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Reviewed by:
  • Shakespearean Arrivals: The Birth of Character by Nicholas Luke, and: Shakespeare's Dramatic Persons by Travis Curtright
  • Yu Jin Ko (bio)
Shakespearean Arrivals: The Birth of Character. By Nicholas Luke. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. vi + 254.
Shakespeare's Dramatic Persons. By Travis Curtright. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2017. Pp. x + 186.

It may not be quite fashionable yet to talk about character, but at least it doesn't any longer have to be accompanied by apologies and embarrassment. A growing number of scholars are now joining the effort to revive the status of [End Page 303] A. C. Bradley and the importance of character, but from perspectives informed by the past century of criticism and thought. The two books under review here are a part of that effort. They are both highly persuasive and insightfully written, but could not be more opposite in approach and sensibility. Together, they provide a great illustration of the breadth and diversity of the emerging new character criticism.

I will begin with Nicholas Luke's Shakespearean Arrivals: The Birth of Character, because it is the more substantive of the two, and will, I believe, pose a more engaging challenge to a wider range of Shakespeare scholars. Luke joins scholars who are suspicious of what has come to be known (or caricatured) as the humanist concept of essentialist character: a subject that enters the play with a predefined, essential core, which then issues, in Bradley's famous formulation, in action. Hence, like Michael Davies, Luke adopts a processual" (20) approach and sees character as emerging in the course of the play through actions that respond to specific situations. Unlike some who adopt this approach (such as Davies), Luke is not out to dismantle the idea of subjectivity; for him, what we experience as a character's interiority or subjectivity is not simply a linguistic construct that can be deconstructed, nor a cultural construct that historicist inquiry can fully illuminate by examining "cultural and ideological discourses" (6). Luke wants to retain, "salvage" (14), and even intensify the rapturous wonder to which Bradley gave such eloquent voice when he peered into Shakespeare's characters, but he also wants to change our understanding of how a sense of character emerges in the course of the play—or, to reference the title of his book, how a character "arrives" in the course of the drama.

To get at this idea of arrival, Luke borrows heavily from Alain Badiou's idea of an "event" (6)—though Luke also employs an impressive range of thinkers from Montaigne to Hegel to Žižek. For Badiou (in Luke's reading), an event is an "exceptional moment" (23) that ruptures the subject's world (or "given situation" [8]) and leads, "through a great and hazardous movement" (29), to a new, previously inconceivable self—if the subject opens him or herself to the "irruptive" (8), "monstrous flood" (16) of the event, or acts "in fidelity to such a rupture" (8). The religious language is deliberate. As with Paul's encounter with the angel on the road to Damascus, the event is defined by an "excess" (8) that resembles the superfluity associated with God's gift of grace, and that (to get a bit abstract) opens up a "void" (8) in the given situation that is terrifying and disruptive, but also transformational in its "uncontrollable but creative" energy (8). Luke is thus interested, for example, in how Romeo and Juliet arrive, through the event of love at first sight, at their identity as tragic lovers: "The lovers . . . are only 'who' they are because of the event. Their singularity is not pre-existing in voice or body, or Petrarchan parroting, but arises from the uniqueness of the [End Page 304] obscure event and the change of language it triggered" (55). Along the same lines, Macbeth emerges as the tortured, nightmarishly demonic but sublime subject through his "evental" (143) encounter with the Weird Sisters; Hamlet's encounter with the Ghost and his voyage to England give rise to the "divided subject" (111); and Cordelia's evental "Nothing" precipitates a crisis that reshapes a constellation of characters...


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