Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Notes on "(Dis)Embodied Letters"

c.f. Jerome McGann The Textual Condition.

Leah Marcus, in her article "Textual Indeterminacy and Ideological Difference: The Case of Dr. Faustus" (Renaissance Drama n.s. 20 (1989): 1-29), argues that both the A and B texts of Dr. Faustus can claim aesthetic integrity in their own right, and that neither comes any closer to "the absent authorial presence we call Marlowe" (284).

"post-structuralist theory has taught us [that] the idea of the original is not only misleading, but wholly illusory" (285).

Traditional textual critics typically attempt to link texts to an authorial agent as a way of authorizing their own interpretations of text, but while texts may be understood as the instruments of an authorial agent, they also bear traces of "nonagential" composition. Shakespearean texts are the product of collaborative intervention from agents of printshops, scriveners, and playhouses, and thus so-called "accidentals" form an essential part of a text (286).

"Texts -- like history -- exist in spite of us" (287).

The text of Antonio's letter to Bassanio is, in the folio text, clearly set off in italic text, and is otherwise unassigned: while Portia is given a speech prefix before and after the reading of the letter, no speech prefix is assigned to the letter itself (290). "[The letter] has no voice (that Portia or Bassanio voices the letter on stage is either purely conjectural or merely convenient)" (emphasis mine) (291). What a load of crap. It is conjectural in so far as a servant, or some other present person on stage may read the letter, but it is not "merely convenient," it is theatrically necessary. Stern has shown how letters were often separated from their surrounding texts, but if the letter was not meant to be read out loud, nothing at all would have been printed on it. There is an insignificant chance that anyone would have seen the text of the letter on the comparatively intimate Blackfriars stage, let alone at the Globe.

In his 1987 New Cambridge edition of Merchant, M. M. Mahood proposes that the distinction between Solanio, Salarino, and Salerio is one that can be resolved by a director in performance, which very likely was what would have happened in Shakespeare's company, but the three characters ought to be preserved in print because they were all present in the manuscript (295 - 296). This presumes that the manuscript can be reconstructed through print, and we should know better by now, but also "constitutes a performative version of the logocentrism described by Derrida: spoken language is imagined as prior to and more immediate than the written" (297). Ah.... I wasn't going to pull Derrida into this, but if someone else wants to, who am I to argue?

"It seems to me not much to matter how there came to be three characters with such names in the Hayes quarto, but simply that there came to be these three "letteral" configurations we have decided to call characters. The matter of the three Sallies is important here not because it stands as yet another site for our intervention in the attempt to solve a textual crux, but rather precisely because it marks the eruption -- inexplicable and yet undeniable -- of the accidental" (303).

"To clean up accidents in a text is to construct a narrativized world of total causality and accountability, a purely rational world in which everything is under control" (305 - 306). Such practice is untenable; it can only create texts within the historiographical framework of the editorial narrative. As Mahood demonstrates, there are no fewer than 16 "characters" (where each speech prefix and potential variant spelling represents its own unique character) in Merchant, and each are just as authorial as the other (306).


Marchitello, Howard. "(Dis)Embodied Letters and The Merchant of Venice: Writing, Editing, History." Shakespeare: The Critical Context. Stephen Orgel and Sean Keilen Ed. New York: Garland Publishing. 1999. p. 283 - 311. Print. Dual pagination is given for all works in this volume, but since the table of contents follows the pagination running at the bottom center of each page, this is the pagination that I have followed in my citations.

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