EMPSON—EMBRACING ALL THE MEANINGS. Just as Orwell rejoiced in the multiple meanings of words, Empson’s breakthrough was a rejection of the idea that there is a single meaning for a word. Empson said in SEVEN TYPES OF AMBIGUITY that his readings which explored the multiple meanings of words in Shakespeare came straight out of the work of the 19th century critics—in fact from the footnotes in the Arden Shakespeare. (The 18th century critics had devoted their efforts to establishing which was the “correct” text of a play out of the many possibilities in the Shakespeare manuscripts.) The 19th century scholars debated what was the correct meaning of the words in the texts, and the footnotes recounted the debates of the scholars. Empson’s insight was that all of the scholars were right.
Here is the quotation from SEVEN TYPES OF AMBIGUTIY in the Google books version of the paperback, pages 80 to 81:
“Some readers of this chapter…will have felt that it…must either be all nonsense or very startling and new. A glance at an annotated edition of Shakespeare, however, will be enough to dispel this general illusion; most of what I find to say about Shakespeare has been copied out of the Arden text.
Thus I believe that the nineteenth-century editor believed in a great many of his alternatives at once….”