The character sketch is a brief prose description of a person or type. The form originated in second-century Greece with Theophrastus (c. 371-c. 287 BCE), a student and friend of Aristotle, whose lasting fame rests on one of his minor works, the Characters. Warren Anderson points out in his translation of Theophrastus (The Character Sketches, 1970) that although modern critics view the philosopher as a proto-scientist collecting observations of character as data, earlier writers saw him as a moralist, with the Characters as illustrations of Aristotle’s doctrine of the golden mean.
There are two main kinds: 1) the type character, known as the Theophrastan character, which generalizes individuals; and 2) the historical character, which depicts a particular individual. Although their purposes are different, both kinds of character sketch have classical roots, the type character in Theophrastus and the historical character in Plutarch, Tacitus, and Suetonius. Rhetoric is another important influence on the character sketch. A number of rhetorical terms were connected with character descriptions (descriptio, ethologia, prosopopoeia, characterismos, etc.), and for centuries
the writing of characters was a common rhetorical exercise.
The primary characteristic of the character sketch is its brevity and concision. Very much a set piece and a static form, the character tends toward artificiality, primarily due to the self-consciously literary style in which it is usually written. Wit and irony as well as aphorisms abound in the character sketch. A moral bias is generally prominent, probably derived from Theophrastan connections with morality as well as from the wide use of the character in religious and spiritual writings. All character sketches show considerable abstraction and reductiveness; even the historical characters tend to make their subjects become models of their kind, rather than realistic human beings. Indeed, despite the traditional critical distinction between the two types of character sketches, in practice they often tended to merge, and tracing a specific strain in later manifestations can be difficult.
Aside from Theophrastus himself, the type character is found in Roman comedy, medieval hagiography, homiletic writings, humor characters in drama (particularly Ben Jonson’s plays), and literature based on concepts such as the “ruling passion” (as in certain of Alexander Pope’s poems). After the classical historians’ characters, the form reappeared prominently in the work of 17th-century English historians.
After its original Greek appearance with Theophrastus, the great flowering of the character sketch occurred in 17th-century England, continuing well into the 18th century, and, to a lesser extent, in France. The type character experienced a rapid rise and development in the early part of the 17th century in England. Joseph Hall’s Characters of Vertues and Vices, the first English collection of characters, was published in 1608, and by 1632 the English Theophrastan character was, according to Benjamin Boyce (1947),
“perfectly developed.” Major English writers of the Theophrastan character were Hall and Thomas Overbury. John Earle is generally considered the best; his MicroCosmographie (1628) went through ten editions by 1665. During the Restoration Samuel “Hudibras” Butler wrote type characters, but they remained unpublished until 1759. The 18th-century Theophrastan character is best represented by William Law in A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728).
During the middle and later years of the 17th century, and well into the 18th, the historical character flourished in England. Civil War and Restoration polemicists drew on it constantly. In historical writings, character sketches had appeared as early as the 16th century in Polydore Vergil, and early 17th-century historians such as William Camden, Edward Hall, and John Speed also employed them. But the greatest historical characters of the period were written at mid-century and during the Restoration by Edward Hyde, the first Earl of Clarendon, and Bishop Gilbert Burnet, both of whom wrote memoirs as well as histories. The most famous character sketch by Clarendon, who is generally acknowledged as the master of the form, is the portrait of his close friend Lord Falkland.
Later 18th-century historians such as David Hume and, particularly, Edward Gibbon in his monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–88) also deployed character sketches effectively.
In France the historical character appeared early in Phillippe de Commines’ Mémoires (wr. 1489–90 and 1497–98; pub. 1524–28). More famous were the character sketches of mid17th-century French memoirs and romances. The master of the French character sketch is Jean de La Bruyère, who translated Theophrastus’ Characters and added other portraits to them in his own Caractères (1688; Characters). Among the portraits La Bruyère added were some of his contemporaries, whom he depicted under pseudonyms.
By the early 19th century, the English character sketch had by and large disappeared as an independent genre, although Richard Phillips published his Public Characters each year from 1798 to 1810. Historians obviously continued to describe characters in their works, and journalistic prose and the emerging novel, over the course of the 18th century, incorporated character sketches in different ways. But the character sketch was inherently a genre with limited possibilities for development. In addition to its brevity, it lacked both flexibility and realism. Thus the character was difficult to integrate into narratives; selfcontained and too often abstract, it tended to remain an autonomous element, a set piece lacking natural connections to other prose.
The character sketch and the essay emerged at roughly the same time in England, and they are closely related genres. Indeed, the character is in essence a very brief essay.
Early 18th-century essayists such as Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, along with Samuel Johnson and others later in the century, produced a number of essays that are basically expanded character sketches. But the character did not typically incorporate either the overtly personal elements or the serious moral and political ideas that have traditionally marked the essay; nor did its brevity, abstraction, and resistance to narrative integration make it particularly suitable for essayists to use. Ultimately, the major contribution of the character sketch was to hasten the development of other genres, particularly biography and autobiography; the essay was a subsidiary beneficiary in this generic process.
MARTINE WATSON BROWNLEY
Anthologies and Collections
A Book of “Characters”, edited by Richard Aldington, London: Routledge, and New York: Dutton, 1924 A Cabinet of Characters, edited by Gwendolen Murphy, London: Oxford University Press, 1925
The Character Sketches by Theophrastus, translated by Warren Anderson, Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1970
The Characters by Jean de La Bruyère, translated by Henri Van Laun, London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1963 (original French edition, 1688) Characters from the Histories and Memoirs of the Seventeenth Century, edited by David Smith, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1918
Greenough, Chester Noyes, Bibliography of the Theophrastan Character in English, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1970 (original edition, 1947) Murphy, Gwendolen, A Bibliography of English Character-Books, 1608–1700, London: Oxford University Press, 1925
Boyce, Benjamin, The Theophrastan Character in England to 1642, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1947
Boyce, Benjamin, The Polemic Character, 1640–1661: A Chapter in English Literary History, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1955
Brownley, Martine Watson, “Johnson’s Lives of the English Poets and Earlier Traditions of the Character Sketch in England,” in Johnson and His Age, edited by James Engell, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1984
Clausen, Wendell, “The Beginnings of English Character-Writing in the Early Seventeenth Century,” Philological Quarterly 25 (1946): 32–45
Ernst, Charles A.S., Contextualizing the Character: Generic Studies of Text and Canon, Rhetoric, Style, and Quantitative Analysis in the Seventeenth-Century English Prose Character (dissertation), Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1988
Smeed, J.W., The Theophrastan Character: The History of a Literary Genre, Oxford: Clarendon Press, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1985
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