Free Artists Of Themselves

Rereading Harold Bloom’s book on Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human, I was struck anew by this passage on page 56 regarding the uniqueness of his characters, excerpted here:

“Instead of fitting the role to the play, the post-Marlovian Shakespeare creates personalities who never could be accommodated by their roles: excess marks them not as hyperboles or Marlovian overreachers, but as overflowing spirits, more meaningful than the sum of their actions…characters who are ‘free artists of themselves’ (Hegel on Shakespeare’s personage’s), and who can give the impression that they are at work attempting to make their own plays…they give the sense that all plot is arbitrary, whereas personality, however daemonic, is transcendent, and is betrayed primarily by what’s within…And they are never reduced to their fates; they are more, much more, than what happens to them”

Bloom goes on to list some of the characters he believes are “free artists of themselves”- Hamlet, Iago, Edmund, Lear, Rosalind, Edgar, Falstaff, Macbeth, Cleopatra – and will spend much of the book unpacking this central idea. And though I don’t always agree with his particulars, I agree wholeheartedly that some of Shakespeare’s characters have a vitality that seems to overwhelm their plays.

What recent characters have that vitality, that overabundance of life, that makes them “free artists of themselves”? Please post your suggestions in the comments, and read on for three suggestions of my own.

I think Meredith in Viral is my most recent example. We only receive hints of her past, but her actions in the present flood our imaginations with the things she might have done. Meredith gives you the feeling you are watching only the final play in a sequence of the many plays of her life. Alternatively amused and repulsed by this latest play she finds herself in, there is an awareness and vitality (ironic for a suicide) that makes her different from the other characters, who while compelling, seem to belong only to one play.

Everett from Rattlers is another: almost from the beginning of his long scene with Ted, he knows he is talking with the likely murderer of his wife; and yet he plays with this man for a long time before revealing what he knows. He is possessed by a relentless self-awareness – he sees through everything, especially himself – and refuses to properly participate in the revenge drama he finds himself in. Instead, like a twisted mirror of Rosalind courting Orlando, Everett disguises what he is, finding a surprising intimacy with his enemy.

Marco in Pretty Theft also seems like he’s just left a different play, and will move onto the next after this one. Unlike Joe and Allegra, beautiful creations who belong completely to their play, Marco’s negative vitality transcends it; his extreme powers of perception pierce everything but the void in himself.

Allegra meeting Ted seems bizarre; but somehow I can clearly imagine a scene where Meredith, Marco and Everett meet in some dive bar in Texas (and woe to the bartender!) What other recent characters have that kind of play-transcending vitality? Post ’em in the comments!

The reason I’m wondering is I think there’s a link between this kind of vitality, and the adaptability of theatre, mentioned in this post:

“The greatest plays are also the most adaptable; there is something in them that allows for so much multiplicity of meaning that they are not bound to their cultural time and place. Each group of audience and artists that plays a play shift the meaning to fit their our own unique needs of the moment, while at the same time engaging with the legacy of past productions.”

I think that’s especially for true for plays with characters like Rosalind and Everett, Iago and Marco, Meredith and Hamlet. Their sheer size means there will always be room for a new interpretation; we will never quite be done with them, or as Bloom might put it, they will never quite be done with us.

4 Comments on "Free Artists Of Themselves"

  1. Matt A · December 15, 2009 at 12:47 am · Reply
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