"Dressing Old Words New": Shakespeare, Science, and Appropriation
Graham Holderness, University of Hertfordshire
This paper confronts the central question for studies of "appropriation": Is the appropriated work still the same work amended, or an entirely new and different cultural construction? Is appropriation about exploiting the immanent potentialities of the classic work, or rather about foregrounding the struggle between the work and its appropriator? If Shakespearean meaning were immutable, it would always resist and survive appropriation. If, however, Shakespeare does not "mean," in Terence Hawkes's phrase, "but it is we who mean by [him]," then there is nothing other than appropriation. In its search for models to illuminate the process of appropriation, this paper draws on the scientific metaphors found in critical language and on some simple paradigms from philosophy, biosciences, chemistry, and physics: Descartes on stability and change; mutability in the substance of protein; the molecular structure of metals and creation via the Big Bang.
|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. (Sonnet 76, in Shakespeare 1974)1
|The textual condition's only immutable 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. (McGann 1991, 9)|
|Associated with abduction, adoption and theft, appropriation's central tenet is the desire for possession. It comprehends both the commandeering of the desired object and the process of making this object one's own, controlling it by possessing it. Appropriation is neither dispassionate nor disinterested; it has connotations of usurpation, of seizure for one's own uses. (Marsden 1991, 1)|
|One impulse when faced with this plethora of conflicting images may be to ask where the real Shakespeare lies. But is this question answerable or even relevant? (Marsden 1991, 8-9)|
|Serious conundrums remain. If we abandon the notion either of an absolute "truth" about Shakespeare the dramatist, or of a "truth" that his plays embody or entail, what can we make of the concept of an "alternative" to that truth? (Hawkes 1996, 15)|
|Terence Hawkes, in a misunderstood phrase, says that Shakespeare does not mean; rather "we mean by Shakespeare" (3). The point is not that Shakespeare has no meaning, but that because meaning changes with context, he has, if anything, more meanings than we can yet imagine. (Desmet 1999, 12)7|
|Others abide our question. Thou art free.|
We ask and ask — Thou smilest and art still
Out-topping knowledge. ("Shakespeare," in Arnold 1950, lines 1-3)
|[Shakespeare] wrote the text of modern life . . . He is inconceivably wise; the others, conceivably. A good reader can, in a sort, nestle into Plato's brain, and think from thence; but not into Shakespeare's. We are still out of doors. For executive faculty, for creation, Shakespeare is unique. No man can imagine it better. (Emerson 1883, 201-202)9|
|The secret that baffles us being the secret of the Man, we know, as I have granted, that we shall never touch the Man directly in the Artist. We stake our hopes thus on indirectness, which may contain possibilities; we take that very truth for our counsel of despair, try to look at it as helpful for the Criticism of the future. (James 1981, 310)|
|Let us take, for example, this piece of wax which has just been taken from the hive; it has not yet lost the sweetness of the honey it contained; it still retains something of the smell of the flowers from which it was gathered; its colour, shape and size, are apparent; it is hard, cold, it is tangible; and if you tap it, it will emit a sound. So, all the things by which a body can be known distinctly are to be found together in this one. (Descartes 1968, 108)|
|One Bee Feeding Four Other Bees|
|But, as I am speaking, it is placed near a flame: what remained of its taste is dispelled, the smell disappears, its colour changes, it loses its shape, it grows bigger, becomes liquid, warms up, one can hardly touch it, and although one taps it, it will no longer make any sound. Does the same wax remain after this change? One must admit that it does remain, and no one can deny it. What, then, was it that I knew in this piece of wax with such distinctness? (108)|
|Atomium (Brussels, Belgium)|
|"At midday the old man himself emerged, found his fat seals already there, and went the rounds to make his count. . . . When he had done, he too lay down to sleep. Then, with a shout, we leapt upon him and flung our arms round his back. But the old man's skill and cunning had not deserted him. He began by turning into a bearded lion and then into a snake, and after that a panther and a giant boar. He changed into running water too and a great tree in leaf. But we set our teeth and held him like a vice." (Homer 1946, 76)|
|For under the person of Proteus, the first Matter (which next to God is the auncientest thing) may bee represented: for Matter dwells in the concavity of heaven as in a Cave. He is Neptunes bond-man, because the operations and dispensations of Matter are chiefly exercised in liquid bodies.|
|His flocke or hearde seemes to be nothing but the ordinarie Species of sensible creatures, plants, and mettals in which Matter seemes to diffuse and as it were spend it selfe. (Bacon 1609, 67)13|
|And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. . . . And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. (Genesis 1.2, 6 Authorized [King James] Version)|
|If any expert Minister of Nature shall encounter Matter by main force, vexing and urging her with intent and purpose to reduce her to nothing; she contrariwise (seeing annihilation and absolute destruction cannot bee effected but by the omnipotence of God) being thus caught in the straites of necessitie, doth change and turne her selfe into divers strange formes and shapes of thinges. (Bacon 1609, 69)|
|DNA or Protein Folding|
|[T]heir presence reassuringly enables us to "infer" that underneath all the historical "debris," behind the fragmenting claims and postures of "postmodernity," there is still "a there there," something . . . that we cannot actually see but whose presence must nevertheless be posited. (66)|
|A singularity (represented by the symbol *) is the center of a black hole; it is a mathematical point in space having no length, breadth or depth, a point at the centre of a once vast, now collapsing star where matter is crushed by its own irresistible gravity into literally zero volume. Even light cannot escape from a black hole; time itself stops.|
|If Shakespeare has a singularity, it is because he has become a black hole. Light, insight, intelligence, matter — all pour ceaselessly into him, as critics are drawn into the densening vortex of his reputation; they add their own weight to his increasing mass. The light from other stars — other poets, other dramatists — is wrenched and bent as it passes by him on its way to us. He warps cultural space-time; he distorts our view of the universe around him. . . . But Shakespeare himself no longer transmits visible light; his stellar energies have been trapped within the gravity well of his own reputation. (Taylor 1989, 410-11)|
|[T]he behaviour of the vast universe can be understood in terms of its history in imagined time, which is a tiny, slightly flattened sphere. It is like Hamlet's nutshell, yet this nut encodes everything that happens in real time. So Hamlet was quite right. We could be bounded in a nutshell and still count ourselves kings of infinite space. (Hawking 2001, 99)|
|Time is off its hinges, time is off course, beside itself, disadjusted. Says Hamlet. Who thereby opened one of those breaches, often they are poetic and thinking peepholes [meurtrières], through which Shakespeare will have kept watch over the English language; at the same time he signed its body, with the same unprecedented stroke of some arrow. (Derrida 1994, 18)|
|Derrida suggests the openness of textuality to an indefinite future, a deferred eschaton — an openness that cannot be closed. We are always in medias res — moving between an origin which can never be recovered or single and a conclusion which can never be determined. We occupy a place, as such, in the shifting sands of semiotic systems, haunted by the possibility of presence and stable identity, but forever unable to produce it. (Ward 2000, 15)|
|When I consider every thing that growes|
Holds in perfection but a little moment.
That this huge stage presenteth nought but showes
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment.
When I perceive that men as plants increase,
Cheared and checkt even by the selfe-same skie:
Vaunt in their youthfull sap, at height decrease,
And weare their brave state out of memory.
Then the conceit of this inconstant stay
Sets you most rich in youth before my sight,
Where wastfull Time debateth with decay,
To change your day of youth to sullied night,
And all in war with Time for love of you,
As he takes from you, I engraft you new. (Sonnet 15, in Shakespeare 1974)
Flesh fade, and mortal trash Fall to the residuary worm; world's wildfire, leave but ash . . . This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond, Is immortal diamond. ("That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection," Hopkins 1953, lines 21-24)
|1.||References to Shakespeare's Sonnets are from The Sonnets of William Shakespeare (London: Shepheard-Walwyn Ltd., 1974). This edition is based on Thomas Thorpe's 1609 Quarto edition, with one emendation (see note 2).|
|2.||Ironically, the printed text fails to deliver the required clarity of exposition. The very word that denotes confessional transparency reads, presumably by printer's error, as "fel." By substituting "tell" we are accepting an uncontroversial Capell emendation, but also already allowing someone else to speak on behalf of the allegedly self-revelatory name of Shakespeare.|
|3.||See also Greetham 1999, p. 406: "McGann, like Marx, determines that 'conceiving' and 'thinking . . . appear as the direct efflux of [the] material.' That is we can read back into spirit and thought the primary evidence to be obtained from materiality, which is, for McGann, text's 'only condition.'"|
|4.||From Giambattista Vico: "What is true, and what is made by man, are one and the same." See Terence Hawkes, Structuralism and Semiotics (2003), 3.|
|5.||All references are to the New Cambridge Edition, edited by Philip Edwards (1985).|
|6.||Evidently suggested by Michael Bristol, Big-time Shakespeare (1996).|
|7.||The reference is to Terence Hawkes, Meaning by Shakespeare (1992).|
|8.||See, for example, Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1999). Bloom has also published a book entitled Hamlet: Poem Unlimited (2003).|
|9.||John Joughin notes that for Emerson, "the playwright's singularity is a striking blend of the familiar and the 'hitherto unthought'" (2000), 4.|
|10.||See, for example, Stanley Cavell on James, in Philosophical Shakespeares (Cavell 2000), xv-xvi; and John Joughin on Emerson, (Joughin 2000), 3-4. See also Graham Holderness in Textual Shakespeare: Writing and the Word (2003), 247-48.|
|11.||See also John Joughin in Philosophical Shakespeares (2000): "[T]he dramatist's open-ended resistance to conceptual control might finally turn out to be a far more crucial resource for critical thought" (11).|
|12.||The analogy can be pursued by observing that while Shakespeare's Hamlet remains malleable, subsequent re-writings of the play do not share in the same flexibility. When mixed with other elements, as in an alloy, elemental metals lose their flexibility by the introduction of "grain boundaries," across which atoms find it much harder to move. The carbon atoms in steel present an external force with much more resistance than atoms of iron, so the crystals are more likely to dislocate than to "slip." We remain surrounded by appropriations of Hamlet, but not with appropriations of appropriations. Appropriations are more like alloys than like elemental metals. For discussion of a range of Hamlet appropriations, see my Textual Shakespeare: Writing and the Word (2003).|
|13.||Quotations from The Wisedome of the Ancients, done into English by Sir Arthur Gorges Knight (Bacon 1619). Bacon's scientific interpretations of ancient myths are extraordinarily advanced as well as acute, though earlier commentators saw him as attributing rather than extrapolating meaning: "[T]he sages of former times are rendered more wise than it may be they were by so dexterous an interpreter of their fables" (Thomas Tenison, quoted in Benjamin Farrington, Francis Bacon: Philosopher of Industrial Science ), 77. Yet Proteus was obviously thought of in ancient Greece as a model for primary matter. The twenty-fifth Orphic Hymn invokes Proteus as first-born, transmuting matter and possessing all knowledge (The Book of the Orphic Hymns , 16). A fascinating passage in Ovid's Fasti identifies Proteus along these lines: "Aristaeus wept, when he saw his bees killed / And honeycombs abandoned incomplete." But "Proteus will . . . tell you how to regain what is gone." The advice is to sacrifice a bullock and bury its carcass: "From the putrid ox / Swarms bubble. One life axed bred a thousand" (Ovid 2000, lines 364-65, 367-68, 379-80).|
|14.||Proteins achieve this iterability by a process that scientists call "folding." In order to carry out a particular function as enzyme or antibody, proteins must take on a particular shape or "fold." When proteins fold incorrectly, they may be the cause of diseases such as Alzheimer's and BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or "Mad Cow Disease"). Many biological terms similarly derive from the Greek protos, or "primary"; for example, the "protests," the generic term for single-cell beings, from viruses to larger organisms like the amoeba (full name Amoeba Proteus). "Proteus" has proven a useful brand name for a range of products in biosciences and information technology. Wadsworth's "Proteus Classics" provides a large database of writing with tools for customizing individual anthologies. A bioscience company "Protéus" "discovers and develops molecules of primary importance and turns them to any form that meets the needs of the near future" (Protéus). "Protean 292X," a portable video signal generator, is (ironically) manufactured by a company called Hamlet. All these examples entail an appropriation of Proteus' metamorphic capabilities. For modern science, the god is firmly bound and singing like a canary.|
|15.||Many literary applications have been made of this phenomenon. D. H. Lawrence, in 1914, used it to explain his approach to character in "The Sisters": "There is another ego, according to whose action the individual is unrecognizable, and passes through, as it were, allotropic states which it needs a deeper sense than any we've been used to exercise, to discover are states of the same single radically-unchanged element. (Like as diamond and coal are the same pure single element of carbon.)" (Lawrence 1981, 2:183). G. M. Hopkins used it to reconcile the mutability of nature with the permanence of resurrection in "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection": "This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond / Is immortal diamond" (Hopkins 1953, lines 23-24). Today, it is possible to have the cremated remains of a loved one reconstituted into a diamond ring.|
|16.||Stephen Greenblatt has more recently revised his scientific metaphors, and in Hamlet and Purgatory (2001), sees the play as being "distributed in tiny, almost invisible particles throughout my account" (5).|
|17.||The phrase is the sub-title of Derrida's Specters of Marx, but the sentiment is generally held. See, for example, Gary Taylor, "Culture is the gift of the survivor. It is always bereaved" (1996), 5; and Geoffrey Hartman, "Inscribing, naming and writing are types of a commemorative and inherently elegiac act" (1970), 223. Andrew Murphy applies this problematic to editing: "[E]very vision of textual presence . . . is doomed to failure" (1999), 136.|
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First image of protein structure courtesy of Max-Planck-Arbeitsgruppen für strukturelle Molekularbiologie (Hamburg) http://www.mpasmb-hamburg.mpg.de/.
Image of one bee feeding four bees by Zachary Huang, www.beetography.com. Reproduced by permission.
Image of the Atomium copyright by Andre Johnson. Reproduced by permission.
Second image of (DNA) or protein folding courtesy of Murdoch University (Perth, Western Australia). http://wwwscience.murdoch.edu.au .
Image of Big Bang courtesy of the Friends of the Russian Cultural Centre http://www.frccusa.org/.
Third image of protein structure courtesy of Max-Planck-Arbeitsgruppen für strukturelle Molekularbiologie (Hamburg) http://www.mpasmb-hamburg.mpg.de/.
Every effort to obtain permission to reproduce images has been made.