Character [TM]: Character-writing, Drama, and the Shape of Literary History

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

108 Downloads (Pure)


This essay challenges the traditional historical narrative of character focused on Shakespeare’s epochal “inward turn.” It offers an alternative history that re-shapes the story of character around the cultural and commercial impact of so-called “non-Shakespearean” and “pre-modern” characters. Investigating intersections between the neo-Theophrastan “Character,” commercial drama, and news culture in seventeenth-century England, the essay traces the augmentation of character as a word and concept. Character was a key noun and verb in a shifting lexicon of identity, a new generic brand pioneered and appropriated by Ben Jonson and John Webster, and a rhetorical technology for estranging and trade-marking forms of humanity.

The essay argues that the impact of the English Character-sketch—on theatre and performance, on news and print culture, and on the cult of the author—marked a historical turning point in consumer relations with virtual humanity. Character became a popular method of transforming persons, fictional and real, into coherent units of cultural value: dramatis personae, one’s neighbours or adversaries, scandalized court figures, kings and queens, even Shakespeare and Jonson as historical authors. In shaping this new story about character, the essay suggests that history and its agents are inevitably shaped by the characterological screens through which we view early modern culture, and through which the early moderns increasingly viewed themselves.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)142-177
Number of pages36
JournalJournal for Early Modern Cultural Studies
Issue number2
Early online date2 Feb 2022
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 2 Feb 2022

Cite this