When I first started posting at The Valve I posted a series on the problem of literary character: Since they ARE fictions, why is it so difficult for us to talk about them AS fictions? Why are we always using that language and concepts of real people to talk about these fictions? This is one of those posts, originally going on the web on July 25, 2006.
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:
|Much Ado||Othello||Winter's Tale|
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 trajectory, 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 explain 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, the mentor and the 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. URL: http://www.academia.edu/235334/At_the_Edge_of_the_Modern_or_Why_is_Prospero_Shakespeares_Greatest_Creation
**I've taken up this problem in a working paper, Beyond Lévi-Strauss on Myth: Objectification, Computation, and Cognition, URL: https://www.academia.edu/10541585/Beyond_Lévi-Strauss_on_Myth_Objectification_Computation_and_Cognition