Reverse quotations: ‘to be or not to be’ in 1584
Dudley Fenner’s The artes of logike and rethorike, plainelie set foorth in the English tounge is a 1584 guide to speaking well and persuasively, based on models deriving from ancient Greece and Rome. It’s an example of early print distributing knowledge out to new readers, ‘into the handes of many,’ as the introduction has it. The first chapter of Book 2 is all about judgement, which the author says is a branch of logic and is concerned with ‘the ordering of reasons.’ Fenner begins his explanation with this sentence: ‘An Axiome or sentence is that ordering of one reason with another, whereby a thing is saide to be or not to be.’
We cannot read ‘To be or not to be’ without thinking of Hamlet’s soliloquy, printed 20 years after The artes of logike. I don’t want to argue, here, that The artes of logike is a source for Shakespeare’s line – that’s a discussion for another day. But I do think that this earlier, rather arid little piece on logic, becomes an anticipatory quotation once Hamlet appears: a string of words, forgettable when originally printed, which happen to become identical with the most famous line in English literary history. We could think of ‘To be or not to be’ in The artes of logike as a reverse quotation: a quotation that appears before the source. Or we could call it a latent quotation: a quotation whose time has not quite yet come; six words that cannot in 1584 yet be separated off from their surrounding text until Shakespeare’s work, 20 years later, retrospectively turns them into something else.
If we combine texts we can get all kinds of anticipatory riches of this sort. Aphra Behn’s comedy The amorous prince, or, The curious husband (1671) has a character named Guilliam (‘Man to Cloris, a Country-fellow’) who says, as an aside, ‘In sin, as our Curate said; I must go on’.
We could put this together with a piece from Peter Motteux’s literally-now-never-read Beauty in distress as it is acted at the theatre in Little Lincolns-Inn-Fields by His Majesties servants (1698), which begins with a faltering Mr. Bowen trying to improvise a prologue: ‘Gallants, Our Author—Ay, that’s well begun, / Our Author—To—For—hold, I can't go on’.
We could then add these two to an excerpt from Zachary Taylor’s The Lancashire Levite rebuk’d (1698) – don’t pretend you haven’t read that one! – which contains the remarkable clause, ‘I shall be now gored sure, with the one Horn; yet I'll go on’.
Splicing these three together, we have the last words from Samuel Beckett’s 1953 novel The Unnamable – collaboratively written, 300 years earlier, by Aphra Behn, Peter Motteux, and Zachary Taylor:
All manner of quotations from the great future works of literature, as yet unwritten, are lurking in the books we have today – excerpts from poems, novels, plays, memoirs, and dazzling works of criticism to come. Of course there is no reason to think that the books we prize today will necessarily be the sources of these future quotes. Excerpts from the masterpieces of the next 100 years are just as likely to be lodged in cheap magazine articles or instruction manuals or bureaucratic documents about pension rates or traffic emission zones – passages of text that stumble for a second into prophecy. These latent quotations are definitely out there, but since we can’t know where to look, and since we can’t identify them until the great future works are written and in retrospect cast them as prophetic, we just have to wait.