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Moral agency as readerly subjectivity: Shakespeare's Parolles and the Theophrastan character sketch.

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." The death of Earle's "Grave Divine," is "his last sermon, where in the Pulpit of his Bed hee instructs men to dye by his example." (6)

One purpose of the Theophrastan character is to help readers read deeply the real ethoi around them--to help them form in mind and action. True, character sketches sometimes failed to measure up; sometimes the circumstances of their production were dodgy, or they read more like witty gossip than instruments for noting God's will. But the maker of the fashion, Bishop Hall, seems devoted to the Godly purpose. His Characters feature an explicit program to shape readers into virtues, and his extensive paratextual apparatus attends to readerly psychology, worrying, for instance, that "vices" or "deformities" might please: "I abhor to make sport with wickednesse, and forbid any laughter heere, but of disdain," and he imagines the "eyes" of the reader moving in time through his carefully organized depictions. (7) He hopes the reader, aided by this primer, will "fall in love" with virtues. The process he imagines anticipates the modern literary aesthetic of characters as changing, complex subjectivities--Bildungsroman inhabitants whom real readers might confuse with real people.

The readers Hall addresses are not themselves ethical characters--not objects, but subjects. Yet traces of reading in the character sketches indicate that character and reader are not completely distinct, but rather form something like a M6bius strip. Hall's readers are characters-in-the-making, while his characters often betray a history of reading. This is often true of vices, as well as virtues, but the reading that has formed vices has always already ended; the transformation of reader into ethical type is finished. The "profane man" is utterly hardened into writing: "his heart is a piece of dead flesh, without feeling of love, of feare, of care, or of paine ... Custome of sinne hath wrought this senselessness, which now hath beene so long entertained that it pleads prescription, and knowes not to be altered." (8) The virtues, by contrast, emerge in current reading. "Everie thing the wise man sees informes him," is forming him for readers to read. "His free discourse runnes backe to the ages past, and recovers events out of memory, and then preventeth tyme in flying forward to future things; and comparing one with the other can give a verdict well-neere propheticall." (9) This is a micro-cosmographic picture of a human character-in-the-making--one who is not yet character because he is still reading.

To cast the virtuous as readers in the midst of reading adds a theological dimension to Aristotle's idea of ethos. Christ, logos, offers himself up as the type of the reader. Paul says of the history in the Old Testament, "Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come" (I Cor. 10:11). (10) "These things" are, for Paul, real history, recorded in the Old Testament, things in life that happened for the benefit of Christian readers. Humanist glossators took this habit of reading history even further, applying it to "pagan" texts. Indeed, on the Greek authors he emulates, Hall says "I have trod in their paths, but with a higher and a wider step, and out of their tablets have drawen these larger portraitures," putting pagans in an Old Testament-like figural position vis-a-vis his own descriptions of Christian readerly virtues. (11) Hall's agenda brings to life the drama of uncertainty that is reading--a drama evoking the life-and-death struggle over the status of the soul. When ethos becomes "character," moral agency becomes readerly subjectivity.

Hall's "characters of the virtues" are only snapshots of readers in the act of reading. It is difficult to identify with mere description. More effective, for those religiously trained to see themselves as readers, is the enactment of reading, which is what occurs in Shakespeare, and which reveals the great debt owed by modern literary character to the convergence of ethos with "character" as writing. All's Well That Ends Well provides a convenient example because it meditates on the ancient rhetorical technique of the' ethical characterismus or horatio and could have shared, even in 1603, in the beginnings of the Theophrastan revival. Character sketches abound, the persons in the play continually rendering moral pictures of each other. The very first scene offers such pictures of the King of France (7-10), the Countess of Rousillon (8-10), the king's dead physician (18-21), his daughter Helena (37-44), and Parolles (102-7). These notationes conjure the drama of reading the social world, the drama according to which persons in-form themselves by reading the moral character constituted by persons around them. "Thou bearest they father's face:/Frank nature .../Hath well composed thee. Thy father's moral parts/mayst thou inherit too" (I.ii.19-21) are the king's first words to Bertram, as if hopeful that his reading of Bertram's father, the "characterismus" that follows, will immediately shape Bertram's disposition as nature has shaped his face. (12) "Such a man," he says, concluding this sketch of humility and reluctance to judge, "might be a copy to these younger times, which, followed well would demonstrate them now but goers backwards" (45-48). Ethos here is cosmographic "character": it offers itself as graphic demonstration, reading material designed to in-form its readers' own ethoi while alerting them to their inability to read fully and deeply enough to conform to it.

The process of making ethical character is thus reading, and the persons eliciting empathy in All's Well are readers in the midst of reading. Helena and Bertram, whose misreadings of each other and their situations indicate a struggle to read, obviously come to mind in the context of the play as a whole. But Parolles' shaming in front of his fellow soldiers offers perhaps the play's best reading lesson, arguably turning the vapid, cowardly braggart into the play's most prominent and enduring reader. Parolles' reading lesson demonstrates that readerly subjectivity results not from psychological depth, nor from an extensive history, nor from "complexity," but from the very status of reader or ethical character-in-the-making, which also constitutes the Shakespearean "subjectivity effect."

Parolles may seem an odd candidate for the status of reading subject as the recognizable type--the alazon or braggart--an original Theophrastan character. (13) Bertram's ironic promise that he shall be rewarded "to the last syllable" of his "worthiness" for a fraudulent mission to recapture the company's drum suggests that he is reading material through and through (3.6.67-68). True, insofar as human character forms via the reading of character, one who is character has read character in others. Parolles evidently has read, but his reading seems finished. Thus it is with great assurance that he speaks the results of his reading. Consider this character of the first Captain Dumaine, which he unwittingly speaks in Dumaine's presence, blindfolded by his comrades in arms, who have captured him and are pretending to be the enemy:
   He will steal, sir, an egg out of a cloister. For rapes and
   ravishments he parallels Nessus. He professes not keeping of oaths;
   in breaking 'em he is stronger than Hercules. He will lie, sir,
   with such volubility that you would think truth were a fool;
   drunkenness is his best virtue, for he will be swine-drunk, and in
   his sleep he does little harm, save to his bedclothes about him;
   but they know his conditions and lay him in straw. I have little
   more to say, sir, of his honesty: he has everything that an honest
   man should not have: what an honest man should have, he has
   nothing. (4.3.245-55)

This sketch, its compressed wittiness strikingly like one of the vicious characters in Hall or Overbury, indeed facilitates quick reading of a person, "in little comprehending much." Its hyperbole renders it absolute, without room for revision or conjecture: hence it seems finished--and so does its mouthpiece. Parolles' name means "words," which seems to be everything that he is. His reading of others and the impression it has made on him seems to have written and defined him. His admonitory character of Bertram, evidently a warning to the maiden Bertram has sought to seduce, has a similar feel. Read out loud (during the same episode) in the double-crossing verse letter found on Parolles' person, it prompts of fantasy, oddly from its target, of Parolles as literal character: "he shall be whipped through the army with this rhyme in's forehead" (229-30). Bertram evidently misses something blatantly obvious to the audience: Parolles' expressive function, as one who both embodies and speaks the ethical dispositions of the very persons who are shaming him.

Bertram is the most prominent unfinished reader in this episode, as it is he who seems primed to be altered by the play as a whole. By this point the discerning reader Lafew has repeatedly warned Bertram of Parolles' status as a character of vice, to be read for his limitations and shunned. Parolles' tormenters have set up this shaming for Bertram's benefit, "that he might take a measure of his own judgment wherein so curiously he had set his counterfeit." Parolles, as embodiment and speaker of viciousness, is a reading lesson for Bertram. Wrong reading has deformed Bertram, turning him into a lying philanderer who does not conform to his father's pattern of behavior. Right reading might be expected to reform him. Accordingly, Parolles is a mere character of viciousness for Bertram's study.

In fact, however, Parolles' shaming implies that he is not finished as a reader, so that there is something left of him as a moral agent. Though the plotters of the shaming explain that they are doing it for Bertram's benefit, the drama of Bertram's correcting his reading of Parolles evidently occurs offstage, prior to the shaming, which begins with Bertram's urging, "Come, bring forth this counterfeit module has deceived me like a double-dealing prophesier" (97-99). What had been billed as a reading lesson for Bertram is now revenge against Parolles, and to revenge is to teach a lesson. The main concern of the plotters--and the playgoers or readers--becomes Parolles' experience as a reader. The second captain Dumaine reports that, under threat of execution, "his confession is taken, and it shall be read to his face." To see the look on Parolles' face as the right reading of events, things, person, and texts dawns on him, to experience, vicariously, Parolles' shame for his incorrect reading, is the goal for both plotters and spectators.

What the shaming accomplishes is not the revelation to Parolles, or anyone else, that he is an alazon; it rather allows everyone watching to share his experience of struggling to read right. The moment when Parolles is most alive is the moment when, unmuffled, he grasps that a plot by his comrades has crushed him. This is not when he speaks but when he is silent. His silence is of course punctuated by a series of questions and greetings that call attention to his struggle to comprehend: "So, look about you. Know you any here?" (303); "God bless you Captain Parolles" (304); "Captain, what greeting will you to my Lord Lafew?" (308-9); "You are undone, captain--all but your scarf; that has a knot in't yet" (313-14); Parolles' speechless encounter with these barbs indicates his reduction to the questioning posture of a reader in the midst of reading, uncertain as to how he is being reformed and therefore of who he is. This is the moment Parolles recognizes himself as one who struggles to read. "Simply the thing I am shall make me live," he says (323-24). That thing is imperfect character, the continually changing, motley thing that he is from moment to moment of his reading. In determining to "live safest in shame" (328), he associates life with readerly humility, which he seeks to extend by taking on the role of fool. Hence, Lafew's acceptance of him, confirming that he has achieved moral agency.

I choose All's Well and Hall's Characters to sketch out a case for moral agency as readerly subjectivity because they bring together all the elements that allow me to do it--character, ethos, reader. But these elements were more or less in place before the Theophrastan revival of the early seventeenth century, which was merely a symptom of them. The idea of ethical disposition as reading material that could in-form a reader into yet another example of ethical disposition was already evident in Sidney's Defense of Poetry, which asserts that the poet can "bestow a Cyrus upon the world to make many Cyruses, if they will learn aright why and how that maker made them." (14) Spenser's Faerie Queene, which proposes "to fashion," out of both reader and protagonists, "a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline" provides not only a restatement but also an instantiation of the same scheme, each of his books being called a legend, "things specially worthy to be read ... the argument of his Bookes being a kind of sacred Nature, as comprehending in them things as well Divine as Humane." (15)

Not surprisingly, then, the sense of ethos as character occurs throughout Shakespeare's plays, as does the resulting drama of readerly subjectivity. Hamlet, for instance, struggles to read and embody not only books, as the famous stage direction, "enter Hamlet reading upon a book" indicates, but the moral character of his universe--in Ophelia's physiognomy, in the counterfeit presentment of two brothers, in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's looks, in the king's reactions to the play within the play and his efforts to pray. Othello struggles to read such character too--Desdemona's behavior and demeanor, his own blackness, and Iago's confidences, informing (or rather deforming) himself into the character of race and racism, the type of savagery and atheism that he as readerly moral agent must smite. It is not the "character" such dramatis personae become that lends them virtue, but their readerly processes of becoming it. Reading, above all, lets Shakespeare's characters live.


(1.) Aspects of the Novel (New York: Harcourt, 1927) 67-82.

(2.) Cited in Jeffrey Rusten, "Introduction," in Theophrastus, Characters, ed. Rusten, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 22.

(3.) Nichomachean Ethics in The Basic Works of Aristotle, II.1.1103a, 14-25.

(4.) William Shakespeare, Measure from Measure, ed. Jonathan Crewe, in The Complete Works, The Pelican Shakespeare, eds. Stephen Orgel and A.R. Braunmuller (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Putnam, 2002), 1.1.26-30.

(5.) Sir Thomas Overbury his Wife (London, 1616), S2v-S3r.

(6.) Microcosmographie Or, A Peece of the World Discovered in Essayes and Characters (London, 1628), B1r and B7v.

(7.) Joseph Hall, Characters of the Virtues and Vices (London, 1608), F2r-v V and A6v.

(8.) Ibid., G7r-v.

(9.) Ibid., B4v-B5r.

(10.) Lisa Freinkel, Reading Shakespeare's Will: The Theology of Figure from Augustine to the Sonnets (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 25, originally called my attention to this passage.

(11.) Hall, A6r.

(12.) All quotations of this play are from All's Well that Ends Well, ed. Claire McEachern, in The Complete Works.

(13.) Theophrastus, 23.

(14.) Ibid., 9.

(15.) Michael Drayton, The Legends of Robert, Duke of Normandie, in Works, ed. William Hebel, Kathleen Tillotson, and Bernard H. Newdigate (Oxford: at the Clarendon Press, 1932), 2:382. Quoted in a note to the title of Book I of The Faerie Queene, Second Edition, ed. A. C. Hamilton (Harlow: Pearson Education, 2001).
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Author:Berg, James E.
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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