of the external process of Providence on which the attitude depends.
But this is not what the phrase means to the uninstructed modern reader, and this poses a problem. The modern meaning is one that is dear to us and one that is rich and important in itself. It would be natural to ask, Need we give it up? I see no reason why we should give up the meaning: maturity of experience is certainly a good, and the phrase in a modern context is well enough fitted to convey this meaning. But it is our phrase now, and not Shakespeare’s, and we should accept the responsibility for it. The difference in meaning is unmistakable: ours looks toward life and his toward death; ours finds its locus in modern psychology and his in Christian theology. If we are secure in our own feelings we will accept our own meanings as ours, and if we have any respect for the great we will penetrate and embrace Shakespeare’s meaning as his. For our purpose in the study of literature, and particularly in the historical interpretation of texts, is not in the ordinary sense to further the understanding of ourselves. It is rather to enable us to see how we could think and feel otherwise than as we do. It is to erect a larger context of experience within which we may define and understand our own by attending to the disparity between it and the experience of others.
In fact, the problem that is here raised with respect to literature is really the problem of any human relationship: Shall we understand another on his terms or on ours? It is the problem of affection and truth, of appreciation and scholarship. Shakespeare has always been an object of affection and an object of study. Now, it is common experience that affection begins in misunderstanding. We see our own meanings in what we love and we misconstrue for our own purposes. But life will not leave us there, and not only because of external pressures. What concerns us is naturally an object of study. We sit across the room and trace the lineaments of experience on the face of concern, and we find it is not what we thought it was. We come to see that what Shakespeare is saying is not what we thought he was saying, and we come finally to appreciate it for what it is. Where before we had constructed the fact from our feeling, we now construct our feeling from the fact. The end of affection and concern is accuracy and truth, with an alteration but no diminution of feeling.