Erica Bexley looks at character in fact and fiction

The main character in Jules Dassin’s film Never on a Sunday is a prostitute named Ilia (Melina Mercouri) who loves the story of Euripides’ Medea but insists that it has a happy ending: Medea only pretends to kill her children; Jason returns to her; and they all go to the beach at the end. Ilia attends a performance of the play with her American companion, Homer Thrace (Jules Dassin), who insists with equal vigour that Medea does kill her children. But Ilia is not convinced; and when the actors take a bow at the play’s conclusion, she applauds and smiles triumphantly, because Medea’s children are right there on stage, still very much alive. Homer rolls his eyes: Ilia has failed to distinguish between actor and character, fiction and fact. She has allowed the fantasy, her fantasy, of Medea’s story to flow beyond the conventions and boundaries of dramatic performance, and has become so invested in the play’s characters that she treats them as if they were real people.

Homer and Ilia in Never on Sunday

Ilia’s reaction belongs to a standard trope about gullible audiences who believe too wholeheartedly in the stories set before them. There is the Canadian prairie farmer who shoots Iago near the tragedy’s climax; the soap opera fans who heap abuse on actors for their characters’ behaviour on screen; and from the ancient world, the story of women suffering miscarriages at the sight of Aeschylus’ Furies (Vita 9). Truth value aside (for they are surely quite apocryphal), such anecdotes report extreme forms of sympathetic engagement where the lives of characters spill over into the reality of lived experience: fictional people get confused with actual people.

At a deeper level, though, these anecdotes also alert us to the special status granted to fictional beings: characters are often our ‘point of entry’ into fictional worlds; they give shape and meaning to stories and leave lasting impressions on their audiences; they invite psychological scrutiny and provoke emotional responses, just as real humans do. Within reason, we need to treat characters as people, in order to appreciate their effects. So where exactly do the boundaries lie? And how can we talk about fictional beings without, on the one hand, imbuing them with too much human ‘depth’, and on the other, downplaying their ‘human-ness’ in favour of formalism and literary convention? What exactly is the relationship between ‘character’ and ‘person’?

Surprisingly, 20th-century literary scholarship rarely tackled such questions, and it is only recently that character has become the subject of growing academic scrutiny. Despite being everywhere – in books, in films, in plays, in poems – and despite being the major structural and thematic component of almost every story ever told, characters in humanities scholarship are marginal to the point of invisibility. Their omission is understandable to the extent that characters provoke highly subjective reactions and are therefore difficult to measure in academic terms. But failing to discuss them, or to develop substantial theories of fictional character is like leaving the main ingredient out of a recipe; there is a resulting sense of lack.

In Classics, debates about characterisation have flared briefly amongst Homerists and scholars working on Greek tragedy, while the last few years have seen attention turn to the ancient novel and to Roman poetry of the imperial period. Characters in Latin literature have generally lacked even the minimal theorising accorded to their Greek counterparts, and one of the most startling omissions is the corpus of Seneca the Younger, which provides an especially rich opportunity to investigate the issue of character versus person. Granted, this may seem like an odd choice, because Seneca wrote only a few tragedies and appears to have dabbled in literary pursuits as a supplement to his main work on philosophy. His characters are also more monolithic and myopic, less psychologically complex than those of Greek drama, so why accord them such prominence? The answer is that Seneca’s interest in ethics and matters of selfhood makes him particularly alert to the topic of personal identity, while the scope of his writings, which entails both ‘fictional’ and ‘non-fictional’ components – i.e. drama and philosophy – makes it ideal material for the study of characters versus (or as) people. A combined view of Senecan tragedy and philosophy enables us to see more clearly how fictional beings accrue actual, human characteristics, and how their abstract existence as literary entities can spill over into the ‘real’ world of daily human life.

We may take as an example his characters’ well-known habit of self-citation: Seneca’s Medea always talks about being Medea; Atreus, Atreus; Hercules, Hercules. This can and often is interpreted as emphasizing their fictionality, focusing attention on them as fabricated beings whose established dramatic backgrounds determine their behaviour in advance. It’s Seneca’s way of saying to the audience, “Look, you know how this story goes, and so does Medea herself.” There is no option for this Medea to spare her children, reconcile with Jason, and head off happily to the seashore, because doing so would mean denying her identity as ‘Medea’ (Ilia’s disappointment is almost palpable). The heroine of Seneca’s play feels compelled to follow the plot established for her since the time of Euripides. She can never escape; she can only repeat.

Medea kills her children

This need to repeat actions and keep being oneself is not just a literary phenomenon, though. It is also a core element of identity formation for human beings. While we may not be hampered by authorial diktat or the details of a specific plot, much of our behaviour is habitual – up to 60% of it, in fact – and there is a general assumption that we will be consistent and self-coherent in our dealings with the world. It is no coincidence that the modern term ‘identity’ derives from the Latin idem (‘the same’). So, Medea’s aspiration to fulfil the demands of her pre-established character highlights her implied human qualities just as much as her fictional ones. In other words, it makes her ‘person-like’ while also acknowledging her circumscribed existence within a work of literature. Medea must continue performing the kinds of actions expected of her role and of the disposition she has displayed so far. This is a moment when the categories of ‘character’ and ‘person’ coincide.

Reinforcing this relationship between character and person is Seneca’s depiction of Cato in the de Providentia. Cato, like Medea, cites his own name as a way of living up to an established reputation. As he prepares to commit suicide, he considers which actions best suit his identity as ‘Cato’ (Prov. 2.10). His pursuit of self-coherence has a philosophical basis in the Stoic notion of ‘appropriate conduct’, and this paradigm applies equally well to Seneca’s Medea. In both cases, it promotes self-conscious evaluation of one’s role and the behaviour that best accords with it. For Medea, that role exists in fiction, for Cato in fact. The character resembles the person and vice versa; confluence and congruence between the two categories cautions us against contemplating characters in purely formalist terms. Yes, they are mere figments of a text/play/film, but they also behave in ways analogous to human beings, and we need to take this into account when analysing their significance.

Interaction between ‘character’ and ‘person’ recurs in a variety of ways across the span of Seneca’s work. In Troades, it takes the form of father–son relationships in which younger males are measured against paternal models. Pyrrhus must live up to Achilles’ example and Astyanax to Hector’s. Once again, the theme can be interpreted as an act of textual self-reference, with Achilles and Hector representing the literary past of Seneca’s work, chiefly Homer’s Iliad, with a bit of the Aeneid thrown in for good measure. From this perspective, the young men’s need to follow adult examples confirms their status as fictional figures by acknowledging Seneca’s debt to earlier works of poetry: behavioural paradigms are translated into aesthetic ones. Seneca’s Pyrrhus even recycles some of his father’s words from the Iliad, thereby highlighting his own fictional composition.

Such meta-literary readings are all perfectly plausible and valid. But role models, just like self-coherence and habit, are also relevant to identity formation in the non-fictional world of human interaction. We imitate others and evaluate our behaviour against theirs as a way of developing our social selves. Copying is as fundamental to the formation of actual selfhood as it is to the delineation of fictional beings. The point is worth stressing, because we tend to think of individuals as unique and inimitable while characters, and works of fiction more generally, lend themselves to replication (every time you read your favourite story, its characters repeat the same set of attitudes and actions; they are even ‘copies’ in the sense of representing without literally embodying human qualities). But all people are – to some extent – representations, especially of their parents, so the sequence of father–son paradigms in Seneca’s Troades really ought to be read as an implied human as well as textual phenomenon. When Astyanax is compared to Hector, he is a copy in terms of: a) physical resemblance; b) behavioural imitation; and c) literary background. Here Seneca blends together the fictional and quasi-human elements of character, just as he does with Medea.

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s statue of Hector with his son Astyanax (1854)

Bodies, too, are a meeting point of ‘character’ and ‘person’ in Seneca’s work. His immersion in Stoic philosophy means that he pays a lot of attention to how our corpora communicate the emotional states going on ‘inside’ us. In the de Ira, for instance, he catalogues the physical symptoms of anger, with a view to their diagnosis and elimination. Similar descriptions feature in the tragedies with the concomitant purpose of helping internal and external audiences decipher a given character’s emotional and psychological condition. Medea’s Nurse reports the physical manifestations of her charge’s anger; Phaedra’s Nurse does the same for the symptoms of love. Long dismissed as poor dramaturgy or empty rhetoric, these descriptions are actually intended to emphasize characters’ implied human-ness, by imagining the presence of hidden psychological depths. It sounds paradoxical, but Seneca’s technique of focusing on his characters’ exterior is designed to accentuate the illusion of their interior, as though they were endowed with consciousness. Effectively, this is a kind of ‘character portrait’, a method popularized by 18th- and 19th-century novelists who used it to evoke psychological individuality and complexity (think of Brontë’s Heathcliff or Flaubert’s Charles Bovary).

Alexandre Cabanel’s Phèdre (1880)

Treating bodies as sources of psychological information means being alert to their surfaces and able to decipher their signs. In a fictional context, this process causes bodies themselves to resemble fabricated objects, ‘texts’ that can be ‘read’ by an audience. When Seneca describes Hippolytus’ face, for instance, or Oedipus’ scars, he does so as a means not only of exploring the characters’ interior selfhood but also of signalling their fictional composition. Interpreting the body and by extension, the character to which it belongs, is assimilated to an act of literary analysis or metapoetic awareness: Hippolytus’ face becomes the actor’s mask; Oedipus’ scars are like marks on a page. The body’s status as a legible, fictional construct signals an equivalent status for the character it represents: this is not a person, but a role, a spectatorial object, a collection of words. As much as Seneca’s technique of physical description in the tragedies lends dramatis personae a private, inner and therefore quasi-human life, it also denies that inwardness in favour of self-conscious fictionality. Embodied characters both are and are not people.

The sceptical reader (and I hope you are one) could object to my argument by pointing out that characters and people belong to fundamentally different ontological categories: fictional beings have no real autonomy or free will; their futures are not contingent in the same way as ours; their personalities are finite as opposed to indeterminate…so why evaluate them in terms of a humanity they can never achieve? Shouldn’t we, rather, adopt a detached view? Side with Homer Thrace in trying to correct Ilia’s fantasy? It’s tempting, and not just because Homer assumes an intellectually superior position. But Ilia’s reaction, no matter how uninformed, also taps into some deep truths about fictional characters: they represent people; they invite, even as their substance precludes, speculation about their lives; in the theatre, they even inhabit real bodies and voices. It turns out that Ilia’s perspective is not so mistaken after all. And it is nice to imagine that Jason and Medea, after centuries of replaying their recriminations, might actually, one day, work things out.

Dr Erica Bexley is Associate Professor in the department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Durham, where she specialises in Roman Drama and literature of the Neronian period. Her book Seneca's Characters: Fictional Identities and Implied Human Selves was published in June of this year by Cambridge University Press.