Social Role and the Making of Identity in Julius Caesar

By O'Dair, Sharon | Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview
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Social Role and the Making of Identity in Julius Caesar


O'Dair, Sharon, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900


In an essay that has been widely ignored, Robert Weimann focuses attention on an aspect of Shakespeare's dramatic art that itself has been widely ignored--"the social, as distinct from the psychological, dimension of Shakespeare's characterization."(1) Weimann posits a dialectical and intimate relationship between identity and social relations: "merely to confront the idea of personal autonomy with the experience of social relations is not good enough as a definition of character. For Shakespeare the outside world of society is inseparable from what a person's character unfolds as his 'belongings.'"(2) Thus although Shakespeare allows many of his characters--heroes and villains alike--to express some sense of separation from roles, from public activity, from definition by the group, he defines character as occurring and developing within and because of a context of others. Characters, like human beings, develop identity, a sense of self, within a context that is defined by the group; thus empowered, the character, like the individual, may affect the context in which he or she finds himself or herself. Weimann thinks an understanding of this dialectic is essential to our understanding of Shakespeare's art,' for "it is only when these two points of reference--the self and the social--are seen as entering into a dynamic and unpredictable kind of relationship that the most original and far-reaching dimension in Shakespeare's conception of character--the dimension of growth and change--can be understood."(3)

Weimann's conception of character in Shakespeare challenges what until recently has been a deeply seated assumption that the aim of criticism is less to show "the very age and body of the time / his form and pressure" (Hamlet III.ii.22-23)(4) than to illumine the self as a secret and personal locus of human consciousness. Reinforced by a century of work in behavioral or psychoanalytic psychology, such an understanding of character or the self originates it seems in the Romantic's emphasis on his individuality; his attempt to assert the judgment of the individual above that of the group; his sense, as Terence Eagleton puts it, that "real living . . . is something beyond and above the actual processes of life in society."(5) For whatever reasons--some may have wished to uphold the requirements of science, and some, as Eagleton suggests, wished to criticize the alienation they saw attached to industrial capitalism, and still others, as Jonathan Bate and Gary Taylor suggest,(6) hoped to retreat from, to ease their memories of, radical political failure--the researchers, writers, and theorists who contributed to this point of view about character or the self take little or no account of the social environment in which that self exists and acts, interested as they are primarily in the inner workings of a person's mind and body.

Given the recent questioning of the Romantic project by critics such as H.A. Mason, Alvin B. Kernan, Margreta de Grazia, Jonathan Bate, and Lee Patterson, a questioning that historicizes and politicizes the Romantic and modernist privileging of interiority in conceptions of the self,(7) we should be ready to take seriously Weimann's conception of identity as firmly bound to social relations and social institutions. For Shakespeare's plays certainly are more than passingly concerned with the social situation or institution within which the individual character is placed and must act, whether the battlefield, the state or court, or the family. And one might argue, as H.A. Mason does, that to enter fully into Homer's world or Shakespeare's, we must "retrace the course of history and think first of men banded together in social groups, and only in the second place of the individual members of the groups and their individual feelings."(8)

Yet the critics who have most forcefully pronounced the death of the individual, who have questioned most thoroughly the privilege accorded to interiority by Romantic and modernist criticism, often see only an inescapable prison in those social bands and social bonds.

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