‘Jew. Shylock Is My Name’: Speech Prefixes in the Merchant of Venice as Symptoms of the Early Modern
In 1935 in what has become a well-known article, the bibliographer R. B. McKerrow (1997) drew attention to the fact that in early playtexts there were both regularities and variations in the setting of speech prefixes. He posed the question: ‘What, then, is the meaning of this difference between regularity and irregularity in the way in which speakers’ names are shown?’(McKerrow 1997: 5). McKerrow’s concern here was with the bibliographical details of early play-texts, and the scope of his inquiry was limited to what these details disclosed about the ‘authority’ of the manuscript that lay behind printed copy. His response to the question he posed was disarmingly simple: ‘a play in which the names are irregular was printed from the author’s original MS.’, while ‘one in which they are regular and uniform is more likely to have been printed from some sort of fair copy, perhaps made by a professional scribe’ (McKerrow 1997: 5). At no stage in McKerrow’s inquiry was he concerned to investigate the semiotic significance or the cultural value that might be derived from such bibliographical variation. In an interesting revision of McKerrow’s thesis, designed to separate authorial, theatrical and compositorial fact from editorial fiction, William B. Long (1997: 25) advanced the view that ‘varying speech-heads may be a kind of vestigial remains of the planning, left by the playwright and used by the players.’ Beginning from the claim made in Alexander Pope’s preface to the 1723 edition of The Works of Mr William Shakespeare that ‘every single character in Shakespeare is as
much an Individual as those in life itself’, and that ‘had all the Speeches been printed without the very names of the Persons, I believe one might have applied them with certainty to every speaker’, Random Cloud (1997) proffers another kind of challenge to McKerrow’s thesis. Taking Romeo’s speech at the end of 2.1, and the Friar’s at the beginning of 2.2 in the 1599 quarto of Romeo and Juliet, Cloud argues that the repetitions may be interpreted as details that are ‘dramatically or scenically functional, and not unmediatedly mimetic or redolent of the Personal character of Life itself’ (Cloud 1997: 135). He cites a further example from All’s Well That Ends Well in which the Countess is referred to as ‘Cou.’ and ‘Old Cou.’ and he concludes that first, ‘once an actress intones the words of Shakespeare’s dialogue, they become her own, as it were, in the service of the role that she performs’, but also, ‘The residual variant speech tags, however, remain behind in Shakespeare’s “voice”, for surely they are all his vocatives’ (Cloud 1997: 135). Isolating the variations Mother, Countess, Old Countess, Lady and Old Lady as examples in All’s Well That Ends Well, Cloud concludes: ‘One of the simplest explanations for the repeated and augmented speech-tag is that it marks a seam in the layering of composition’, although a much more provocative conclusion follows from what seems at this stage to be a regression to a version of McKerrow’s original thesis; he continues:
The ideal unity we read into such a text runs up against a fragmentation or a multiplicity that we actually read. It is a problem of interpretation whether such supposed traces of construction are to be swept under the rug in production, as if they were mere noise, or whether they are to be attended to as messages – as discontinuities in tone, or in action, or in what interests me most here, individual characterisation.