I have nearly finished C. L. Barber‘s, Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy. I came across a remarkable passage today, on the 210th page, which refers to the way in which the Elizabethans thought about the relation between a man and the name of the role he performed in the “divinely ordained pageant” of this world.
The Elizabethans, explains Barber, tended to see no division between the man and the name, so that
“each man was his name and the role his name implied.”
This point of view immediately put me in mind of a passage in the Analects where Confucius expresses his horror that something which has more than three corners might be called a “three cornered box”:
“He said, ‘The three cornered box does not have three corners! What sort of a three-cornered box is that?'”
Confucius taught that there should be a universal concord between things and names, signifieds and signifiers, and that people should fulfil the roles that their names implied. He believed the times he lived in had degenerated from that ideal and called for “cheng ming“, or “the rectification of names“.
Immediately before that passage, Barber wrote something which put me in mind of a very different school of thought from that of Confucius, namely recent and contemporary advocates of PMA (positive mental attitude), such as W. Clement Stone, Jim Rohn, or Jerry Clark:
“…when you have to act, to be somebody or become somebody, there is a moment when you have to have faith that the unknown world will respond to the names you commit yourself to as right names.”
Then, immediately after having me flip between ancient Chinese and modern American wisdom, Barber throws in an arresting aperçu about what social dynamic it was that Elizabethan drama was developed to express nearly 450 years ago. Elizabethan drama was,
“an art form developed to express the shock and exhilaration of the discovery that life is not pageantry.”
Who but a dullard would say that reading literary criticism is dull?
Here is the whole admirable passage for your further edification:
When we analyze the magical substitution of words for things… [in Richard II], it seems scarcely plausible that a drama should be built around the impulse to adopt such an assumption. It seems especially implausible in our own age, when we are so conscious, on an abstract level, of the dependence of verbal efficiency on the social group. The analytical situation involves a misleading perspective, however; for, whatever your assumptions about semantics, when you have to act, to be somebody or become somebody, there is a moment when you have to have faith that the unknown world will respond to the names you commit yourself to as right names.* The Elizabethan mind, moreover, generally assumed that one played one’s part in a divinely ordained pageant where each man was his name and the role his name implied. The expression of this faith, and the outrage of it, is particularly drastic in the Elizabethan drama, which can be regarded, from this vantage, as an art form developed to express the shock and exhilaration of the discovery that life is not pageantry.
* Professors Theodore Baird and G. Armour Craig are credited “for this way of seeing the relation of names to developing situations.”