Many of Shakespeare's plays have letter scenes, some concerned with the act of writing, others with the act of reading letters. In his plays letters fulfill a variety of functions: they bring news and messages, advance the plot, reveal character and i ...
Many of Shakespeare's plays have letter scenes, some concerned with the act of writing, others with the act of reading letters. In his plays letters fulfill a variety of functions: they bring news and messages, advance the plot, reveal character and identity, evoke emotions and laughter, add irony or humor, create tragic or comic effect, parody a repository of conventions of the letters, and function as a signifier of desire. Shakespeare's letter device also underlines several themes characteristically: the difficulties of human communication; the difficulties of establishing identity and truth; quest for meaning despite the hermeneutic conundrum, etc. Besides the letter's multiple contributions to plot, character and theme, Shakespeare uses the letter device to explore a paradox, for the letter is a cultural artefact imbued with contrary connotations.
This paper basically will trace Shakespeare's multiple uses of the letter device: the letters never delivered, mistakenly delivered, substituted, forged, rebellious, melodramatic; letters for parody, eavesdropping; letters bearing symbolic signifier or gender conflict; letters written for others; letters as the communication system or as discourse of desire; intended writer and intended reader; interaction of writing and reading. The purpose of this study, however, is to examine the letter scenes in ways far beyond mere taxonomy of letter device in order to find a significance that transcends the obviously theatrical. Especially I want concentrate on Shakespeare's keen interest in the nature of reading and writing in the theatre which marks the conjunction of oral and written cultures. The scenes of reading and writing point to a textuality that is radically unstable, and offer an extended demonstration of the dangers of communication, indeterminacy and multiplicity of meaning.
Though the letter is a sign for the interior state of mind of its reader and writer, Shakespeare prefers the revelation of the reader's character to the recitation of the writer's words. Shakespeare shifts the focus of the episode from the actual words of the letter itself to the interiority of the letter's recipient as the audience eavesdrops on his thoughts. Shakespeare seems convinced of the act of reading letters as analogue to performance in the theatre where the audience projects his desires onto them as well.