Reading Shakespeare's Characters: Rhetoric, Ethics, and Identity

Reading Shakespeare's Characters: Rhetoric, Ethics, and Identity

Reading Shakespeare's Characters: Rhetoric, Ethics, and Identity

Reading Shakespeare's Characters: Rhetoric, Ethics, and Identity

Synopsis

Although current theory has discredited the idea of a coherent, transcendent self, Shakespeare's characters still make themselves felt as a presence for readers and viewers alike. Confronting this paradox, Christy Desmet explores the role played by rhetoric in fashioning and representing Shakespearean character. She draws on classical and Renaissance texts, as well as on the work of such twentieth-century critics as Kenneth Burke and Paul de Man, bringing classical, Renaissance, and contemporary rhetoric into fruitful collision. Desmet redefines the nature of character by analyzing the function of character criticism and by developing a new perspective on Shakespearean character. She shows how rhetoric shapes character within the plays and the way characters are "read". She also examines the relationship between technique and theme by considering the connections between rhetorical representation and dramatic illusion and by discussing the relevance of rhetorical criticism to issues of gender. Works analyzed,include Hamlet, Cymbeline, King John, Othello, The Winter's Tale, King Lear, Venus and Adonis, Measure for Measure, and All's Well That Ends Well.

Excerpt

Recent literary theory has successfully discredited the notion of a transcendent, coherent self, what Richard Lanham has called the "central self." In Of Grammatology,Jacques Derrida pursued to its conclusion the ramifications of a Saussurian linguistics, which is based on the nonidentity of signifier and signified. Writing, says Derrida, finally involves a "forgetting of the self." Because Bradleyian criticism of Shakespeare reigned unchallenged for so long, the need to "forget the self" has been felt especially strongly in Shakespearean studies. In The Subject of Tragedy, for instance,Catherine Belsey defines for Renaissance scholars the subject's fate under writing's rigorous rule: "To be a subject is to have access to signifying practice, to identify with the 'I' of utterance and the 'I' who speaks. The subject is held in place in a specific discourse, a specific knowledge, by the meanings available there. In so far as signifying practice always precedes the individual, is always learned, the subject is a subjected being, an effect of the meanings it seems to possess." The subject, therefore, is an effect of language, a textual character as much as a person who speaks and acts in the world.

Practical criticism has begun to explore the social construction of Shakespearean identity through the metaphor of "self as cultural text," but the role played by rhetoric in fashioning and representing Shakespearean character has not been explored sufficiently. Richard Lanham, Joel Altman, Marion Trousdale, and Karen Newman have already considered from a historical perspective the uses to which Renaissance drama put its rich rhetorical heritage, but none is concerned specifically with the rhetoric of characterization. Conversely, a book such as Stephen Greenblatt Renaissance Self-Fashioning, though alert to the plays' rhetorical sophistication, never focuses directly on the shaping of identity through rhetorical means.

This book, which attempts to generate a rhetoric of Shake-

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