“Every word doth almost tell my name”: Ambiguity, Authority, and Authenticity in Shakespeare’s Dramatic Letters

Matthew Bolton
Ohio State University

Matthew Bolton “Every word doth almost tell my name”: Ambiguity, Authority, and Authenticity in Shakespeare’s Dramatic Letters. [EMLS 15.3 (2011): 1]. http://purl.org/emls/15-3/boltlett.htm.

  1. Social hierarchies are by definition complex and rigid structures, and the pecking order of early modern England was no different.  Movement between social classes was difficult, often impossible, and Shakespeare’s contemporaries were adept at reading the clothing, gestures, and language (both oral and written) that determined where in the hierarchy any particular individual fell.  Naturally, this sensitivity to social hierarchy is reflected in the drama of the period.  An understanding of the performative nature of social class in the off-stage world is evident in dramatic costuming records that catalogue the clothing and props used to indicate the social positions of characters, and a quick scan of any few pages of Shakespeare’s work reveals that some characters—or, more to the point, some classes of characters—simply speak differently than others.

  2. One of the few social spaces in which the rigidity of this hierarchy slackens—both on-stage and off—is in the letter.  Letters appear frequently in Shakespeare’s plays, [1] but this is in and of itself no more unusual than the regular use of telephones or e-mail in modern movies and television.  What is surprising about Shakespeare’s dramatic letters, however, is the dramatic space generated by and in these letters in which the social hierarchy becomes fluid.  In this paper, I argue that this fluidity lies behind three important characteristics of these letters.  First, Shakespeare’s letters provide opportunities for characters to destabilize social authority, and, at times, allow them to co-opt this authority for themselves.  Second, plots involving letters are among the most elaborate in Shakespeare’s plays, and often are the last to be untangled, in part because of the ambiguity inherent in the epistolary form.  And finally, letters in Shakespeare’s work have a dramatic agency unique to this form.  Bound volumes are often impotent (note Hamlet’s dismissal of his reading material as “words, words, words” [Hamlet 2.2.192] and Caliban’s mistaken belief that the only difference between him and Prospero are his books, ‘for without them / He’s but a sot as I am’ [Tempest 3.2.87 – 88]), but the handwritten letter is an active force both for and on the characters; Shakespeare’s letters act upon the physical bodies of his characters, often altering them in ways that would not have been possible without the handwritten word.  These three characteristics—the letters’ fluid social space, their effects which last to and often after the play’s end, and their ability to act on the characters who encounter them—can be seen most directly in Hamlet and Twelfth Night, two plays in which letters, and mistaken readings of them, are critical to the dramatic action.

  3. To understand the way letters operate on the stage, we must first consider the place of the letter in early modern society.  Literacy estimates for the time vary widely, and researchers can only make a rough approximation of who and how many constituted the reading public.  Margaret Spufford, for example, proposes that anywhere from twenty to forty-seven percent of British men in 1642 were at least somewhat literate.[2]  We should note, however, that even this wide range fluctuated greatly according to geography, gender, and, of course, social rank.[3]  While literacy rates among affluent residents of a metropolitan area like London were higher than in rural areas, this serves as no guarantee that any particular individual possessed the literacy necessary to decipher a handwritten letter, much less compose one.

  4. Indeed, even these vague estimates are subject to debate, as some critics question the way these studies define literacy.  Taking Spufford as an example, her study defines literacy as the ability to sign one’s name.  This definition is problematic, however, in that it conflates an inability to write with an inability to read.  Keith Thomas points out that schoolchildren in Tudor England had separate instructors for writing and reading, and then further complicates the issue by calling attention to the fact that “beyond [English literacy] there was a higher literacy, the knowledge of Latin.”[4]  As this shows, the concept of literacy itself is unstable, as reflected the varying levels of sophistication Shakespeare’s own characters demonstrate in their attempts to read (and read into) the various texts they encounter.

  5. Further obscuring the question of who wrote and read letters in early modern England is the fact that letters were often either dictated to or re-copied by household servants before delivery.  This practice was so pervasive, in fact, that when Sir Henry Sidney composed his 20 May 1577 letter to Queen Elizabeth in his own hand, he found it worthy of comment:
    So bad a Delyverie of my Minde I have by Pen, and so illeagible it is when I do it my selfe . . . [I] do presume in Defence of my selfe, to write thus rudelye [5]
    And at the end of the letter:
    Most deare Sovereigne, in the Beginninge of this my rude and evell digested Lettre, as their was Cawse, I besought your Majestie to pardone me for so seldome Writinge to the same; and nowe have I greater Cawse: And so do I besearche your Highnes for Encombringe the same, with so many ill written Lynes, which I had once donne with myne owne Hand; but when I beheld theim, they seamed to me so evell favored, as I thought theim not worthy to comme into your Sight, but made theim to be written out agayne, by one that can better do it then I.[6]
    Curiously, Sidney leaves in the persistent remarks regarding his deficient handwriting, even after pointing out that he has had the letter rewritten.  Perhaps more baffling, if we are to believe him, is that Sidney, in the present act of writing, chose to refer in the past tense to an action conceived of at that moment and that would be carried out in the future.  All of this ado about Sidney’s poor handwriting (rather than his poor editing) may, of course, be entirely fictional rhetoric; if this is the case, however, this fiction only highlights the fact that a letter composed by the physical hand of an aristocrat would be an unusual thing, worthy of remark.

  6. The complications concerning widespread literacy and the ambiguity as to who was actually composing letters suggest that we should be judicious when making claims about early modern epistolary practice.  That said, however, we can assume that regular epistolary correspondence in this period was generally an upper-class affair.  For while literacy defined as the ability to make one’s mark is not indicative of the ability to read the first Folio, it is at least more predictive of the ability to compose and read handwritten letters.  In addition, the non-recoverable ink and paper required for correspondence would have prevented lower-income individuals from indulging in the practice; letters were written on large sheets, up to twenty inches long by fifteen inches wide when uncut, and most of the paper used by Shakespeare’s contemporaries was imported from Italy and France, a luxury not many could afford.[7]  Furthering the problem of access, early modern England had no centralized post.  Letters were instead delivered to their recipients by messengers, and only those who could afford the service of these individuals were able to engage in regular correspondence.  In fact, this very feature of letters—that they frequently arrived in the hand of a servant wearing aristocratic livery—contributes to the authority that is so vested in the actual composition.  Because letters are accompanied by such performance of authority, perhaps it is not surprising that so many of Shakespeare’s dramatic forged letters are accepted readily as authoritative, even in the absence of these aristocratic accoutrements.

  7. Epistolary manuals can also shed light on the practice of early modern letter-writing.  Lynne Magnusson lists Desiderius Erasmus’s De consribendis epistolis (1522), William Fulwood’s The Enimie of Idlenesse (1568), Angel Day’s The English Secretary (1586), and John Browne’s The Marchants Avizo (1590) as among the most popular composition manuals of the time, with Erasmus’s being the most influential.[8]  His manual reveals much about the space letters occupied during this time and how one went about successfully negotiating this space.  First, Erasmus emphasizes the formulaic nature of the letter.  Although he rejects the stylized medieval oratorical model (a five-part template that moved through salutatio, exordium, narratio, petitio, and conclusio), Erasmus provides rigid outlines for a number of different letter types.[9]  For example, in “letters of friendship” (read: courtship), Erasmus exhorts his students to “demonstrate intense love joined to deep despair,” to then show that this love is honorable, and finally to suggest that if the beloved “can in no way deign to give her love in return,” the writer will “cut short a cruel life.”[10]  This amatory pattern is indicative of both on- and off-stage Elizabethan letters in that it adheres to and fulfills generic expectations (in much the same way that Shakespeare’s own work does).  As we shall see, this feature allows Hamlet and Maria, characters savvy to the letter genre, to manipulate recipients who too readily trust these generic markers and the authority that is vested in them.

  8. In spite of its formulaic nature, Erasmus’s manual also reveals that letter-writing is considered an act of intimacy, especially in light of the “taking-time” and “taking-trouble” tropes.  The constant emphasis in Sidney’s writing on the time he takes in composing and his reluctance to trouble Elizabeth with his “tedious Letter” are typical of a stylized awareness that both the composition and reception of a letter are intimate activities.[11]  Combined with the closeness and lack of mediation implied by a communication crafted by one’s own physical hand, this generates an aura of intimate interiority in letters.  In this vein, R. L. Mégroz suggests that the act of letter writing can be taken as an assertion of political and literary independence, in that the letter was the last linguistic space after the advent of the printing press “in which personal caprice in spelling and construction could stand out against King’s English.”[12]  In psychological terms, Frederick Kiefer uses the same connection between internal mental life and outward composition to argue that Lady Macbeth’s sleep-writing is indicative of her regret for the murder she has helped to perpetrate; though the audience never discovers what she writes, the close association of this subconscious composition and the more explicit “out, damned spot” suggests that her sleep-writing is a symptom of her internal guilt.[13]  As all of these writers indicate, both Elizabethan and modern readers are quick to see in written communication a conduit to the writer’s intimate interior.

  9. As in every other social endeavor, early modern letter-writers are also keenly aware of the power dynamics of the epistolary circumstance.  Erasmus’s manual reveals that politeness tropes, in particular, are ubiquitous in correspondence of the period and are frequently used as ways of subverting or exploiting these power dynamics.  Positive politeness is essentially “a rhetoric of identification”—language used to endear the writer to the letter’s recipient and encourage the reader to think of the writer as an equal and a peer.[14]  Negative politeness, employed extensively in Sidney’s letter above, is language of hyperbolic separation in which writers attempt to ingratiate themselves into their readers’ good graces by debasing themselves and effusively praising their readers’ indulgence and generosity.  These politeness tropes emphasize for us how aware early moderns were of the authority vested in written communication, and also how cognizant they were of the manipulation possible within the letter space.

  10. Most importantly, Erasmus’s careful cataloguing of letter types indicates that early modern letter-writing was keenly goal-oriented.  Because of the expense of writing and sending a letter, both in terms of time and financial resources, they were not capricious or idle undertakings.  Letters were conceived, composed, and dispatched with the (often explicit) intent of motivating some desired action on the part of the recipient.  In addition, due to their resistance to further interrogation or requests for elaboration, their ability to distract and ingratiate (in the form of politeness tropes), and the physical distance between communicants, letters provided a linguistic and social space in which authority was less stable than in face-to-face communication.  As a result, objectives of letter-writers could be achieved in this fluid epistolary space that would be impossible in other social settings.  Between the salutation and the signature of an early modern letter, authority and authenticity is up for grabs, and those who are able to negotiate this unique feature do so to their advantage.

  11. Among Shakespeare’s characters, Hamlet is one of the most adept at manipulating language, as well as one of the most prolific letter-writers.  The way in which he thwarts Claudius’s execution plans depends entirely on dismantling Claudius’s royal power and asserting his own rightful authority within the unstable space of a letter.  Hamlet’s counterfeit execution order is not the first time the question of written authority arises, however.  Throughout the play Hamlet continually demonstrates his interest in undermining the connection Shakespeare’s audience makes between words and authors by explicitly driving a wedge between the content of a text and its writer and reader.  This happens first in Polonius’s initial interaction with the prince:
    POLONIUS.  —What do you read, my lord?
    HAMLET.  Words, words, words.
    POLONIUS.  What is the matter, my lord?
    HAMLET.  Between who?
    POLONIUS.  I mean the matter you read, my lord.  (2.2.191 – 95)[15]
    As David Johnson points out, Hamlet’s pun on “matter” accentuates his divesting of the written word from the meaning it carries: “Hamlet reads words without ‘matter,’ or he reads matter, ‘words,’ without sense.”[16]  The pun also emphasizes Hamlet’s project of separating texts from their owners; although Polonius’s question is directed at the meaning of the work, Hamlet co-opts the question’s meaning and reinterprets it as a question about human agency.

  12. Hamlet’s interaction with Claudius belies a similar interest in the ownership of and authority over words:
    CLAUDIUS.  How fares our cousin Hamlet?
    HAMLET.  Excellent, i’faith, of the chameleon’s dish.  I eat the air, promise-crammed.  You cannot feed capons so.
    CLAUDIUS.  I have nothing with this answer, Hamlet.  These words are not mine.
    HAMLET.  No, nor mine now.  (3.2.84 – 89)
    Hamlet’s refusal to own the words he has just spoken, and in particular the rejection of his dangerous pun on “heir,” demonstrates his belief that committed language—language already spoken or written—is as yet unfinished.  Because the king has failed to receive Hamlet’s communication and its veiled reminder of Claudius’s usurpation, the communication remains negotiable, and Hamlet is free to reject it entirely, as in this case, or simply to modify it.  This latter option is played out when this same dramatic opportunity—a communication in transit, out of the possession of the sender but not yet received—appears later in the hold of the England-bound ship.

  13. Hamlet further points out the fluidity of letters themselves in his confrontation with Ophelia:
    OPHELIA.  My lord, I have remembrances of yours
    That I have longèd long to redeliver.
    I pray you now receive them.
    HAMLET.  No, no, I never gave you aught.  (3.1.95 – 98)
    Hamlet’s single speech act actually contains two relevant rejections.  First, he denies that he authored and dispatched the letters, and second, he refuses to act as their recipient.  Just as Hamlet’s earlier puns relied on a single word being used in two disparate senses, Hamlet’s single denial here acts simultaneously to disown the letters as his creation and to refuse delivery as their addressee.  In this way, Hamlet detains the letters in an ambiguous space where their authorship and their destination—and hence, their intended and received messages—are impossible to negotiate.  Thus Hamlet simultaneously creates and exploits an unstable linguistic moment, changing his “remembrances” of love into painful reminders of lost innocence.[17]

  14. These dramatic moments come to fruition in the counterfeiting of Claudius’s execution order.  Before he verbally challenges Claudius’s authority by shouting “This is I, / Hamlet the Dane” at Ophelia’s “maimèd rites,” and before he actively seizes power by killing Claudius, Hamlet shrewdly co-opts the authority of the Danish throne by taking advantage of the temporary flux of a letter in transit (5.1.241 – 42, 202).  He can do so because of the letter’s formalized language and the confidence it places in visible, performative signs of authority—characteristics that Shakespeare’s audience would have seen reflected in the letters shuttling around Elizabethan London.

  15. Although the audience is not privy to the precise content of Claudius’s execution letter, Hamlet’s paraphrase to Horatio is typical of the formulaic tone of Erasmus’s prescriptions and contemporary aristocratic correspondence, especially letters that ask favors of their recipients:
    HAMLET.                  I found, Horatio—
    O royal knavery!—an exact command,
    Larded with many several sorts of reasons
    Importing Denmark’s health, and England’s, too,
    With ho! such bugs and goblins in my life,
    That on the supervise, no leisure bated,
    No, not to stay the grinding of the axe,
    My head should be struck off.  (5.2.19 – 26)
    The catalogue of “many several sorts of reasons” and the inventory of the various dangerous “bugs and goblins” native to Hamlet’s disposition recall the repetitions and parallel structures found in Sidney’s letter to Queen Elizabeth and are indicative of early modern rhetorical style generally.  Similarly, the conflation of the welfare of the Danish and English states is typical of the strategy of positive politeness described above; Claudius hopes to win the English monarch’s compliance by suggesting to him that they are equals, and that their fortunes are thus linked.

  16. In spite of his claim that he has “laboured much / [h]ow to forget” the art of composition—a gesture at the Elizabethan aristocracy’s disdain for the physical act of composition—Hamlet’s forgery is successful in part because he is able to mimic easily the aristocratic style, thus subverting Claudius’s royal authority and making it his own (5.2.35 – 36):
    HAMLET.  An earnest conjuration from the King,
    As England was his faithful tributary,
    As love between them like the palm should flourish,
    As peace should still her wheaten garland wear
    And stand a comma ‘tween their amities,
    And many such like ‘as’es of great charge,
    That on the view and know of these contents,
    Without debatement further more or less,
    He should the bearers put to sudden death,
    Not shriving-time allowed.  (5.2.39 – 48)
    Hamlet follows the pattern of Claudius’s order of execution to the letter, or, more accurately, he follows the same generic letter template that the king employs.  Hamlet himself notes the stylized superfluity of the “many such like ‘as’es” which create a parallel, rhythmic beat that disguises the letter’s lethal intent (while also criticizing both governmental and linguistic excesses with his pun on “asses”); one can imagine Claudius’s original letter employing the same syntactical construction to enumerate the “many several sorts of reasons” and Hamlet’s “bugs and goblins.”  Hamlet also uses these “as” clauses to deploy tropes of positive politeness—like Claudius’s original, this letter is designed to remind the English monarch of the friendship that is shared between the nations, which is implicitly at stake in the execution the letter requests. 

  17. Strangely, Hamlet’s letter even replicates the original’s purpose.  Even though there is no strategic or practical reason for doing so, Hamlet substitutes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for himself as the letter’s victims, but retains its murderous aims.  Hamlet is able to rearrange individual authority within the fluid letter space, co-opting Claudius’s regal power and preventing his own execution by supplying Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as alternative victims, but the letter’s purpose is strangely fixed, considering the interchangeability of the players within it.  In fact, the similarity of Hamlet’s letter to Claudius’s suggests that the forgery may be entirely unnecessary.  The only practical reason for a forgery would be if Claudius’s letter indicated Hamlet by name, rather than referring simply to “the bearers.”  Hamlet’s paraphrase of the order provides no direct evidence either way, but the fact that Hamlet’s counterfeit, so similar to Claudius’s, does not identify Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by name suggests that the original document may not have specifically named Hamlet as the intended victim.

  18. If the original letter doesn’t specify the prince as the victim, then why bother with the forgery at all?  If Claudius’s letter is as vague as Hamlet’s forgery, there is simply no need to create a new execution order; Claudius’s will serve just as well to eliminate Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Thus, Hamlet’s primary purpose in creating the forgery becomes the appropriation Claudius’s royal authority, performing this usurpation first on the page, then on the stage.  Having impressed his own father’s signet ring on the new letter, Hamlet completes the impersonation, ironically using a genuine sign of power to legitimate the forgery.  This act—the molding of wax with his father’s authority—is a performative rehearsal for Hamlet’s ultimate goal, the molding of the social and political world around his own emergent agency.  Immediately after Hamlet relates the story of the “changeling” letter to Horatio, he asks—rhetorically—“[d]oes it not, think’st thee, stand me now upon . . . [t]o quit him [Claudius] with this arm” (5.2.54, 64, 69).  Only after Hamlet has performed his linguistic coup in the epistolary space of the execution order is he prepared to directly challenge Claudius’s power in the court, where authority is more rigid and harder to displace. 

  19. In fact, Claudius’s foiled attempt at murder turns out to be Hamlet’s only fully successful revenge, for while Hamlet’s physical attempt as succession is marred by his own death, his linguistic challenge succeeds entirely.  Because authority is unstable in the letter space, Hamlet is able to co-opt Claudius’s murderous intentions and turn them to his own devices, in spite of the fact that he is unable to wield that authority to a purpose other than execution.  In the play’s climax, however, Hamlet is forced to enter into an aristocratic ritual that has been perverted.  It is only by a series of accidents—the exchange of the rapiers and Gertrude’s inadvertent poisoning—that Hamlet is able to exact revenge, and even then the on-stage public sees his actions not as justified vengeance, but treason.  Because authority is more clearly delineated and more stable in the space of the court, Hamlet’s revenge is complicated, undermined, and misinterpreted as the very crime he is attempting to rectify.  Even at the play’s end, Horatio is left with the task of correcting these misinterpretations, and although Hamlet has given Fortinbras his “dying voice,” the future of the Danish throne is left in flux (5.2.298).  The casual slaughter on stage is agent-less and meaningless, and court authority is not fluid and redirected but chaotically scattered. 

  20. At the same time Hamlet’s physical coup is failing disastrously, however, there comes a reminder that his linguistic usurpation remains successful.  Shortly after Fortinbras—the only locus of royal authority still living—makes his entrance, an English ambassador arrives to remind us of Hamlet’s forgery:
    AMBASSADOR.                   The sight is dismal,
    And our affairs from England come too late.
    The ears are senseless that should give us hearing
    To tell him his commandment is fulfilled,
    That Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.
    Where should we have our thanks?
    HORATIO.                    Not from his mouth,
    Had it th’ability of life to thank you.
    He never gave commandment for their death. (5.2.311 – 18)
    Stewart reads Horatio’s ambiguity here as the culmination and failure of Hamlet’s project of using the written word to record and remember; Horatio has Hamlet’s forged letter and could easily produce it to explain the deception, but he chooses not to, protecting his friend’s legacy but allowing the mistaken assumption that Claudius ordered the deaths to enter into the historical record.

  21. I read this scene as more ambiguous than Stewart does, particularly from the perspective of an early modern audience.  Although the Norton Shakespeare identifies the antecedent of “him” in line 314 as Claudius, there is no reason that a reader—or more importantly, an Elizabethan playgoer—should not assume that the messenger is referring to Hamlet.  There are two dead men on stage who ordered executions, and neither the ambassador nor Horatio are clear on which one is being discussed.  In fact, every male pronoun in these lines could conceivably refer to either claimant to the Danish throne.  Even Horatio’s last line could be interpreted to mean either that Claudius never intended for his execution order to condemn Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or that Hamlet did not specifically order their deaths, but simply the bearers of the order.  This linguistic fluidity forces the audience to accept “him,” “his,” and “he” as referring to both Claudius and Hamlet at once, rather than either one or the other.  The ambiguous referents remind us that while Hamlet’s attempt at physical usurpation has failed tragically, his appropriation of linguistic authority has succeeded to the point that neither the on- nor the off-stage audience can tell the difference between counterfeit authority and the real thing.

  22. Though it reveals much about the location of authority and its instability within the letter space, Hamlet’s counterfeit letter is a minor part of the play’s action—almost an afterthought that ties up the loose ends of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and provides Hamlet with something to do while awaiting his unlikely rescue by pirates.  The same cannot be said of Twelfth Night’s letter plot; Maria’s forgery and Malvolio’s subsequent humiliation provide a unique counterpoint to the comedic twinning, disguises, revelations, and marriages in the Orsino-Viola-Sebastian-Olivia action.  Despite their generic differences, however, the letter plots of Hamlet and Twelfth Night share is the same interest in the location, subversion, and co-opting of authority within the unstable letter space.

  23. Before delving into the play, a discussion of the relationship between servants and their employers in Elizabethan England and the correspondence between them—returning again to the Sidney family—will be helpful.  Magnusson reminds her readers that “even in a society so highly stratified as sixteenth-century England, age, gender, family and household position, occupation, affective bond, sexual interest, financial and other material circumstances” are all relevant when attempting to understand individual relationships.[18]  She goes on to point out that:
    [a]s this ambiguous network of power relations suggests, the institution of service constitutes one of the most basic differences between early modern English society and our own.  Servants were not drawn from any single social class or status group: a very large proportion of the population was employed as servants at some stage in their lives, including those deriving from high ranking families, most often for a transitional period during youth or early adulthood.[19]
    Thus when Sir Henry Sidney refers to his servant Edmund Molyneux in a 1576 letter as both “a Gentlemen [sic] of woorshipfull Parentage, not unknowen, I suppose, to most of your Lordships” and “my Servaunt,” he is not contradicting himself.[20]  In fact, Molyneux, who served the Sidney household throughout the 1570s and 80s, was the son of Sir Richard Molyneux, and thus very nearly an equal in the finely stratified Elizabethan society.[21]  Molyneux and Sidney accept this seemingly peculiar arrangement as a matter of course; Sidney even goes so far as to recommend in the same letter both Molyneux and his own son Robert to the comfortable jobs of joint incumbents in the Welsh Supervisor of Attorneys office.[22]

  24. The rules of social interaction become even more ambiguous when the relationship is that of a male servant and his mistress, as with Malvolio and Olivia.  Letters from Lady Mary Sidney, Sir Henry’s wife, to Molyneux expose a surprising sense of equality between them, as in the following excerpt:
    Lady Mary Sydney to Edmund Mollineux, Esq;

    You have used the Matter very well; but we must do more yet for the good dear Lord then let him thus be dealt withall . . . all may be as well when the good God will.  The whylst, I pray let us do what we may for our Lords Eas and Quyet . . . he knowes I have ventured farr allready, with so long Absens, and am ill thought on for hit, so as that may not be.  But when the woorst is knowne, old Lord Hary and his old Moll, will do as well as they cann in partinge lyck good Frends, the small Porsion alotted our longe Servis in Courght; which, as lytle as hit is, seams somethynge to mooche.  And this beinge all I cann say to the Matter.  Farewell, Mr. Ned.  In Hast this Mondaye, 1578.

    Your assured lovinge Mistris and Frend,
    M. Sydney[23]
    Lady Sidney’s letter addresses Molyneux as a companion and confidant first, and as a servant second.  She refers to the two of them with the first person plural pronoun ‘we’ repeatedly, indicating a mutual sense of purpose and station.  According to her letter, she and Molyneux share the same interest in pleasing Sir Sidney, and at times the two appear to be colleagues.  Lady Sidney’s openness in discussing the Sidney’s own social challenges, her reference to her husband and herself as “Hary and his old Moll,” and her choice to address Molyneux as “Mr. Ned”—male Sidneys usually call him “Mr. Molyneux”—expose her sense of identification with Molyneux, an identification that at times seems to supersede her relationship with her husband.

  25. This peculiar facet of servant-mistress relations creates a particularly unpredictable social dynamic, and when that dynamic is negotiated through the already unstable letter space, the servant’s role becomes increasingly vague.  This is also true of female servants; Maria’s position within Olivia’s household is notably nebulous, and neither woman does much to clarify the issue.  Although she spends much of the play pursuing her own devices, Maria’s first lines in the play—an admonition of Sir Toby that refers to the “great exceptions” taken by Olivia to her relative’s carousing—assert her right to wield her mistress’s household authority.  In addition, although she is variously called Olivia’s “waiting-gentlewoman” in the dramatis personae, her “chambermaid” by Sir Toby (1.3.43), a “wren” by the same (3.3.57), and a “noble gull-catcher” by Fabian (3.1.162)—all emphasizing her own flexibility within the household—the first reference to her profession appears in the very first scene of the play when Valentine, Orsino’s servant, notes that Olivia’s “handmaid” would not admit him to see her mistress (1.1.24).  Indeed, the word “hand” appears thirty-four times in the play, often in a punning context referring both to betrothal and handwriting; note Maria’s claim that “I can write very like [Olivia]; on a forgotten matter we can hardly make distinction of our hands” (2.3.141 – 43).  Thus already having access to Olivia’s authority, Maria is situated from the play’s beginning to co-opt it through handwriting.

  26. The opportunities for advancement through the written word are not limited to Maria, however.  Although there is no evidence of Lady Sidney and Molyneux “alter[ing] services,” as it were, the intimacy and camaraderie explicit in their correspondence suggests that Malvolio’s hopes of romantic entanglement coupled with social advancement are not unwarranted (2.5.137 – 38).  Prior to his fantasy of performing authority after leaving “Olivia sleeping,” Malvolio notes that “[t]here is example for [this union]: the Lady of the Strachey married the yeoman of the wardrobe” (2.5.43 – 44, 34 – 35).  Although this allusion is not identified, there is no indication that such a marriage would be impossible.  It would certainly be unusual, but it is important to remember that it is Malvolio’s willingness to misinterpret Maria’s forged letter that is comic, not his misinterpretation itself.  As Lady Sidney and Molyneux’s correspondence demonstrates, a shared intimacy between Olivia and Malvolio is feasible, and although his marriage fantasy is improbable, it is not absurd.

  27. Like Hamlet, Maria’s forged letter allows her to co-opt the authority of her direct superior for herself.  However, while Hamlet is unprepared for this project (and thus becomes a tragic figure), Maria’s occupation provides her with the perfect training to co-opt her mistress’s authority within the letter space (fulfilling her role as a comic character).  By the time she forges the letter, she has already wielded Olivia’s authority three times—twice to quiet Sir Toby and Sir Andrew’s revels, and once to refuse Valentine.  In addition, Shakespeare’s audience would not see anything unusual about Maria’s ability to mimic Olivia’s handwriting.  Had Maria and Olivia been citizens of London rather than the Globe’s stage, Olivia would have regularly had her servants compose and copy her correspondence by hand, as Sidney mentions in his letter to Queen Elizabeth.  Because of this preparation, Maria has an advantage over Hamlet; while Hamlet’s blurring of the lines between author and text occurs only during the short time period of the play, Maria’s blurring of the lines between servant and mistress is an ongoing project, part of her professional life.

  28. Both Hamlet’s and Maria’s letters also act on the physical bodies of others, but Maria’s forgery is more successful because its actions are far more appropriate than Hamlet’s counterfeit.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern suffer disproportionately for their association with a forged letter, but the way Maria’s forgery acts on Malvolio’s body is actually more apt.  Dympna Callaghan study of Malvolio’s reading emphasizes its sexualized nature, particularly regarding the “CU[N]T” pun.[24]  In addition, as Karen Robertson notes, Malvolio’s violent misreading of the forgery is characterized by rape imagery, not least of which is his penetration of the wax seal pressed with the image of Lucrece—a violation that goes beyond sexual violation, carrying (as with Hamlet’s seal) the implications of transgressed authority.[25]  Although Malvolio’s actions are suggestive of rape, however, it is his own body that is changed in this seminal encounter, not Olivia’s.  His relationships with the other members of Olivia’s household are drastically revised, and his wardrobe changes radically, so that his cross-gartered stockings “make some obstruction in the blood,” physically altering his body (3.4.19 – 20).  He is plunged into a womb-like cell, taunted, and even characterizes himself as the personified letter’s “madly-used” victim (5.1.300).  The play ends with Malvolio promising revenge, although one doubts that it will be successful; his punishment is the result of being outmaneuvered by Maria’s co-opting of Olivia’s voice and authority in the letter, and exacting vengeance on such a capable opponent seems unlikely.

  29. The closing moments of Twelfth Night emphasize one last similarity between Hamlet’s forgery and Maria’s.  As in Hamlet, the letter plot in Twelfth Night is the last to be resolved.  Maria’s linguistic impersonation proves more durable than Sir Toby’s duel comedy or Viola’s disguise; surprisingly, the confusion of Maria’s epistolary twinning outlasts even the muddle caused by the play’s biological twins.  As in Hamlet, these other misdirections fall away once the physical presence of authority is established, this time in the guises of Orsino and Olivia.  Only the letter plot remains open in Malvolio’s promise of future revenge, just as it does in Horatio’s unclear antecedents and promises to explain further; in both plays, the longevity of the forged letters is attributable to the fluidity of authority inherent in the form.

  30. The most important difference between Hamlet’s and Maria’s counterfeit letters, however, is also evident at the end of the play.  Hamlet’s counterfeit has achieved what he (and to some extent, Claudius) intended for it to do, but Hamlet does not gain anything from his forgery.  In fact, his aspirations to power are themselves co-opted by Fortinbras’s opportune appearance.  Maria, on the other hand, appears to not only co-opt Olivia’s authority within the letter space; she also hijacks Malvolio’s desire to be linked romantically to the upper-class.  Immediately after the jest is complete, the three male observers praise Maria’s cleverness:
    FABIAN.  I will not give my part of this sport for a pension of thousands to be paid from the Sophy.
    SIR TOBY.  I could marry this wench for this device.
    SIR ANDREW.  So could I, too.
    SIR TOBY.  And ask no other dowry with her but such another jest.
      (2.5.156 – 60)
    Although Maria’s fate is unclear at the end of the play—she is conspicuously absent from the final act—Fabian, Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew’s comments make it clear that her epistolary performance achieves the very thing that Malvolio is exposed for desiring.

  31. There are, of course, scores of other letters in Shakespeare’s dramatic corpus, and most work at least to some degree to destabilize authority and act on the physical bodies of characters.  Edmund’s counterfeit letter in King Lear, for example, attempts to co-opt filial authority from his legitimate brother Edgar, and it is another letter—this one undelivered—that acts on the bodies of Romeo and Juliet.  What is important to remember in all these cases is that while Shakespeare employs letters as a means of communication, this early modern medium is particularly suited for such dramatic usage because of the unstable space it creates—space in which rightful sons can become kings, secret desires can become public, and authority is always up for grabs.


[1]Alan Stewart estimates at least one hundred and eleven letters across Shakespeare’s corpus.  See Shakespeare’s Letters (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009), p. 4.

[2] Spufford, Margaret, Small Books and Pleasant Histories: Popular fiction and its readership in seventeenth century England (Athens, GA: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1981), p. 22.

[3] Bergeron, David M, “Introduction: Reading and Writing,”  in Reading and Writing in Shakespeare, ed. David M. Bergeron (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1996), p. 15.

[4] Thomas, Keith, “The Meaning of Literacy in Early Modern England,” in The Written Word: Literacy in Transition, ed. Gerd Baumann (Oxford: Claredon, 1986), p. 100 – 101.

[5] Collins, Arthur, Letters and Memorials of State, vol. 1 (New York: AMS Press, 1973), p. 180.

[6] Collins, p. 184.

[7] Mégroz, R. L., Shakespeare as a Letter-Writer and Artist in Prose: A Disquisition, Two Anthologies, and a Ramble (London: Wishart & Co., 1927), p. 31.

[8] Magnusson, Lynne, Shakespeare and Social Dialogue: Dramatic Language and Elizabethan Letters (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1999), p. 61.  Stewart’s recent study of Shakespeare’s letters (see fn. 1) revises Magnusson’s and other scholars’ emphasis on the connection between Roman and Elizabethan epistolary practice through epistolary manuals, noting both that “the period in which Shakespeare is writing is importantly removed from our modern understanding of letters” and that dramatic letters must be read in ways “specific to that cultural institution [i.e., the stage]”—both important reminders to any good historiographer (8).  However, my readings of both early modern historical and dramatic letters will demonstrate that while Stewart is right to problematize the accepted historical narrative, “the ideologies that permeate the letter-writing textbooks of early modern England” are still relevant to an understanding of fictional and nonfictional epistolary practices (ibid.).  In addition, though our readings aren’t mutually exclusive, my reading of Hamlet’s letters below differs significantly from Stewart’s, as I’ll explain.

[9] Magnusson, p. 63.

[10] Stevens, Forrest Tyler, “‘Erasmus’s ‘Tigress’: The Language of Friendship, Pleasure, and the Renaissance Letter,” in Queering the Renaissance, ed. Jonathan Goldberg (Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press, 1994), p. 135.

[11] Collins, p. 184.

[12] Mégroz, p. 14.

[13] Kiefer, Frederick, “‘Written Troubles of the Brain’: Lady Macbeth’s Conscience,” in Reading and Writing in Shakespeare, ed. David M. Bergeron, (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1996).

[14] Magnusson, p. 21.

[15] All references to Shakespeare’s work from The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.).

[16] Johnson, David E., “Addressing the Letter,” in Reading and Writing in Shakespeare, ed. by David M. Bergeron (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1996), p. 206.

[17] Stewart reads this exchange between Hamlet and Ophelia—specifically the fact that she has received his letters and tokens—as evidence that the two are betrothed, citing a variety of historical evidence featuring early modern women refusing men’s letters because of the romantic implications, as well as the use of such letters in legal disputes as proof of betrothal.  I find his analysis convincing, and a compelling supplement to my own; if we read Hamlet’s rejection here as a larger dismissal of Ophelia’s ability to dissolve their relationship, then it is a significant step toward his dismissal of Claudius’s royal authority in the forged execution order discussed below.

[18] Magnusson, p. 37.

[19] Magnusson, p. 39 – 40.

[20] Collins, pp. 145 – 46.

[21] Magnusson, p. 41.

[22] Collins, p. 187.

[23] Collins, p. 272.

[24] Callaghan, Dympna, “‘And all is semblative a woman’s part’: Body Politics and Twelfth Night,” in Twelfth Night, ed. R. S. White (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), p. 139.

[25] Robertson, Karen, “A Revenging Feminine Hand in Twelfth Night,” in Reading and Writing in Shakespeare, ed. David M. Bergeron, (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1996), p. 122 – 23.


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2011-, Annaliese Connolly and Matthew Steggle (Editors, EMLS).