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Home :: Archive :: 2006 :: May ::
Characters
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 17.0377  Tuesday, 2 May 2006

[1] 	From: 	L. Swilley <
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	Date: 	Monday, 1 May 2006 11:04:54 -0500
	Subj: 	Character

[2] 	From: 	Marvin Bennet Krims <
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	Date: 	Monday, 1 May 2006 12:07:26 -0400
	Subj: 	RE: SHK 17.0373 Characters

[3] 	From: 	William Godshalk <
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	Date: 	Monday, 01 May 2006 13:00:12 -0400
	Subj: 	Re: SHK 17.0373 Characters

[4] 	From: 	Michael Luskin <
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	Date: 	Monday, 1 May 2006 13:20:22 EDT
	Subj: 	Reading into the characters

[5] 	From: 	Donald Bloom <
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	Date: 	Monday, 1 May 2006 15:55:19 -0500
	Subj: 	RE: SHK 17.0373 Characters


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		L. Swilley <
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Date: 		Monday, 1 May 2006 11:04:54 -0500
Subject: 	Character

Peter Goldman writes,

 >... the only way one can
 >make any coherent sense out of a dramatic work is precisely on
 >the presupposition (a "willing suspension of disbelief") that the
 >fictional characters ARE persons (even if not "real" persons).

The distinction, "persons" from "real persons": the first is a 
psychological term, and language that well might be used to discuss a 
psychological type - as presented in the Psychology textbooks. These do 
not absolutely require the creation of a likely childhood - although I 
suppose one might create such a psychological probability, provided it 
is, with extreme caution, incorporated into the criticism of the play as 
a factor thereof, the other parts of the play clarified by such 
contributions.

But should we not avoid the term "person" altogether, and concentrate on 
Character, that organic dimension of the play that establishes 
particular constructs of intellectual and moral qualities that make the 
Plot reasonable and likely?

And, of course, as Mr. Goldman says, the characters are not "real 
persons"; otherwise we would all rush on to the stage to slap the 
bejasus out of that silly Lear and Cordelia, and to awaken Duncan and 
his guards.

Mr. Goldman continues,

 > . . . we can legitimately
 >ask about Claudius's remorse over the murder of Hamlet
 >because the play itself raises this as an issue. On the other
 >hand, one cannot legitimately speculate about Claudius'
 >childhood because nowhere does the play raise this as an
 >issue. Shakespeare's great achievement in the creation of
 >Hamlet is the illusion of a character with a virtually limitless
 >depth of personality, indeed seemingly greater than many
 >real people.

If the "manufacture" of the possible events Claudius' childhood help us 
to a better understanding of the *character's* function in the play, I 
cannot see how it can be disallowed. If Claudius is identified as a 
psychological "type" explained by application to a commonly experienced 
childhood of such types, we may, with some profit, examine such 
childhood conditions - but only if we can, through them, better 
understand the Character as an organic part of the play. (On the other 
hand, I think that our ranging into psychological dimensions before we 
have a firm grip on the organic argument of the work that defines 
Character exclusively by what the character says and does, and what is 
said about him, often distracts us from the play and sends us off too 
soon into realms that may be attractive but distorting.)

We must be as cautious in the addition of psychological information 
about the character as we should be about the addition of 
historical/biographical about him. And although the first has some 
critical validity, for it arises from the action of the *character*, the 
second has none because it infinitely alters the very vocabulary 
describing that character, and ultimately makes understanding and 
interpretation of the play impossible.  We may gather the notes on the 
*character* Julius Caesar and see the character's likeness to a 
psychological type; we may NOT, until after the play as written is 
understood, bring our knowledge of the historical person of Caesar to 
the terms of the play. At the end of the play, we may say, "This is how 
Shakespeare presented the historical Caesar"; we may NOT explain an 
event in the play as it progresses by application to some biographical 
fact about the real Caesar. To understand the *character* Julius Caesar 
in the play, we would be wise to call the characters A and B, or Jimmie 
Joe and Salley Fae, and avoid the temptation to bring in biographical 
information.

L. Swilley

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Marvin Bennet Krims <
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Date: 		Monday, 1 May 2006 12:07:26 -0400
Subject: 17.0373 Characters
Comment: 	RE: SHK 17.0373 Characters

Well said, Peter.
	
If we cry on hearing of Ophelia's death, we cry not because of the 
literal words-on-the-page but because Shakespeare has created a real 
person in our minds, a person we have come to care about, take pity on 
and feel sad when she is no longer among those who live in our mind's eye.
	
Marvin
	
[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		William Godshalk <
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Date: 		Monday, 01 May 2006 13:00:12 -0400
Subject: 17.0373 Characters
Comment: 	Re: SHK 17.0373 Characters

In the following essay, I deal with some of the literary and 
philosophical problems of identifying squiggles on paper or screen as 
real people: "Shakespeare and the Problem of Literary Character" 
http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/2005_godshalk01.shtml The essay may 
amuse some folks and infuriate others.

Bill

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Michael Luskin <
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Date: 		Monday, 1 May 2006 13:20:22 EDT
Subject: 	Reading into the characters

It seems to me that Shakespeare developed three dimensional characters, 
other artists did somewhat less. Claudius is an INTERESTING personality, 
while the Jew of Malta is only striking.  We don't think much about the 
motivation of a tiger or an ameba, we only think about the motives of 
people.  The plot of Lear, in and of itself, is fascinating, the plot of 
Tamberlaine less so.

If we see a skyscraper, we can legitimately assume that it has a 
foundation, and civil engineers can make informed, important, and 
interesting (to them) surmises about that foundation.  In the same way, 
it is interesting to think about the personalities of Claudius and old 
Hamlet.  I would love to know more about Claudius.  Since it isn't in 
the play, I have to make do and supply it.  And of course it is 
essential that I do it in such as way that it legitimately extends or 
fleshes out what we do see in the play.

Where are the limits of what we can think about?  We see a fair amount 
about Claudius and remorse, and so we can talk about it a lot.  We see, 
fleetingly, a little about Claudius as a diplomat and a manipulator of 
people.  We can legitimately make surmises about his character in 
general, about how he spent his time when not in the play.

If we are constricted to think of them only as characters on the stage, 
we would not find them so interesting.


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  very wisely wrote:

 >On the other hand, one cannot
 >legitimately speculate about Claudius' childhood because nowhere does
 >the play raise this as an issue. Shakespeare's great achievement in the
 >creation of Hamlet is the illusion of a character with a virtually
 >limitless depth of personality, indeed seemingly greater than many real
 >people.

I am still bothered by Hardy Cook's admonition to avoid plot personality 
motivation.  What else is there?  I can see, and accept, and even 
usually agree with not looking for the ultimate one word meaning of 
Hamlet or finding all the proof that Measure for Measure is a play about 
monetary policy, or seeing Shakespeare's Jewishness as the key to his 
plays.  But I am uncomfortable about his even saying that.  I in fact 
have learned a lot from both whoever it was that argued for Measure for 
Measure as a treatise on monetary policy, and from the people that find 
Jewishness in every word of Shakespeare.

I in fact learn more, and think more, about the extreme posts than I do 
from the "witty" one liners that certain people are addicted to.

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Donald Bloom <
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Date: 		Monday, 1 May 2006 15:55:19 -0500
Subject: 17.0373 Characters
Comment: 	RE: SHK 17.0373 Characters

Will Sharpe writes "I think the real root of this problem is the fact 
that baseless discussions about character motivation/backstory/is play A 
better than play B etc. are simply not situated at the cutting edge of 
scholarship in this field." He later explains that "If you don't think 
there is [an academic standard of engagement, a level which it is 
possible to operate on], go to some conferences, stay up-to-date on the 
publication of journals and books, get some idea of what's going on in 
the field (textual scholarship, cultural theory, performance criticism, 
inter-disciplinary work) and it will become apparent that discussions 
about Hamlet's character would be best taken to someone's Hamlet blog."

I have, as the phrase goes, some issues with these statements.

1) "Baseless" seems to put back everything that the rest of the sentence 
asserts should be left out of our discussions. Are we to talk of nothing 
but "textual scholarship, cultural theory, performance criticism, 
inter-disciplinary work" or not? Are we never to talk of "character 
motivation," or of character at all? Or can we talk only when these 
discussions are not baseless?

I agree that baseless discussions are a waste of time (and I would allow 
that several on this list became baseless before Hardy put the kibosh on 
them), but I see a problem in deciding precisely what is baseless. I 
know what I think is baseless but I also know that I am not all-wise.

If you want precision, then you can dispense with these discussions 
altogether, which is what the rest of the sentence suggests and the 
remark about "Hamlet blog" appears to confirm. But why then qualify the 
assertion with the word "baseless"?

2) Of what possible value are "textual scholarship, cultural theory, 
performance criticism, inter-disciplinary work" except to illuminate 
works that we find fascinating because of (among other things) their 
remarkable exploration of character motivation?

I may be wrong here. Perhaps people are deeply moved by textual 
scholarship itself, divorced from any insight it may give into the 
mythos, ethos and dianoia of a given work.

But I, for good or ill, am not.

Cheers,
don

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