What is "character"?
Since at least Aristotle's time, philosophers, theologians, moralists, artists, and scientists have pondered the enigma of human character. In its oldest usage, "character" derives from a word for engraving or stamping, yet over time, it has come to mean a moral idea, a type, a literary persona, and a physical or physiological manifestation observable in works of art and scientific experiments. It is an essential term in drama and the focus of self-help books.
In Character: The History of a Cultural Obsession
, Marjorie Garber points out that character seems more relevant than ever today, omnipresent in discussions of politics, ethics, gender, morality, and the psyche. References to character flaws, character issues, and character assassination and allegations of "bad" and "good" character are inescapable in the media and in contemporary political debates. What connection does "character" in this moral or ethical sense have with the concept of a character in a novel or a play? Do our notions about fictional characters catalyze our ideas about moral character? Can character be "formed" or taught in schools, in scouting, in the home? From Plutarch to John Stuart Mill, from Shakespeare to Darwin, from Theophrastus to Freud, from nineteenth-century phrenology to twenty-first-century brain scans, the search for the sources and components of human character still preoccupies us.
Today, with the meaning and the value of this term in question, no issue is more important, and no topic more vital, surprising, and fascinating. With her distinctive verve, humor, and vast erudition, Marjorie Garber explores the stakes of these conflations, confusions, and heritages, from ancient Greece to the present day.
About the Author
Marjorie Garber is the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of English and of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University. She is the author of several books on Shakespeare, including Shakespeare's Ghost Writers and Shakespeare After All, as well as of books on cultural topics ranging from dogs and real estate to cross-dressing, bisexuality, the use and abuse of literature, and the place of the arts in academic life. A member of the American Philosophical Society, she was the recipient of a 2019 Guggenheim Fellowship.
"While sophisticated and filled to the brim with academic references, Garber's book effectively makes the content accessible and interesting. Character exemplifies Garber's many areas of expertise, interacting well with other works to ultimately leave readers with a clarified perspective and new method of analyzing the complicated workings of society." --Nina M. Foster, The Harvard Crimson
Erudite, illuminating . . . A capacious overview of an enduring human value. --Kirkus
"What is the relation between having character and being a character, or between character and personality? In this immensely wide-ranging exploration of the notion of character in all its varieties, from the Greeks to Brett Kavanaugh and President Trump, Marjorie Garber shows herself to be our most engaging and perspicuous cultural critic, with fascinating evidence about questions that are crucial to our ways of thinking about human values. --Jonathan Culler, Class of 1916 Chair of English and Comparative Literature, Cornell University