”Satiate yet unstatisfi'd”: Desire, Commodification and the Sublimity of the Early Modern English Playwright

by Katherine O. Acheson

July 16, 2001


This paper surveys English play-text prefaces from 1570 to the mid-1630s and reads them and the shifts in their representation according to Slavoj Zizek's analysis, as articulated in The Sublime Object of Ideology, of the commodity and his notion of the 'sublime body' or 'object.' According to this analysis, the text enters the marketplace as a perfect commodity, in which the pleasure of the reader is to be obtained, and the pleasure of the author disregarded; in the course of a half century, the author claims his pleasure, bit by bit, and the control over interpretation that implies, until the text is figured as a sublime object, impervious to abuse or misunderstanding. In brief, the paper contends that one of the many ways to see the changes in the literary culture of the period, with particular reference to the play-text, is to see it as caught at a nexus of desires, "satiate yet unsatisfi'd," which profoundly affect the status of the text as a commodity, and the emergence of the author as a sublime object of literary ideology.


    One of the earliest prefaces in a printed English play-text is also one of the strangest to modern readers, particularly in how it represents the text as a submissive, sexual, and female person-- in fact, as a recently, and indeed precariously, reformed prostitute. In his letter to the reader, the printer of the second quarto (1570) of The Tragedy of Gorboduc by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton describes the text, the first edition of which was pirated, as a woman who has been prostituted by a pimping privateer of a printer, and then rescued from her life on the streets. The pirating printer, he says, "put it forth exceedingly corrupted: even if by means of a broker for hire, he should have enticed into his house a fair maid and done her villainy, and after all to bescratched her face, torn her apparel, berayed and disfigured her, and then thrust her out of doors dishonested" (82, as are all subsequent citations from the "Letter"). "After long wandering," she returned home to the authors, who, "though they were very much displeased that she so ran abroad without leave, whereby she caught her shame, as many wantons do, yet seeing the case as it is remediless, have for common honesty and shamefastness new apparelled, trimmed, and attired her in such forme as she was before." The printer then received her, and does not now doubt that

her parents the authors will not now be discontent that she go abroad among you good readers, so it be in honest company. For she is by my encouragement and others somewhat less ashamed of the dishonesty done to her because it was by fraud and force. If she be welcome among you and greatly entertained, in favour of the house from whence she is descended, and of her own nature courteously disposed to offend no man, her friends will thank you for it. If not, but that she shall be still reproached with her former mishap, or quarrelled at by envious persons, she poor gentlewoman will surely play Lucrece's part, & of her self die for shame, and I shall wish that she had tarried still at home with me, where she was welcome: for she did never put me to more charge, but this one poor black gown lined with white that I have now given her to go abroad among you withal.

     Wendy Wall includes this preface in her study of the use of sexual imagery in the commodification of the printed text in the late sixteenth century: "By inserting a bizarre type of pornography into representations of the materiality of the text," writes Wall, "these prefaces provided a layer of erotic mediation that was crucial to the newly flourishing marketplace of book buyers and sellers" (188). Wall's focus on sonnet sequences, however, suggests that the prefaces with which she is primarily concerned are, in part, determined by the content of the literature being marketed: they draw upon "a textual/sexual logic dependent on a homology between the lover's and reader's desire" (41). Readers familiar with Gorboduc will know the titillation of the prefatory letter is utterly unwarranted, for its content, unlike that of the sonnet sequences, is distinctly unsexy. Furthermore, while Wall implies there is a balance struck between the desires of the reader and the desires of the writer in the prefaces to sonnet sequences, here desire is represented as entirely on the side of the reader, and there is no figuration of authorial desire beyond a wan and general hope that things will go better for the poor girl. The text is portrayed as completely subject to readerly desire, and becomes what is desired of it, "of her own nature courteously disposed to offend no man;" should it fail, it will "surely play Lucrece's part, & of her self die for shame." Even the class status of the text, which is introduced by its noble, "parental" class, is actually to be determined by the reader's opinion of the virtue of the text; conditioned by the restoration of the text to "shamefasteness," the virtue of this body will ultimately be decided by the reader's use of the body of the text, as he opens the "poor black gown lined with white."

     The image of the text in the Gorboduc preface is a long way from the imagery of the text in the letter entitled "To the Great Variety of Readers" by the printers of the First Folio (1623), which cautions readers to "Read him . . . . and again, and again, and if then you do not like him, surely you are in some manifest danger, not to understand him" (Shakespeare 3350). While the 1570 letter imagines the text to be entirely submissive to the readers' desires, the 1623 letter imagines the reader to be completely submissive to the author's intentions, and to lack any relevant desire him or herself. In between these dates, as I will analyze in this paper, is a series of shifting positions, each of which represents the relationship between the author of the play-text, its reader, and the text itself, as embodied and often erotic, and as configured by desire. When the text first enters the market, it does so as an object of pleasure, competing against other objects of pleasure, and with the aim of retaining the erotics of the theatrical origin of the text. As such, however, its vulnerability to abuse is too great, and authors complain of figurative dismemberment, torture, and real misunderstanding. It next goes forth under cover of protection, from its brothers, or patrons, or embodied representatives of the law and the tradition of civility, with the aim of warding off the most depraved of interpreters, and with the effect of limiting the potential for enjoyment offered by the perfect commodity. Finally, upon the occasion of the real or imagined death of the author, the text is figured as a sublime object or body, which is removed from the possibility of abuse, and which offers itself not as an object of desire, but as a desiring subject, through which the reader may define his or her desirability.

    Because these prefaces persistently use topoi of desire in order to convey the commodity status of the text they preface, these configurations are amenable to analysis through the terms offered by Slavoj Zizek's articulation of the relationship between the commodity form and the Lacanian analysis of desire. According to Zizek, the commodity is a form of Lacan's objet petit a (Sublime, 95): it gains its value, beyond its positive characteristics, because it stands in for another lost object-cause of desire (see Sublime, ch. 1). The commodity form establishes, in a society, a mirage, by which--according to Zizek's reversal of Louis Althusser's formula of reification--relations between things are understood as relations between people (Sublime, 23-24). In the course of the history I will sketch here, however, the commodity form of the play-text fails, as the abjection of the text in the Gorboduc preface suggests it might, and what emerges in the stead of that form is what Zizek calls the "sublime body," in this case, of the author (Sublime, 18-19; see also 132-136 and 208-209). It is this body--the sublime, powerful, unrepresentable, indestructible body of the absent author--which underwrites the value of the text according to the prefatory letter to the First Folio. In brief, the paper contends that one of the many ways to see the changes in the literary culture of the period, with particular reference to the play-text, is to see it as caught at a nexus of desires, "satiate yet unsatisfi'd" (Cymbeline 1.6.47), which profoundly affect the status of the text as a commodity, and the emergence of the author as a sublime object of literary ideology.

     When the text first enters the market, it does so as an object of pleasure, competing against other objects of pleasure, and with the aim of retaining the erotics of the theatrical origin of the text. As such, however, its vulnerability to abuse is too great, and authors complain of figurative dismemberment, torture, and real misunderstanding. It next goes forth under cover of protection, from its brothers, or patrons, or embodied representatives of the law and the tradition of civility, with the aim of warding off the most depraved of interpreters, and with the effect of limiting the potential for enjoyment offered by the perfect commodity. Finally, upon the occasion of the real or imagined death of the author, the text is figured as a sublime object or body, which is removed from the possibility of abuse, and which offers itself not as an object of desire, but as a desiring subject, through which the reader may define his or her desirability. The sublime object is completely resistant to commodification, as it refuses pleasure except that which pleases it.


    The preface to Gorboduc presents the play-text as what Zizek would call a perfect commodity: void of meaningful referential content, it offers itself up to the reader's sexual desire, and "nothing," as Thomas Dekker writes in the dedicatory letter of The Shoemakers' Holiday, "is purposed but mirth" (1: 19). In these statements, the play-text is being put forward as an objectified form of the pleasure available in going to the theatre, and is directed at spectators who seek, as Ben Jonson says in the prefatory letter to The Alchemist, "art that tickles" (6: 397). In his satiric conduct book, The Gulls Horn-Book (1609), Dekker first asserts the commodifying effect the theatre has on literature: "The Theatre is your Poets Royal-Exchange, upon which, their Muses (that are now turned to Merchants) meeting, barter away that light commodity of words for a lighter ware than words" (27). Dekker then draws upon what Joseph Lenz calls "a predominant metaphor for the practice of theatre in Shakespeare's age" (833), and likens the experience of theatre-going to attendance at a bawdy house. Dekker's gallant is advised to sit on the rushes at the edge of the stage, to exhibit his desirability and to position himself to 'interpret' the play:

By spreading your body on the stage, and by being a Justice in examining of plays, you shall put your self into such true Scenical authority that some Poet shall not dare to present his muse rudely upon your eyes, without having first unmasked her, rifled her, and discovered all her bare and most mystical parts before you at a Tavern, when you most knightly shall, for his pains, pay for both their suppers (29).

By implication, the text which purports to represent this experience will be offered, as is Gorboduc, to the desires of the reader: he pays, that is, for the pleasure of figuratively unmasking, rifling, and discovering.

    This sort of spectator was exactly the kind which so enraged Ben Jonson. In the prefatory letter to The New Inn, for example, Jonson contrasts the good reader with "a hundred fastidious impertinents, who were there present the first day, yet never made piece of their prospect the right way. What did they come for, then? thou wilt ask me. I will as punctually answer: To see, and to be seen. To make a general muster of themselves in their clothes of credit: and possess the Stage, against the Play" (5: 432). When Jonson acknowledges the need to offer pleasure to the reader which reflects the erotic pleasures of the theatre, he does so only bitterly: in the "Letter to the Reader in Ordinary," for example, which prefaces the quarto edition of Catiline, His Conspiracy, Jonson says "The muses forbid, that I should restrain your meddling, whom I see already busy with the Title, and tricking over the leaves: It is your own. I departed with my right, when I let it first abroad" (5: 429). What Jonson here resents is that as a commodity, the particular or unique qualities of the text, including its relationship to any specific author, must be set aside. As Zizek says, the commodity form is abstracted from its sources: its value does not derive from its origin, but that which it could be exchanged for (Sublime 17). As such, the value of the play-text as a commodity lies in the extent to which the pleasure it offers measures up against the long list of what Marjorie Plant calls "counter-attractions to reading" (hunting, hawking, archery, dancing, ball games, dress, food, gardening, music, plays, masques, pageants, cards, dice, even voyages of discovery, piracy, and highway robbery (46), and to which we might add the attractions of the bawdy house). The better it does so, the less it is able to be represented as what John Fletcher calls "rare issue of his [the playwright's] Brain" (Dedicatory letter to "Lovers of Dramatic Poesy" prefacing The Wild Goose Chase; Beaumont and Fletcher 6: 242). The manifestation of authorial desire, or intention, it seems, is in direct competition with the success of the play-text as a commodity form.

     More so than the elision of the identity and intentions of the author, contemporary playwrights were aggravated by the fact that the perfect commodity is, by definition, perfectly misinterpretable. Unbridled interpretation was terribly dangerous; misprison, misapprehension and misunderstanding could lead to other missing things, such as ears, hands, liberty, reputation and livelihood. Joseph F. Lowenstein writes that "there is a surprisingly large field of representations of books [in early modern literature] as suffering persons, as victims of corporal violence--the book as victim of kidnapping or rape; the book as mangled infant or as aborted fetus; the book as victim of torture; the book as unrevenged ghost" ("Personal" 93). In several play text prefaces after Gorboduc, misinterpretation is analogous to being tortured, dismembered, poisoned, and gnawed to death by hydra-headed monsters. As John Sweeney III, George E. Rowe, Jr., Jonas Barish, and Timothy Murray have discussed, Jonson was persistently, even obsessively, concerned with the violence of interpretation: for example, in the dedicatory letter in the folio edition of Sejanus, Jonson claims the text was dismembered by his detractors as Sejanus was by the Romans (4: 439). But other playwrights also equated the struggle over interpretation of the play-text with gross physical violence. In the preface to Satiromastix (1602), for example, Dekker conflates his body with the text, saying "howsoever the limmes of my naked lines may be and I know have been, tortured on the rack," and continuing

World . . . . I dedicate my book not to thy Greatness, but to the Greatness of thy scorn: Defying which, let that mad Dog Detraction bite till his teeth be worn to the stumps: Envy feed thy Snakes so fat with poison till they burst: World, let all thy Adders shoot out their Hydra-headed-forked Stings (1: 310).

As forms of resistance against violent and ignorant interpretation, these prefaces are straightforward. In terms of the commodity form, however, they are more ambiguous; while they draw upon the tropes of embodiment found in the material already discussed, they directly present the pleasures of the author in violent and even deadly competition with those of the readers. They represent, that is, the price of commodification: the sacrifice of the author's integrity, figured explicitly and even grotesquely as physical integrity.

     There are various ways in which the representations of the play text in this period try to wrest back some governance over the interpretation of the text and assert the desires of the author in a more positive fashion. Sometimes the text is embodied and eroticized, but given the power to fight back against threatening interpreters. For example, in Jonson's prefatory letter to Volpone, the dishevelled muse will be restored, and rendered "worthy to be embraced, and kissed," but if she should still be badly treated, "she shall out of just rage incite her servants . . . . to spout ink in their faces, that shall eat, farther than their marrow, into their frames; and not CINNAMUS the barber, with his art, shall be able to take out the brands, but they shall live, and be read, till the wretches die, as things worst deserving of themselves in chief, and then of all mankind" (5: 20-21). This figure turns the governing spirit of the text into a revengeful torturer, who will mark the offending bodies of the "invading interpreters" (5: 19) with judicial-style brands. In another example, the prefacing letter from the printer to Robert Keysar in the 1613 quarto of The Knight of the Burning Pestle characterizes the text as a child of the author(s) who has been rescued from a near-death experience, and now goes forth able to speak for itself, and with hopes a younger brother will protect it against 'illiterate misprision" (Beaumont 17). The textual boy was abandoned, says the printer's preface, by its parent(s) and "exposed to the wild world, who for want of judgement, utterly rejected it;" it was later sent to the printer:

Yet being an infant and somewhat ragged, I have fostered it privately in my bosom these two years, and now to show my love return it to you, clad in good lasting clothes, which scarce memory will wear out, and able to speak for itself; and withal, as it telleth me, desirous to try his fortune in the world, where, if yet it be welcome, father, foster-father, nurse, and child all have their desired end. If it be slighted or traduced, it hopes its father will beget him a younger brother, who shall revenge his quarrel and challenge the world either of fond and merely literal interpretation, or illiterate misprision.

This textual boy will be defended rather than, as would the Gorboduc figure, take Lucrece's part, or be dismembered as Sejanus is said to have been.

    Heywood also represents a trilogy of his plays as brothers; Golden Age, "the eldest brother of three Ages," and the first to be published, is to set an example for the others, so that they will be "either fearful further to proceed, or encouraged boldly to follow" (3: 4). Of The Brazen Age he writes:

     Though a third brother should not inherit whilst the two elder live, by the laws of the Land, and therefore it might breed in me a discouragement, to commit him without any hereditary means, to shift for it self in a world so detractive and calumnious, yet rather presuming upon the ingenious, than afraid of the envious, I have exposed him to the fortunes of a younger brother, which is, most commonly, bravely to live, or desperately to hazard (3: 167).

In Jonson's preface to the quarto of The Alchemist, the author himself threatens the reader: "If thou beest more [than a reader], thou art an Understander, and then I trust thee. If thou art one that tak'st up, and but a Pretender, beware at what hands thou receiv'st thy commodity" (5: 291). In this form of representation, authorial desire manifests itself as the means by which the text will be protected from violence. It is conceived of in relation to readerly desire, in terms of interpretive authority, and in resistance to the potential for fetishism inherent in the commodified text.

     Another way in which play-text prefaces of this period attempt to limit the abuses of "invading interpreters" and many-headed hydras is by invoking a patron by whom both author and text will be protected from predation; Philip Massinger, for example, in the preface to A New Way to Pay Old Debts (1633), asks his patron "to shelter this Comedy under the wings of your Lordships favour, and protection" (2: 294). The relationship with the patron is figured in various ways in these prefaces, all of which aim to constrain interpretation and dispose the general reader generously, and lawfully, toward the text. For instance, the patron is often figured as an ideal reader. In Catiline, Jonson addresses his patron as such: "In so thick, and dark an ignorance, as now almost covers the age, I crave leave to stand near your light: and, by that, to be read" (5: 431). Conversely, any good reader can be a patron: in the dedicatory letter to The New Inn, Jonson says he will make any competent reader his patron "[i]f thou be such, I make thee my Patron, and dedicate the Piece to thee" (6: 397). Another way in which Jonson figures the relationship more than once is as a judicial one, in which the text has come before a judge, and the author expects it to be found innocent of any crime:

I appeal, to that great and singular faculty of judgement in your Lordship, able to indicate the truth from error. It is the first (of this race) that ever I dedicated to any person, and had I not thought it the best, it should have been taught a less ambition. Now, it approacheth your censure cheerfully, and with the same assurance, that innocency would appear before a magistrate (5: 431).

In the letter to Sir Francis Stuart which precedes Epicoene, Jonson puts the text before Stuart as a judge, and asks not only for favor, but for justice:

     I now number you, not only in the Names of favour, but the Names of justice, to what I write; and do, presently, call you to the exercise of that noblest, and manliest virtue: as coveting rather to be freed in my fame, by the authority of a Judge, then the credit of an Undertaker. Read, therefore, I pray you, and censure . . . . . And, when you shall consider, through the certain hatred of some, how much a man's innocency may be endanger'd by an uncertain accusation; you will, I doubt not, so begin to hate the iniquities of such natures, as I shall love the contumely done to me, whose end was so honourable, as to be wip'd off by your sentence (5: 161).

Ford also often uses the language of legal judgment, as in the letter to John and Mary Wyrely prefacing The Lady's Trial: "I appeal," writes Ford, "from the severity of censure [to] the mercy of your judgments" (3: 3). The patron can also be embodied as a servant; for example, in the dedicatory letter prefatory to The Devils Law-Case (1623), Webster writes, "I present this humbly to kiss your hands, and to find your allowance" (2: 235). Sometimes the language of service blurs into the language of courtship, as in Ford's dedication of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (1633) to John, Earl of Peterborough, which asks the patron "to admit the constancy of affection from the sincere lover of your deserts in honour" (1: 110), or in the dedicatory epistle to The Lover's Melancholy (pr. 1629), in which he says it is "the first [play of his] that ever courted reader" (1: 4).

    In all these forms, the prefaces grant control over interpretation to the patron, but control the scope of that interpretation by appeals to non-commodifiable values and authority, such as those traditionally associated with the idealized aristocracy, or with judgement, virtue, and manliness. But readings which emphasize the evocations of classical and aristocratic values in Jonson's prefaces may neglect the significance of the context provided by the prefaces discussed above; as Joseph Lowenstein writes, "Jonson's repeated protestations on behalf of the dignity of poesy derive not only from the Sidneian tradition of poetic defense but also from his nascent awareness of the new value that was beginning to accrue to dramaturgy within this disorderly market . . . . . He was determined to change his relation to that market" ("Script" 106). In particular, it should be noted that these prefaces very often embody the text, as a defendant before the bench, as a reflection of the patron, as an image of the writer himself, as a child of the author, and as a brother among brothers. We should also note that even the address to the patron is shadowed by the sexually fetishized text, sufficiently so to evoke the erotic and sexual dimensions of service, and the multivalence of 'desire' between patron and poet or playwright. But in employing this imagery, these writers are using one set of ambivalences to signify another, producing compound instability rather than simple certainty.

    The language of courtship, courtly service, and courtliness, as Catherine Bates writes, is "capable of denoting model eloquence and etiquette on the one hand, and dissolute or licentious sexual behaviour on the other" (43); it depends upon "the virtues of indirection and ambivalence" (176). The relationship of patronage to the production of artisanal works in a commodity culture is no more secure: as Dekker puts it, when "Knowledge and Reward dwell far a-sunder . . . . . Merit goes a begging, and Learning starves. Books, had wont to have Patrons, and now, Patrons have Books" (4: 15). As participants in a market-based system of production and consumption, patrons are no better than any ignorant spectator or book buyer, and can not, or do not, provide protection for the text against ministerpretation. In general, all of these forms of protection for the text, from gangs of brothers to shelter under the wing of a fair patron, must fail for the very reasons they expect success, because engaging in the tropology of the commodity from requires, as Richard Burt puts it (with regard to Jonson), "a conflation of consumption and production which effectively dissolves any distinction between author and reader, between an author's body and his books" (62). Likewise, embodying the author's desire, while it offers the possibility of competing on the playing-field on which such contests are gauged, perpetuates the vulnerability of both his body and his text.

     The solution to the problem of the violation of the text was the death of the author, real or--in the case of Jonson--imagined. But traces of the embodied text still remain in the prefatory matter to these printed texts: the transition to understanding the text as, to repeat Fletcher's words, the "rare issue of [the] Brain" (6: 242) was not, it seems, a matter of simple assertion. Traces of the embodied text still remain in the prefatory matter to these printed texts. In the letter to the patron which prefaces Dekker's play, The Sun's Darling, the printers write:

     MY LORD!Herodotus Reports that the Egyptians by Wrapping their Dead in Glass, presents them lively to all Posterity; But your Lordship will do more, by the Vivifying of beams of your Acceptation, Revive the parents of this Orphan Poem, and make them live to Eternity . . . . . My Lord, though it seems Rough and Forlorn, It is the issue of Worthy parents, and we doubt not, but you will find it accomplished with their Virtue. Be pleased then (my Lord) to give it entertainment, the more Destitute and needy it is, the Greater Reward may be Challenged by your Charity (4:15).

     This letter uses the vocabularies of several of the prefaces we have looked at; the protective patron is invoked, as is the traduced, "Rough and Forlorn" orphaned child of the parental authors. Webster's letter to the readers which prefaces The Duchess of Malfi (1623) evokes the erotics of patronage, while evoking the dead body of the poet as emblem of the text: "Poets have kissed the hands of Great Princes, and drawn their gentle eyes to look down upon their sheets of paper, when the Poets themselves were bound up in their winding-sheets" (2: 33). Most remarkable in this respect are the two prefatory letters from the printers, one to the readers in general, and the other to William and Philip Herbert in the First Folio. In the letter to the readers, Heminges and Condell use a version of the metaphor for pirating used in the Gorboduc preface, that of the body traduced. They write that the reader has been "abused with diverse stolen and surreptitious copies, maimed, and deformed by the frauds and stealths of injurious impostors," but these, like the Gorboduc figure, have been restored and "are now offer'd to your view cur'd, and perfect of their limbs" ("To the Great Variety of Readers," 3350). These bodies, like those of the Gorboduc and other prefaces, are the figurative children of the author, the "Orphans" from the previous letter to the patrons; like the other bodies we have seen, they have been recuperated by the printers and now invite the protection of the patrons for their re-entry into the world.

     These bodies--from the mummified corpses of the Webster and Dekker texts, to the maimed and restored children of the Shakespeare First Folio--do not, however, work in the same way in terms of the dynamic of desire as the earlier prefaces. Unless they allude to ghostly figures on the stage, or some strange permutation of necrophilic and paedophilic desire, they do not refer to the eroticism of the theatre or the sexuality of the exchange of texts or the pleasure, in the broadest terms, to be obtained through the text. Their relationship to the author's body is mimetic, as the child's body is in other prefaces: just as the author was a "happy imitator of Nature" (3350), so too do they imitate him. They imitate him, however, as copies, imperfect representations. For example, the fragmentation of their bodies is linked, ironically, to the author's wholeness: directly after writing of the restoration of the limbs of the children's bodies, Heminges and Condell write that Shakespeare's "mind and hand went together" (3350). Inasmuch as the authorial body is present, it stands in for something beyond itself, an interiority, within which the ideal texts or children were conceived: "Read him, therefore; and again, and again, and if then you do not like him, surely you are in some manifest danger, not to understand him" (3350). The author's body, then, is here invoked as the sign of the absence of that body, and the irrelevance of physical pleasure--or, of course, pain--to the experience of reading the text. To return to the theoretical vocabulary of this essay, the ghostly figure of the author--and the authority of his desire, removed as he is from vulnerability --in these prefaces signals the failure of the text as a commodity which objectifies the purchaser's lost object cause of desire.

     If, as Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass write in their account of the notion of the fetish in the Renaissance, "[t]he emergent European subject was founded through the disavowal of the power of objects" (21), this disavowal and its consequences are nowhere more apparent than in the emergence of the abstract notion of the author from the material remains of the book in Renaissance culture. According to Jones and Stallybrass, "the development of the printed book meant that value was less and less likely to be found in the beautifully worked material surface of parchment or vellum; instead, it lay behind the book, in the imagined workings of the author's mind . . . . . The book becomes the immaterial support where the mind of the reader communes with the mind of the author. And the author becomes a transcendental value who finds no place in the material world" (31-32). But, as Jones and Stallybrass rightly detect, a residue of the material remains in the abstracted concept of the author, and this residue is signalled by the persistent image of the author's body in these prefaces. As Elizabeth Hanson writes, the contradictions between abstract and material values of the text "are in fact foundational, not so much resolved over time as recuperated in the service of his [i.e., the author's] mystification" (121). The kind of body which is represented here, however, is not the suffering body noted by Lowenstein, or the penal subject implied by Michel Foucault in "What is An Author," but what Zizek calls the sublime body.

     The sublime body is "that other 'indestructible and immutable' body which persists beyond the corruption of the body physical . . . . which endures all torments and survives with its beauty immaculate" (Sublime, 18). It is always protected from misinterpretation and "exempted from the effects of wear and tear" (19), and therefore not vulnerable to dismemberment, rape or torture. Furthermore, attempts to read the meaning of it are always futile, because "its impact has nothing to do with meaning" (71) and it marks "the permanent failure of . . . . representation" (203). The sublime body, in Zizek's argument, appears in the space between physical death and symbolic death (132-136); between, that is, death and the ritual laying to rest, which dissolves the bond with the symbolic order. The sublime body or object fills the "ontological void" (Ticklish, 159) which is produced in three systems which have palimpsestic relationship to each other: one, in enlightenment ontology, between the universal and the particular (158-160); two, in Lacanian subject formation, in the entry into the symbolic (Sublime, 208-209); and three, in commodity formation, between the thing itself and the category of valuation to which it belongs and by which it is exchanged (17). In terms of authorship, the sublime body captures the cultural authority and value lost in the systems of valuation which belong to commodity capitalism: it is the embodiment of the particular which exceeds the universal, the subject which exceeds Lacan's sujet barré, and of the value of the thing in excess of its exchange value.

     The sublime object or body also works differently in terms of the dynamic of desire than does the commodity. That enjoyment is entirely on the side of the sublime object is one of its constitutional features, as it embodies the "impossible jouissance" (79) which exceeds the signifying operations through which identity is achieved, for men and commodities alike. As such it desires, and it does so both compellingly and inscrutably; it puts the reader in a position of desiring to be desired, but not knowing exactly how to be desired. It induces the question in the reader, "Why am I what you are saying that I am?" (113). This question is "hysterical," "an articulation of the incapacity of the subject to fulfil the symbolic identification, to assume fully and without restraint the symbolic mandate" (113): "Read him, therefore; and again, and again, and if then you do not like him, surely you are in some manifest danger, not to understand him." The vulnerability of the author has been shifted to the reader, who is in "some manifest danger" should he not discern what is wanted of him. These prefaces, then, draw ironically on the history of the representation of the play-text in order to display the success of its reformation, from whore to authorial idea, and thereby assert its authority over the reader.

     The early modern play-text is consistently represented in terms of desire in the prefatory matter to the printed texts. The relative strength of the poles of that desire changes over the years, which the emphasis shifting from readerly desire to authorial desire. Earlier images, which present the text as absolutely and completely subject to the readers' desires, are replaced by images which adjudicate access to it and pleasure in it, and express a degree of authorial desire; these are succeeded by images which represent the text as the sublime body of the author, whose desire is inexhaustible and irresistible, and who places the reader in a position of "manifest danger not to understand." The continuity of bodily imagery through this shift shows an intimacy of relationship between readerly interpretation and authorial intention, which is usually read, as Rowe puts it, as "problematic and often antagonistic" (439). To the contrary, in terms of the imagery used to convey them, or in terms of a genealogy of metaphors, the concepts of readerly interpretation and authorial intention are shown to be, as it were, kissing cousins. At the same time, however, and in support of Rowe's contention, the intentional author is resistant to the system of exchanges which privileges the desiring reader, and turns the tables on the triangles of desire which constitute the relative authority of the parties involved.

     In terms of modern arguments over the status of authorial intention,1 this reading of early modern play-text prefaces reveals a fundamental ambiguity in the structure of literary criticism. The question which undergirds the ambiguity is, Is the relationship of the critic to the text a relationship to a commodity, in which the pleasure of the reader is to be taken, or to a person (or set of people) who have manifest and authoritative desires of their own, which the critic must discover and obey? We tend to have it both ways: we profit from the pleasures in literature, in the multiplication of misconstrual, in interpretation, in productions of plays and re-editings of works, in the classroom. Institutionally, we privilege 'originality' in our work and, broadly speaking, we benefit from the commodification of high culture in general and, in the field of this paper, of Shakespeare in particular. On the other hand, we rely, equally, on the institutional and cultural assumption that in some way we know what writers were really up to and what they want us to understand. To misquote Dekker, where knowledge and reward dwell together --in either the market for books, or in academia--books have interpreters and interpreters have books. We have it, that is, both ways, swaying between the text as a commodity in which our pleasure lies, and the work as a sublime object, in which the pleasure of the author, inscrutable but ever present, demands our service.


     This paper was written with the financial assistance of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Versions have been presented at the conference for the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English, and the Bay Area Medieval and Early Modern Group. I appreciate the comments the paper has received, particularly from Elizabeth Pittenger and Harry Berger, Jr., and from the anonymous readers for this journal. In all citations, spelling has been modernized.

     1. For an unfolding of the debate in general, see (in this order) works by Wimsatt and Beardsley, Barthes, Foucault, Greg, McKenzie, McGann and Tanselle; for examples of the debate in Shakespeare studies, see de Grazia, Taylor and Taylor and Warren; for an example of the heat generated by the debate, see the exchange beginning with de Grazia and Stallybrass' 1993 article, the rebuttal of it by Edward Pechter, and the further counterarguments by de Grazia and Stallybrass, and Holderness, Loughrey and Murphy.   (Return to main text?)

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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Katherine O. Acheson "”Satiate yet unstatisfi'd”: Desire, Commodification and the Sublimity of the Early Modern English Playwright". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. December 15, 2009. Available http://www.psyartjournal.com/article/show/o_acheson-satiate_yet_unstatisfid_desire_commodifi. July 16, 2001 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: May 1, 2001, Published: July 16, 2001. Copyright © 2001 Katherine O. Acheson