Fulton, Gordon D.
University of Victoria
British Columbia

Gordon D. Fulton
Department of English
University of Victoria
Box 3070
Victoria, B. C. V8W 3W1


Strand: discourse English

Title: Words wielding matter: Code in a scene from King Lear

There are two important tasks for systemic stylistics right now. At the level of lexicogrammar, we need to extend the range of analyses beyond the ideational function to studies of foregrounding in the interpersonal and textual functions. We also need studies testing the concept of grammatical metaphor in analyses of literary texts. The other important task is to demonstrate the merits of social semiotic theory -- especially the categories of register, code, genre and antilanguage -- in literary stylistics.

The present paper takes up one element in the second of these tasks. It suggests the pertinence of the concept of code to literary stylistics through an analysis of an often studied passage in Shakespeare, that part of King Lear Act I, scene i in which Lear interrogates his daughters and divides his kingdom among them. The language of this scene has been studied as a contrast between plainness and flattery -- the terms are introduced in the scene itself and discussion informed by the rhetorical tradition has elaborated Shakespeare's gloss. But the contrast between Cordelia's and her sisters' speech can also be characterized more abstractly, in terms of code. This paper will argue that the sisters act on different assumptions about how much must be made explicit in speech, how much may be tacitly assumed as shared knowledge and left implicit and unspoken. In addition to analyzing the scene from this perspective, the paper will suggest that this codal contrast is sharper in Shakespeare's play than it is in its main source, The True Chronicle History of King Lear and His Three Daughters. The paper will suggest finally that we can relate the greater significance of codal difference in Shakespeare's version of this scene to one of the play's main themes, in McLuhan's words, King Lear as "a working model of the process . . . by which men translated themselves from a world of roles to a world of jobs." (The Gutenberg Galaxy, p. 14)