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Home :: Archive :: 2006 :: May ::
Characters
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 17.0385  Wednesday, 3 May 2006

[1] 	From: 	Jennifer Drouin <
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 	Date: 	Tuesday, 2 May 2006 09:29:07 -0400
 	Subj: 	RE: SHK 17.0368 Characters, Motivations, Themes, and 
ULTIMATE Meanings

[2] 	From: 	R. A. Cantrell <
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 	Date: 	Tuesday, 02 May 2006 09:06:58 -0500
 	Subj: 	Re: SHK 17.0377 Characters

[3] 	From: 	Edmund Taft <
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 	Date: 	Tuesday, 02 May 2006 10:34:21 -0400
 	Subj: 	Characters

[4] 	From: 	John Ramsay <
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 	Date: 	Tuesday, 2 May 2006 11:34:59 +0100
 	Subj: 	Re: SHK 17.0373 Characters

[5] 	From: 	Will Sharpe <
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 	Date: 	Tuesday, 02 May 2006 16:26:12 +0100
 	Subj: 	RE: SHK 17.0377 Characters

[6] 	From: 	Bill Arnold <
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 	Date: 	Tuesday, 2 May 2006 08:40:05 -0700 (PDT)
 	Subj: 	Re: SHK 17.0377 Characters

[7] 	From: 	Bruce Young <
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 	Date: 	Tuesday, 2 May 2006 11:32:37 -0600
 	Subj: 	RE: SHK 17.0377 Characters

[8] 	From: 	Martin Steward <
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 	Date: 	Tuesday, 2 May 2006 19:23:31 +0100
 	Subj: 	SHK 17.0377 Characters

[9] 	From: 	Peter Goldman <
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 	Date: 	Tuesday, 02 May 2006 12:31:08 -0600
 	Subj: 	Re: SHK 17.0377 Characters


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Jennifer Drouin <
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Date: 		Tuesday, 2 May 2006 09:29:07 -0400
Subject: 17.0368 Characters, Motivations, Themes, and 
Comment: 	RE: SHK 17.0368 Characters, Motivations, Themes, and 
ULTIMATE Meanings

Bruce Young writes:

>"Characters (in any of several possible
>understandings of that word) are still a legitimate subject of academic
>discussion.  In fact, a resurgence of interest in characters seems to be
>taking place.  Michael Bristol gave an address on "the discovery of
>character" at the Shakespeare Association meetings in Bermuda last year,
>persuasively (for me at least) showing the relevance of the topic, and
>there is a seminar on "Shakespeare and Character" at the World
>Shakespeare Congress in Brisbane this summer."

Indeed, character still is a legitimate subject of academic discussion. 
Both Michael Bristol's SAA paper in Bermuda and Paul Yachnin's ISA seminar 
in Brisbane on character emerge, by the way, from the McGill Shakespeare 
and Performance Research Team's (SPRiTE) three year project on 
"Performances of Character: Shakespeare, Theatre, and Critical Practice". 
Interested members of SHAKSPER may read the project description (based on 
the grant proposal; it has continued to evolve since then) on the SPRiTE 
website at: http://www.shakespeare.mcgill.ca/

Bristol's earlier work on characters, or "fictional agents" as he calls 
them, is also highly relevant to this listserv's discussion. See, for 
instance, "How many children did she have?" in *Philosophical 
Shakespeares*. Ed. John J. Joughin. London: Routledge, 2000. 18-33. and 
"Vernacular Criticism and the Scenes Shakespeare Never Wrote." 
*Shakespeare Survey* 53 (2000): 89-102.

Jennifer Drouin
McGill University

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		R. A. Cantrell <
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Date: 		Tuesday, 02 May 2006 09:06:58 -0500
Subject: 17.0377 Characters
Comment: 	Re: SHK 17.0377 Characters

How many children hath Lady Macbeth?

All the Best,
R.A. Cantrell

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[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Edmund Taft <
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Date: 		Tuesday, 02 May 2006 10:34:21 -0400
Subject: 	Characters

Bill Godshalk's recent essay on this subject, "Shakespeare and the Problem 
of Literary Characters," www.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/2005, is a sophisticated 
analysis of a vexing question. Bill suggests that we really play a kind of 
game whenever we think or write about literary characters, pretending that 
they are what, in a literal sense, they are not - human beings.

I find it hard to disagree with Bill, especially since Renaissance theory 
- holding the mirror up to nature - supplies the "rules" of the game: to 
whit, pretend that the characters on the stage or page are people! I want 
to add, however, that if literary analysis of "characters" is a game, 
perhaps we should give the word _game_  a medieval definition. Chaucer 
teaches us that games can be serious. For example, courtly love is a game, 
but a serious one, as poor Troilus finds out by the end of Chaucer's great 
love poem. Business is a game, but a deadly serious one, and so is 
interpretation.  That's because interpretations of plays (Shakespeare, 
above all) have cultural consequences by shaping people's views of proper 
"values," views, and actions. In short, Shakespeare has become a kind of 
secular Bible for many these days - and critics are the high priests who 
"interpret" what Shakespeare "means."

I'd suggest that it would be fruitful for the members of this list to 
occasionally point to an essay of their own for us to read and comment on 
- on this list. Maybe that would focus discussions in a way that is more 
to Hardy's liking.

Ed Taft

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		John Ramsay <
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Date: 		Tuesday, 2 May 2006 11:34:59 +0100
Subject: 17.0373 Characters
Comment: 	Re: SHK 17.0373 Characters

For a poignant look at how unreal characters become more than real, review 
ee cummings' sonnet on the Canterbury Tales: 'Honour, corruption, 
villainy, holiness'.

Chaucer's fictional characters:
'come up from the never of when
come into the now of forever come riding alive'

While real people ....

John Ramsay

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Will Sharpe <
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Date: 		Tuesday, 02 May 2006 16:26:12 +0100
Subject: 17.0377 Characters
Comment: 	RE: SHK 17.0377 Characters

OK, I wasn't expecting to solve all the world's problems with that last 
mail, but there are a few things I still stand by. In answer to the 
question how are we to identify what is baseless, I would say that the 
main rule of thumb is Hardy. I've read many posts from him basically 
asking people to stop replying to or starting up discussions about Hamlet, 
but I suppose that extends to all plays when it comes to spontaneous 
criticism, of the kind that basically sounds, however reasoned, like 
shooting from the hip and often born (as far as I can tell) of a desire to 
converse with others about Shakespeare on a daily basis. I've no idea 
about the personal circumstances of most of the members of this list, but 
I can only guess that in some cases these circumstances are prohibitive to 
that desire, and, in the absence of the possibility of airing one's ideas 
face-to-face, debating partners must be met online. Now, I'm in no 
position to judge what is baseless (although in some cases it's easy to 
tell), but I think the main issue at stake here is a matter of common 
courtesy. Hardy, it seems to me, maintains this list out of a desire to 
keep a global scholarly forum going, but he also does it out of the 
goodness of his heart i.e. we don't all send him a subscription fee every 
year for the privilege, so if he says please stop talking about so-and-so, 
or count to ten before replying, what that means (I would say) is give me 
a break. I appreciate Don Bloom's criticism of my last mail, and of course 
there's no point in me trying to identify what constitutes baselessness, 
as all that will happen is people will write in disagreeing with what I've 
said. Nobody thinks their ideas are baseless or pointless, and what one 
person considers baseless, another will be deeply inspired by, so that 
kind of discussion would ultimately only be frustrating to all parties. 
However, if Hardy says something is baseless, and should be kept to 
oneself (or off-list), I'm stunned when people reply attacking him for 
these statements. I can only imagine the sheer amount of time spent 
editing this list every day, often in the face of physical ailments and 
family obligations, which could be made so much easier by certain people 
questioning their rates of contribution. SHAKSPER can be an incredible 
resource (pace my bibliographical query relating to Cuthbert Burby which 
was answered by Peter Blayney and David Kathman), but can also be a pain 
in the backside, seeing the same names every day, basically conversing 
with each other about topics that Hardy tries to suppress. If you have 
strong ideas about certain plays, write an essay, get it published, then, 
if people want to respond to it, they'll write an essays detailing its 
shortcomings or successes. My comment about the Hamlet blog meant that 
there are websites out there devoted to the kind of daily conversations 
about plays (which don't have a careful editor as we do), and which are 
the kind of service that is not what SHAKSPER is supposed to be. There are 
lots of senior academics on this list, and I find it amazing that people 
sometimes just write the first thing that comes into their heads, or talk 
as if they were chatting in a pub (bar), knowing that their emails will be 
received by senior members of the scholarly community as well as people 
whose interests are more general. I accept that this sounds snobbish, and 
I'm not a snobbish person at all, but I can see where Hardy is coming from 
when he asks people to give it a rest, or avoid certain things. As for the 
suggestion that I find textual scholarship more moving than the artworks 
to which it is applied, that is a silly thing to say, but it is also not 
the point. I deeply love, and am profoundly moved (emotionally and 
intellectually) by the plays of Shakespeare, but I air this side of myself 
in other ways, either when I am teaching my students, sitting in a 
theatre, or talking to others about it. Now, I don't want to put words 
into Hardy's mouth, and he may want to disagree with me, but I think that 
what SHAKSPER is supposed to be is a useful forum for those either 
actively engaged in research, or interested and knowledgeable enough about 
cutting edge research (which doesn't, but just might, involve impassioned 
discussions of the plays of Shakespeare), to swap ideas, suggestions, and 
pieces of evidence. It is also a very useful way of advertising events and 
publications. What this might mean in practical terms is that there may be 
days on end where there are no messages, or one or two, but not the 
constant flow of traffic which often seems - as I've said - like little 
more than a desire to talk energetically about moving works of art. 
Nothing wrong with that at all, but, I would argue, it probably for the 
most part shouldn't be done on this particular list.

Respectfully,
Will Sharpe

[6]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Bill Arnold <
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Date: 		Tuesday, 2 May 2006 08:40:05 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 17.0377 Characters
Comment: 	Re: SHK 17.0377 Characters

L. Swilley writes, "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."

This is a valid statement to me.  To illuminate it: let me refer to the 
debate ongoing in modern biography and one with which scholarship and 
journalism has much concern.  Everyone knows, or ought to, by now, that a 
recent biography of President Reagan had a *character* in it who was not 
real but fictional.  And Truman Capote had made up or *fictionalized* 
dialogue in his so-called nonfiction work: *In Cold Blood.*  For myself: I 
want *In Cold Blood* taken OFF the nonfiction list as it is fictional and 
merely based on some factual events.  Therefore, it is fiction.  As for a 
so-called biography which has an admittedly fraudulent *character* in it, 
well, again: that work belongs on the fiction list as well.  We are 
talking bookselling lists, here.

Back to Shakespeare: obviously, some of his plays have historical 
underpinnings but no one would suggest that Shakespeare's Caesar is other 
than fiction and a *character.* And Shakespeare's characters are NOT 
historical.  Just as Baz Lurhman's and Franco Zefferelli's Romeo and 
Juliet are NOT Shakespeare's play.  They are movie versions of their 
*interpretations* of the play.  Even Shakespeare's so-called "histories" 
should be called something else entirely.  It is a misnomer!

For me: as I have noted elsewhere, Shakespeare's works, the sonnets and 
the plays, are textual versions in books.  I read modern versions of both: 
sonnets and plays.  I rarely go to plays staged, and have seen some movie 
versions.  I did enjoy both Zefferelli's and Lurhman's "takes" on 
Shakespeare's modernised play.  I do not kid myself into thinking that any 
of us read Shakespeare in the original quartos and expect them to be 
faithful to Q 1 or Q2 or whatever.  Indeed, that is scholarly beyond 
words.  That ain't for me, nor even for most scholars.  I am sure a *few* 
Shakespeare scholars read them that way ALL the time.  Right.

I allege that modern scholarship is in a cycle, just as all things go 
though cycles.  Call it a PC thing: this need to de-humanize the plays and 
treat them as theatre and *theatre only.* What about the zillions of 
readers, like me, who actually *READ* the texts?

Bill Arnold
http://www.cwru.edu/affil/edis/scholars/arnold.htm

[7]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Bruce Young <
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Date: 		Tuesday, 2 May 2006 11:32:37 -0600
Subject: 17.0377 Characters
Comment: 	RE: SHK 17.0377 Characters

It appears characters still hold a good deal of interest for 
Shakespeareans.  I've found the recent posts on the subject stimulating, 
including those I don't entirely agree with.

Here are a few more of my thoughts, largely in agreement with Peter 
Goldman, who argues that "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)":

A few days ago Hardy questioned the academic relevance of characters' 
"back stories" but suggested that these are a legitimate subject of 
discussion in the classroom or on the stage, where actors may need to 
imagine possible lives for the characters they are trying to become.

Here, as I see it, is the problem.  Because dramatic characters have no 
existence outside their plays, they (presumably) have no history, except 
for what is explicitly stated in the text.  And even that is an imaginary 
history.  We might also argue that they have no motivations, no feelings, 
no agency, no consciousness-that they do not in fact think, act, or even 
speak: actors do that for them, or we imagine the characters doing it as 
we read.

Yet characters, even most narrowly defined, resemble persons, and persons 
have histories.  (As L. Swilley notes, it's probably better not to call 
them "persons"-"characters" or "personages" would be better.  Still, these 
imaginary entities resemble persons.)  Consequently, back stories are 
arguably relevant even in academic discussions, at least any academic 
discussions that deal with characters.

The fact is that, whether we are performing a character, watching a 
performance, reading a play, or even thinking about it, we imagine the 
characters as having histories, motivations, thoughts, and feelings.  (A 
propos, another seminar at the World Shakespeare Congress in Brisbane is 
titled "Emotion and Affect in Shakespeare.") The problem is that our 
imaginings go in various directions and sometimes begin differing more and 
more from anything that could be plausibly implied by the text.

My suggestion is that we discuss characters (and their possible 
motivations and histories) with care, intelligence, and textual 
support-and also with an awareness of current critical attitudes.  Even 
with these cautions, though, I realize that the possibilities of 
interpretation are so various that discussion is bound to be endless and 
inconclusive.  Is there some way to keep discussion of character focused 
and fruitful without banning it altogether?

On another matter, namely what constitutes "current academic interests": 
Academic fashions change.  They change partly because some people are 
willing to challenge them, or stretch them.  Of course, to be successful, 
those doing the challenging need to be persuasive.  And sometime they just 
have to have a good sense of timing.

Bruce Young

[8]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Martin Steward <
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Date: 		Tuesday, 2 May 2006 19:23:31 +0100
Subject: Characters
Comment: 	SHK 17.0377 Characters

"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," 
writes Marvin Krimms.

But this in itself begs a lot of questions regarding the textuality of our 
emotional responses to stimuli, as well as the textuality of those stimuli 
themselves.

Character, persona, life - all of these are texts, or textual constructs, 
which we read; even the characters, personae and lives of "really real" 
people.

Surely the reason those who argue against reading literary characters as 
"real people" do so is not that to read them in this way is foolish or 
childish per se (it isn't), but that reading them in this way fatally 
undermines our ability to understand the characters, personae and lives of 
ourselves and those around us as themselves textual - and thus radically 
contingent...?

m

[9]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Peter Goldman <
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Date: 		Tuesday, 02 May 2006 12:31:08 -0600
Subject: 17.0377 Characters
Comment: 	Re: SHK 17.0377 Characters

At a Shakespeare festival a few years back, the actor playing Angelo in 
MEASURE FOR MEASURE gave a presentation in which he explained how he 
approached his character. He was having a hard time finding an adequate 
motivation, so he invented a personal history for the character that would 
help with his motivation. I saw his performance, and it was quite good, so 
I can't criticize his methods.

But from what we know about Elizabethan stage practices, this is exactly 
*not* how an Elizabethan actor would approach his part. For one thing, the 
short rehearsal times would make such an approach impracticable. But more 
importantly, the English Renaissance conceived of character primarily in 
dramatic terms, and only secondarily in psychologically realistic terms.

They had a stock set of gestures to portray emotion, and they had a 
typology of characters that informed both the writing and performance of 
plays: the tyrant, the vice figure, the disguised Duke, the malcontent, 
the cuckold husband, the prodigal son, and so on. Of course, the 
fascinating thing about Shakespeare's great characters is that they exceed 
the generic conventions. Hamlet is not simply a stock "malcontent," nor 
does Falstaff collapse into the medieval vice figure, and even R3 exceeds 
the stock tyrant, especially in his wonderful monologue upon waking up 
from his nightmare in the 5th act. But the point is that his characters 
rely on the type for background; they are in dialogue with the theatrical 
stock character.

While Shakespeare's drama represents a quantum leap forward in dramatic 
realism, it is still far from the drama of Ibsen, not to mention the 
conventions of late 19th*early 20th century novelistic realism. I've seen 
far too many discussions of Shakespeare that apply the conventions of 
novelistic realism to a Jacobean comedy, and not just on listservs. The 
endless criticism on Duke Vincentio in MEASURE FOR MEASURE is a good 
example. The Duke is a functional character, "utterly unmimetic of 
anything in the real world," to quote Victoria Haynes' excellent essay on 
the play.

In regard to the claim that we must assume that *Shakespeare would not 
deliberately plant an inconsistency in his plays*: this is extremely 
problematic. Any artist will tell you that the process of creation is 
extremely messy, full of false starts, abrupt changes in conception, and 
felicitous missteps. The kernel for ULYSSES was a short story about 
Leopold Bloom for DUBLINERS. Anyone who's plowed their way through all the 
plays can testify that Shakespeare is capable of sloppy and incomplete 
work. In addition, the process of transmission often introduces 
inconsistencies. So we can't begin with the assumption that there are no 
inconsistencies in Shakespeare's plays. Eliot and others have argued 
plausibly that Shakespeare was not fully in control of his material when 
writing HAMLET; and that this lack of control is one source of the play's 
continued fascination, just like Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile.

In fact, one could argue that an artist is never fully in control of his 
material. I do think that language is intentional; I'm not a radical 
structuralist, but I agree with Bakhtin that language comes to us as the 
word of the other, which we must struggle with to make our own*a messy and 
incomplete process.

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