Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

The Persistence of Character

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

The Persistence of Character

Article excerpt

Is THERE CHARACTER after theory? Definitely--and also "before" and "during" theory. While the topic of this forum might suggest that we operate now from a place "post-theory," there can be no properly chronological relationship between character and theory because "character" is itself a theoretical construct--especially, although certainly not exclusively--within the early modern period; and so engagements with character are exercises in building, testing, and revising models of the self.

As contributors to this forum point out, the question "Is there character after theory?" requires at least a preliminary disentanglement of the literary term "character" from related terms derived from contemporary psychology, sociology, and philosophy--terms such as identity, individuality, and selfhood. The recurring notion of a literary self or character that precedes, evades, or challenges theoretical formulations of the relation between language and self---championed most recently by writers such as Harold Bloom--depends on an elision between characters and people. Most theoretical discussion of the past quarter-century has also been directed primarily against the concept of an authentic, unified, inborn, essential, and even inviolable self, which in its most extreme form can hardly be distinguished from the soul of religious discourse. But again, arguments about personhood were often transferred to literary personations. The more rhetorical notion of character, rooted as it is in Aristotelian poetics and literary nomenclature, has neither engaged such great interest nor undergone as great change during the same time period. (1)

As part of the return to history "after theory," we have seen some promising efforts to historicize the concept of character by attending to early modern notions of the body, the passions, and ethics. (2) For the early moderns, however, character belongs, first and foremost, to the art of rhetoric, and so the notion of character traces its genealogy through Latin language and culture back to the ancient Greeks. A historical excursion into the early modern grammar and rhetoric of character shows more clearly its theoretical function. This was sometimes a paradox, but now the time gives it proof.

An Early Modern Grammar of Character

In the Renaissance, "character" functioned primarily as a verb and secondarily as a noun. The first meaning offered by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for the verb "character"--"to engrave, imprint; to inscribe, write"--predominated in the Renaissance, although as a noun, "character" identifies, by metonymy, first the instruments of inscription or stamping and then the products of that activity. In Sonnet 108, Shakespeare's speaker uses "character" as a verb, to signify the act of inscribing images or letters:

   What's in the brain that ink may character
   Which hath not figured to thee my true spirit?
   What's new to speak, what new to register,
   That may express my love or thy dear merit?
   (Sonnet 108, 1-4) (3)

Writing with ink, as a technology for expressing the lover's "spirit" and passion, is juxtaposed to speech, an ostensibly more natural mode of communication. Sonnet 85 uses the word "character" as a noun to make a similar contrast between natural, spontaneous expression (by the "unlettered clerk" who thinks "good thoughts" and cries "Amen") and "golden," well-crafted characters of writing from the more "polished," refined pens of others:

   My tongue-tied muse in manners holds her still,
   While comments of your praise, richly compiled,
   Reserve thy character with golden quill
   And precious phrase by all the muses filed.
   I think good thoughts whilst other write good words,
   And like unlettered clerk still cry "Amen"
   To every hymn that able spirit affords
   In polished form of well-refined pen.

In this second instance, we glimpse also the beginnings of an elision between the actual marks of writing and the rhetorical practice of character portrayal and more specifically, the encomium or formal speech in praise of a person. …

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