Why is my verse so barren of new pride?
So far from variation or quicke change?
Why with the time do I not glance aside
To new-found methods and to compounds strange?
Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keepe invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Shewing their birth, and where they did proceed?
O know sweet love, I alwaies write of you,
And you and love are still my argument:
So all my best is dressing old words new,
Spending againe what is already spent:
For as the Sun is daily new and old,
So is my love still telling what is told.
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 76 laments the fact that the poet’s writing is continually restating the same experience, his love, without ever changing the subject, or generating anything new. His lyric poetry seems to be stuck in the same confessional rut, obsessively personal, just reiterating the same emotional condition; and his poetic language is limply and limpidly transparent, so that no reader could possibly doubt its authorial source: ‘… every word doth almost tell my name,/Shewing their birth, and where they did proceed’.
How ironic. Today Shakespeare’s Sonnets are just as likely to be interpreted as an impersonal poetic drama that bears only a tangential relationship to the life of their author, as a direct expression of the poet’s biography. One of the most vexing questions about Shakespeare’s life, a life that has in itself become a field of great controversy, is precisely that relationship between the authenticity of the poetic voice, and the real biographical roots of the poetry. If every word in poetry really did suggest, ‘tell’ the author’s name, unmistakably revealing its nativity and provenance, how much simpler life would be. In fact the printed text of Sonnet 76 fails to deliver this required clarity of exposition. In the 1609 edition the very word ‘tel’ that should denote confessional transparency reads, presumably by printer’s error, as ‘fel.’ By substituting ‘tell’ we are accepting an uncontroversial Capell emendation, but we are also already allowing someone else to speak on behalf of the allegedly self-revelatory name of Shakespeare.
Modern literary scholarship would not in any case expect to find, in literature, any such limpid textual transparency as that invoked by this Sonnet. In the last decades of the twentieth century, textual theory experienced what D. C. Greetham calls an ‘inversion’ comparable to Marx’s inversion of Hegel. Just as Marx insisted that matter, not spirit, is the real substance of the world, so modern bibliographers have looked to the ‘material text’ rather than to the original authorial utterance or ‘idea’ as the ‘real foundation’ of textuality, ‘making the very post-lapsarian contingencies of the text, its negotiations with its own history, as the base of textual operations, and therefore making authoriality, and especially authorial intention, into merely a “function’” (or the superstructure) of this history rather than its raison-d’être’. Instead of seeking to emulate a text-that-never-was, the authorial text imagined as original, complete and perfect in itself, bibliography now accepts textuality as a history of change.
The textual condition’s only law is the law of change. It is a law, however, like all laws, that operates within certain limits. Every text enters the world under determinate sociohistorical conditions, and while these conditions may and should be variously defined and imagined, they establish the horizon within which the life histories of different texts can play themselves out. The law of change declares that these histories will exhibit a ceaseless process of textual development and mutation – a process which can only be arrested if all the textual transformations of a particular work fall into nonexistence. To study texts and textualities, then, we have to study these complex (and open-ended) histories of textual change and variance.
The first casualty of this process is of course the author, whose metaphorical ‘death’ is also entailed in the birth of writing. The death of the author is the birth of ‘appropriation’, as Foucault put it in his foundational essay ‘What is an Author?’: ‘discourses are objects of appropriation’. If the author is no longer the guarantor of meaning, then meaning derives from the interaction of reader with text, and the reader has taken control from the author. The reader is an appropriator, not a subject, of the writing. As such, writing can no longer ever claim to be homogeneous and permanent, ‘all one, ever the same’. It survives only in appropriation, only by its capacity for mutability, for ‘variation or quick change’.
Editor’s note: This material is based on Graham Holderness’s forthcoming Tales from Shakespeare: Creative Collisions (Cambridge University Press, 2014).