In 1884 William James published a paper called ‘What is an Emotion?’ The essence of James’s idea is that an emotion is no more than bodily changes in response to an external stimulus. A year later the related ideas of Carl Lange were published, leading to what became known as the James–Lange theory. From around this time onwards, personality would usually come to be seen in terms of either inheritance from one’s parents or influences from the environment. The conception of the individual as subject to uncontrollable forces reached an apogee in the theory and practice of naturalism. Underpinning naturalism is a conception of the wellsprings of behaviour that reflects a dominant social morality of self-fulfilment in an inverted way. If individual happiness through meaningful experiences is the goal of your life’s journey, inheritance and social forces may well impede your chances – the sins of the fathers are passed onto the sons, a tragic fact for which the sons cannot be held responsible. This idea of personality was expressed forcefully in the character of Oswald in Ibsen’s Ghosts (1889), whose syphilitic father has passed the disease onto him. While the cultural work of naturalism was in the main based on new writing, though, the debate about the bodily basis of emotion, as I have indicated in the example of Irving, carried over into the Shakespearean theatre world.
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