The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 26.311 Wednesday, 2 July 2015
Date: June 30, 2015 at 7:15:04 AM EDT
Subject: RE: SHAKSPER: MV Dialog
Re: SHAKSPER: 29 June 2015, MV Dialog
What went over your head has to do with the context in which you excavate particular textual details. In a range of Shakespeare texts, the instability of language becomes a central issue. I see this as having to do with the spread of print culture and the onus that it places on readers to interpret texts. Machiavelli is a key figure in this debate, and thee Prologue to The Jew of Malta is helpful here when Machevil says “I weigh not men and therefore not men’s words”. Equivocation is an extension of this, and is the means whereby meaning istelf becomes unstable. This, of course, would be crucial in a culture that had still not forsaken an investment in ‘orality’. The remnant of this in modern popular culture is in the genre of the Western where (a) the hero was always as good as his word - a terrific brief debate in Sam Peckinpah’s ‘The Wild Bunch’ between William Holden and Ernest Borgnine, where Holden defends a decision by saying that he gave his ‘word’. Borgnine’s morally equivocal response is to say that what matters is ‘who you give your word to’ and (b) where the Indians always accused the while man of ‘speaking with forked tongue’. We have no problem with the duplicity of language - our politicians do it all the time. For a culture that still valued the integrity of face-to-face communication this was a serious issue, and the theatre as an ‘oral’ medium foregrounded the problems that it raised.
So in MV when Bassanio chooses the leaden casket (after having made a number of denigratory comments about the seductive duplicity of female beauty) he is responding to an issue of moment: nothing is quite what it seems. Shakespeare takes this up again in Othello where the villain says: “I am not what I am”, or in Macbeth: “There is no art to find the mind’s construction in the face”.
The point is that reading a renaissance play isn’t like reading a novel, and the discipline of ‘reading’ in the early modern period (where reading, in this sense was an innovation) is rather different from what we think of as reading.
I hope this helps