The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XVI. London and the Development of Popular Literature

§ 11. Theophrastus

Bastard’s work and that of Davies mark the stage when literature was being cultivated as a social art. The epigram has all the atmosphere of a coterie. It is conceived in a lighter vein, it is suited to the eccentricities, not the degradation, of character; it adorns everyday interests with the charm of literary form; it is a detached fragmentary production convenient for circulation. But, by the beginning of the seventeenth century, it was discovered that the Theophrastian character sketch fulfilled all these conditions, offered greater scope to the play of conversational idiom, gave the sanction of classical form to the age’s love of portrait-writing and, in some measure, satisfied the interests which it was the function of the stage to gratify.

In order to understand the influence of Theophrastus, it must be remembered that his life falls into the period 373–284 B.C., when the Athenian commonwealth was a community of burghers, all educated in the same manner, dressed in the same style and occupied in the same pursuits. Their lives were not, apparently, much complicated by political strife, commercial expansion, or religious controversy. Hence, the moral and ethical differences of men were noticeable only in the common traffic of existence, and study of character became a close attention to details of conduct. Theophrastus, probably under the inspiration of Aristotle, discusses about thirty cases in which men vary from normal perfection. This variation he does not find in their appearance, dress or thoughts, but in one side of their habitual conduct. A sketch or description from this point of view requires a special technique. Theophrastus begins each essay by briefly defining the quality under discussion—be it irony, avarice, boorishness, or stupidity—and then illustrates the definition by a number of typical actions. As the actions have no necessary connection with each other, but are drawn from any kind of situation, in which the particular propensity will betray itself, the portraits may fairly claim to be generic. As the instances and anecdotes are within the range of everyone’s daily experience, the portraits have a touch of reality. Now, character sketches, as we have seen, were already a common feature of English social literature. But they were accidental productions subordinated to the main interests of a connected work, produced without method, overladen with non-essentials, or disfigured by gross caricature. Theophrastus introduced three changes. He raised the character sketch to the dignity of an independent creation, containing its own interest within itself; he emphasised action as the essence of such description; he provided a stereotyped technique. This genre, the product of a simpler civilisation, but a more mature literary art, was quickly adopted by the writers of the age and transformed into a vehicle for ideas far beyond the dreams of the inventor.