The Dancing Table and the Bloody Cloth:
A Response to "The Career of Cymbeline's Manacle"

Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr.

     1. The "career" of Prof. Wayne's title describes the "life history" (3) of the manacle that Posthumus places upon Innogen's wrist. As a commodity, the manacle's career might be expected to resemble that of Marx's famous table, which "evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will." In terms of its use-value, the table remains inert, "an ordinary, sensuous thing." It is only "in relation to all other commodities" that the table takes on the "mystical character" that leads to its production of "grotesque ideas." The career of the table begins with these thoughts, commodification here being a process of subjection through which the "ordinary, sensuous thing" is ushered into a kind of consciousness. What grotesque idea does the commodity-form repeatedly think over the course of its career? Presumably, that it can think at all, and that the products of human labor can give shape to social relations when they have been given shape by them. Of course, that the idea is grotesque does not necessarily mean that it is wrong.

     2. If the fact of the manacle's career evokes Marx, it is Arjun Appadurai's discussion of the social life of things that is central to this essay. The real benefit of Appadurai's work (as well as Igor Kopytoff's, also cited by Wayne) is that it offers a more nuanced tracing of the career of the thing than can Marx's account of commodity fetishism. Appadurai is keenly aware of the different trajectories of specific objects, the ways in which they pass from one regime of value to another. To use an example inspired by Wayne's essay, what once exists as a commodity -- a ring in a jewelry store -- can be reinflected in a way that grants it a new significance -- as an emblem of marriage -- only to later pass into a different set of social relations and thus be reinflected again -- as a "priceless" family heirloom. These passages and reinflections are stages in the career of the object, stages that reveal or emblematize the reorganization of (usually local) social relations around and through that object.

     3. Wayne's discussion of the ways in which social relations in Cymbeline are consolidated or troubled around objects is illuminating. Crucial to Wayne's argument, especially early on, is the complex relationship between the gift and the commodity. Her astute discussion of Posthumus and Innogen's exchange of the manacle and ring shows how the seeming reciprocity of mutual giftgiving is complicated by the imbalance in the worth of each object as a commodity, an imbalance that brings into focus the different social positions of Innogen and Posthumus. We witness in this scene the object's entrance into a new stage in its career -- its passage from commodity to "incarnated sign" through gift exchange -- but what is so striking here is that this "new stage" is shot through with traces of the old. At the very moment where the commodity values of ring and manacle are supposedly to be superseded, they structure Posthumus' sense of the gift exchange. Similarly, Iachimo's very assertion that the "pretty action" with which Innogen supposedly gave him the manacle was more valuable than the object itself attests in its very terms to that object's value, asserted as it is supposedly exceeded. What do we make of this? Does it simply mean that Cymbeline sees commodification as the bottom line, that the object is always "really" a commodity (because that is what it always can again become, despite attempts to "enclave" it)? Or is Shakespeare here representing flawed exchanges in which the hoped for transformation of the commodity fails to take place? Or does the object always contain traces of its entire career in any of that career's given stages?

     4. While Wayne's adducement of Appadurai is tremendously enabling for her discussion of commodity and gift exchange in the play, I found myself wanting to hear more about these forms of exchange as specifically early modern phenomena. What do commodity and gift mean in early 17th-century England? Wayne's introductory anecdote, concerning a 1602 royal entertainment, at first seems to promise a discussion of gift exchange within the culture of Elizabeth's court, but its real function is to introduce the notion of gifts as forms of female constraint while also connecting up with Cymbeline through the discussion of bracelets as manacles. To me, the anecdote does not provide enough of a payoff; it casts little light on the logic of either the play or early modern gift exchange.

     5. Although the paper begins with an example of gift exchange and soon turns to a discussion of commodities, what is so interesting about the third of the objects upon which Wayne focuses is that it cannot be adequately accounted for in terms of either gift or commodity. Unlike the ring or manacle, the "bloody cloth" that Wayne shows is crucial to Posthumus's finally "repentant and affirmative relation to the female body" (17) is seen as having only a "private" significance: "This more ordinary object will not become a commodity or circulate in the play, for the value of the bloody cloth to Posthumus is an intensely private matter" (16). It seems to me that this "more ordinary object" offers an important opportunity for thinking the play's objects in terms other than those of commodification. In the cases of the ring and manacle, the commodity status of each has shaped its significance at every turn in the play: even as gifts, they are, in Appadurai's words, "enclaved commodities, objects whose commodity potential is carefully hedged" (quoted in 5). According to Wayne, the cloth will not become a commodity because of its personal value for Posthumus; that is, he won't let it become a commodity, as if that were the status to which it might otherwise revert. But does it make sense to think of this stained cloth in terms of (its potential) commodification? Certainly it could have a commercial value to someone, but its significance to the play seems to me to lie in the fact that it constitutes an intriguing challenge to the idea that the object can always be defined in terms of the commodity. That is, the cloth could be seen as qualifying the view that understands the various stages in an object's career as enclavements and "terminal commoditizations" that attempt to neutralize or manage the central fact of the object's existence: that it is or was or can again be a commodity. Put much more simply, whereas "gift" and "commodity" are undeniably the categories we should deploy to analyze the careers of the ring and manacle, I don't think that they are equally apposite for discussing the bloody cloth.

     6. Certainly Wayne doesn't make an extended argument for the cloth as commodity, but she also does not ascribe to this thing much of a social life; it is perhaps telling that with the cloth she shifts her attention to a discussion of stage properties. However, I think that she misses an opportunity here to complicate the terms through which she has considered the careers of Cymbeline's objects. It seems to me that the bloody cloth can be read as supplementing or responding to the logic of the commodity that is instantiated in the early careers of the manacle and ring, perhaps in a way that would allow Wayne to consider the complexity of the role of the commodity in a period of primitive accumulation. At present, Cymbeline seems to confirm the approach enacted by Appadurai, but might it also theorize the object in its own ways, ways for which commodification is not the appropriate category? Does it provide evidence of Shakespeare thinking objects in ways that might now seem quite strange to us (as the bloody cloth itself might suggest a martyr's relic)? If so, perhaps more might be made of the fact that the "private" value that Posthumus ascribes to the cloth is based on his being misinformed about its origins and significance. Thought of in these terms, it might be possible to understand Cymbeline as both confirming and existing in dialogue with the Appaduraian approach to objects Wayne adduces in the early pages of this essay.

     7. My favorite part of Wayne's essay describes the erosion of identity undergone by Posthumus as a result of the undoing of the marital gift exchange. Posthumus's "frequent changes in costume are a legacy of his lost identity and show how malleable he remains in his subject postions . . ." (13). Innogen undergoes a similar transformation, "wish[ing] herself worth 'less' so that she can be more equal to Posthumus . . ." (14). In each case, these changes are largely enabled through the motion transmission of objects -- Posthumus's giving over of the ring, Innogen's loss of her manacle. (I think Wayne could be slightly more forceful here [esp. in the case of Posthumus] in announcing the significance of lost objects to the loss of identity.) This is a fresh and exciting argument, one that could be enhanced by first considering these objects in terms of their status as property, and then by considering the relationship between property and identity in the early modern period. In J. G. A. Pocock's words, "Property was both an extension and a prerequisite of personality." Moreover, the etymological links between property and propriety attest to the ways in which ownership was understood to presuppose an identity and a place in the social order. An obvious example of the loss of self through the loss of property is to be found in King Lear, which, as Margreta de Grazia has put it, reveals the "locking of persons into things, proper selves into property, subjectivity effects into personal effects." What the category of property offers Wayne's analysis is a potent and historically specific way of discussing the interanimating relationship of objects and identities.

     8. What may not be plain in my comments so far is that "the interanimating relationship of objects and identities" is already a key topic of Wayne's analysis throughout. In addition to itself being construed as a commodity, the manacle is "a sign of the woman's part, the visible presence of women's lack, and a mark of their commodification, containment, devaluation and circulation through exchange" (21). By play's end, however, the manacle "can revert to the status of a bracelet, perhaps even a trifle, since its earlier associations and its commodifying potential have been nearly evacuated" (21). As these examples show, Wayne is concerned not only with things as commodities, but with the ways in which women are commodified through their association with such things; the properties of their characters are read in light of the status of their properties (as attested to by the tale of Desdemona and her handkerchief). By play's end the "commodifying potential" of both bracelet and female character have been "evacuated," a process suggesting that the manacle as commodity constitutes a scandal and a threat, both of which are finally contained. Moreover, that containment is an evacuation and a reversion, the reduction of the manacle to "perhaps even a trifle." This is the language of hollowing out and of diminishment, for the bracelet's now-lost commodity status had given it troubling powers, more troubling even than the generation of "grotesque ideas" by Marx's table. I admire this formulation of Wayne's, and I am interested in seeing what it would mean to follow it through further as part of a discussion of dramatic closure. While another Shakespearean romance famously ends with a statue coming to life, in Cymbeline it seems that a malign agency needs to be drained out of at least one of the play's crucial objects. Is the "manacle" evacuated so that its wearer can be restored to her identity? Or does that evacuation instead mark a new stage in the career of Innogen? More broadly, how can we configure the relationship between characters and things at the end of this play? I will conclude by noting that the new peace announced by Cymbeline in his final speech is marked through the investment of specific objects with affect: we are told that "A Roman and a British ensign [are to] wave / Friendly together." We can only wonder if anything occurs to them as they do so.

 

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Works Cited

De Grazia, Margreta, "The ideology of superfluous things: King Lear as period piece," in Subject and Object in Renaissance Culture, eds. Margreta de Grazia, Maureen Quilligan, and Peter Stallybrass (Cambridge UP, 1996), 17-42.

Marx, Karl, Capital, Vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Vintage, 1977).

Pocock, J.G.A. "The Mobility of Property and the Rise of Eighteenth-Century Sociology," in Virtue, Commerce, and History (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985), 103-123.

 

 

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Content copyright © 2000 Garrett Sullivan.