The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.1926 Tuesday, 22 November 2005
From: David Bishop <
Date: Monday, 21 Nov 2005 17:46:06 -0500
Subject: Living Characters
Several posts on the Dead Horses thread suggest one of the principal
bones of contention. Holger Syme and others claim that professionals
have now discovered that Shakespeare's characters are not living people,
and cannot be spoken of as if they were. I think this is a confused, and
confusing, position, though also a reaction (an overreaction) against
If we couldn't consider characters as if they were people how would we
enter into the spirit of a play? What would it mean to suspend our
disbelief, or get emotionally involved with a story? One way in which
characters resemble people comes out in the criticism that a play became
unrealistic, or that characters acted out of character.
When I speak of Hamlet's feelings, for example, or his unconscious, I am
speaking of what I take to be Shakespeare's intention: of the character
as Shakespeare intended to depict him. Since we can't ask Shakespeare, I
have to make an argument, built on the evidence of the play-as best we
can determine which text Shakespeare intended. It is also possible for a
play to have unintended effects: see the above criticism of unrealism,
for example. But that's a different question.
Arguments about what Shakespeare intended can of course be mistaken.
Sometimes they're so nutty as to suggest that the critic is driven
mainly by narcissistic exhibitionism. Many theories, and not only those
put forward by non-professors, are a waste of time. Theories that say,
for example, that Lady Macbeth had five children, or that Edmund is
Lear's son, or that Gertrude murdered Ophelia seem to me not only untrue
To make a good argument, though, is not so easy. Which hints about
characters are intended to be taken and which not? When does an argument
that seems possible when you emphasize one particular detail become
impossible when you consider the whole play? What counts as relevant
evidence and what doesn't? When does an argument get so vague it amounts
to a platitude, which says nothing of interest about a particular play?
These are questions that have to be worked through again and again.
There is no general, easy answer, like "don't treat characters as human
beings." I don't see how even those who say such things can actually
follow their own advice in practice-at that level of extremity.
There's also the question of purpose. An actor, for example, might
develop a detailed back story of a character to help them get into the
role. If it doesn't actually contradict anything in the play, where is
the harm? Even if it does, would that significantly hurt the performance?
In criticism, you have to think and feel your way into a play, which
sometimes involves seeing a meaningful pattern of implications. To do it
well takes education, empathy and art. One difficulty is that there may
be a thin line between originality and crankishness. It's sad but true
that professors are renowned for failing to tell the difference, in
their own time.
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