Document Type

Thesis

Degree

Master of Arts

Major

English

Date of Defense

4-11-2011

Graduate Advisor

Kurt A. Schreyer, PhD.

Committee

Kurt Schreyer

Deborah Aldrich-Watson

Sylvia Cook

Abstract

The purpose of my research was to answer a simple question: “What can be said about Hamlet's character?” When analyzing any Shakespearean play, it is commonplace to begin (and end) with the characters that inhabit it. But is this sort of analysis appropriate for Renaissance plays? Freud's famous interpretation of Hamlet operates in this fashion, determining the meaning of the play through the vehicle of Hamlet's character—specifically, the psychology of Hamlet's character. Such a reading assumes, however, the interiority of character: that fictional characters have mental landscapes, complete with pasts that lead to the present as related in the events of the play. Are these kinds of assumptions about characters consistent with the environment from which they came? In other words, did writers like Shakespeare during Shakespeare's time possess the ideological framework to create such characters? This thesis will probe that very question, tracing the history of the fictional character and the philosophical movements necessary for their development, examining the society in which these characters were created through an investigation of Renaissance concepts of theatrical production, identity, authorship, and the individual, as well as the editorial practices that have and continue to shape character. When these disparate, but interrelated threads are observed as a whole, the modern notion of character seems an ill-fitting garment for the already distempered prince of Denmark to wear, giving him attributes his Elizabethan audience could never have imagined. I will argue in my thesis that to approach Hamlet as a character is to project an ideological framework upon him, and by extension Shakespeare, that cannot be reconciled with our understanding of history, and that another, more accurate term may suit him: namely, role. Role grounds Hamlet in the textual origins of his existence, identifying him as a part of a greater whole, the play—not an abstracted identity separable from the text, which is the modern character.

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