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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

'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.

Handwriting allows us to be artists and individuals during a time when we often use computers, faxes and e-mail to communicate. Fonts are the same no matter what computer you use or how you use it. Fonts lack a personal touch. Handwriting can add intimacy to a letter and reveal details about the writer’s personality. Throughout history, handwritten documents have sparked love affairs, started wars, established peace, freed slaves, created movements and declared independence.

"Though computers and e-mail play an important role in our lives, nothing will ever replace the sincerity and individualism expressed through the handwritten word," said Robert B. Waller Jr., WIMA’s executive director.

The purpose of National Handwriting Day is to alert the public to the importance of handwriting. According to WIMA, National Handwriting Day is a chance for all of us to re-explore the purity and power of handwriting.

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,
That to the observer doth thy history
Fully unfold.
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.

  • At 1/23/2007 03:35:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    Somebody I know has pointed out the reversal of the meaning of the word "individual": when Milton uses it, at least, it means in-dividual, not divided, ie, merged with God -- precisely not "character" or "subjectivity." According to OED, that division takes place sometime during the 17th century. (Along with everything else).

    Also according to OED, the word "character" derives from a Greek word (by way of French) meaning "instrument for marking or graving, impress, stamp, distinctive mark, distinctive nature"; hence the earliest English usages of "character" OED explains as meaning "A distinctive mark impressed, engraved, or otherwise formed; a brand, stamp." Interestingly, the split between reproducibility ("stamp") and individuality ("distinctive nature") seems to be there already in the Greek. At least, if you can trust OED.

    For what it's worth.


  • At 1/23/2007 05:20:00 PM, Blogger Greenwit wrote…

    I had heard the in/dividual thing somewhere, but the 'character' depths had never occurred to me before. I like it. Filing it away under "things to say in lecture that make the stoned kids go 'duuuuude.'" along with "what if hamlet were actually, like, his own father? and his ghost from the future comes back in time to tell him to revenge his own murder? but he can't prevent that murder, because in the future, he's already dead?"



  • At 1/23/2007 05:43:00 PM, Blogger Gwynn Dujardin wrote…

    First Astrophel and Stella, now character(s). (I write on letters.) Man on man. Can I be your friend?

    More soon. Have to feed the progeny.

    Quick note, which I regret not being able to make in full flourish italic: no matter how hard I try, my handwriting on student papers is positively gruesome. Forget my comments about "thesis development" and "textual evidence." The poor sods can't read a damn word I write.


  • At 1/23/2007 05:46:00 PM, Blogger Gwynn Dujardin wrote…

    Whoops, I meant "man _oh_ man," not "man on man." (!) Though surely I can relate that to the letters "q" and "u," as q is pervasively disparaged (in early modern texts on orthography) for having u on his tail.


  • At 1/23/2007 06:56:00 PM, Blogger Gwynn Dujardin wrote…

    Ok, back, and hopefully better, er, composed.

    I love this quote from M for M, and how it anticipates, or leads to the "unfolding" of, Angelo's *literal interpretations of Viennese law (which the Duke is indeed counting on).

    Shakespeare also uses characters/letters in the negative (not that any rendering of Angelo's character cannot bear such a taint).

    For instance, Kent concludes his tirade to Oswald by declaring him a "whoreson zed" and "unnecessary letter," referring (as I've recently blogged myself) to those letters humanist spelling reformers wished to banish from the English alphabet (and reading, in Kent's line, as one banished character wishing to banish another).

    But we can't ignore M.O.A.I., of course, and Malvolio: ". . .And the end – what should that alphabetical position portend? If I could make that resemble something in me! Softly, M. O. A. I . . . This simulation is not as the former; and yet, to crush this a little, it would bow to me, for every one of these letters are in my name."

    As in Kent’s slight to Oswald, letters are deployed to punish a servant for his social aspirations – in this case, Malvolio’s desire to become master of the household through inter-class marriage to Olivia. But the punishment lies in the theatrical exposure of Malvolio’s deluded misinterpretation, his o’erleaping ambition to identify himself with the letters he sees, and following the "script" of the letter (yellow cross garters, etc) to the letter.

    I read this as anticipating seventeenth-century critiques of humanism (such as Bacon's), i.e., of the humanist predilection to identify themselves (and therefore others) with elements of language.

    Bringing the discussion back to handwriting, though, it's just as important that Malvolio's letter is *forged -- by Maria, and a forgery of Olivia's "hand" (and there are all those naughty bits about her "Cs" "Us" and "Ts).

    Jonathan Goldberg notwithstanding (who has indeed written the book on Renaissance handwriting), I haven't worked out a satisfying reading that squares the two: that is, how to read Maria's forgery of the letter (at the behest of Sir Toby et al) against Malvolio's "crush" (-ing) of letters. . .



  • At 1/24/2007 08:44:00 AM, Blogger dhawhee wrote…

    nice genealogy, Hieronimo! It's so interesting too because the greek word most often translated as character--e^thos--derives from bodily habits and even habitats or spaces where one hangs out frequently. Comparing to the later 'stamp of distinction' notion we get yet another sense of the ancients as having a much different--ecological or communal--notion of character.


 Scribble some marginalia

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