Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 5, No. 0770.  Monday, 3 October 1994.
From:           E. L. Epstein <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Saturday, 01 Oct 1994 18:20:07 EDT
Subject: 5.0762  Re: Character
Comment:        RE: SHK 5.0762  Re: Character
In re character in drama: Kagen, Godshalk, and Pearson, while insisting on
relativism in interpreting fictional or dramatic *persons,* have effectively
abandoned the notion that these characters are simply emblematic or
conventional signs, so half the battle is won. The other half concerns the
scope of interpretation, and we are back to the Hirsch-Kermode battle. However,
as a rough guide, I find it unlikely that anyone has ever seen Macbeth as a
*tender lover.*  (*Did* anyone? Source here, if possible.)
(However, I once did have a student who interpreted Donne's holy sonnet *Batter
my heart, three-personed God" as an allegory on oil exploration--battering
through the ground to the oil pool, and so on. And yet why did I reject this
Another point against relativism: the worst villains in Shakespeare--Macbeth,
Iago, Richard III, Edmund the bastard, let us say--are all villains of
different types, different as *people.* If we were simply bound upon the leaden
wheel of relativism, wouldn't it be just as likely that we felt free to see all
of them as the *same* sort of *person*? It is just as likely that seven throws
of a coin will come up with seven heads in a row as it is that they will come
up alternate head and tail. Yet we do not, in my opinion, see all Shakespearean
villains as the same example of villainy.
Relativism in interpretation historically derives from cultural relativism
which itself originated in the growth of anthropology. Yet I have found that
cultural relativism in anthropology gives way when knowledge of the various
peoples studied increases. The more we see of people, and the more deeply we
understand their cultures, the more alike they seem. The bored middle-class
American and the bored Inuit wanderer shake hands over the relativistic chasm.
So it is with fictional and dramatic characters.  E L Epstein

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