Shaping Character Identity Through Literature

Categories: Beowulf

"Identity has evolved to encompass the social and historical background of an individual, with personality as a constructed concept. Sometimes, these identities are viewed narrowly in psychological and individualistic terms, as a result of personal experiences and family history. This is evident in works like Beowulf, where men are recognized solely as their fathers' sons. Ancestral lineage held significant value during this era, with men earning respect based on the heroic deeds of their forefathers. Warriors aimed to achieve similar notoriety as their ancestors.

This is exemplified in the introduction of Beowulf, where his father's reputation precedes his own: 'In his day, my father was a famous man, a noble warrior-lord named Ecgtheow.' Similarly, in Shakespeare's Hamlet, the knowledge of Hamlet's royal lineage plays a crucial role in shaping his identity and influencing the events of the play."

In literature, as well as in real life, the identity of the protagonist evolves as we delve deeper into their character. Just as in Beowulf, where we learn about him through his actions and words.

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When meeting new people, uncertainty often surrounds their identity and personality, but through their interactions and relationships, we gradually uncover more about who they are. Third person narration allows for a more objective view of the character, enabling the narrator to provide definitive insights that can resonate universally, as each reader may interpret the character differently.

Characters' interpretations vary across generations and cultures, suggesting that identity is shaped more by readers than by authors. In the play Hamlet, the character engages in soliloquies to disclose his inner thoughts to the audience.

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Through rhetorical questioning and self-answers, the audience gains insight into the character's emotions and motives, crucial in understanding unconventional actions. This connection allows empathy with Hamlet and enhances engagement with the plot. "O that this too too solid flesh would melt,"

Thaw, and become dew! Or that God had not forbidden suicide! Oh God! How tired, dull, lifeless, and meaningless

Hamlet's initial soliloquy exposes his internal conflict upon learning of his father's passing and mother's hasty union with Claudius. He ponders taking his own life to avoid suffering, yet recognizes it as a transgression against divine law. This introspective speech illustrates his bitterness towards his mother and stepfather, while underscoring the religious beliefs that prevent him from carrying out his father's wish for retribution.

The thoughts of other characters are significant in keeping the play timeless, beyond just the protagonist's viewpoint. In Hamlet, murder is depicted as almost commonplace, whereas today it is considered a serious offense even for royalty. Additionally, encountering a ghost is not something ordinary for readers in the 21st century. Without other characters witnessing the ghost, distinguishing between reality and Hamlet's madness would be challenging. Horatio converses with the ghost as if it were tangible: "Horatio: Stay, speak, speak, I charge thee speak."

Identity is shaped by the way characters behave in their historical context. Without considering the time period and cultural background in which a text is created, identity cannot be accurately depicted. Different versions of texts, like "Hormone Imbalance’s Ophelia (1979)," "Curtis’s obscenely funny The skinhead Hamlet (1982)," and "Jean Bett’s Ophelia thinks harder (1993)," are altered to cater to diverse audiences from various times and places. These variations challenge the idea that identity is solely influenced by personal experiences, suggesting that identity is also influenced by the era, setting, and target audience of a text. It could be interpreted that each adaptation of a text like Hamlet creates a distinct identity within its own narrative.

Identity is not static but evolves over time through self discovery or crisis, as seen in Hamlet's conflicting values and pressures. Changing opinions and ideas contribute to a complex and challenging-to-label identity. Beowulf maintains consistent ambitions as a legendary warrior, while Hamlet's journey reveals his evolving morality and desires.

Hamlet's identity becomes more intricate and less stable due to his unconventional behavior and unorthodox views on life and truth. This isolation and defiance of social norms make him a threat to those around him, particularly the new King. At the start of the play, Hamlet appears to have lost his identity as he mourns his father's death, faces uncertainty about his claim to the throne with Fortinbras' impending attack, and deals with his uncle becoming his stepfather. Just like Beowulf's lineage was crucial, especially in the context of royalty, Hamlet's own lineage and status are in flux.

Beowulf proves himself as both a warrior and hero by recalling his victorious exploits.

In my many battles, I have triumphed over various foes, including beasts and sea creatures. My bold actions and unwavering fighting have avenged the Geats. Beowulf is renowned as a mighty warrior, but his actual deeds are not as frequent as believed. Despite swiftly defeating Grendel and his mother, fifty years go by with little mention of his victories.

Both Beowulf and Hamlet are shaped by the form of their texts, which influences the identity of the characters and the society they live in. Beowulf is an epic poem that recounts heroic deeds and historical events, embodying the oral tradition of storytelling during Beowulf's time. Men gained recognition through courageous acts in battle, often immortalized in song or poetry.

The uniqueness of an epic poem demonstrates a stark contrast to our contemporary world, where warrior culture is nonexistent, and individuals do not typically die in pursuit of fame, and mythical creatures are not part of reality. Unlike a poem, Hamlet is a theatrical work meant to be enacted instead of solely studied. The identities of characters in Hamlet, including Hamlet himself, are shaped not just by their actions and dialogues, but also by their delivery and physical expressions.

For instance, it is much easier to understand Hamlet's 'madness' when portrayed with exaggerated actions on stage rather than through stage directions or explicit comments from other actors. Similarly, personality traits like thoughtfulness, arrogance, insecurity, and Claudius' guilt are more apparent when acted out in front of an audience. Additionally, the diverse interpretations brought by each actor's performance further complicate Hamlet's character presentation on stage. Factors such as age, clothing, and the unique acting choices made during scenes all contribute to shaping the identity and portrayal of the character.

One way of creating a complex identity is by giving the character a fatal flaw, as seen in Hamlet where his indecisiveness to act on his father's orders is his fatal flaw. Every event in the play leading to Hamlet's death, and including every other death except his father's, can be attributed to his inability to make a decision to kill Claudius and act on it. His hesitation to kill Claudius in prayer reveals his fatal flaw, and had he followed through with the act, it could have drastically changed his identity. This underscores the idea that it is the plot and events in the text that shape the character's identity.

Language plays a role in highlighting certain aspects of a character's identity, as seen in the example of the clown in Shakespearean times. The clown in Hamlet contrasts with the social status and power of Hamlet, adding humor to the scene and emphasizing Hamlet's melancholic nature. Hamlet's dialogue about the skull further showcases this contrast.

Why does he allow this crazy fool to hit him on the head with a dirty shovel and not inform him about the charge of battery? Hm! This man could have been a wealthy landowner in his time, with his statutes, recognizances, fines, double vouchers, and recoveries. Is this the result of his fines and the outcome of his recoveries, to have his head full of dirt? Will his vouchers not confirm any more of his purchases, even the double ones, than what is written in a pair of indentures?

The boxes can hardly contain his land conveyances, will the heir himself have no more, ha?” The juxtaposition of words like ‘shovel’ and ‘dirt’ with ‘recognizances’ and ‘conveyances’ highlights his conflicting persona. The use of ‘Ha?’ at the end serves as a rhetorical question, indicating a shift in his perspective on wealth, power, and mortality.

Overall, while there are multiple factors that contribute to a character's identity, it is ultimately the experiences they undergo throughout the text that shape their personality and traits. While language and form play a role in defining identity, it is the plot that has the most significant impact on the character.

Updated: Feb 21, 2024
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Shaping Character Identity Through Literature. (2016, Sep 28). Retrieved from

Shaping Character Identity Through Literature essay
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