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Home :: Archive :: 2005 :: November ::
Living Characters
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.1946  Thursday, 25 November 2005

[1] 	From: 	Abigail Quart <
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	Date: 	Wednesday, 23 Nov 2005 12:01:18 -0500
	Subj: 	RE: SHK 16.1940 Living Characters

[2] 	From: 	Stuart Manger <
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	Date: 	Wednesday, 23 Nov 2005 18:54:14 -0000
	Subj: 	Re: SHK 16.1926 Living Characters

[3] 	From: 	Bruce Young <
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	Date: 	Wednesday, 23 Nov 2005 14:36:44 -0700
	Subj: 	RE: SHK 16.1926 Living Characters

[4] 	From: 	David Bishop <
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	Date: 	Wednesday, 23 Nov 2005 18:13:26 -0500
	Subj: 	Re: SHK 16.1940 Living Characters

[5] 	From: 	L. Swilley <
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	Date: 	Thursday, 24 Nov 2005 08:31:28 -0600
	Subj: 	Re: SHK 16.1940 Living Characters

[6] 	From: 	Douglas Galbi <
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	Date: 	Friday, 25 Nov 2005 12:14:39 -0500
	Subj: 	Living Characters


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Abigail Quart <
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Date: 		Wednesday, 23 Nov 2005 12:01:18 -0500
Subject: 16.1940 Living Characters
Comment: 	RE: SHK 16.1940 Living Characters

John V. Knapp:

 >"That is,
 >for example, that Hamlet cannot be conceptually separated very easily
 >from King Hamlet, Gertrude, & Claudius-not only as interactive plot
 >elements but also as members of a (represented) family system in which
 >each responds to a previous move by another, and each one's speech is in
 >great part responsive to and generated by both spoken and unspoken
 >elements of another that could go back many years.  This is hardly the
 >stuff of soap-opera, but representative of eons of behavior in homo
 >sapiens!"

That is exactly the stuff of soap opera. The principle difference 
between serial drama (soap opera) and plays is that in soaps there's a 
morning after. Fortinbras wakes up, checks to see if the funeral 
arrangements are going well, has breakfast with Horatio, and introduces 
him to the sister we didn't know he had. Then we start dealing with her 
terrible secret which leads us to discover the real reason Horatio 
stayed in Elsinore even after Hamlet went to England.

The plots and human relationships in Shakespeare could not be soapier. 
It is the language, the poetry, the relationships of images that reveal 
endless layers of associated concepts that make the difference between 
Shakespeare's work and that of Guza and Pratt on General Hospital.

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Stuart Manger <
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Date: 		Wednesday, 23 Nov 2005 18:54:14 -0000
Subject: 16.1926 Living Characters
Comment: 	Re: SHK 16.1926 Living Characters

What was beginning to rankle is that there seems to be a line of 
interpretation emerging that credits characters in plays with 'modern' 
and different choices other than those implicit in the text and the 
play's outcomes as set out by the writer.

Surely characters in plays are not autonomous beings, and they touch us 
precisely because this is so: we are able to see as if in some 
metaphysical laboratory a series of futures controlled and schemed out 
by the dramatist for a series of complex and sometimes excitingly 
ambivalent purposes that move us to take lessons, or make comparisons 
with other plays, or with our own lives, with relationships or outcomes 
we know of in history etc. But such subjective interpretative glosses 
are not Shakespeare's, but ours. The language and imagery are his. If I 
write a novel, then the world in it is as I have constructed it. The 
material may touch lives, spark interest, rejection, hatred etc, BUT the 
world of moral choices within that novel is the one I construct. The 
characters cannot make choices other than those I give them. For me, 
this is what gives a piece of literature its whatness, its integrity. It 
is not life, it is like life.

So, within those parameters, the characters cannot unsay the words and 
images Shakespeare gives them, and they cannot change their minds nor 
can we as audience / readers / critics / scholars change or ignore the 
consequences of these characters words and actions. We can interpret 
them, we can contextualise them within Shakespeare's own cultural 
milieu, or maybe our own, but if for example, a production does NOT get 
Hamlet to stab Polonius through the arras, or makes Lear not divide his 
kingdom, then the entire tapestry falls apart. All the constituent parts 
hang together in a marvellous symmetry and order.

A number of postings recently have seemed to attribute to characters 
actions / motives / attitudes / ideologies so far from what we read on 
the page as to render the plays pretty well unrecognisable as 
Shakespeare. Some scholars like Stephen Orgel, David Lindley are 
revelatory and thought-provoking, and innovating stage productions can 
offer similarly radical new ways into the plays - I think of Peter 
Brook's King Lear or MND, for example, and I am sure list members will 
add their own, BUT there has to come a point at which extravagant 
innovation in stage trope or critical reading becomes sufficient 
eccentricity to obscure rather than reveal. If we forget that and 
over-attribute to his characters actions / motives quite outside their 
cultural context, or attribute to Shakespeare what he almost certainly 
could never have known, our investigations begin to take wing to become 
flights of nice fancy but poor scholarship.

Maybe this all seems like a mountain producing the ridiculous mouse, but 
Holger Syme's words and subsequent horrified reactions forced me to try 
to articulate something. I think that in a number of ways David Bishop 
probably put it better than I have.

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Bruce Young <
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Date: 		Wednesday, 23 Nov 2005 14:36:44 -0700
Subject: 16.1926 Living Characters
Comment: 	RE: SHK 16.1926 Living Characters

I almost entirely agree with David Bishop.  The two points I would add 
include one he would probably not dispute: that there are many other 
ways of experiencing and talking about plays in addition to treating the 
characters (imaginatively) as if they were real people.  He might 
dispute my second point: that a writer's intentions are not the only 
source of the imagined reality (including the characters) that 
constitutes "the world of the play."

Since Shakespeare was a conscious agent who wrote scripts (with varying 
degrees of lesser participation by others), his intentions are certainly 
relevant, though as David notes we can only infer them.  But much of 
what resulted when Shakespeare put together a script may not have 
proceeded from his conscious intentions.

All sorts of factors may have come into play: semi-conscious 
assumptions, the exigencies of the theater, momentary inspirations or 
indulgences, or the residue of earlier versions of the story, not to 
mention whatever others did with the script after it left his hands. 
And of course when we talk about "the play," we may mean either the 
action, characters, setting, etc., we imagine when we read the script 
(usually in a modern edition) or a performance in which many other 
agents will have helped shape the imaginary world we witness.

I have no doubt Shakespeare's intentions had a great deal to do with 
constituting what we call the characters in his plays.  But they are not 
the only source of the details that lead us to imagine those characters. 
  And since, in any case, we don't know Shakespeare's intentions 
independently of the texts, we may as well treat the texts themselves as 
the main source of evidence when we are discussing characters.

By the way, I do not agree with Terence Hawkes when he says (as he once 
did) that "there is no 'work itself,'" for I think that, even with all 
these complicating factors, each of Shakespeare's plays has a 
sufficiently coherent identity that we can know we are talking about 
roughly the same thing when we talk about a particular play and can 
recognize a production as being of a given play and not of something 
else.  In other words, we have access to something approximating the 
scripts Shakespeare wrote and the actions, characters, etc., he imagined 
and wanted others to imagine.

But given all the complicating factors-including multiple versions of 
some plays and the effect of time, culture, and individual temperament 
on responses to the plays-I can certainly sympathize with Hawkes's 
hyperbole.  It's hard to think of a given play as an absolutely 
singular, stable entity.  But as long as we pay due attention to the 
complicating factors, I think we can talk about the play texts as if 
they actually exist and mean something.

Bruce Young

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		David Bishop <
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Date: 		Wednesday, 23 Nov 2005 18:13:26 -0500
Subject: 16.1940 Living Characters
Comment: 	Re: SHK 16.1940 Living Characters

Martin Steward is right that criticizing a play as unrealistic assumes 
that the characters are being treated as people, who in real life would 
not act this way. I was, a bit carelessly, trying to make a slightly 
different point. Since we have been concerned with wild theories about 
the real lives of characters that go far beyond, and even against, what 
is justified by the evidence of the play, I wanted to point out that 
such a simple, common complaint as unrealism also treats characters as 
people. Martin will no doubt say that it's not necessarily right just 
because it's common, and of course that's true. But before telling 
audiences that they are approaching a play in the wrong way when they 
suspend their disbelief and respond imaginatively to characters as if 
they were people, it might be a good idea to ask what the problem is, 
and what this restriction requires, and accomplishes.

Shakespeare himself occasionally breaks or stretches the fourth wall, as 
with the fool in Lear. But the weight of the play quickly pulls the 
characters back into their space and our imaginations back into the 
position of suspended disbelief, even if we simultaneously maintain a 
critical detachment that allows us, for example, to feel moved and at 
the same time to admire the quality of the performance that so moves us. 
Suspension of disbelief seems as good a name as any for this act of 
imaginatively seeing characters as people. This is the effect the 
playwright is generally trying to produce--except in a small number of 
cases like Beckett, or Stoppard, who want to play with our supposedly 
naive and even reprehensible propensity to enter into the play in this 
way. So to speak of the characters as people seems to me generally in 
tune with the enterprise, as I think the insistence on their 
artificiality is not. That doesn't mean it's impossible to go wrong in 
your imaginative apprehension of a character--this is largely what 
critics argue about. Nor does it mean that we are actually fooled into 
believing characters are real. There's a spectrum here, including 
degrees of historical reality, as Marcia Eppich-Harris points out. But 
the overall point is that speaking of characters as people is not only 
not wrong but something critics ought to do, as long as they stick to 
the limits imposed on the character by the play.

One can, like many psychoanalytic critics, step beyond the bounds of the 
play and overdo the solidity of character. One can also err on the other 
side, as I think John Knapp does. He says, "Hamlet cannot be 
conceptually separated very easily from King Hamlet, Gertrude, & 
Claudius-not only as interactive plot elements but also as members of a 
(represented) family system in which each responds to a previous move by 
another". This seems to me a good example of the kind of convoluted 
criticism that becomes necessary when you want to deny at every turn 
that characters are people. I know what this means: the characters exist 
only in the play, and their characters are established by what happens 
in the play. That's fine, but it doesn't quite mean that "Hamlet cannot 
be conceptually separated very easily from King Hamlet, Gertrude, & 
Claudius". I would rather say that he can, that he's a quite different 
character from the others. Also, what does the parenthetical 
"represented" add except that we should not be fooled: this is only a 
play. Maybe it's a kind of professional responsibility to turn critical 
prose into sludge with these heavy-handed reminders inserted at every 
point where we might slip into talking about characters as people, but I 
don't think so. It seems to me the underlying argument is carried on in 
more or less the same way, except that new, awkward and unnecessary 
jargon must now surround everything to remind us it's only a play. I 
doubt if that will stop the cranks from doing their thing, and meanwhile 
I think it has a deleterious effect on critical writing, and thinking.

Perhaps those who disagree would recommend a model piece of Hamlet 
criticism, which takes care to avoid the trap of verisimilitude, and we 
apostles of naive identification could take a crack at it.

Best wishes,
David Bishop

[6]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		L. Swilley <
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Date: 		Thursday, 24 Nov 2005 08:31:28 -0600
Subject: 16.1940 Living Characters
Comment: 	Re: SHK 16.1940 Living Characters

Marcia Eppich-Harris writes,

 >Comparisons
 >between Shakespeare's interpretation of the person as a "character"
 >and the evidence that survives from the historical person are often
 >quite useful and add insight to the drama.

But I hope Ms. Eppich-Harris agrees that we do not apply the historical 
character as a gloss to the dramatic one as we read along in the play. 
Reading the whole play and understanding the whole character as though 
he were simply "Character X", we then may indeed remove ourselves to 
higher ground and say, "This is how Shakespeare presents the whole 
historical character." The historical character adds insight into the 
dramatic one first by our noticing the differences and likenesses 
between the whole historical character and the whole dramatic one; we 
may then look at particulars but never without respecting the 
consistencies we have established on either side.

L. Swilley

[6]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Douglas Galbi <
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Date: 		Friday, 25 Nov 2005 12:14:39 -0500
Subject: 	Living Characters

 >>Actually, Profs. Syme & Manger have taken merely one position in a VERY
 >>old debate about character as a literary construct.

This old debate becomes more interesting when you relate it to the 
actual circumstances in which Shakespeare lived.  In particular, Mary, 
the Mother of Jesus, was a character of central concern in 
sixteenth-century England.  Early in the century, many women and men in 
England went on pilgrimages to shrines to Mary, such as the shrine of 
Our Lady of Walsingham. They found there a statue of Mary, painted, 
wearing rich clothes and jewels, and they talked to her and asked her 
for her help.

 From 1535 to 1538, all Marian shrines in England were destroyed.  In 
1538, Our Lady of Walsingham was burned in a formal ceremony similar to 
that used to execute persons convicted of treason.

Subsequently, a much higher share of English females began to be named 
Mary.  The frequency of this name among newborn girls rose from about 1% 
c. 1500 to about 13% c. 1600.

So what did Shakespeare, the son of Mary, make of all this?  What sort 
of character was Mary to Shakespeare?

Most importantly, what does Shakespeare's dramatic success suggest about 
how persons make sense in communication and the value of new 
communication technologies?  For more data and analysis, see 
http://www.galbithink.org/sense-s5.htm  I think that there is room for 
much more useful scholarly work in this area.

Regards,
Douglas Galbi

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