Letter d. This letter is always in the round, looped form; and the loop is almost invariably clearly written— only rarely, when in reduced size, is it blind.
—E. Maunde Thompson1
At the height of Sir Thomas More’s political success in the play that bears his name, Sir Thomas Palmer presents King Henry VIII’s Lord High Chancellor with “these Articles enclosde, first to be viewde, | and then to be subscribed to.”2 “The nature of the articles is never specified,” note Vittorio Gabrieli and Giorgio Melchiori, “But M[unday] identifies them with the Oath of Supremacy and Act of Succession submitted to More on 13 April 1534 at Lambeth Palace.”3 In response to the king’s demand, More says: “Subscribe these Articles? stay, let vs pause, | our conscience first shall parley with our lawes” (ll. 1238–39). While the Bishop of Rochester flatly refuses to sign and is arrested for “this capitall contempt” (l. 1249), More decides with more temperance to resign his office and, by a “prepared order from the King” (l. 1258), happily departs to house arrest in Chelsea. The signature that Henry wants More to affix to the unnamed articles would obviously function as a sign of his submission to the king’s authority. More than this, however, the signature and the name would stand in for, take the place of, More’s person, a doubling or duplication which could be carried to the king in More’s absence, and its subscripted position on the document would affirm a hierarchy of power to which More would have fully capitulated. Yet More’s refusal to sign the articles, I would argue, still functions as a signature because the absence of his name becomes a subscription to his conscience, which would seem to follow a power higher than Henry’s earthly one.
In “Signature Event Context,” Derrida examines the operation of the signature’s power, which it exercises through the singular context in which it is written, writing:By definition, a written signature implies the actual or empirical nonpresence of the signer. But, it will be said, it also marks and retains his having-been present in a past now, which will remain a future now, and therefore in a now in general [...]. For the attachment to the source to occur, the absolute singularity of an event of the signature and of a form of the signature must be retained: the pure reproducibility of a pure event.4
Despite the spatiotemporal restrictions that bind the signature to its context, the written name must also move beyond the event of its writing to assert its power within future contexts: “one can always lift a written syntagma from the interlocking chain in which it is caught or given without making it lose every possibility of functioning, if not every possibility of ‘communicating,’ precisely. Eventually, one may recognize other such possibilities in it by inscribing or grafting it into other chains. No context can enclose it.”5 Derrida speaks here about the “iterability” of the written sign, which must be legible to and replicable by others in order to signify, but which must also therefore break with and exceed the specific context of writing that it claims to represent, that “set of presences which organize[s] the moment of its inscription.”6 When Sir Thomas Palmer—himself acting as the king’s hand, even in name—presents Henry’s articles, More finds himself within a “set of presences” meant to organize such an inscription. But, as More withholds his hand, the absence of his signature becomes for Henry a mobile, disembodied sign of defiance and, eventually, of high treason. More’s signature continues to organize his relationship with the king, who remains offstage throughout the play’s action, for when Shrewsbury and Surrey visit him at Chelsea to ask once again for his signature lest he be arrested and committed to the Tower, More says that he will “now satisfye the Kings good pleasure,” to which Shrewsbury says, “Come then, subscribe my Lord” (ll. 1575, 1577). This is but one of his many jests, however, and More adheres again to his conscience while also submitting himself to the king: “Oh pardon me, | I will subscribe to goe vnto the...