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March 2010

Writing Well

Installment Twelve:
Through the Seven Levels of Ambiguity
and Into the Secret Hiding Places of the Muse

Professor Eddington with the same insolence
Called all physics one tautology:

If you describe things with the right tensors
All law becomes the fact that they can be described with them;
This is the Assumption of the description.
The duality of choice thus becomes the singularity of existence.
                                             (William Empson, ‘Doctrinal Point’)

1. Each writer as a literary critic

If my sub-title for this Twelfth Installment of Writing Well – “Through the Seven Levels . . . etc.” – sounds a little more floral than my usual titling, it’s because I’ve lifted the phrases from the work of a certain William Empson. The seven types . . . or levels . . . of ambiguity in prose and poetry, perhaps the mathematician/physicist/poet/critic Empson’s greatest contribution to literary criticism, will be explained. The second part of the sub-title, “The Secret Hiding Places of the Muse,” also comes from Empson when he writes “We should approach the seventh type of ambiguity with awe. We are like Dante arriving at the centric circle of hell: ‘We too must now stand upon our heads, and are approaching the secret places of the Muse.’”

In case you haven’t been re-reading your Dante recently, we need to remember that in the bottom-most and darkest circle of Hell, Satan was frozen upside-down into the ice and both Dante and his literary guide Virgil had to crawl upside down on and across Satan to get out of Hell. It adds some interesting ambiguity to realize that “the secret places of the Muse” comment was made while the two were crawling over Satan’s hairiest nether-parts.

In other words, this won’t be an easy journey, friends.

I’m certain that some of you writers-in-waiting would love a more down-to-earth Writing Well installment . . . say a good, short, precise essay on how to name planets when writing space-opera SF. I could do that. But first I want to do this.

The objection will be (and should be) raised – why this focus on literary criticism? I want to be a writer, not a sterile literary critic. I’ll leave the litcrit to the eggheads who don’t have the talent to write fiction.

Fair enough. But the core of this series of Writing Well essays has been the explanation and insistence that all real writers must become literary critics of their own work. That is, their authorial antennae have to become attuned to excellence (and its lack or opposite) in their own work so that they resonate to what they do well even while their shit-detector antennae vibrate like a hard-hit tuning fork to warn them about what they’ve done poorly and must avoid in the future. It’s frustrating but true that to train one’s critical sensibilities well enough to create that necessary feedback in one’s own work, the writer must learn how to resonate to good writing in others’ writing as well.

Creating this feedback loop of understanding what good writing is wherever it’s encountered – and resonating most strongly to true excellence in writing, even though the writer might never want to try to emulate another’s style in any way – is the alpha and omega of this Writing Well dialogue.

So in preparing ourselves to become literary critics of our own work, we need to be introduced to William Empson.

2. “Flame far too hot not to seem utter cold.”1

This phrase is from a poem by Cambridge mathematics undergraduate William Empson in 1928. The poem is titled “Letter I” and imagines the mechanics of a sun becoming so dense that it becomes the type of star called a white dwarf. The paradox of “a flame far too hot not to seem utter cold” was Empson’s poetic compacting of a passage in A.S. Eddington’s 1927 Gifford Lectures on The Nature of the Physical World in which Eddington explained how a white dwarf would defy the laws of classical physics – “the star could not stop losing heat, but it would have insufficient energy to be able to cool down.”

It was only after Empson had completed the first part of Mathematical Tripos, ranking Senior Optime, that he switched over to the English Tripos in October of 1928. What Empson brought to his undergraduate explorations and to literary criticism was a cutting edge understanding of Eddington’s book about what Einstein had wrought since 1905 and what such contemporaries as Dirac, Heisenberg and Schrödinger were bringing to the world in terms of relativity theory, quantum theory, probability theory, the Uncertainty Principle, as well as the philosophical implications of these new avenues of thought.

William Empson’s application of the new thinking of quantum mechanics and these other theories to literary criticism has had an impact that is still reverberating through legitimate literary criticism to this day  (i.e. “legitimate” in the sense of lying outside of the ultimate dead-end of the thousand theories of Theory – deconstructive, New Historicist, post-Marxist, feminist, Queer, Captivity, etc. --  that has dominated the field of academic literary criticism for more than 30 years).

Empson’s revolutionary literary criticism actually works, in the sense of illuminating the language and multiple meaning of some of the most difficult poetic and prose text ever written.

3. Ambiguity

Jonathan Bate in his 1998 The Genius of Shakespeare tells us how and why William Empson began applying his theory of the Seven Types of Ambiguity during his first two terms as an undergraduate student of English and for his tutorials with I.A. Richards. This is how his tutor, Richards, remembers the origins of Seven Types of Ambiguity:

[Empson] seemed to have read more English literature than I had and to have read it more recently and better, and so our roles were soon in danger of becoming reversed. At about his third visit he brought up the games of interpretation which Laura Riding and Robert Graves had been playing with the unpunctuated form of [Shakespeare’s sonnet] “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame.” Taking the sonnet as a conjurer takes his hat, he produced an endless swarm of lively rabbits from it and ended “You could do that with any poetry, couldn’t you?” This was a Godsend to a Director of Studies, so I said, “You’d better go off and do it, hadn’t you?” A week later he said he was still slapping away at it on his typewriter. Would I mind if he just went on with that? Not a bit. The following week there he was with a thick wad of very illegible typescript under his arm – the central 30,000 words or so of his book.

The book would be Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity and would be published in 1930.

A word here on just what kind of “games” Laura Riding and Robert Graves were playing and why these most modern of poets – they’d just named themselves “Modernists” in the 1927 Survey of Modernist Poetry  -- were studying Shakespeare.

3Essentially, Graves and others were attempting to explain and defend their new styles of Modernist poetry – i.e. poetry in which E.E. Cummings signed himself as “e.e. cummings” and poems that lacked punctuation. Modernism in poetry was being attacked right at its birth, as Jonathan Bate explains, ‘for being synonymous with obscurantism, self-indulgence, and incomprehensibility.’” In Survey of Modernist Poetry  Robert Graves had published Shakespeare’s 129th sonnet without punctuation – most of which had been added by later editors anyway – showing the resultant ambiguities in meaning and demonstrating how “modernist” William Shakespeare had been.

Graves and Riding were clear in what they were trying to do:

By showing what great difference in the sense of the juggling of punctuation marks has made in Shakespeare’s original sonnet, we shall perhaps be able to sympathize somewhat with what seems typographical perversity in a poet like Mr. Cummings.

They did more than that. William Empson saw at once that before the punctuation meddling of Quiller-Couch and other “correctors” of Shakespeare’s verse, the Elizabethan-Jacobean fluidity of punctuation had meant that a single Shakespearean line could stand for “a number of interwoven meanings.”

From the 17th Century up to the 20th Century, publications of Shakespeare’s verse and plays had miles of footnotes focused on the multiple meanings of specific words and lines, but always with the caveat of giving the preferred meaning – i.e. the editor’s best guess at what Shakespeare really meant to say. Over the centuries, stage directions and copious “modernized” punctuation were also added to “clarify” Shakespeare’s one meaning above many possible meanings.

Empson, following Robert Graves, would get rid of these editorial intercessions. He would explore not just the “best” possible meaning as guessed at by some critic or the other across the centuries, but the multiverses of meaning opened up by getting rid of more recent punctuation.

Graves had discovered not the confusion but the wealth of many different readings:

The effect of [Quiller-Couch’s] revised punctuation has been to restrict meanings to special interpretations of special words. Shakespeare’s punctuation allows the variety of meanings he actually intends; if we must choose at least one he intended and one embracing as many meanings as possible, that is, the most difficult meaning. It is always the most difficult meaning that is the most final. (There are degrees of finality because no prose interpretation of poetry can have complete finality, can be difficult enough.)

Shakespeare scholar Frank Kermode in Shakespeare’s Language (2000) explains the impact of Empson’s follow-up to Robert Graves revolutionary return to original fluid punctuation and attention to multiple meanings:

“ . . . William Empson’s concept of ambiguity was a decidedly Cambridge invention; by getting rid of the either/or mentality that had been prevalent in literary analysis he was bringing to literary criticism a way of thinking inaugurated by Albert Einstein but familiar in the universe of the physicist Paul Dirac; the young and prodigious Empson . . . . was ‘the first man to see the literature of the past through quantum theory’s altered notion of reality.”

As Jonathan Bate explains of Empson – “He is modernism’s Einstein.”

So let’s see what getting rid of the either/or and replacing it with and/with does for the analysis of Shakespeare and of our own work.4

4. Seven Types of Ambiguity

The easiest way to give an overview of Empson’s seven types of ambiguity is to quote from the table of contents of his 1930 book, Seven Types of Ambiguity.


The sorts of meaning to be considered; the problems of Pure Sound and of Atmosphere. First-type ambiguities arise when a detail is effective in several ways at once, e.g. by comparisons with several points of likeness, antitheses with several points of difference (p. 22), ‘comparative’ adjectives, subdued metaphors, and extra meanings suggested by rhythm. Annex on Dramatic Irony (p. 38).


In second-type ambiguities two or more alternative meanings are fully resolved into one. Double grammar in Shakespeare Sonnets. Ambiguities in Chaucer (p. 58), the eighteenth century, T.S. Eliot. Digresssions (p. 80) on emendations of Shakespeare and on its form ‘The A and B of C.’


The condition for third-type ambiguity is that apparently unconnected meanings are given simultaneously. Puns from Milton, Marvell, Johnson, Pope, Hood. Generalised from when there is reference to more than one universe of discourse; allegory, mutual comparison, and pastoral. Examples from Shakespeare, Nash, Pope, Herbert, Gray. Discussion of the criterion from this type.


In the fourth type the alternative meanings combine to make clear a complicated state of mind in the author. Complete poems by Shakespeare and Donne considered. Examples (p. 145) of alternative possible emphases in Donne and Hopkins. Pope on dowagers praised. Tintern Abbey accused of failing to achieve this type.


The fifth type is a fortunate confusion, as when the author is discovering his idea in the act of writing (examples from Shelley) or not holding it all in mind at once (examples from Swinburne). Argument that later metaphysical poets were approaching nineteenth-century technique by this route; examples from Marvell and Vaughan.


In the sixth type what is said is contradictory or irrelevant and the reader is forced to invent interpretations. Examples from Shakespeare, Fitzgerald, Tennyson, Herbert, Pope, Yeats. Discussion of the criterion for this type and its bearing on nineteenth century technique.


The seventh type is full contradiction, marking a division in the author’s mind. Freud invoked. Examples (pp198-211) of minor confusions in negation and opposition. Seventh-type ambiguities from Shakespeare, Keats, Crashaw, Hopkins, and Herbert.


General discussion of the conditions under which ambiguity is valuable and the means of apprehending it . . . .

Well, if this all sounds too simplistic to you, modern-educated 21st Century reader, do remember that this was all the work of a mere undergraduate.

5. The Uses of Ambiguity

Modern Theorists – what Harold Bloom unkindly calls “those sullen minions laboring in the School of Resentment” – don’t like Empson much, despite his distinctly deconstructive relativism, and prefer the word “indistinctness” to Empson’s “ambiguity.” Like most products of Theory, this improvement is a major step backward, a weak hobble toward obfuscation.

“Indistinctness” suggests fuzziness or obscurity, which is precisely the opposite of what understanding of ambiguity generates.

To understand Empson’s seven types of ambiguity we could go through examples from Shakespeare and other poets and writers of ambiguity on each level, but that would merely be a doomed attempt to re-create Empson’s entire (he checks) 256-page book. And Empson did a pretty good job the first time.

More important, at least to us working writers, is a recognition of the upper levels of ambiguity, especially the 6th and 7th levels, and how such advanced applications of ambiguity – sometimes called polysemy (“diversity of meanings”) in prose and poetry – can illuminate our written thoughts both for ourselves and our readers.

First, though, one quick glimpse at the lowest rungs of Empson’s ambiguity ladder.

Dr. Johnson, perhaps Shakespeare’s earliest truly great analyst, although known to drop more than a few horrific puns of his own (some listed by Empson), really hated the Bard’s inability to pass by even the lowest pun. Johnson called the Bard’s addiction to punning (everywhere visible in all but his latest and strangest and paradoxically loosest but most formal plays), Shakespeare’s “fatal Cleopatra.” Punning is a cheap seductress, Johnson was saying, and to lie down with whores is to get up with more than fleas.

Or something like that.

But Empson, Robert Graves, and more contemporary Shakespeare language experts such as Frank Kermode, Stephen Booth, and Russ McDonald see better than the good doctor how word play was at the heart of the best of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama – and why it was so dear to Shakespeare’s heart and art. It was not only punctuation that was free and fluid in Shakespeare’s day; the meaning of words was not so set then, which made their usage by the best poet more an exercise in fluid dynamics than particle theory.

The audiences who attended the plays of Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, and Ben Jonson, we know, were mostly illiterate and yet were also much more sophisticated in listening, in perceiving nuances of words and phrases, and in following rapid-fire wordplay than are even the best ivy-league college audiences today. Shakespeare wrote his plays in the richest era of spoken language in the history of English. It’s estimated that between the years 1500 A.D. and 1659 A.D., more than 30,000 new words came into the English language. English also replaced Latin as the official language of writing in that era. (The legal announcement of Shakespeare’s birth was in Latin; the record of his death in English. Shakespeare himself was a prime reason for this shift.) Shakespeare showed an English vocabulary in his plays alone of between 17,000 and 20,000 words. (By comparison, Racine used about 3,000 words total.)

Educated Americans have a larger vocabulary today – around 50,000 from which to pick and choose. But few would argue that we show more facility at it or with them than did Shakespeare.

It’s almost impossible to tell how many English words Shakespeare actually coined (and even “coined” is a tricky word if it’s to mean “provides the first example of usage in the Oxford English Dictionary”), but the scholarly estimates run from a certain “low” of about 1,700 new words to earlier scholars claims of up to 8,000.

Either way, he bent the language to his will.

But let’s see an example of the Type 1 use of ambiguity in Shakespeare. His sonnets – even the easiest of them (as I will display in a separate essay) – are an absolute bitch to decode and to understand. Some of them, as we’ll see, may defy understanding. So we’ll look at a simple line from one of his plays.

Near the end of Henry V, the battle is won but the old Eastcheap Tavern gang (from Henry IV Parts I and II) has been all but wiped out. Joking, drinking, punning Prince Hal has turned into the earnest invader and killing-machine King Henry V. Falstaff has died (offstage) of a broken heart after being rejected by Hal. Boiled and pustuled big-nosed Bardolph has been hanged, at Henry V’s order, for stealing a pax – a little metal disk engraved with a crucifix, kissed during the celebration of Mass – from a French church as the English army was passing. The Boy who had been given to Falstaff as a squire was killed along with the luggage in the “illegal” raid against the supply wagons by the French – an act that so infuriated Henry V that he ordered all of the English’s French prisoners killed. (A section of the play that Laurence Olivier saw fit to delete in his morale-raising band-of-brothers radio and factory-tour recitations of the play during WWII and which Kenneth Branagh deleted from his 1989 movie adaptation of Henry V.)

So now the only member of the old gang left is Pistol, also known as Ancient Pistol. He has begged for someone to intercede for Bardolph but had been turned down by the Welshman Fluellen and others. Bardolph was hanged. Now, though the battle’s won to great fortune for King Henry and the nobles amongst them, Pistol is alone on the battlefield (after being humiliated again by Fluellen, who made Pistol eat leeks as punishment for disrespecting the Welsh) and at this low point, Pistol learns that his wife, Nell has died of venereal disease (the text says “Doll” but this was a slip of the mind by Shakespeare and thus a misprint – in the early acts of Henry V we learn that Pistol has married Mistress Nell Quickly, Falstaff’s old tavern hostess and verbal sparring partner, not the more whore-ish Doll Tearsheet.)

So watch now for the simple re-use and pun on the word “steal.”

Doth fortune play the huswife with me now?
News have I, that my Doll (sic) is dead i’ the’ spital
Of a malady of France:
And there my rendezvous is quite cut off.
Old I do wax, and from my weary limbs
Honor is cudgeled. Well, bawd I’ll turn,
And something lean to cutpurse of quick hand.
To England will I steal and there I’ll steal;
And patches will I get unto these cudgeled scars
And swear I got them in the Gallia wars.

To get the full effect of Pistol’s fury and resolve to thieve, watch the veteran Shakespearean actor Robert Stephens literally spit that second “steal”  in Kenneth Branagh’s movie version of Henry V. The saliva would have reached the highest cheap seats in a theater.

For an example of the fifth type of ambiguity, we can turn to the rancid and truly foul-feeling play Measure for Measure. (The great Victorian censorious rewriter Bowdler almost had a nervous breakdown in trying to rewrite Measure for Measure to make it “acceptable to ladies, young women, and families.” He discovered what he should have already known if he’d read the play – that every line in it stinks of sex like a cheap hooker’s unwashed sheets.)

Here’s Empson:

An ambiguity of the fifth type occurs when the author is discovering his idea in the act of writing, or not holding it all in his mind at once, so that, for instance, there is a simile which applies to nothing exactly, but lies half-way between two things when the author is moving from one to the other. Shakespeare continually does it –

                                                Our Natures do pursue
                                    Like Rats that ravyn downe their proper Bane
                                    A thirsty evil, and when we drinke we die

Evidently the first idea was that lust itself was the poison; but the word proper, introduced as meaning “suitable for rats,” but also having an irrelevant suggestion of “right and natural,” and more exact memory of those (nowadays phosphorus) poisons which are designed to prevent rats from dying n the wainscot, produced the grander and less usual image, in which the eating of the poison corresponded to the Fall of Man, and it is drinking water, a healthful and natural human function, which it is intolerable to avoid, and which brings death. By reflection, then, proper bane becomes ambiguous, since it is now water as well as poison.

This passage occurs early in Measure for Measure, but as the play’s plot develops, so do both the levels of hypocrisy in all the characters and the higher type of ambiguities.

The dark, sick heart of the play is the relationship between Angelo and Isabella. Angelo is a cad of the worst stripe who will do anything to get the virgin Isabella to have sex with him, including executing Isabella’s innocent brother Claudio unless she puts out. Isabella is a virgin of the worst stripe, willing to let her brother Claudio die rather than let herself lie with Angelo. The tale gets sicker and ickier with everyone, including Claudio, compromising everything and anything of value and allowing their own dark passions – including a religious spinster’s violent passion to remain a virgin and thus go to heaven -- to undermine their own and everyone else’s virtue.

The first time we see Claudio, he’s being led through the streets in irons on the order of Angelo as an example of the Duke’s order that there be no sexual knowledge outside of marriage, and a startled Lucio shouts “How now, Claudio! Whence comes this restraint?”

Thus the full version and multiple puns of Claudio’s response cited above –

                        From too much liberty, my Lucio, liberty.
                        As surfet is the father of much fast,
                        So every scope, by the immoderate use,
                        Turns to restraint. Our natures do pursue,
                        Like rats that raven down their proper bane,
                        A thirsty evil; and when we drink, we die.

Thus Empson’s example above of the fifth level of ambiguity where Shakespeare is actually working out the complicated thought and metaphor as he goes, altering as it evolves.

(Note: I agree with Samuel Taylor Coleridge when the poet wrote about this play – Measure for Measure is the single exception to the delightfulness of Shakespeare’s plays. It is a hateful work, although Shakespearean throughout. Our feelings of justice are grossly wounded in Angelo’s escape. Isabella herself contrives to be unamiable, and Claudio is detestable. Personally, I find Claudio unamiable in the extreme and Isabella – who would let her brother die rather than surrender her virginity – somewhere beyond detestable. But no matter.)

Empson leads us to see where the play shifts almost entirely to 5th, 6th, and 7th levels of icky ambiguity. Here is prisoner Claudio’s comment about his sister and Empson’s analysis of it –

                                                            In her youth
                                                There is a prone and speechless dialect
                                                Such as move men.
                                                                                    [1.2 170-172]

This is the stainless Isabel, being spoken of by her respectful brother. ‘Prone’ means either ‘inactive and lying flat’ (in retirement or with a lover) or ‘active,’ whether as ‘moving men,’ by her subtlety or by her purity, or as ‘moving’ in herself, for pelasure or to do good. ‘Speechless’ will not give away whether she is shy or sly, and ‘dialect’ has abandoned the effort to distinguish between them. The last half-line makes its point calmly, with an air of knowing about such cases; and, indeed, I feel very indelicate in explaining Claudio’s meaning. It is difficult to put the workings of the mind into a daylight which alters their proportions without an air either of accusation or ribaldry; he is making no judgment of his sister’s character, and only thinking that as a weapon against Angelo she is well worth being given a try.

It’s interesting that Empson “feels very indelicate” in even suggesting what Claudio’s thinking about his sister – i.e. that her very presence will give Angelo an instant erection and Claudio a chance at surviving if Angelo rapes her then and there – since one of the “naughty anecdotes” about Empson at Cambridge was that his “bedder” (an old term for the servant who made up the student’s room) found a huge quantity of condoms in Empson’s bedroom. That critic’s bedroom itself was a tad indelicate, according to rumors, since when Empson returned to England after the war, he’s said to have slept in a sort of Persian tent erected in his living room.

And speaking of erections, Isabella’s first lines when she meets with the horny Angelo were sure to provide one –

                                                Th’ impression of keen whips I’d wear as rubies,
                                                And strip myself to death as to a bed
                                                That longing have been sick for, ere I’d yield
                                                My body up to shame.

Measure for Measure is the surest proof – to me – of Harold Bloom’s deliberately hyperbolic (but true) claim that everything Sigmund Freud knew and wrote about, he’d learned from Shakespeare. The id and the ego are shouting down the superego throughout this play, through the “accidental” double- and triple-meanings of everything every character says or thinks.

And before you send in your cards and letters, yes – I know that William Empson came very, very close to the classical mistake of thinking that “prone” as Claudio used it above, means lying on one’s back. It’s possible that Empson confused the sexy “supine” with the sharpshooter’s more prosaic “prone” – as too many beginning writers do – but it’s also possible that a Cambridge sophomore with 800 condoms in his bedside drawer found the image of Isabella lying nakedly prone on her bed even more exciting, as might the cad Angelo (who’s shown through various subtle and . . . yes . . . ambiguous ways during the play that he’s willing to swing both ways).

Empson, in pointing out the 6th and 7th-level ambiguities throughout Measure for Measure (not a single character is thinking or acting on a single, honest level), makes the point –

It seems impossible even to praise the good qualities of Angelo without bringing into the hearer’s mind those other good qualities that Angelo refuses to recognize. The most brilliant example of this trick in the play is the continual pun on ‘sense,’ for sensuality, sensibleness (which implies the claim of Lucio) and sensibility (which implies a further claim of the poet).

Indeed, the word sense with all its sexual-buckshot-loaded meanings, runs through the play like so many spastic poisoned rats. The inflamed Angelo,  with Isabella still punning in a Freudian way in front him, responds to one of her comments – ‘She speaks, and ‘tis such sense’ (such a good rational argument) ‘That my sense’ (my sensual desire) ‘breeds with it.’

He wishes.

6. Ambiguity and Negative Capability

The most certain thing I’ve ever read about Shakespeare in my decades of reading about him – and I’m ashamed to admit I forget who said it – is that we know one thing absolutely about William Shakespeare: as soon as he thought of a fact, an idea, an opinion, or a character, he then immediately conceived of its opposite.

Of course, young Will was trained in using antitheses in his schoolroom in Stratford- Upon-Avon, but this gift – or curse – goes beyond that sort of formal thinking in opposites and shades of opposites. With Shakespeare, I truly believe, it was a sort of artistic curse.

William Hazlitt wrote about this in 1817:

The striking peculiarity of Shakspeare’s mind was its generic quality, its power of communication with all other minds – so that it contained a universe of thought and feeling within itself, and had no one peculiar bias,or exclusive excellence more than another. He was just like any other man, but that he was like all other men. He was the least of an egotist that it was possible to be. He was nothing in himself; but he was all that others were, or that they could become. He not only had in himself the germs of every faculty and feeling, but he could follow them by anticipation, intuitively, into all their conceivable ramifications, through every change of fortune or conflict of passion, or turn of thought. He had ‘a mind reflecting ages past,’ and present: -- all the people that ever lived are there. There was no respect of persons with him. He genius shone equally on the evil and on the good, on the wise and foolish, the monarch and the beggar.

Readers of my other Writing Well essays or those who have taken part in the On Writing Well forum dialogues have repeatedly encountered John Keats’s concept of negative capability – the young poet’s comment on Shakespeare’s willingness to be content with “half knowledge”, to remain in uncertainty and doubt “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Keats considered this quality embodied in Shakespeare – this negative capability – as the single most important precondition for the creation of all great art.

(Side note – while I agree with the conventional wisdom that William Hazlitt’s 1817 essay was a major influence on Keats arriving at his theory of negative capability, I’ve become more and more convinced that the writings on Shakespeare by Samuel Taylor Coleridge played a major, if not equal, role in inspiring Keats.)

I need to rush in here to correct the common misperception that Keats was talking about “acceptance of mystery without questing after proof or evidence.” He wasn’t. That belongs in the Catholic catechism, not in John Keats’s poet’s mind.

Here’s how Jonathan Bate defines Keats’s understanding of negative capability and its connection to Empson’s application of the ambiguity principle:

Negative capability is a brilliant formulation because it holds together a negative and a positive term in the exact manner of Heisenberg’s ‘uncertainty principle’. How can negativity be a capability, how can uncertainty be a principle? Since Keats lived in a Newtonian universe of ‘fact and reason,’ he could only articulate negative capability as a form of scepticism which he opposed to scientific truth: he had to leave Shakespeare undecided between two possibilities. In the quantum universe, we have discovered that undecidability is the condition of scientific truth and that contraries are equally true. Light has both wave and particle aspects, though wave and particle equations are incompatible with one another: an electron has both momentum and coordinates, but both cannot be specified at the same time. Undecidability, as Empson perceived in the crucial passage of Seven Types, is a condition of nature, not a fallibility or predilection of the interpreting mind. In an aspectual world, Negative capability becomes comprehensible as a law rather than a mystery. The sonnets can be understood as both autobiographical and fictive. Hamlet can be seen as both iconic and elusive.

Actually, Empson’s application of negative-capable ambiguity on the macro-level as well as the word- or phrase-level makes Hamlet more interesting than merely iconic and elusive at the same time.

The late Peter Alexander and Harold Bloom both argue well that the Ur-Hamlet – the original corny version of Hamlet that was being mocked (“Revenge!” Hamlet’s ghost cries like an oisterwife . . .a line that Hamlet’s father’s ghost never cries in the play we know) as hokey old hat early as the early 1590’s – may well have been an early effort by Shakespeare himself; and one he continued working on and improving for most of his professional life.

But I prefer a different scenario.

In my scenario, around 1600 there’s a resurgence of interest in the old Revenge plays – Thomas Kyd’s old Hieronimo was making a comeback at the Curtain and other theaters – and either Shakespeare’s troupe said to their resident writer (or, more interestingly, Master Will said to the troupe) – “What about dusting off that old Hamlet revenge tragedy?”

“That old dog?” says someone, perhaps the new clown, Robert Armin, who’d replaced the more physical and slapstick clown, Will Kempe. “The only thing that would hold that tired old thing up would be its fleas.”

“All the more reason to give it a try,” says Shakespeare.

And it would be one hell of a challenge. Revenge plays were popular again with the less-sophisticated audiences in London, but that particular revenge-play – Hamlet – was so worn and hackneyed that it was the source of derision. More to the point, Shakespeare, as the consummate professional writer he now was, knew the fatal drawbacks of all revenge plays: the only suspense one can generate is how and when the revenger will get his inevitable revenge. As soon as a groundling shouts at Richard Burbage playing young Hamlet – “Shaddup already and stick your blade in ‘im” – the dark spell of the play would be irrevocably punctured. Even Shakespeare’s words would never get the audience back or end the sniggering.

In modern revenge tragedies such as Nevada Smith --  (a book within a book, but who can name the book it’s in?) (and who can name the actor other than Steve McQueen who played the Nevada Smith role in a movie?) – the revenger has to cross mountains and deserts and kill a bunch of subsidiary bad guys before killing, one by one, the bastards who wiped out his family.

But King Claudius is right there, always within sword range, and often wandering the castle at night alone or just in the company of old Polonius. What’s to keep Hamlet from doing the deed in Act I, scene 3?

There was, of course, the built-in problem and innate tension of the divine right of kings as interpreted by their current liege lord, King James I, which points out that even if Claudius were the usurper Hamlet thinks him to be, once king by any means, Claudius’s  right to rule was still God’s choice and thus Hamlet, although justified by the murder of his father, would still be committing the worst of all crimes, regicide.

No, that alone, as literally arresting as it was to the good subjects in King James I’s day, wouldn’t do to draw out suspense for five acts. Shakespeare had the ultimate challenge: not only resurrecting an ancient play that had been drained of all novelty and energy, but doing so in a way that would generate three-and-a-half hours of nail-biting suspense.

Shakespeare’s solution was an act of genius. He generated all the questions and challenges that the audience would have to Hamlet’s delay in acting, and had Hamlet accuse himself of them first. And thanks to the new psychology of interior monologue given to Shakespeare by his reading of Montaigne, the playwright saw an entirely new way to use the seven soliloquys not as a secondary element in the play, but as the core of the “action.” It was no longer Hamlet versus Claudius or Hamlet versus Laertes . . . it would always be Hamlet versus Hamlet. There lay the suspense . . . and since Hamlet’s struggle with his own inner demons and delaying impulses couldn’t be solved in his lifetime (at least through his own agency), now the inner struggle justified nearly four hours of playing time (and the audience’s collective butts on hard, bare boards all that time, not to mention the “no toilets this side of the Thames” problem as so succinctly put by Black Adder playing Will’s agent.) (Never mind.)

But pre-Freudian Freudian psychology alone can’t provide the energy for such a play, much less make it eternal across the centuries. For that, all levels of ambiguity were needed. And no writer in the history of any language generated aspects of ambiguity – in the situation, in the ethics of the situation, in the convolutions of the play-within-a-play, in all the characters, but especially in the main character – as well as Shakespeare could.

We can now ask – Was Hamlet feigning madness or was he truly mad?

5Up until the day William Empson turned the full power of quantum mechanics on literary criticism of Shakespeare, the answer would have been debated either yes or no or some clumsy compromise. At best, a truly wise person could answer as the Zen master must and say “Mu” – “Unask the question.”

Now the answer is . . . “Yes.”

Answer either way or a shade of a blend of either way – the Empsonian and/with rather than the centuries of either/or – and a full and logical and compelling play unfolds. But a different play in each complex unfolding.

And there are a myriad of ways. Shakespeare gave Hamlet more facets than any other character he breathed life into, and each of those facets was mirrored with wave-particle wavicle ambiguity.

Did Hamlet truly love Ophelia or was he lying about loving her since he was incapable of loving anyone?


Did Hamlet truly put off killing Claudius when he found the bloat-king alone at his confessional because he was afraid that Claudius might go to heaven if dispatched then, or was this just a clumsy self-rationalization by the Prince who simply wasn’t yet capable of acting decisively?


Did Hamlet mean to kill Polonius behind the arras (since he must have known, at least unconsciously, that Claudius wouldn’t have had time to get to Gertrude’s chamber from the confessional) or was it pure accident that the old advisor died rather than Claudius?


The wave and particle answers work here with Shakespeare’s most realized (and ambiguous) character as they do with almost no other literary creation.

Yet the other character whom Shakespeare poured so much of himself into – at least his own wit and verbal ability – was Sir John Falstaff. Was Fat Jack a rogue and a scoundrel and a liar and a wastrel and a base coward, or was he a Socrates-like source of wit for himself and of wit in others, the ultimate tutor for Prince Hal (a young Hamlet) if Hal had had enough sense to listen to his tutor, and an almost Christ-like voice of truly enlightened humanism?


In The Tempest, is Caliban a foul monster-rapist, pure symbol of barbarism, or is he a symbol of the capitalist-oppressed, colonialist-brutalized Noble Savage and thus a hero?


Is Prospero a benign sorcerer and giver-of-rules in a chaotic land, teaching all through his love and magical powers, or is Prospero an invader-despoiler and keeper of slaves, a threat to everyone including his daughter?


Complete plays unfold perfectly, with all their offshoots and surprises, if answered either way. Or both ways. And Shakespeare put all the facets there, in place, waiting for the viewer.

What do you see here, friends. (You’ve probably seen it before.)


You can see the rabbit or you can see the duck, but you can’t really see both at the same time. The perceptual transition can be almost as quick as neurons can travel, but there’s still an on/off transition time.

Jonathan Bate says of this old iconic example of aspectuality:

To simplify, we may say that ‘negative’ corresponds to the rabbit/Falstaff/Caliban, ‘capability’ to the duck/Hal/Prospero. But if we do so, we must recognize that this is indeed a simplification. The duck-rabbit is a neat icon of aspectuality, but it only has two aspects. Each of Shakespeare’s plays has many more than two. Every character has a point of view, while more and more aspects are revealed through the unfolding of the action. The duck-rabbit is experienced in a moment on the page, whereas the Shakespearean drama is experienced through time in the theatre.

The law of aspectuality governs many dramatic and poetic worlds; in itself, it does not make Shakespeare unique. What is it, then, that sets Shakespeare apart from even his most talented contemporaries, that gives him his unique capacity to be reperformed again and again through history?

Part of Bate’s answer is that unlike almost all of the other playwrights of his day – including Ben Jonson who got out of acting as soon as he had the money to become a full-time playwright – Will Shakespeare was an actor to the end of his career and he thought like an actor. Because of that, he understood something about the “identity” of his characters that few if any playwrights or writers understand even today; he understood that, as it is with our own identities, a dramatic or fictional character’s identity is being created anew from moment to moment, through action and reaction to events. As Bate says in Chapter Five of his The Genius of Shakespeare – “Instead of being predetermined, identity is performed through action.”

The corollary to this rule, the second law of the Shakespeare World (as Bate puts it), is the idea of performance itself. “The performative truth of human ‘being’, recognized by both Shakespeare and Wittgeinstein, is that being and acting are indivisible. For the later Wittgenstein, the truth of a proposition is indivisible from the language in which it is performed. For Shakespeare, ‘All the world’s a stage/ And all the men and women merely players.’ This idea had often been stated before Shakespeare, but Shakespeare did not state it, he performed it. Because the idea is performed, the force of ‘merely players’ is not qualifying (‘only players’) but absolute (‘wholly players’).

And in performance, as in our grasp of reality itself, ambiguity rules.

7. How Do We Use the Seven Types of Ambiguity in Our Own Writing?

This part has to be written by you.

But I will say that after 26 published books and 28 years of being a professional and published writer, I have grown to believe that the ability to handle ambiguity in prose and in the creation of plots and characters – and to express understanding of ambiguity through some strong use of John Keats’s negative capability – may be the quintessence of the good writer’s art.

I have a small list of about half a dozen other writers I always send my new books to. (And they send me theirs.) One of those writers is the bestselling author and my dear friend David Morrell. When David read my novel DROOD he sent me a complimentary note that I’ll always treasure , but more important and pertinent than the compliments was his statement, “Dan, this is more than a generous novel. There are six distinct and separate books in DROOD.

David, a consummate professional, was correct down to the actual number. He didn’t mean that the book was long or overwritten; he meant that given the ambiguity facets of the plot and main character – i.e. Is Wilkie Collins imagining these things due to his mental illness and opium addiction, or are the events real? The answer, of course, to that and the other mutually exclusive options being a joyous Yes! – there were indeed six different novels co-existing in the same time and space within DROOD.

What I’ve brought to all my efforts in all the genres and non-genres in which I’ve written, is an ever-expanding appreciation for Empson’s principles of quantum-theory ambiguity – long before I was introduced to Empson and his book – and a continued celebration of the power of such ambiguity when handled precisely in phrasing, plotting, and creation of character. If there’s anything that sets a “Simmons’ book” apart from others in these various genres and any one thing that allows each book to succeed or fail – it may well be this constant obsession with and/with rather than either/or. This difficult but rewarding (for the author) play in the green fields of ambiguity.

But be warned that different genres place different restrictions on ambiguity.

A sociologist friend of mine once said that if one sort of literature had to survive into the 36th Century A.D. to tell our distant descendents all about our age, it should be mystery novels. Mysteries, he argued, are obsessed with the details of culture, technology, and daily life. Anyone wanting to see and hear and feel how 20th Century humans lived in western cultures need only read a 2,000-year-old mystery.

But that same focus on reality-detail for clues and plot sets a tight band of literalism around mystery writing. You’d think lovers of mystery would be open to ambiguity, but not in the writing. Such readers become as militantly literalist as fundamentalist Christian kids at summer Jesus Camp.

(There is one bold exception for such an understandable demand for literalist non-ambiguity in the mystery genre, and that’s authors’ and readers’ enjoyment of giving the protagonist a single name – "Spenser" character or Donald Westlake's writing as Richard Stark’s “Parker-the-thief” or even no name at all, as with Dashiell Hammett’s “Continental Op.” The potential clumsy consequences of this minor ambiguity game are always there (what does Spenser’s lover-concubine of 73 years, Susan Silverman, call him in her sweet whisperings . . . “Spenser?”) And even Richard Stark’s criminal characters are made to ask from time to time, “Is Parker his last name or his first?” There’s never an answer, but since Parker isn’t Parker’s real name anyway, it doesn’t seem to matter. But having their detective- or thief-heroes carrying only one name like a modern rock star is the exception in mystery writing and reading; ambiguity beyond that point is simply not welcome.)

Oddly, much the same can be said for SF (which, since I’m old, I still prefer to translate as speculative fiction.) SF readers are wonderful collaborators; the simplest sentence – such as the classic “The door irised open” – can prompt an SF reader to fill in huge gaps and swaths of collaborative detail, relieving the author of the chore. (This is a problem when it comes time to translate the book. I’ve had translators from 30 languages, without exaggeration, demand to know exactly what the acronym EMV’s for the flying cars in my HYPERION novels stand for. Well . . . I don’t know. And don’t really care. The phrase is only . . . in an old literary critic’s term  . . . a phantasmatic placeholder, meant to suggest something and stand in for something else without really existing in and unto itself. Finally I tell the Korean or Israeli or Russian or Bulgarian translator – “OK, it means Electro-Magnetic Vehicle” – just to placate them. But it doesn’t. Not at all. It’s simply a word that everyone in that particular future uses to describe their flying cars. Readers work it out from context, the way they would if we sent a contemporary novel back in time to 1907 via a time machine and they were reading about “SUV’s” – a term never explained but easily understandable in context.

SF is rich in context and suggestion and the SF of such masters as Alfred Bester or Jack Vance or J.G. Ballard give a great burden of contextual filling-in to the reader.

But this isn’t really the same as using the Seventh Type of Ambiguity in one’s word choices or phrase complexities or plotting intricasies or character facets, is it?

And, once again, SF readers become very literal. Their sense of closure – of always sniffing for logical or technical or continuity errors – is as overpowering as that of some equine experts when confronted with a vomiting horse in an otherwise outstandingly written and fact-checked novel. Everything stops for such readers when an ambiguity crosses the line into the impossible.

So for the most part, modern explorations into increasing levels of Empsonian quantum-level ambiguity and aspectuality of character have been left to the Saul Bellows and William Faulkners, to the F. Scott Fitzgeralds and the Jorge Louis Borgeses, to the Philip Roths and José Saramagos, and to the John Updikes and John Fowleses and Vladimir Nabokovs. And to their young successors, whoever they may be.

But we are to remember that ambiguity of the seventh type occurs when “the two meanings of the word, the two values of the ambiguity, are the two opposite meanings defined by the context, so that the total effect is to show a fundamental division of the writer’s mind.” Shakespeare accomplished this in almost all of his plays and sonnets – on the word-level, the phrase-level, the dialogue-level, and the character-level. It made his sonnets and plays . . . for the want of a less scary word . . . literally inexhaustable.

Can’t we try to play this master’s game?

It’s my job and your job to do it if we can – if we can do it competently and professionally and seamlessly for the reader, all while improving the overall richness of the tale and its telling – and genre expectations or restrictions be damned.

“We should approach the seventh type of ambiguity with awe,” wrote Empson. “We are like Dante arriving at the centric circle of hell: ‘We too must now stand upon our heads, and are approaching the secret places of the Muse.”

Never mind that, like Dante and his poet-guide, you’re probably clinging upside-down on the Devil’s hairy arse or grip-dangling for dear life on his even hairier genitals when you finally earn the right to shout out such a triumphal cry. Our job is to find the Muse wherever She chooses to hide, even if we have to travel through the full circles of Hell – or along the eleven-dimensional theory strings of ambiguity – to get there.

(Webmaster's Note: Between installments of WRITING WELL, visitors to this web site interested in discussing writing issues can talk to each other and to me on the new ON WRITING WELL strand in the Dan Simmons Forum. While I will answer questions there from time to time, my hope is that these Writing Well installments might serve – at least partially – as a template for discussion so that we can move more slowly toward the usual huge questions of “How do I write a masterpiece and where can I get it published?”)

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