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What’s the Worst Thing You Can Do to Shak/x/espeare?

From: Renaissance Drama
New Series 40, 2012
pp. 71-89 | 10.1353/rnd.2012.0014

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Reade him, therefore; and againe, and againe: And if then you doe not like him, surely you are in some manifest danger, not to vnderstand him. And so we leaue you to other of his Friends, whom if you need, can bee your guides: if you neede them not, you can leade your selves, and others. And such Readers we wish him.

—John Heminge, Henrie Condell “To the great Variety of Readers” The First Folio (1623)

Before, or perhaps after, all, the worst thing you can do to Shakespeare is not to read him. Here, at the envoi-cum-media launch that was the First Folio, John Heminge and Henry Condell offer an economy of reading that threatens the putative reader-buyer with the “manifest danger” that “unreadability” might conjure. This rhetorical unreadability that reflects on you stands surety against a literal, prosaic nonreading of the book that would render it a media nonevent. Against this eventuality, Heminge and Condell recruit the “great variety of readers,” “from the most able” “to him that can but spell.” For it is upon our “capacities” (heads and purses) that the “fate of Bookes depends.” As “readers,” then, we are recruited to become the biocultural “wetware,” the life-in-death preservers, that this book and the defunct “Shakespeare” require to prosper, to go mobile, to survive, sur-vivre, living on, in, with, and through our successive acts.1 We become, in effect, the biosemiotic motor that enables “Shakespeare” to go viral and thereby make it possible for certain kinds of critical operations to count institutionally as doing something (worth doing).

Our aim in this essay is to open a space to think the unreadability Heminge and Condell deploy as a phenomenon, a specter, that has been haunting Renaissance and Shakespeare studies for some time now—and which has been conscripted to do all sorts of work, as the folio attests. We would like to pick up their modeling of readers as “wetware,” the living component to media platforms, and think about what the labor of (not) reading entails.2 Their sales pitch discloses the linkages between text, media, and reader that constitute the phenomenon that was, is, and will be “Shakespeare,” reorienting us from the sense that a “play” or “plays” exist in the world as some self-identical entity to the plays as a mobile, conflicting, conflicted, and partial time-bound set of practices. What happens then, we ask, if we proceed on the assumption that historical fields of study such as “Shakespeare” and “Renaissance drama” refer not to a series of agreed-upon texts or performances but instead, as Heminge and Condell imply, a series of differently distributed fetish communities, each of which tunes itself to the shifting auratics of its chosen ritual objects as they are variously mediated—from manuscript to quarto to folio, on and off and back to the stage, the movie theater, and the home entertainment system—the ontology of the thing we study waxing and waning, constantly picking up and dropping actants as it goes?3

In this model, the labor of all such fetishists (ourselves included) stands in reciprocal relation to the past labors of reading, living, and dying that our work posits as “past.” It is by our labors that readings and texts continue to circulate.4 What would it mean to deactivate this reciprocity and dwell within the figural or stunt unreadability that Heminge and Condell deploy?

By posing unreadability as a question, we seek to interrupt the prevailing economies for managing the relation between reading and not reading in our various critical acts and so impede a return to business as usual. The structure of a question pertains for unreadability does not exist per se as a positivity but only as a shifting, partial effect of the process of reading itself. It might be said to unfold at the junctures or limits, as they are drawn, between reaction and response, the dead and the living, the automaticity of the machine and the immanence of the organism, and to resist the ontologizing of those limits. We regard unreadability as the uninvited guest to the surplus of “life” certain texts and authors are granted by...

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