In reliant on contact with others .
In essence the times in whichthe characters live is their identity, if we don’t account for the concept oftime, location, audience and contextual factors it would be impossible tocreate. No one is a tangible known entity but a multilayered notion and thesimulated constructions of identity throughout literary texts show this, themyriad of the term IDENTITY.
Subconsciously we are led to an opinionwhen an identity is constructed the authors voice being a conscious presence,in Beowulf we see a participating narrator in line 7 and 19, highlighting thatthe construction of identity is artificial. Similarly Shakespeare’s use ofmetadrama allows Hamlet to expose Claudius’ true identity as an evil man withoutoverly interfering. Identity is also constructed by how weact/ are perceived by others. Gertrude finds herself remarrying “o’erhasty” andthis could be because she would lose her place within the court and beidentified as something less than a queen, having to marry to maintain herplace within the court. The identity of Silas is described as resolutelyreliant on contact with others . too and when cut off from it he goes through astage of “withering” suggesting that identity is not interior but developed bycontact with society to further strengthen this idea is Hester in The Scarlet Letter. Death is theultimate loss of identity and so the only redemption is through renewal;Gertrude’s remarriage, Silas caring for Eppie. In an attempt to get on top of theaction Hamlet plays the madman but his assumed madness presses him further intothe illusion and the audience amongst other characters into confusion.
TellingRosencrantz and Guildenstern “I am but mad north-west: when the wind is southerly,I know a hawk from a handsaw” he declares madness his enemy justifying hisactions through it. Hamlet is an ambiguous character in a potential identitycrisis due to internal and external pressures, Knight summing him up as “not areal man at all, but… a constellation of images”10 his inability to decide embodies a lack of convictionabout human identity, ultimately mankind does not know what it wants. We learnmore about Hamlet over time through his soliloquies, feigned madness and thestructure of events showing the audience he is sensible, philosophical, a greatman of substance in the Elizabethan era. Hamlets identity is not fixed, hisopinions and ideas are constantly shifting complicating his identity whereasBeowulf has the same desires throughout the whole text.
Hamlet’s inability tokill Claudius is because he believes it is wrong to kill a man whilst he ispraying even though it is the perfect opportunity to do so showing Hamlet is aman of morals, Ian Adams argues “the definition of a character’s reactions isthe definition of the character”. Under the rule of King Hamlet Denmarkhad been honorable at home and respected abroad, King Hamlet being described asa great man and belonging to the heroic world. Hamlet lives within thetransition period of the heroic and machiavellian world. Now under the rule ofClaudius “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” and Hamlet is determinedto get to the bottom of it. Attempting to find and define who he is, theopening and central question of the play, we lose Hamlet among “the whips andscorns of time, / Th’ oppressors wrong, the proud man’s contumely, / The pangsof despis’d love, the laws delay, / The insolence of office”, from this pointwe realize Hamlet is fated to be impulsive and disruptive and questionably mad.The characterization of Hamlet has many discrete and unreadable dimensions forexample Gregory Doran’s (2008) production compared with Tyrone Guthrie’s (1937)8 show how Hamlet’s identityis interpreted differently by all.
Soliloquies allow the audience to see whatthe character is thinking with a tendency of being true as they are performedalone. Hamlet’s language is inundated with forms, features, impressions andimages conveying his identity best9. The lack of female identity is Beowulf is consistent throughout, thefemale characters that are shown however are important for the poeticstructure.
They are neither passive nor powerless just actively struggling todefine their place in the heroic world of warriors seeking vengeance. In aquintessentially male society the women are expected to fulfill duties thatbest serve the men and their efforts are respected7. High class women play a subtle but important role inmedieval culture which is also seen in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The past massively influences theidentity of the characters studied too this can be mainly expressed throughstructure.
Taking Beowulf firstly thenarrative is broken into three sections surrounding the fights; Grendel,Grendel’s mother and the battle with the dragon6. Described in great length and poetically withmonumental exultation from the crowds Beowulf’s identity is notorious:”Beowulf, my friend, your fame has gone far and wide you are known everywhere”.The enjambment “He ruled it well for fifty winters, grew old and wise as wardenof the land” suggests the fifty years following the battles were lesssignificant because his rule as king is condensed into two lines. The structureemphasizing certain events as more significant and Beowulf’s identity aroundhis reaction to them. Likewise, Eliot devotes only two pages telling the readerabout Silas Marner before the more paramount years where he cares for Eppie. Identity is what makes everybodydistinctive, a collective set of characteristics by which something isdefinitively recognizable or known.
As a theme identity can be problematic,because writers often construct unfathomable characters. Quite often readerscome across characters who perform a false identity; villains such asShakespeare’s Iago (from the play Othello). Identities are determined not onlyby self-conception but also social presentation. Within literature identity isexpressed not as an inherent worth but as a ‘blank page’1 a product of society. Just as in As You Like It, Jacques exclaims “all the worlds a stage / and allthe men and women merely players”2,taking this view as I focus my essay towards Beowulf and others, itshows a superficiality to identity.
Thus, when reading a text we must considerthe contextual background because it is this that determines the norms andvalues of society and therefore an indication of why a playwright, author orpoet would write a character the way they do. With scholars placing the epic poem Beowulf between 650-800 AD andoriginally being an oral tradition like Homers ‘Odyssey’ it had been passed over many generations before beingwritten down. Partially translated, unfixed to any locality or any one writerit is a very complex piece the original manuscript not even having a title butbecoming known by the story’s protagonist “Beowulf” a man like no other “themightiest man on earth, /high-born and powerful”3. Seamus Heaney’s translation constructs identity basedon two key elements; individual reputation and ancestral heritage. Withheritage providing models for behaviour and helping establish identity a goodreputation helps solidify one. A key example of this is Shield Sheafson who wasorphaned meaning his valiant deeds were the only means by which he couldconstruct an identity.
At the beginning when introduced to a character thesentences are parted in clear sections and the language is neither descriptivenor poetic, mirroring the simplicity of how man is judged. Expressing thesuperficial notion that a persons identity is defined by their ancestry. Contrastingto Beowulf is George Eliot’s Silas Marner4 where the structure at the beginning of her novel isheavily punctuated. With pauses slowing the natural rhythm of speech creatingthe relaxed tone of the rural village with in which Silas resides. The use ofrhetoric creates an almost derisive tone from the villagers.
Nonetheless thesentiments of the texts agree that identity is defined by ancestry althoughconstructed in different ways. As thepoem is centred around Beowulf a reader would expect to learn about him as aperson as the poem goes on. This is not the case instead we hear of his publicdeclarations and read his attempts of dealing with three monsters. Very fewprivate thoughts, doubts or personal hopes are shown the only characterizingfeature shown is extraordinary strength. I do not say this lightly as even as acharacter Beowulf does not have a single striking possession to even build uponour sense of his heroism. Even his relationships with other people offer noemotional value they are all public and formal. Although we can infer a slightlydeeper feeling for Hygelac (foster brother) the reader witnesses no personalexchanges.
Essentially Beowulf is his actions and their immediate result andlittle else besides. John Tolkien notes that thestructure is one of the works creditable strengths, a balancing act giving it asimple, static, solid and strong structure. Believing the poem to reflect “twomoments in a great life, rising and setting… youth and age”5. In summary of Tolkiens view when he insists that thedragon is aesthetically “the right end for Beowulf” had the hero been killedwhile young his death would have been a tragedy, that he should die when old,taking his antagonist too and leaving treasure to the people is within theheroic frame work.
Furthermore adding to Beowulf’s lack of identity as anemotional being is a key thematic point near the end of the story, where he hasno one to whom he can pass his kingdom too, dying alone. But given the social context this wouldn’thave been a massive problem for Beowulf the warrior as the most important thingwas for him to leave an indelible mark on the world.