Erasability was an important feature of the Renaissance writing tables. These little books were heralded for their functionality, portability, affordability, and by some accounts, their value for reflection upon the human condition.
In “Hamlet’s Tables and the Technologies of Writing in Renaissance England” Peter Stallybrass, Roger Chartier, Franklin Mowery, and Heather Wolfe inquire into the thinking about this writing technology through Shakespeare’s characterization of Hamlet and his writing table. By cataloging the technical dimensions and physical workings of the Renaissance writing table meaningful reflections on the material understanding of personal memory emerge.
The writing table freed the renaissance writer from accepted place of inscription. Writing tables were personal, highly portable writing devices comprised of pages treated with a compound that allowed for inscription with a scratch of a metal stylus and erasure with a rub of a wet finger. The authors tell of the emerging industry and popular acquisition of the writing table in England through the course of the 17th and 18th century. Practical for its price in comparison to the costliness of paper. Popular and affordable to a wide cross section of the literate population. Elegantly bound and therefore a popular gift. Commonly derided for its increased association with “weak” dramatists – using their tables to copy ideas from other people’s plays – and “weak” puritan women – tables in hand at church to accumulate “crums of comfort” (sic).
Nevertheless, this personal writing medium remained popular and found a firm place in the human activity of remembrance. The authors describe the intermediary role the device played in handling memories. Out in the world, the user of the writing table would transcribe their thoughts, often in a type of shorthand. Filtering and distilling their notes occurred in the act of copying the writing table by hand on to paper with ink. The authors emphasize this act of repetition. “Repetition is itself a memorial system.” The repetition inscribes memory with meaningful organization and a sense of value. For the authors this in turn emphasizes the extension of the writing table to mind in Renaissance culture. A beholden extension where erasing from “one’s tables” is to erase from one’s mind.
A memorialization of the ability to forget and a sense of permanence in the act of organizing thought in the transposition to paper. The authors argue that Hamlet is caught in the gripping illusion. Securing himself in the technologies of permanence and of erasure. But the environment betrays the affordance of selectivity in the writing tables. All around Hamlet, surfaces of inscription resonate with erasability – graves are opened, tombstones incomplete, the Ghost’s suit of armor fades, a father’s royal command rendered immaterial. Technologies of permanence are recognized as a virtualization process, sustaining an illusion of permanence in the process of moving notes from writing tables to parchment, of the body to a tombstone, of memory to the fixed place of material permanence. In response, Hamlet subverts the process by a deliberate act of transcribing the shorthand of his writing table to mind and heart: “Full charactered with lasting memory, / Which shall aboue that idle rancke remaine / Beyond all date euen to eternity”.
Transcription out of the haunting memory of the father and the memory of the beloved drowned in the stream that flows to the sea of oblivion.