In essence the times in which
the characters live is their identity, if we don’t account for the concept of
time, location, audience and contextual factors it would be impossible to
create. No one is a tangible known entity but a multilayered notion and the
simulated constructions of identity throughout literary texts show this, the
myriad of the term IDENTITY.


Subconsciously we are led to an opinion
when an identity is constructed the authors voice being a conscious presence,
in Beowulf we see a participating narrator in line 7 and 19, highlighting that
the construction of identity is artificial. Similarly Shakespeare’s use of
metadrama allows Hamlet to expose Claudius’ true identity as an evil man without
overly interfering.

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Identity is also constructed by how we
act/ are perceived by others. Gertrude finds herself remarrying “o’erhasty” and
this could be because she would lose her place within the court and be
identified as something less than a queen, having to marry to maintain her
place within the court. The identity of Silas is described as resolutely
reliant on contact with others . too and when cut off from it he goes through a
stage of “withering” suggesting that identity is not interior but developed by
contact with society to further strengthen this idea is Hester in The Scarlet Letter. Death is the
ultimate 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 the
action Hamlet plays the madman but his assumed madness presses him further into
the illusion and the audience amongst other characters into confusion. Telling
Rosencrantz 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 his
actions through it. Hamlet is an ambiguous character in a potential identity
crisis due to internal and external pressures, Knight summing him up as “not a
real man at all, but… a constellation of images”10 his inability to decide embodies a lack of conviction
about human identity, ultimately mankind does not know what it wants. We learn
more about Hamlet over time through his soliloquies, feigned madness and the
structure of events showing the audience he is sensible, philosophical, a great
man of substance in the Elizabethan era. Hamlets identity is not fixed, his
opinions and ideas are constantly shifting complicating his identity whereas
Beowulf has the same desires throughout the whole text. Hamlet’s inability to
kill Claudius is because he believes it is wrong to kill a man whilst he is
praying even though it is the perfect opportunity to do so showing Hamlet is a
man of morals, Ian Adams argues “the definition of a character’s reactions is
the definition of the character”.


Under the rule of King Hamlet Denmark
had been honorable at home and respected abroad, King Hamlet being described as
a great man and belonging to the heroic world. Hamlet lives within the
transition period of the heroic and machiavellian world. Now under the rule of
Claudius “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” and Hamlet is determined
to get to the bottom of it. Attempting to find and define who he is, the
opening and central question of the play, we lose Hamlet among “the whips and
scorns of time, / Th’ oppressors wrong, the proud man’s contumely, / The pangs
of despis’d love, the laws delay, / The insolence of office”, from this point
we realize Hamlet is fated to be impulsive and disruptive and questionably mad.
The characterization of Hamlet has many discrete and unreadable dimensions for
example Gregory Doran’s (2008) production compared with Tyrone Guthrie’s (1937)8 show how Hamlet’s identity
is interpreted differently by all. Soliloquies allow the audience to see what
the character is thinking with a tendency of being true as they are performed
alone. Hamlet’s language is inundated with forms, features, impressions and
images conveying his identity best9.


The lack of female identity is Beowulf is consistent throughout, the
female characters that are shown however are important for the poetic
structure. They are neither passive nor powerless just actively struggling to
define their place in the heroic world of warriors seeking vengeance. In a
quintessentially male society the women are expected to fulfill duties that
best serve the men and their efforts are respected7. High class women play a subtle but important role in
medieval culture which is also seen in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.


The past massively influences the
identity of the characters studied too this can be mainly expressed through
structure. Taking Beowulf firstly the
narrative is broken into three sections surrounding the fights; Grendel,
Grendel’s mother and the battle with the dragon6. Described in great length and poetically with
monumental 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 warden
of the land” suggests the fifty years following the battles were less
significant because his rule as king is condensed into two lines. The structure
emphasizing certain events as more significant and Beowulf’s identity around
his reaction to them. Likewise, Eliot devotes only two pages telling the reader
about Silas Marner before the more paramount years where he cares for Eppie.

Identity is what makes everybody
distinctive, a collective set of characteristics by which something is
definitively recognizable or known. As a theme identity can be problematic,
because writers often construct unfathomable characters. Quite often readers
come across characters who perform a false identity; villains such as
Shakespeare’s Iago (from the play Othello). Identities are determined not only
by self-conception but also social presentation. Within literature identity is
expressed 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 all
the men and women merely players”2,
taking this view as I focus my essay towards Beowulf and others, it
shows a superficiality to identity. Thus, when reading a text we must consider
the contextual background because it is this that determines the norms and
values of society and therefore an indication of why a playwright, author or
poet would write a character the way they do.

With scholars placing the epic poem Beowulf between 650-800 AD and
originally being an oral tradition like Homers ‘Odyssey’ it had been passed over many generations before being
written down. Partially translated, unfixed to any locality or any one writer
it is a very complex piece the original manuscript not even having a title but
becoming known by the story’s protagonist “Beowulf” a man like no other “the
mightiest man on earth, /high-born and powerful”3. Seamus Heaney’s translation constructs identity based
on two key elements; individual reputation and ancestral heritage. With
heritage providing models for behaviour and helping establish identity a good
reputation helps solidify one. A key example of this is Shield Sheafson who was
orphaned meaning his valiant deeds were the only means by which he could
construct an identity. At the beginning when introduced to a character the
sentences are parted in clear sections and the language is neither descriptive
nor poetic, mirroring the simplicity of how man is judged. Expressing the
superficial notion that a persons identity is defined by their ancestry. Contrasting
to Beowulf is George Eliot’s Silas Marner4 where the structure at the beginning of her novel is
heavily punctuated. With pauses slowing the natural rhythm of speech creating
the relaxed tone of the rural village with in which Silas resides. The use of
rhetoric creates an almost derisive tone from the villagers. Nonetheless the
sentiments of the texts agree that identity is defined by ancestry although
constructed in different ways.  As the
poem is centred around Beowulf a reader would expect to learn about him as a
person as the poem goes on. This is not the case instead we hear of his public
declarations and read his attempts of dealing with three monsters. Very few
private thoughts, doubts or personal hopes are shown the only characterizing
feature shown is extraordinary strength. I do not say this lightly as even as a
character Beowulf does not have a single striking possession to even build upon
our sense of his heroism. Even his relationships with other people offer no
emotional value they are all public and formal. Although we can infer a slightly
deeper feeling for Hygelac (foster brother) the reader witnesses no personal
exchanges. Essentially Beowulf is his actions and their immediate result and
little else besides.

John Tolkien notes that the
structure is one of the works creditable strengths, a balancing act giving it a
simple, static, solid and strong structure. Believing the poem to reflect “two
moments in a great life, rising and setting… youth and age”5. In summary of Tolkiens view when he insists that the
dragon is aesthetically “the right end for Beowulf” had the hero been killed
while 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 the
heroic frame work. Furthermore adding to Beowulf’s lack of identity as an
emotional being is a key thematic point near the end of the story, where he has
no one to whom he can pass his kingdom too, dying alone.  But given the social context this wouldn’t
have been a massive problem for Beowulf the warrior as the most important thing
was for him to leave an indelible mark on the world.


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