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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Fictional Characters 3: Analyze This

Posted by Bill Benzon on 07/25/06 at 05:05 PM

It's time to come at this issue from a different angle, and with a concrete literary example. Some years ago I published an essay on Much Ado About Nothing, a comedy, Othello, a tragedy, and The Winter's Tale, a romance.* All involve a protagonist who mistakenly believes the woman he loves to be unfaithful -- the Claudio-Hero plot in Much Ado. Though I argue the point in my essay, for the purposes of this post I will simply assume that that common plot feature betrays the same psycho-social problematic in each play. Thus in this group of three plays we have a "natural" experiment in which a single problematic is dramatically realized in three different kinds of play.

In the comedy the male protagonist makes the mistake during courtship; in the tragedy the mistake happens shortly after marriage; and in the romance, the mistake occurs well into the marriage. If we examine the relationships between the characters, we find that it gets closer as we move from one play to the next. And that's not all. There seem to be systematic differences among the configuration of characters in these plays. And that has led me to wonder whether or not those differences are related to the fact that we are dealing with three different genres, comedy, tragedy, and romance. Are these configurations merely incidental features of the plays or are they intrinsic to the different genres -- as realized by Shakespeare, if not in general? This line of thinking was suggested to me by a remark Frye had made in his Anatomy of Criticism, to the effect that a tragedy is a comedy where the last act, the reconciliation, has gone missing.

With this in mind, consider the following table, in which the first column names the function a given character takes in the play:

Protagonist Claudio Othello Leontes
Mentor Don Pedro
Deceiver Don John Iago
Paramour Borachio Cassio Polixenes
Beloved Hero Desdemona Hermione

Does this table depict something for which an explanation is necessary or does it depict a mere contingent set of relationships between these plays? If an explanation is necessary, what kind?

If I thought this table depicted mere contingency, I wouldn't bother posting it here (nor would I have bothered publishing an article based on it). Unfortunately, the type of explanation required is not clear to me, though I've pondered the question enough. I suspect it has something to do with the "deep structure" of those three genres. Whatever that explanation is, I don't see how it can be couched in terms of naturalistic accounts of the motivations and actions of the characters in the table. Perhaps such naturalistic accounts -- whether expressed in Freudian, Jungian, Lacanian, cognitive, or evolutionary terms, whatever -- have some explanatory value when applied to individual characters, but the phenomenon depicted in that table is of a different order.

It is about artistry, about how characters are constructed to meet the demands of a certain kind of dramatic tragectory, and about how a certain kind of trajectory follows from certain characters in certain relations. But it is also about how all the characters in a play are the product of a single mind. From one point of view, that mind is Shakespeare's; from a different point of view, we're dealing with the minds of readers. Just how is it that a single mind can yield all of the characters in a single play?

What that table suggests to me is that we have three different ways of "mapping" a single mind onto the multiple characters of a play. Claudio, Othello, and Leontes each has different capabilities; that is, they draw on different capabilities within the reader. And so it is with other characters as well. I can't eplain what's going on. But I will finish this post by describing it in a little more detail.

Neither Othello nor Leontes has a mentor comparable to Claudio's Don Pedro. Don Pedro talked with Hero's father, Leonato, and arranged the marriage. We see that happen in the play. We must infer that Othello arranged his marriage to Desdemona, whose father didn't even know about the marriage. We know nothing about how Leontes managed his marriage to Hermione, but he doesn't have anyone associated with him who could be called his mentor.

Further, there is no deceiver in The Winter's Tale comparable to Don John or Iago. Leontes deceives himself. Iago, Othello's deceiver, is closer to Othello than Don John is to Claudio. Among the presumed paramours, Cassio is closer to Othello than Borachio is to Claudio. Polixenes and Leontes have known one another since boyhood; they are so closely identified that we can consider them doubles. Thus relationships between key characters and the protagonist become more intimate as we move from the comedy to the tragedy to the romance--and some characters, mentor and deceiver, seem to disappear.

Finally, note that the protagonist becomes more powerful as we move through the sequence of plays. Claudio is a youth just beginning to make his way in the world. Othello is a mature man, a seasoned general at the height of his career; but there are men who have authority over him. Leontes is king (and father); there is no mundane authority higher than his. Perhaps this increase in power is correlated with the apparent "absorption" of functions into the protagonist. The absorption of functions increases the behavioral range of the protagonist. And this increased range is symbolized by higher social status.

What makes this problem so intractible is (1) that it involves a rich configuration of relationships -- both synchronic and diachronic -- among characters and plot trajectories, but (2) that we don't have an adequate metalanguage for describing these relationships. Levi-Strauss faced this problem in his four-volume Mythologiques, where he examined the relationships among myths. He seemed to be getting at the notion that there is an invariant relationship between social structure -- broadly considered -- myth structure, and that that relationship follows from the structure and operations of the human mind.

To describe these relationships Levi-Strauss used a pseudo algebraic notation and the notion that "transformational" relationships exist between one myth and another. At the same time he made gnomic statements to the effect this his theory of myth is just another transformation of the myths about which he theorized. That is to say, the obvious commonsense distinction between myth and discourse about myth failed on some deeper and more abstract level.

For all the work that's been done in the cognitive and neurosciences since then, it's not at all clear to me that we are yet in a position to do much better. I don't expect the cognitive scientists to tackle this problem, nor neuroscientists, much less evolutionary psychologists. I don't expect it to be solved by anyone for whom stories are simply examples of higher cognitive processing. I'm afraid it's up to us.

*Benzon, William L. At the Edge of the Modern, or Why is Prospero Shakespeare's Greatest Creation? Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, 21 (3), 259-279, 1998.


mr. benzon-
shakespeare tells us far more about these three characters (and ourselves) than any of the writers you mention, makes them credible human beings with recognizable failings, involving them in plots which are expressive of the different genres as he understood them.
if it is genre you’re interested in, why not attempt to define comedy, tragedy, and romance in general, or as you see them worked out by shakespeare in all the pertinent plays, or even as worked out in these three alone, noting any differences in the handling of jealousy.
to a casual observer, it would seem that you are doing your damnedest to get away from shakespeare and engage with theorists and their terminology—synchronicity and diachronicity, mapping, absorption of functions, metalanguage, transformational relationships, myth structure, and so on—using the three plays as an occasion for something more “intellectual” and less enlightening.  if you were to confine your study to the dramas themselves, you would learn more and have spent the whole time in the company of the greatest writer in the language.  it will cut down on the footnotes, of course, and the noise of today, leaving you no critical/theoretical buffers for protection, but you won’t be sorry. 
if i may hazard a comparison, a musician—a trumpet player, let’s say— can learn about dizzy gillespie by reading what various critics have to say about him, or he can listen for himself, perhaps even work up the courage to sit in and play.  to put it another way (i heard this from a painter in a documentary film), art criticism is to an artist what ornithology is to a bird.
i mean this as encouragement.

By on 07/26/06 at 05:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What’s wrong with ornithology? It increases our knowledge of the natural world and may be of practical value in conservation efforts.

I’m an ornithologist of literature. Telling me I world be better off flapping my my arms and eating worms in hopes of becomming a bird seems rather beside the point. Any number of literary ornithologists have confused things by insisting that they are, in fact, birds and that what they write is, in fact, a rarified species of flying. They aren’t and it isn’t. Literary ornithology is an honorable pursuit and we’d all be better off if we accepted that.

As for Dizzy Gillespie, I once had the privilege of opening for him; but that’s a different matter.

By Bill Benzon on 07/27/06 at 02:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

i think you misunderstood me, and it could well be my fault.  i do have a bias in favor of more direct engagement with literature than many of the people who post messages at the Valve, worrying that not only they, but a great many students and teachers of literature these days tend to move away from the thing itself to theories and critical approaches.

there is nothing wrong with the study of literature, or the study of birds.  my point was that the closer you stand to either subject (shakespearean drama, red-tailed hawks), the more you learn.  i knew you played the trumpet, knew from the capsule description provided by the Valve that you had opened for dizzy gillespie, and hoped by alluding to that experience to win your agreement that if a person were interested in be-bop, let’s say, he could do no better than go to the source.

in fact, as a scholar, you may be more interested in critical paradigms than you are in leontes or claudio, and if so, it is a mistake for me to ask you to change your mind (which i suppose i was doing).  my reasoning was, dizzy gillespie and shakespeare live in the first dimension, the rest of us in the second or third.  i believe we can learn most from direct contact with the singers and players, and that to turn from them to what others have to say about them is to risk losing touch with the music.

“ornithology,” that is to say, as i was using the term, referred not so much to the study of birds as to the study of the study of birds.

By on 07/27/06 at 06:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It occurred to me, as I read your most recent post, Jim, that in the context of Dizzy and bird, “ornithology” has pun-ish overtones.

I know what you mean about Valve posts, but I suspect that is something of an illusion. Yes, many/most of us are interested in theory, and maybe some of us do not publish anything but theory. But most of us do engage texts quite directly. In the first place, theory—and Theory too—is a tool for engaging texts. Ornithologists have maps, binoculars, cameras, and other instruments while literary critics have theories. Without some kind of theoretical apparatus it is difficult to do much more than summarize, paraphrase, quote, and rearrange.

Beyond this, a forum such as The Valve seems better suited to theory-oriented discussions than to practical criticism. While there has been some discussion of particular texts, it is difficult to get that going, as it requires not only that others have read the texts, but that they feel up to commenting on this is or that text and are interested in doing so as well. These are hard conditions to meet and so the discussions here simply do not directly reflect the degree of involvement which most of us have. Without that involvement the theory wouldn’t matter to us.

By Bill Benzon on 07/27/06 at 08:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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