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  • (Dis)embodied Letters and The Merchant of Venice: Writing, Editing, History
  • Howard Marchitello

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 poststructuralism, 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 [End Page 237] 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 Renais- sance drama more generally, a key element of textual indeterminacy is ideological difference. 6


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pp. 237-265
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