A recent article entitled ‘The Emergence of Character Criticism, 1774-1800’ was designed to show that character criticism emerged as a genre in itself in the last quarter of the eighteenth century; during this period ‘essays and whole books are devoted to individual characters’. This present essay, viewing a wider temporal spread, will consider character criticism, not as a literary genre, but as one of the principal divisions of dramatic criticism, corresponding to the second of the six parts, elements, or constituents, of drama distinguished by Aristotle. To avoid confusion, I shall talk of ‘character study’ rather than ‘character criticism’. Character study, of course, had emerged long before 1774.
During the period from 1664 to 1800, critics of various nations made valuable contributions to the discussion of Shakespeare’s characters; I shall try to do justice to the Scots and Germans as well as to native English writers. The questions which have guided my selection of materials are: What were the aims of the early students of character? What methods did they devise? How far were their discussions dependent upon and oriented to theatrical performance? and, Which philosophers apart from Aristotle influenced their aims and methods?
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