Study Guide

The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

The Merchant of Venice Essay - Disembodied Letters and The Merchant of Venice

Disembodied Letters and The Merchant of Venice


(Dis)embodied Letters and The Merchant of Venice

Howard Marchitello, Texas A & M University

The concept of the historical progress of mankind cannot be sundered from the concept of its progression through a homogeneous, empty time. A critique of the concept of such a progression must be the basis of any criticism of the concept of progress itself.

—Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History"

In recent years the practices and ideologies of modern textual criticism have come under significant review and critique. Our understanding of the linguistic instability of texts, informed by post-structuralism, together with recent re-theorizations of modern subjectivity, have produced a concern for the material or, more to the point, the textual nature of culture and its productions—what Jerome McGann recently has called "the textual condition."1 The practices of this new textual criticism have been theorized in McGann's project, begun with Romantic Ideology (1983) and continued in A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism (1983) and The Textual Condition (1991), which is in part intended to heal "the schism between textual and interpretive studies, opened so long ago."2 McGann's call for a reimagining of the bibliographical study of texts is predicated upon the identification of texts as "fundamentally social rather than personal."3 This identification retrieves texts from both the misguided essentialist (and humanist) fiction of the wholly autonomous author and the related discourse of intentionality that are thought to determine the production of texts outside or beyond both culture and history.

The field of Renaissance studies has proven to be fertile ground for such inquiry. In particular, revisionist work on Shakespearean texts offers us powerful ways to theorize the question, "What is a text?" (even before we can begin to formulate answers to it); new ways of understanding the multiple, often divergent and yet nevertheless equally authentic texts we do have; fresh insights into the materiality of texts and textual production (printing house practices, for instance); and increasingly thorough and sophisticated accounts of early modern conceptions of publishing, collaboration, and the complex issues of authorship.4 These newly articulated critical and theoretical interests and inquiries have served to redefine the nature of textual criticism. This practice of "unediting," as Randall McLeod and Leah Marcus have called it, has produced a long list of recovered texts—texts (quartos, copies) that traditional textual theory and criticism have consistently dismissed as "bad," "corrupt," or otherwise inferior to their own texts: the two versions of King Lear, or the equally valid versions of the much-disputed Doctor Faustus, to name two prominent examples.5

My use here of the terms "produced" and "recovered" is somewhat ironical: it has been the object of traditional textual criticism to produce authoritative texts in the absence of authorial script, which is itself imagined as recoverable because final authorial intention resides in the extant texts, even if it becomes visible (present) only in reconstructed texts, or, more frequently, in texts that are more or less hypothetical. "Unediting" produces no new texts, and can even be said to resist the entire notion of such production. Rather, "unediting" insists upon the integrity of textual productions without recourse to claims for the authorial status of these texts, and therein cannot be said either to produce or to recover texts—at least not in the conventional senses of these terms as they come to us through traditional textual criticism.

In discussing the composite nature of the two versions of Doctor Faustus, Leah Marcus argues that while both can claim aesthetic integrity on their own perhaps divergent terms, neither can claim a greater proximity to "the absent authorial presence we call Marlowe":

It is time to step back from the fantasy of recovering Marlowe as the mighty, controlling source of textual production and consider other elements of the process, particularly ideological elements that the editorial tradition has, by the very nature of its enterprise, suppressed. I would like to second [Michael] Warren's call for a separation of the two texts of Doctor Faustus, but carry his argument further by contending that for Faustus, and for Renaissance drama more generally, a key element of textual indeterminacy is ideological difference.6

Marcus argues that "we can learn something about the vagaries of Renaissance authorship and mark out new areas for interpretation if we wean ourselves from the ingrained habit of regarding textual 'accidentals' as insignificant,"7 and asks us to reconsider "accidentals"—such as the A text's "Wertenberg" and the B text's "Wittenberg"; A's empty stage at the play's end and B's stage littered with the fragments of Faustus's body—as significant in establishing markedly "different configurations of religious experience" in the two plays.8 "Accidentals" such as those reflecting divergent religious experience are in fact substantial and consequential elements of both plays, attributable to revisions—Marlovian or post-Marlovian—of the play in history.9

As has been suggested above, the case for reconsidering our editorial determinations concerning texts and their relative authority has gone a long way in helping create the very possibility of this argument: in our relationship to texts we are no longer so strictly bound to the desire to recover—or, for that matter, the very faith in—the lost original. Indeed, as post-structuralist theory has taught us, the idea of the original is not only misleading, but wholly illusory; "we have no originals," Jonathan Goldberg reminds us, "only copies."10

Marcus's discussion of "accidentals" allows us access to nonauthorial elements that survive in or help to determine play-texts—evidence, as it were, for textual (and bibliographical) traces of nonauthorial agency. At the same time, however, Marcus's argument—while perhaps controversial in its revisionist claims for the two texts of Faustus—is nevertheless dedicated to the discussion of agency within texts, whether that agency is authorial or non-authorial, and as such offers only a restricted critique of textual criticism and traditional practices of editing. This is analogous to what Jonathan Goldberg has identified as "the combination of textual audacity and critical conservatism" to be found even in as bold an intervention in Shakespearean studies as The Division of the Kingdoms:

There are two King Lears, we are told, but we are assured that the Quarto derives from Shakespeare's manuscript and that the Folio represents an authoritative revision. The kingdom has been divided, but Shakespeare reigns supreme, author now of two sovereign texts.11

As audacious as it is, Marcus's argument—perhaps like that of The Division of the Kingdoms—returns in the end to texts as instantiations of agency. I would like to extend the radical critique of traditional textual criticism and the traditional practices of text-editing implicit in the project of "unediting" by suggesting that while texts have historically been understood as instruments of agentiality par excellence, they nevertheless embody traces of nonagential writing. Goldberg argues that the "Shakespearean text is a historical phenomenon, produced by ongoing restructurations, revisions, and collaboration; by interventions that are editorial, scribal, theatrical; by conditions that are material, occasional, accidental."12 New textual theory and practice, such as Marcus's, have indeed revised our notions of these material and occasional conditions. Following Goldberg's extension of the radical instability of the text to include "the typographical character" that stands as "one further sign—literally, a reminder of the compositor—that points to the composite nature of every Shakespearean text," however, and his explicit call ("since it is all that we have") for a "return to the letter," I propose to focus here on the accidental conditions of Shakespearean textuality, and to suggest that there are ways in which we can understand these significant traces of non-agency, these "accidentals" that are precisely accidental. 13 To argue for the value of true textual accidents (misspelled words, evident compositor's errors, textual obscurities or incoherences) and their availability to critical inquiry is to offer a fundamental revision of the philosophical underpinnings of traditional textual criticism that is founded upon the suspect epistemology of presence, and as such constitutes an elaborate discourse of causality: a complex set of theories and practices dedicated to the description and reconstitution of texts.14 Traditional textual criticism, then, is nothing less than a form of historiography, fundamentally conservative in nature and essentially narrative in form, dedicated to the preservation of presence and historical continuity, and in which the text is construed as the site where historical progress is believed to be materially evident.

In his Critique, McGann discusses this notion of the text in history, especially as it is reflected in the ideas of the copy-text and the critical edition produced through the practice (I will want to say the historical practice) of collation, and the critical apparatus that "displays the 'history' of the text."15 These practices, it is important to note, are both produced within an entirely historical epistemological framework and at the same time are intended to reproduce the text in its historical development. And yet, the effect of the critical text that has so thoroughly given itself over to the historical reconstruction of a hypostatized originary presence, is to evade history, to posit its own existence as transcendental, beyond temporality and outside history: "The critical edition embodies a practical goal which can be (within limits) accomplished, but it equally embodies an illusion about its own historicity (or lack thereof)."16

McGann finds the terms of this understanding problematical, especially as the long history of modern textual criticism is predicated upon the notion of development or progress:

This view of scholarship and program of general education are based upon a paradigm which sees all human products in processive and diachronic terms. The paradigm has controlled the work of textual criticism from its inception, and it operates to this day.17

Like McGann, I want to return the text more fully to history. But unlike McGann, however, I do not understand history to be fully meaningful, or wholly caused. My desire is to renounce the Hegelian philosophy of history that determines historicism in the model of traditional bibliographical or textual studies. Textual study has always been informed by an implicit philosophy of history, even when it claimed to be managing a wholly positivistic set of operations and maneuvers. One of the explicit premises of this study is that the textual criticism it advocates is thoroughly historical and resolutely non-Hegelian. I will not argue that any current embodiment of a particular text represents the culmination of its teleological evolution, but rather that the text can be said to exist only within history so long as it (the text, our relationship to the text, history itself) is not merely inserted in a narrative that presupposes a paradigm of progress. I hope by this to extricate the following discussion of texts and textual embodiment from the appropriative claims of traditional textual criticism that imagines the text as existing for us; I want to argue, instead, that texts—like history—exist in spite of us.

In the first part of the essay I turn to The Merchant of Venice and its narratives of reading and writing—the first of a series of such narratives that extends from Shakespeare to the practitioners of traditional textual criticism. These narratives are predicated upon an implicit science of presence-in-writing and are, moreover, conceived as progressive and wholly inscribed within the world of essential agency. The metaphysical notions of writing, editing and textuality that authorize modern editorial practices indeed underlie Merchant, a play in which presence (body) is imagined as immanent in the letter. But the actual text (or texts) of Merchant and recent critiques of the practices of textual criticism belie these assumptions. Scenes of reading and writing, as Goldberg argues,

do not allegorize a notion of the text itself. Rather, they point to a textuality that is radically unstable, upon which plots move, characters are (de)formed, language and observation is (improperly) staged. They point, that is, to historical and cultural demarcations, to what passes for essences, desires, knowledge, and the like.18

Presence-in-writing is always merely the dream of writing (even if an enabling dream), and texts do not finally exist in an entirely deterministic universe void of accidents; accidents abound, and they are meaningful precisely because they are uncaused. Accidents are signs forever detached from any system of signification, but the meaning of accidents is specific and absolute: accidents "mean" the absence of meaning. But this is an argument against which Merchant offers its considerable resistance.

The particular textual accident I will discuss in the essay's second part is the problem involving the characters Solanio, Salerio and Salarino, and the editorial decision (suggested by John Dover Wilson in the 1926 Cambridge edition and adopted almost universally by subsequent editors) to consider the name "Salarino" as simply an error, a textual mistake that should be replaced by "Salerio." Wilson's evidence supporting his emendation, however, is problematical, especially as it is generated by the idea of a unitary and authoritative text that depends upon a science of presence that produces both the notion of the authorial text and the unmistakable anxiety manifest in certain readers occasioned by its apparent aberrations and incoherences. Wilson's decision to eliminate Salarino offers a striking instance of a wilful intervention of nonauthorial agency into the Shakespearean text (however we construe that term) precisely at a moment in which the text marks an instance of nonagentiality.

The essay concludes with a discussion of the matter of textual accidents and the imperative evident in traditional textual criticism to over-write them. It is against these practices (of textual criticism and of a certain historicism) that a theory of radical unediting must stand.


A letter from Antonio is brought to Bassanio. In this letter, writing is understood as both an act of inscription and as an act of incision, as an act of construction and of destruction, as a hopeful act of preservation and at the same time as an act of absolute violence:

Sweet Bassanio, my ships have all miscarried, my creditors grow cruel, my estate is very low, my bond to the Jew is forfeit, and (since in paying it, it is impossible I should live), all debts are clear'd between you and I, if I might but see you at my death: notwithstanding, use your pleasure,—if your love do not persuade you to come, let not my letter.19

Here is the...

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This dream informs Merchant in another instance of the conjectural letter—or conjectural letters—and a putative relationship to presence. The critical textual moment for the Salerio/Salarino/Solanio issue occurs within the play's most important staging of the scene of reading—in 3.2, the moment (discussed above) just after Bassanio has made the correct choice of the lead casket, and a character arrives carrying Antonio's letter. It is the identity of this character that has caused considerable debate. The 1987 New Cambridge Shakespeare edition, edited by M. M. Mahood, identifies the three characters in its "List of Characters" thus:


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To the interpreter, texts often appear as images of time; to the makers of texts, however, they are the very events of time and history itself.

—Jerome McGann, The Textual Condition

I begin this concluding section with the above quotation in part because it strikes me as an apt characterization of the various ways in which the relationship between texts and history is frequently construed: for some readers and critics, texts often are imagined as fully self-present representations of the past, while for their creators texts simply are, one might say, "the stuff of history." In criticism texts are typically implicated in history...

(The entire section is 3587 words.)