'Tis Hamlet's Character
|The good folks over at b l o g o s remind me (how could I have forgotten?) that today is National Handwriting Day! And the good folks from the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association (that's WIMA to their friends) are urging us to celebrate it:|
The lost art of handwriting is one of the few ways we can uniquely express ourselves. There’s something poetic about grasping a writing instrument and feeling it hit the paper as your thoughts flow through your fingers and pour into words. So, the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association (WIMA) suggests you take advantage of National Handwriting Day on January 23 and use a pen or a pencil to rekindle that creative feeling through a handwritten note, poem, letter or journal entry.All true, no doubt. What interests me here is how clearly the handwriting, pen, and ink fetishism is tied to new technology, and how closely this mirrors what was happening in the 16th and 17th centuries as print began to dominate textual culture. (Of course, Jonathan Goldberg has said all this before, but I don't believe he mentions WIMA; he does talk about Derrida a lot more than WIMA does, though.) What WIMA neglects to mention is that those computer fonts that they insistently scorn derive from type fonts crafted in the early years of print to mimic as much as possible the handwriting of medieval scribes, so that books would appear to carry just the sort of "personal touch" that WIMA claims they lack and that, of course, they do lack, in that they are mass-produced rather than individually written.
One thing I sometimes bring up with my students when they are busy talking about Hamlet, Lear, Portia, et al, as actual human beings with emotions and feelings and thoughts in them (well, emotions and feelings anyway; they say less about thought), is Shakespeare's use of the word character. The very word that we use to define a figure in a fiction, and to name that essence of identity that "uniquely express[es] ourselves," Shakespeare uses exclusively to mean letters of the alphabet (handwritten or inked). Because of the same fetishized, metonymic relationship between one's handwriting and one's person that WIMA deploys, character (letters) comes to mean character (identity). My favorite example is from the opening scene of Measure for Measure, where the Duke tells Angelo that
There is a kind of character in thy life,Here the two meanings of character have almost entirely blended, but it's still clear that Shakespeare sees this as a pun. That is, the double meaning of the word is still present for him, otherwise there could be no pun; the slight hesitation that reveals this doubleness can be seen in that "kind of." It's as though Angelo's history has been written down, inked in letters, in his life, and thus the kind of person he is can be discerned by a careful observer--or by a careful reader. The birth of character from handwriting. WIMA's National Handwriting Day thus offers us a fantasy of a return to the womb.