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The persistence of character.

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.

The encomium is by nature social, nurturing consensus and solidarity through operations of memory. The speaker of epideictic rhetoric, who praises or commemorates his subject, generally speaks as a friend or as a spokesman for the larger group. Consider, for instance, Mark Antony's funeral encomium for Caesar, in which the speaker begins in the role of Caesar's friend and ends by becoming an agent for the Roman people, who are the proper recipients of Caesar's will. Epideictic rhetoric builds community. At the same time, however, the encomium seeks to fill a void, to compensate for some loss. Antony, after all, comes not to praise Caesar, but to bury him. In Sonnet 85, the golden words of other writers compensate for the silence of the speaker's own "tongue-tied" muse. But if these hymns free the speaker to cry "Amen" in solidarity with other encomiasts, they also cast him in a satiric light, as the only "unlettered" clerk among a host of golden pens.

The art of charactery, as the aftermath of Mark Antony's disquisition on honor points out, can also be violent. Sonnet 122 paints an optimistic picture in which the alphabetic characters of the beloved's "tables," by being transferred into living memory, will last "even to eternity" (1 and 4). In 2 Henry VI, by contrast, Gloucester complains that Henry VI's marriage to Margaret of Anjou will be the end of empire, fame, and even national memory. In what the Cardinal calls a "peroration," Gloucester laments,
 O peers of England, shameful is this league!
 Fatal this marriage, cancelling your fame,
 Blotting your names from books of memory,
 Razing the characters of your renown,
 Defacing monuments of conquer'd France,
 Undoing all, as all had never been!
 2 Henry VI, 1.1.94-99)

The "characters" of renown will be erased with the same violence with which monuments are defaced in war, evoking the medieval equation between a tortured body and the book whose vellum is stretched and scraped in preparation for writing and scraped again for correction, revision, or recycling. (4)

In Hamlet, Polonius expresses the sonnet speaker's optimism concerning the vitality and permanence of memory's writing when he advises his son, "These few Precepts in thy memory / See thou character" (1.3.58-59); but Polonius is not so trusting as to substitute precepts for spies. He knows that the exercise of memory through written characters is tiring, even painful, and often ineffective. As Mary Carruthers comments, "Writing was always hard physical labor, very hard as well on the surface on which it was being done; this vigorous physical aspect, I believe, was always part of that master model of memory as a written surface" (4). Hamlet demonstrates the concentrated energy of a medieval scribe when he vows to the ghost that he will wipe clean and reconfigure the tables of his memory: "Thy commandment all alone shall live / Within the book and volume of my brain, / Unmix'd with baser matter" (Hamlet, 1.5.102-3). His act of charactery--erasing past sayings and inscribing new words to live by--causes significant trauma; for Hamlet is at once pen and paper, his brain suffering injuries of its own devising. But all this industry and pain neither sharpen Hamlet's memory, if his famous delays are to be credited, nor help him to translate memory's marks into an expressive rhetoric of praise and commemoration.

When early modern "character" is made either the subject or verb of poetic discourse, as in the examples cited above, the result seems, in many ways, to be a textbook application of Derridean deconstruction. Sonnet 85, for instance, opposes a "true spirit" and authentic voice avant la lettre--qualities of the "un-lettered" speaker--to the sophistically "refined" pens of rival poets, but the poet's voice, ironically, is reduced to echoes of "Amen." The spirit gives life, but the letter kills. Calling upon what Joel Fineman labeled the "grammar of poetic presence," the sestet to Sonnet 108 defies death, opposing love's "first conceit" to "outward form": (5)
 So that eternal love in love's fresh case
 Weighs not the dust and injury of age,
 Nor gives to necessary wrinkles place,
 But makes antiquity for aye his page,
 Finding the first conceit of love there bred
 Where time and outward form would show it dead.

But once again, the speaker's insistence on privileging inner qualities over outer marks is undermined by a subsequent pun on antiquity's eternal "page," who is at once the "sweet boy" the poem celebrates and the inert material on which his praise is written. In Sonnet 108, attending to the grammar of early modern character leads inevitably to engagement with its deconstructive rhetoric, to use Paul de Man's formulation of this linguistic dialectic. (6)

In Shakespeare's sonnets, discourse about character(s) can be considered theoretical not only because its themes and tropes are liable to deconstruction, but because the concerns of post-structuralist theory are prefigured in Shakespeare's sonnet rhetoric. (7) This is not necessarily an ahistorical argument, for as Fineman concluded, "If a history of the subject of subjectivity were ever to be written, Shakespeare would necessarily occupy a privileged place within it, not only because Shakespeare invented strong characters, but also because those characters have come subsequently to pose themselves to theoreticians of subjectivity as pressing problems to be solved" (46). The theoretical quality of Shakespearean character, therefore, is at once a matter of origins and of reception.

An Early Modern Rhetoric of Character

While Fineman makes the strong argument that Shakespeare's sonnets mark a significant moment in the development of early modern subjectivity, there are other venues where the tension between a grammar and rhetoric of personation becomes explicit. One of these is the "Character" as a minor literary genre, which was derived from classical rhetoric and enjoyed brief popularity in England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Self-consciously archaic in both form and content, the genre models a rhetoric for reading people that, while perversely refusing subjectivity to the objects of its scrutiny, raises many of the same theoretical issues as are found in the sonnet tradition.

The Character, in the sense of a formal "description, delineation, or detailed report of a person's qualities" (number 14 in the OED), originates with Theophrastus, Aristotle's student and his successor as head of the Lyceum. Some scholars think that Theophrastus's Characters were intended as models for dramatic figures, others, that they provided orators with a handy reference for gauging audiences. While the Theophrastan Characters base persuasion on an ability to categorize people efficiently into social and moral types, they also promote a rhetorical view of selfhood derived from Aristotelian ethics, where habitual action hardens gradually into moral character by repetition. We act in the public sphere, and by acting acquire character. In Aristotelian ethics, repeated behavior can lead equally to virtue or vice, but character portraiture traditionally has shown more interest in vice than in virtue.

If the sonnet operates according to hyperbole, the principal trope of the rhetoric of praise, the Character usually works by meiosis, or systematic belittlement. The Theophrastan Characters "place" people according to their qualities. Individual portraits are strung together from sharply etched details that are loosely connected by "and," imitating the narrator's wandering eye. These qualities are, however, the sediment of specific behaviors. Theophrastus describes actions formulaically, using a tense that connotes probability but translates best into English as the future tense. A character "is likely to say this and that," or "he will do so and so." A Theophrastan narrative is therefore iterative, describing once something that has happened many times. (8) Character promises stability, a vivid snapshot of human behavior that allows a reader--and his doppelganger, the narrator--to make quick, accurate judgments about people who are, almost without exception, objectionable. The Character also provides assurance that these undesirables will stay in role. Characterization therefore becomes a method of social self-defense.

On the surface, the early modern Character promotes an essentialist, even naive view of the social self. While you or I might have "subjectivity," out there lurk a host of simple Characters who, fortunately, can be placed easily into one of a finite number of descriptive slots. But the rhetoric of characterization, like the meditations on its grammar in Shakespeare's sonnets, is subject to classic deconstruction, for the dramatic scene around which the Characters take shape and the nature of the persons under observation work against the portrait's implicit claims to objectivity and truth.

In Theophrastus's portrait of the Flatterer, which has numerous Renaissance analogues, the Flatterer pulls loose threads from his patron's cloak and bends his eyes toward the patron even when his attention should be elsewhere: "He tells everybody else to keep quiet when you are speaking, too, and he praises you in your hearing, or if you stop talking for a moment he puts in a 'Well said!' And when you try some feeble joke he will burst out laughing at it, with his coat stuffed against his mouth as if he had tried to hold back but couldn't." (9) Looked at from a proper distance, such idiosyncrasies as laughing into one's sleeve seem at worst annoying, at best ludicrous. Up close, however, the Flatterer can be dangerous. In most accounts, the Flatterer works through disguise and what Bishop Hall labels his "mercenary tongue," using effectively the gestures and props of an actor. That is why his rhetorical gestures reward study.

Not all Characters are deceptive or difficult to read. Theophrastus's Repulsive Man, for instance, is all sores and smells. His exterior could fool or seduce no one, but the Repulsive Man still poses a social threat: he is the Renaissance's sturdy beggar, Edgar in the guise of Poor Tom enforcing charity from hapless passersby. How different is the Repulsive Man from Sir Thomas Overbury's Whore, whose body is now the "tilted Lees of pleasure, dasht over with a little decking to hold colour," but who once courted her own great one? And how different, then, is the Whore from the Very Whore, who "kisseth open mouth'd, and spits" in an unsanitary manner into "the palmes of her hands to make them moyst," but nevertheless is financially successful, "living upon the spoyle of stragglers"? (10) There is a difference of degree, rather than kind, that gives further urgency to the art of reading character. If Gertrude, for instance, is in Hamlet's eyes a "Very Whore," how long before she degenerates into disease and how long before Ophelia follows her example?

The Ethos of Charactery

Like memory itself, whose operations it schools, the art of characterization is painful, producing in readers a tendency toward fear and loathing that is barely contained beneath a veneer of smug superiority. Characters teach us that habit makes vice manifest and unattractive, but then admonish readers to exercise caution against the wiles of a parade of deceptive social types. The natural mood of charactery therefore ranges between self-deprecating irony and satire. Entrapment in a timeless state is a humbling experience. The speaker of Sonnet 108, for instance, is caught in an iterative bind, unable to do more than "each day say o'er the very same; / Counting no thing old, thou mine, I thine, / Even as when first I hallowed thy fair name" (6-8). The speaker of sonnet 85 is reduced to phatic repetitions of others' praise, sub voce agreement that "'tis so" and "'tis true" (9). For the speakers of these sonnets, the only rhetorical role available is comic self-effacement.

A counterpart to the sonnet speaker from Shakespearean drama might be Petruchio as bridegroom, as he is represented in Biondello's Character or effictio, a description based on physical characteristics, such as his clothes and his horse (The Taming of the Shrew, 3.2.41-57). Tranio and Biondello riff on issues of temporality and sexual pleasure, quibbling over whether Petruchio "comes," "is coming," or "comes not" (42, 58, and 68), resolving finally that he did not come; rather, "his horse comes with him on his back" (72). This description of Petruchio is comic, but the social implications of its symbolism are not. Beneath the banter about "came" and "come" lies a darker concern with Petruchio's moral "character." Is he playing the Fool? Is he truly mad? Or does Biondello's portrait belie in Kate's future husband a settled tendency toward parsimony, violence, and sexual vice, with the attendant promise of disease? All of these possibilities are evoked by Petruchio's costume, behavior, and the condition of his horse; Kate herself becomes nothing more than "mad Petruchio's wife" (3.2.19). In this set piece, Kate and Petruchio are caught in the iterative narrative of a Theophrastan Character that freezes their behavior as stereotype and subjects them to the genre's pervasive irony. While in Taming, caricature is relatively gentle, portraiture can be positively savage, as some of the examples from Theophrastus reveal. At the further end of the spectrum in early modern characterization lie such exegeses as Overbury's Very Whore, Hamlet and the Ghost's duet on female frailty, and Bosola's description of woman's cosmetic cover in The Duchess of Malfi.

Dominated as the genre is by irony as a master trope, it might be difficult to see how Theophrastan Characters might provide useful experience with not merely tearing down the facades of false friends, but also building a self. In Cymbeline, the lost princess Imogen, trying on a new role as family cook in the Welsh mountains, cuts vegetables into "characters," either pleasing shapes or alphabetic letters (4.2.51). Imogen's essay in charactery seems intended to combat all the negative effects of the rhetorical exercises that have been discussed here. With no genealogy, no family, and indeed no stable gender, Imogen resorts to characterization as a hedge against depression, chaos, and the void. Her optimism, like that of the sonnet speaker embroiled in a different gender quandary, is performed in the optative mood, as something between a wish and a command, an effort to re-form reality according to certain tropes and figures. Imogen therefore brings us full circle to the realization that charactery is a techne or technology, a medium through which identity is constructed.

Character as Technology

For the substantive noun "character," definitions 3b and 3c in the OED refer first, in an obsolete sense, to the technique of taking shorthand notes; and, second, to "one of a set of letters, digits, of other symbols which can be read, stored, or written by a computer and used to denote data." Character offers both method and data for the social drama by which identity or selfhood is formed. From a historical perspective, the exercise of characterization remained largely unchanged between the time of Theophrastus and the age of Shakespeare. More theoretically, perhaps, the rhetorical practice of characterization answers a persistent human need to place other persons, to cope with fears of the other, and to forge technologies for interacting with and "placing" the other. Because Characters have a heuristic function, they are directed less toward the current situation than toward future dangers. Character portrayal provides exercise for those times when upright citizens might find themselves, like Justice Overdo, wandering cluelessly through the Fair. Charactery sustains and offers consolation to the lost princess, who like Imogen, has just been misdirected by Welsh beggars and then awoken on the corpse of a man she supposes to be her husband.

There may always have been, and perhaps always will be, "character." But what better era to embrace this particular techne than the early modern period, which, as Cynthia Marshall has argued, balances the emerging autonomous self of modernism against a literary preoccupation with the "shattering of the self"? (11) Who could need "character" and its technologies more than the early moderns did? Who, indeed, besides ourselves?


(1.) During the "reign of theory," a few voices have called for new theories of character based on frameworks ranging from role theory to semiotics, phenomenology, and moral philosophy. Some examples might be Christy Desmet, Reading Shakespeare's Characters: Bhetoric, Ethics, and Identity (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992); Imtiaz H. Habib, Shakespeare's Pluralistic Concepts of Character: A Study in Dramatic Anamorphism (Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 1993); Bert O. States, Hamlet and the Concept of Character (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992); William Dodd, "Destined Livery? Character and Person in Shakespeare," Shakespeare Survey 51 (1998): 147-58; and Mustapha Fahmi, "Shakespeare: The Orientation of the Human," in Harold Bloom's Shakespeare, ed. Christy Desmet and Robert Sawyer (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 97-107.

(2.) I refer to the title of David Scott Kastan's book, Shakespeare After Theory (London: Routledge, 1999). For the project of historicizing early modern character see, for instance, the recent panel on "From Theater to Theory: New Views of Renaissance Character"--with papers by James E. Berg, Julie Solomon, and William Dodd--at the Renaissance Society of America, Cambridge, April 2005.

(3.) All references to Shakespeare's works are to the Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. (New York: Norton, 1997).

(4.) Mary Carruthers, "Reading with Attitude, Remembering the Book," in The Book and the Body, ed. Dolores Warwick Frese and Katherine O'Brien O'Keefe (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997), 1-33.

(5.) Joel Fineman, Shakespeare's Perjured Eye: The Invention of Poetic Subjectivity in the Sonnets (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 7.

(6.) Paul de Man, "Semiology and Rhetoric," in Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Rilke, Nietzsche, and Proust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 3-19.

(7.) It could be argued that Shakespeare's sonnets constitute a special case, demonstrating a particularly post-structuralist engagement with "subjectivity effects." This avenue has been ably explored by Joel Fineman in Shakespeare's Perjured Eye. The best theoretical analysis of Renaissance character along these lines remains Jonathan Goldberg's essay "Shakespearian Characters: The Generation of Silvia," in his Voice/Terminal/Echo: Postmodernism and English Renaissance Texts (London: Methuen, 1986), 68-123; see also Goldberg's Shakespeare's Hand (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

(8.) Gerard Genette distinguishes between "singulative" and "iterative" narratives in Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, trans. Jane E. Lewin (1972; repr., Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980), 16.

(9.) Theophrastus: The Character Sketches, trans. Warren Anderson (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1970), 11. There is a remarkable continuity of rhetoric within the genre from the Greeks to the Renaissance. Sir Thomas Overbury's the Flatterer, for instance, "is a good wood-man, for he singleth out none but the wealthy. His carriage is ever the colour of his patient; and for his sake hee will halt or weare a wry necke." The Flatterer also "will play any upon his countenance, and where he cannot be admitted for a counseller, he will serve as a foole" (The "Conceited Newes" of Sir Thomas Overbury and His Friends, ed. James E. Savage [Gainesville, FL: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1968], 73-74). In Bishop Joseph Hall's Characters of Vertues and Vices, the Flatterer's "tongue walkes ever in one track of unjust praises, and can no more tell how to discommend, than to speak true. His speeches are full of wondering interjections; and all his titles are superlative, and both of them seldome but ever in presence. His base mind is well matched with a mercenary tongue, which is a willing slave to another mans eare; neither regardeth he how true, but how pleasing" (Heaven upon Earth and Characters of Vertues and Vices, ed. with an introduction by Rudolf Kirk [New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1968], 181). (10.) Overbury, 112 and 114-15.

(11.) Cynthia Marshall, The Shattering of the Self: Violence, Subjectivity, and Early Modern Texts (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002).
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Author:Desmet, Christy
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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