John Earle’s Microcosmographia, published in 1628, is one of the English character books. It delineates characters – in the footsteps of Theophrastus, whose Characters was recovered and translated into Latin by Casaubon in the 1590s, and thus spread to England, where - in a highly theatrical culture - character books became fashionable. These books all had the same format, in which, under some title, a character was “sketched” out. The drawing reference, with its implication of a quick impression, a first draft of a picture - imposed itself universally. The sketch and the portrait, the impression of the face and body, as though for a mask, kept a sort of secret faith with the etymological roots of “character”, with all that meant in terms of a metaphoric of stamps, of reliefs, of coins, etc.
What strikes me is that the notion of character – the type - is still, in a sense, larger and more diffuse than the samples of it – the tokens. That character is, literally, a type, a letter, is a batted about trope in a culture where the pun still had a quasi-argumentive force. But what exactly a character is, what its social extension would be, is, as Earle’s book shows, a matter that is literary, psychological, sociological, or situational, without there being any set method to distinguish one from the other. Earle’s characters include: a child; a young man; an old college butler; an attorney; and a handsome hostess. Overbury’s include a “pirate,” a ‘fayr and happy milke-mayd”, and ‘a drunken Dutch-man resident in England”.
The type seems to float above these tokens, as though its scope, where its wit would strike, was not defined.
What holds them together is not their social role as much as their pictorial or theatrical one. In the preface to the Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton speaks of his book “intruding” on the theater of the world – which image is crucial to envisioning a world populated by characters.
In the translation of “character” in texts from other cultures, one sees the same call upon theater or pictoriality. For instance, the Chinese word, xinxin, is often translated as character, but it is also translated as heart or heart mind. For instance, in Ji Yun’s 1723 essay, “Actor and Character”, he quotes an actor who specialized in female roles explaining how the role must be played from the heart: “When I imperonate a female on the stage, I not only try to look like a female in my physical appearance; I also try to feel like a female in the depth of my heart. It’s the tender emotions togetherwith the sweet and delicate demeanor of a female that enthralls the audience. If I keep my male feelings, even just a trace, it will betray my true self…” (2002, 89) Imitation is not contingent to character, here: it is rather the method by which one grasps character’s essence.
Ji Yun is closer to the ‘inner character” that was associated with character in the 19th century than were the 16th century character writers in England. These, in turn, are closer to these passages in the the Natya Shastra, the classic Sanskrit text on theater in 200 A.D: Here we read:
“characters are of three types: superior, middling and inferior.” Although this hierarchy is generally true, mixed types are also possible: “Maid servants and the liker are characters of a mixed nature. A hermaphrodite is also a mixed character, but of an inferior kind. O the best of Brahmins, the Skaara, and the Vita and others [like them] in a drama are also known as characters of mixed nature.”
There are four kinds of heros: “the self-controlled and vehement (dhiroddhata), the self controlled and light hearted (dhiralalita), the self-controlled and exalted (dhirodatta) and the self-controlled and calm (dhiraprasanta)
Gods are self controlled and vehement, kings are self-controlled and light-hearted, ministers are self-controlled and exalted, and Brahmins and merchants are self-controlled and calm Heroes.”
The world here is not, unlike the Elizabethan and Jacobin worlds, theatricalized, but rather the cosmological order of society is pressed against the theatrical. The result – the theater of character – instills a duality into the social persona between appearance and reality. The possibility that all men could be players is founded on the possibility that all men can play other ‘characters” than themselves. The difference between appearance and reality is social and practical before it is theoretical or aethetic. It is hedged in by beliefs about the humors, the passions, and the soul in the European societies of the once upon a time, the early modern, but it is felt to exist, a crack, a stage direction, underneath the surface of things.