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

§ 12. Hall’s Characters

The first printed adaptation came from the pen of Joseph Hall, who, after indulging his satirical vein, especially against Roman Catholics, in Mundus alter et idem (1605), had devoted himself to the production of moral and religious treatises. He published a third series of Meditations and Vowes in 1606, and then settled on the Theophrastian character sketch as a means of putting religious problems in a practical light. In 1608 appeared Characters of Virtues and Vices, an attempt to bring home to men’s conviction the nobleness of virtue and the baseness of vice. Nothing illustrates more clearly how tentative was the progress of social literature. Theophrastus had aimed at reproducing the humorous side of social faults, Hall employs his method to expound the practice of a moral system. The first book of characters, The Characterisms of Virtue, all exemplify in different forms an ideal of spiritual aloofness and self-mastery amid the errors and turmoil of the age. This stoic doctrine in a Christian setting is seen not less clearly in “The Humble Man,” who “can be more ashamed of honour than grieved with contempt, because he thinks that causeless, this deserved,” than in “The Happy Man,” who “knows the world and cares not for it; that, after many traverses of thought is grown to know what he may trust to and stands now equally armed for all events.” But the character sketch was intended to describe action, and Hall forces it to portray a state of mind. Thus, though there are passages of a noble and restrained eloquence, the general effect is wearisome and monotonous.

The second book, The Characterisms of Vices, has a no less didactic purpose. But its object is to render vice despicable, and Hall has, perforce, interwoven his descriptions with illustrations of the complex follies and errors of his time. Thus, the second series of characters, if less artistically perfect, serves a higher purpose and embraces a wider field than the work of Theophrastus. We read of frauds, superstitions, conspiracies, libels and lampoons, vain doctrines and reckless extravagance. Perhaps the best piece is the character of “The Ambitious Man,” in which we have an arraignment of court life. The scornful irony of Virgidemiarum is revived in the portrait of the courtier, a slave to all those who can advance him, cleaving like a burr to a great man’s coat, and, when accompanied by a friend from the country, crowding into “the awful presence,” in order to be seen talking with the mightiest in the land.

But, in adapting Greek form to modern ideas, Hall has modified the technique. As his subject has grown more complex, the initial definition is refined into a conceit which implies more, though it says less. For instance, “The Patient Man” “is made of metal not so hard as flexible,” superstition “is godless religion, devout impiety.” The idea thus hinted at in a paradox, after careful elaboration, is rounded off in an epigrammatic summary, whereas each chapter in Theophrastus terminated abruptly.