Shakespeare Studies - Vol. 40

Shakespeare Studies - Vol. 40

Shakespeare Studies - Vol. 40

Shakespeare Studies - Vol. 40

Excerpt

The presence of fictional agents capable of speaking, feeling, and acting on their own is the essence of dramatic art. In current English usage these make-believe persons are generally known as characters. What distinguishes dramatic mimesis from other modes of fictional narration is the independence of these figures from an authorizing voice, a property eloquently captured in Butcher’s translation of Aristotle’s Poetics. “The poet may imitate by narration—in which case he can either take another personality as Homer does, or speak in his own person, unchanged—or he may present all his characters as living and moving before us.” Shakespeare’s particular genius is a readiness to allow each character to speak for himself. When this mode of storytelling is done effectively as it is with Shakespeare’s plays, we are able to relate to the actions of fictional beings using the same means we find helpful for understanding the characters we encounter in our daily lives— friends, colleagues, neighbors, that sort of thing. We’re interested in what they have done and why they did it. We’re also concerned with matters such as trust, honesty, and whether or not what has been done was done well. In other words, we see the people in our lives as moral agents, even when they just happen to be makebelieve.

I realize that an essay that begins with notions of essence, character, and genius, to say nothing of morality, is likely to provoke resistance in some of my readers, but I believe this reflects something a bit off-center in the current orthodoxies of our field. Everyone knows that Shakespeare presents his characters “as living and moving before us” but it has somehow become unsophisticated to say so. The possibility of engaging with dramatic characters as if they actually existed was fully appreciated by eighteenth- century criticism. The editors, theatrical performers, and critics who wrote on Shakespeare were not embarrassed by their ability to respond to his characters in this way. They realized that this is the fundamental intention of dramatic art. For these critics a dramatic character was a particular kind of fictional entity whose actions were meant to be performed by a theater artist. But character was a word that also referred to a person’s moral commitments, and many of these critics admired Shakespeare as an important moral philosopher.

To move from the perception of fictional characters as “living and moving before us” to an interest in their behavior as moral agents is not a big step. And in fact, as I have shown elsewhere, the discovery of character as agency in eighteenth-century criticism is inseparable from the widely accepted intuition that Shakespeare is a moral philosopher. This does not mean, however, that Shakespeare’s plays have any settled moral principles that govern the dramatic action. There is no instruction manual for the characters, who have to operate in a fictional universe that requires them to find some kind of stable orientation to the unpredictable and often incomprehensible circumstances in which they place themselves. Most of the more interesting characters fail to maintain their integrity in one way or another. That’s why they are interesting. That’s why we care about them. That’s why we recognize what it feels like to be in their predicament. And that is why, perforce, we pursue inquiry about their reasons, their motives, and their moral disposition. A. C. Bradley understood this very well; he formulated his own explanation in “Hegel’s Theory of Tragedy,” which relies on the basic notion of conflicting goods. This will be the only reference to Hegel in this Forum, because the dialectic is too schematic to describe the complexity of the Shakespearean moral universe. The situation is considerably worse than Bradley realized.

Since the magisterial achievements of A. C. Bradley, focus on the actions and the moral disposition of individual characters has largely fallen into disfavor. L. C. Knights declared that a focus on character was inappropriate for the kind of “poetic drama” written by Shakespeare, which he thought should be studied and appreciated for its organic unity. He ridiculed Ellen Terry for wondering . . .

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