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  • Shakespeare and Character: Theory, History, Performance, and Theatrical Persons
  • Christy Desmet (bio)
Shakespeare and Character: Theory, History, Performance, and Theatrical Persons. Edited by Paul Yachnin and Jessica Slights. Houndmills, Basingstoke, UK, and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Pp. xiv + 249. $90.00 cloth.

"Character has made a comeback. Having all but disappeared from Shakespeare criticism as an analytic category in the second half of the twentieth century, [End Page 581] the idea of character has now begun to reemerge as an important—perhaps even an essential—way of thinking about the political, ethical, historical, literary, and performative aspects of early modern theater" (1): so begins Paul Yachnin and Jessica Slights's introduction to Shakespeare and Character. The body of the book is divided into four sections that reflect the authors' diverse perspectives on character in Shakespearean drama.

The first section, "Theory," includes three essays that establish an intellectual framework for subsequent analyses. The lead piece, Michael Bristol's "Confusing Shakespeare's Characters with Real People," treads a careful path between establishing self and character as intrinsic parts of human experience and acknowledging the reality of historical differences in constructions of selfhood. Bristol's bold conclusion—"We don't need any specialized historical knowledge to understand Constance or Shylock or Lady Macbeth if we are really alive to our own feelings and capable of empathy with other people" (38)—is arrived at primarily by way of moral philosophy; performance and pretense become the means by which people shape and maintain a self and interact responsibly with others. Trevor Ponech's "The Reality of Fictive Cinematic Characters" works through a complicated analysis of the ontology of film that opposes the "realism" of its characters to the material operations of its technology. While both a filmic "character" and the stromboluminescent display (SLD) of film are constructs, the perception of agency in fictive persons ultimately is what makes them worth analysis and appreciation. William Dodd, in "Character as Dynamic Identity," continues his earlier work in the semiotics of characterization to demonstrate how Shakespeare's characters are constructed through what he calls their "discourse biographies," concluding with thoughts about how audiences might have interacted with Shakespeare's "character-effects" in the Globe Theatre (62, 63).

The second section, "History," reconsiders the concept of personhood in early modern culture. André G. Bourassa offers a new and useful philological account of the term "personage" from ancient Greece to the Renaissance, which concludes that the personnages of early modern theater, even those tightly inscribed within codified types, were bearers of meaning that mediated between actor and audience. James Berg, in one of the strongest essays in the volume, discusses character in King Lear as "property" (99), an effect of the close association between persons and their possessions. While character as commodity exists to be read, the shedding of properties in explications of character moves beyond and resists the act of reading. In extreme situations, such as Gloucester's blindness, readers and audiences can experience the "texture" (112) of character in a way that transcends the material conditions that produce it. Finally, Leonore Lieblein uses Thomas Heywood's Apology for Actors (1612) as a touchstone to explore the phenomenology of acting as a tension between identification (of both actor and audiences with the "'person personated'" on stage [100]) and the corporeal histories of actors and audiences.

Part 3, "Performance," moves the discussion more explicitly into theatrical practice. Paul Yachnin and Myrna Wyatt Selkirk report on a pedagogical experiment in meta-theater that identifies the "theatrical risk" (140) taken by actors in direct [End Page 582] address to the audience as a locus in which character emerges and metamorphoses from performance to performance. Andrew James Hartley, drawing on his experiences as dramaturge for the Georgia Shakespeare Festival, critiques the dominant theories of acting as representation by demonstrating how the interplay between dramatic role and actor (particularly in the case of a popular local actor performing over a number of years in the same company) shapes the habitus of theatrical character. Robert Weimann, extending his earlier analysis of the semiotics of locus and platea on Renaissance stages, argues that early modern character involved a doubleness in impersonation: characters are...


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