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Communicating Metaphors in Shakespeare, Dickinson and Heaney



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O'Donoghue, Josephine Sheila 


‘Relevance theory’ is a linguistic theory offering an alternative to the conventional ‘code model’ of communication, by suggesting that inference, rather than coding and decoding, is the primary driving force motivating interpretation. In this thesis, I consider the implications for literary criticism of the relevance theory account of communication, particularly in relation to metaphor, as an enduring concern of both linguistics and literary studies.

The thesis focuses on three temporally disparate authors – Shakespeare, Dickinson and Heaney – whose work, analyzed by linguists as well as literary critics, is abundant in metaphor, but might prompt us to think about literary communication in different ways. The Introduction considers the coincidence of the central terms of relevance theory (context, interpretation, inference, intention) with many of the fundamental concerns of literary criticism. Chapter One examines various accounts of metaphor, historical and recent, by literary critics, philosophers and linguists, before offering a brief introduction to relevance theory’s ‘deflationary’ account of metaphor and its implications for literary critical analysis. Chapter Two looks at plays by Shakespeare that are as much concerned with communication as they are representations of it, and considers how relevance theory’s account of the cognitive process of developing new interpretations on the spot, in context, based on expectations of relevance, challenges any straightforward sense of what textual metaphors ‘mean’. Chapter Three explores the striking prominence of the term ‘inference’, fundamental to the relevance theory account of communication, in Dickinson’s poetry. Whilst Dickinson’s ‘definitional’, ‘X is Y’ metaphors appear to facilitate a bridging of the gap between abstractions and the concrete world linguistically, her dependence on inference exposes the bleak uncertainty of that which can only be inferred, whilst nonetheless forging a communicative bond between the poet writing and her multiple audiences. Chapter Four analyzes different figurative forms in Heaney’s poetry, and looks particularly at the relationship between metaphor and simile in light of the relevance theory account. Critical analyses of Heaney’s work often attribute political significance to what are assumed to be metaphors within his poetry, without considering the role played by (perhaps unconscious) interpretative expectations of the kind relevance theory would predict; taking local linguistic context more thoroughly into account might offer a very different perspective on what Heaney is ‘saying’.

In conclusion, I review Lakoff and Johnson’s profoundly influential ‘conceptual metaphor theory’ (CMT), and propose that relevance theory’s linguistically-driven account of metaphor in communication needs elements of ‘conceptual’ accounts such as CMT which describe metaphor as a matter of thought as well as language. Metaphor is a tremendously powerful communicative tool, but one to which literary critical analysis cannot do justice without a functioning theory of communication such as that offered by relevance theory.




Lyne, Raphael


Relevance Theory, Shakespeare, Dickinson, Heaney, metaphor, linguistics, poetry, drama


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
This PhD was funded by a Hamied Studentship from Christ's College, Cambridge