Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Moral Agency as Readerly Subjectivity: Shakespeare's Parolles and the Theophrastan Character Sketch

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Moral Agency as Readerly Subjectivity: Shakespeare's Parolles and the Theophrastan Character Sketch

Article excerpt

TREATING SHAKESPEARE'S DRAMATIS PERSONAE as vehicles of moral instruction seems, at least to post-nineteenth-century sensibilities, to flatten them. Yet in Shakespeare moral questions continually arise. (Is revenge courageous or blasphemous? What are the just deserts of an abusively jealous husband? When is a father justified in disowning, or killing, his child?) Such questions surround the characters known for resembling "real people" (Hamlet, Ophelia, Othello, Desdemona, Lear) as if their business were to provide answers. Could it really be that complexity, or realism, or what E. M. Forster calls "roundness," was beside the point for Shakespeare? (1) To the contrary, I propose that for Shakespeare and his contemporaries, moral agency is the essence of personhood, a phenomenon that elicits sympathy, making fictional persons seem "real." I shall argue my proposal with the help of seventeenth-century moral character sketches and test it via a brief examination of Parolles in All's Well That Ends Well, who demonstrates, in this context, that Shakespeare saw moral agency as the posture of one struggling to read--a reading subject.

The Renaissance--particularly in England--saw a growing interest in the association of Aristotelian othos ("moral disposition") with "character," as in "signifying mark." Today, "character" is the English translation for othos. "Character" since Aristotle has meant something engraved--any kind of writing, symbolic object or reading material. Its connection to ethics appears in the Theophrastan tradition. Diogenes Laertius called his satirical descriptions of types of persons Ethikoi Karaktores--a title still in use in a Greek edition of the Characters printed in Oxford in 1604, also rendered in Latin as Notationes Morum. (2) Late in Shakespeare's career, the sense of ethical disposition as something to be read took the form of a popular revival of the character sketch. The first Theophrastan "characters" in English were Joseph Hall's Characters of the Virtues and Vices in 1608.

That ethikoi or "virtues and vices" appears next to "characters" establishes not only association but also division of conceptual labor. "Character" indicates the expression of virtues and vices, not the ethoi themselves. For Aristotle, ethos certainly differed from "notation." Ethos formed in actions resulting from proper or improper choices. Ethos means "habit," and is, as he points out, revealingly close to ethos. (3) But in Shakespeare's time, much ado could be made about noting--charactering in the book and volume of one's brain in the act of reading. To find "character" in ethos is to imagine character formation as reading. Signifying marks reshape the reader, turning her into a kind of writing, so that she is in-formed, in mind and action, by the character she reads, becoming character for others to read. This system mixed Christian Providentialism with Aristotle, as in Vincentio's words to Angelo, "There is a kind of character in thy life, which doth thy history fully unfold. Heaven does with us as we with torches do, not light them for ourselves." (4)

Theophrastan "character" refers to literal writing. The 1616 edition of "Overburian" characters defines it as "an Egiptian Hierogliphicke ... an impress, or short Embleme; in little comprehending much" (5) "Comprehending" is key, chiming with John Earle's title for his 1628 Microcosmographie Or, A Peece of the World Discovered in Essayes and Characters. "Comprehending" means representing cosmography in miniature, as well as understanding. "Character" as microcosmography aids readerly noting of Providentially determined cosmography. Both are graphy--both "character"--one from human hand, the other from divine. In identifying itself as microcosmographic, the Theophrastan character acknowledges cosmographic character--the kind that would find expression in real persons. So Theophrastan characters are human writing preoccupied with Providential writing: "A childe," remarks Earle, "is a man in small Letter, yet the best copie of Adam before hee called of Eve, or the Apple; and hee is happy whose small practice in the world can only write this character. …

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