Conceptual Blending Theory and Shakespeare’s Henry V

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Amy Cook

Amy Cook (Theater and Literature, Indiana University) spoke in today’s CMBC lunch. While typically we get an interdisciplinary flavor in these lunches by having two speakers from different disciplines, this time Amy was alone, speaking from an interdisciplinary space. She uses the blending theory of Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner as scaffold for her understanding of the theatre. The main idea of blending theory is that we process language, and especially metaphors, by blending inputs from two or more cognitive spaces into a newly created cognitive space. The subtleties of the theory were sacrificed on the altar of interdisciplinarity; which later brought a question by Dierdra Reber of the Spanish and Portuguese department about the destiny of interdisciplinary studies. This was followed by reflection of Andrei Olifer of the biology department about the differences between science and the humanities.

While the theoretical aspects of blending theory were only touched upon to provide context, the examples generated a lively and rich discussion. Amy chose the number 0, which represents nothing and thus has no place. Yet it is used as a placeholder that can afford the expression of very large numbers, like a million with 6 zeros. That 0 has no place value and serves as a place holder, that 0 simultaneously expresses the smallest and the largest, we learn in the very beginning of Henry V .

The choir enters with: “O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend / The brightest heaven of invention, / A kingdom for a stage, / princes to act.” And later points to the crooked figure and the million, “So great an object: can this cockpit hold / The vasty fields of France? or may we cram / Within this wooden O the very casques / That did affright the air at Agincourt?/ O, pardon! since a crooked figure may/ Attest in little place a million;”

Nothingness, like 0, can also hold blended meanings. Bradd Shore pointed toHamlet whose completion brings nothingness. Amy brought an example from King Lear’s conversation with his daughter Cordelia. At the first scene of the first act Lear speaks with all his daughters. Finally he speaks with the youngest:

Lear: Strive to be interess’d; what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sister? Speak.
: Nothing, my lord.
: Nothing?
: Nothing.
: Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.

Thanks to the missing foot that demands a pause for the sake of the rhythm, we discover that “nothing” can mean many things. In producing the play, the interpreter has to decide where to pause. And this affects the meaning. This was demonstrated by Amy as Lear, and a lady from the department of Theatre Studies whose name has escaped me (Help!) as Cordelia. They read the dialogue four times, and each time they inserted the pause prior to a different “nothing.” Try it. It makes a difference. And the reason is that in each arrangement we draw the “nothing” and the pause from different cognitive inputs and therefore blend them into a different new cognitive space, into a different meaning.

This dialog of King Lear and his daughter Cordelia at the beginning of the play tells us how the play will end. As though their exchange of “nothing”s serves as a place-holder for what later contains the core of the story. Similarly, the opening choir of Henry V tells us how things will end. Never before have I noticed this Chekhovian structure in Shakespeare’s plays.

The blending of two opposites kept coming. Such blending can be achieved in a theatrical performance in various ways. Ionesco’s “playing against the text,” with comical performance of a serious text, or solemn performance of a comic text is one way of blending two opposite cognitive spaces. Viola of the Twelfth Night, who is feminine yet speaks like a man to keep her disguise, is another such example of blending of opposites.

This has taken me back to some years ago when my husband David and I struggled to translate the poem “He Peeked and Died” by the 20th century H. N . Bialik from Hebrew into English. In his mystical journey towards the source, the protagonist “Struggled to limits no limits, the place at which opposites/ Blend at their root.” And when he finally arrived he sank on “The threshold of nothing.”

About Shlomit Finkelstein

Shlomit Ritz Finkelstein earned her PhD in theoretical physics from Georgia Institute of Technology in 1987 and her second PhD from Emory University in 2009. After a successful career in computer science she was admitted to the PhD program at the Graduate Institute for the Liberal Arts at Emory, an interdisciplinary department in which she pursued her interest in the neurobiology of language. As a graduate student, she was the first blogger of the Lunch Series of the CMBC. Currently she is an adjunct professor at Emory’s psychology department.
This entry was posted in 2009 Archives. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *