VII. Characterizing Coriolanus
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VII. Characterizing Coriolanus ι ANY DISCUSSION of acting is inevitably a discussion of charac­ terization, and studies of Shakespearean tragedy, whatever their approach, inevitably concern themselves with Shake­ speare's characters and how we are meant to takethem. Though we may feel, for example, that we know Antony or Cleopatra rather differently from the way we know Macbeth, neverthe­ less we do feel we know them. And when we discuss them, we find ourselves talking about their characters as we talk about people we know in real life—though most of us will adopt a stern tone from time to time and point out that there is a difference between character in real life and character in drama. In fact, there may be less difference, or at least a different difference, than we think—for on what, finally, do we base our confidence that real people have characters and that we are capable of describing them? This is the trouble with characterization as a critical topic: we think we know what character is—or rather we think we know where it is and what kind of discourse best describes it. We think, or at least we generally speak as if we think, that it is to be found inside people, and we answer questions about character with summaries of inner qualities. This is a reasonable procedure and, it should be stressed, not a recent one. Nevertheless, it is true that in the past 150 years or so the description has tended more and more to stress the prob­ lematical and the psychological; character is seen as elusive, a subject for puzzle and argument, depending on the difficult and never entirely satisfactoryattempt to chart the way some­ one's mind works. And debate about dramatic character is Characterizing Coriolanus likely to turn on whether it is reasonable to expect this kind of novelistic presentation of character from plays, especially plays written before the nineteenth century. It is at this point that the discussion of character in drama becomes dangerously tangled, through the operation of hid­ den assumptions. For the implication in the typical debate I have described is that the psychological discourse of novels and novelizing psychology is the most accurate form for de­ scribing character in what we helplessly refer to as real life. But does our experience of other people correspond more to the helpful summaries of a novel or to the un-narratized en­ counters of a play? I do not mean to argue for any presumed metaphysical superiority of drama to the novel; what I wish to bring out is the potential for error in assuming that the original, as it were, of character is discursive and that drama must thus constitute a translation of that original into more foreign terms. It should be noted that my distinction applies not only to nineteeth-century novels and modern psychology, but to all discursive accounts of character, including Aristotle, Burton, or whomyou will.By comparisonwith any modeof discursive analysis, it can at least be argued that our experience as mem­ bers of a theater audience comes closer to the way in which we apprehend character in our daily encounters. Surely our efforts to characterize our friends and enemies—even the ef­ fort to characterize them as friends and enemies—follow, and always to a degree haltingly, after our experience of them, experience which, in the first instance, we approach through what Francis Fergusson calls the histrionic sensibility, the art, as it were, of finding the mind's construction in the face. The notion of characterization as description may well have had a significant influence on the study of character in drama. I think it explains why, beginning with Aristotle, critics fre­ quently maintain that character is somehow of secondary im­ portance in drama, the implicationclearly being that itis more important elsewhere, presumably in real life. With the con­ ception of character, as with so much else, the hidden as- Characterizing Coriolanus sumptions behind our normal critical vocabularytend tomake drama parasitic on narrative, and thus to distort our under­ standing of the effects and methods of the dramatist from the start. I turn to these matters now, in my final chapter, because they are engaged with special clarity by Coriolanus. Shake­ speare's last tragedy submits the whole question of character to a remarkable analysis. To begin with a point to which I would like to devote extended attention, it exhibits a concern unique in the Shakespearean canon with discursive charac...