The Physiognomical Discourse and European Theatre

Theory, Performance, Dramatic Text

by Maria-Christina Mur (Author)
©2017 Thesis 328 Pages


The discourse on Physiognomy had an important influence and impact on European theatrical culture at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. The book discusses the debate about the scientific nature of Physiognomy. Starting from the concept that Physiognomy refers to particular signs on the face, it looks for evidence of a knowledge and awareness of this pseudo-scientific theory. The author researches among various acting manuals and theatrical works in English, German, French and Italian. She points out that Physiognomy makes an appearance in many different guises. In the so-called «physiognomical portraits», for instance, where we find animated discussions on the passions to be displayed, and also direct references to Johann Caspar Lavater and his science.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Foreword
  • Introduction
  • 1. What is Physiognomy?
  • 1.1 Dictionaries and encyclopaedias
  • 1.2 Ideas of scientists
  • 2. Physiognomy and literature
  • 2.1 Physiognomy and theatre
  • 3. State of the art
  • 4. Methodology
  • Part I. – Performance
  • 1. Setting the scene
  • 2. Education or entertainment?
  • 3. Theatrical space
  • 4. The theory of the passions
  • 5. The actor and the art of acting
  • 5.1 Laying the foundations
  • 5.2 Physiognomy and Lavater
  • 5.3 The passions on stage
  • 5.4 Movement of the muscles
  • 5.5 The imitation
  • 5.6 The actor and his appearance
  • 5.7 Audience’s response
  • Part II. – Fiction
  • 1. Introduction
  • 1.1 New genres
  • 1.2 The corpus
  • 1.3 The authors and Physiognomy
  • 2. Text analysis
  • 2.1 Subsidiary text
  • 2.1.1 Introductions, pro- and epilogues, dedications
  • 2.1.2 The stage directions
  • 2.2 Main text
  • 2.2.1 The face as text
  • 2.2.2 Lavater and his “science”
  • 2.2.3 Adaptations
  • 3. Reception
  • 3.1 Press reviews
  • 3.2 Actors’ biographies
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • 1. Primary sources
  • 2. Secondary sources
  • Index

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This publication reproduces in a more compact form the dissertation with the title The Circulation of Physiognomical Discourse in European Theatrical Culture, 1780–1830, defended in June 2016 at the University of Bologna. I would like to express my sincere gratitude to my supervisor Professor Lilla Maria Crisafulli for her continuous support and guidance, to Professor Anna Paola Soncini for directing and coordinating the PhD Programme DESE-Les Littératures de L’Europe Unie and all the professors involved in this programme. I furthermore would like to thank Professor Michael Gottlieb Dallapiazza and Dr. Rita Unfer Lukoschik for including my research work in their series Interkulturelle Begegnungen. Studien zum Literatur- und Kulturtransfer, and Ute Winkelkötter of Peter Lang Publishers for publishing it.

Furthermore, I would like to thank my family and friends for their support. No words will ever express how grateful I am for the love, encouragement and motivation given by Luca, to whom I dedicate this publication. ← 7 | 8 →

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This publication with the title The Physiognomical Discourse and European Theatre. Theory, Performance, Dramatic Text discusses the relation between a philosophic, scientific concept and a specific literary genre in approximately fifty years of cultural history. In this foreword the main elements of the title are described in order to create the basis for the further explanations.

Physiognomy1 is composed of the words physis (φύσις) and gnomon (γνώμων), meaning form/nature and judgement/interpretation. It is presented as art, science, knowledge or study of the physical form and its interpretation of the soul and the human character. The different interpretations of Physiognomy will be a focal point in the introduction of this publication. The presentation of these different interpretations will bring to light a vast understanding and critique of a concept and idea thousands of years old.

The physiognomical discourse addressed in the title refers to a multifaceted analysis of the human body in relation to its soul and character. By using the term discourse, the multitude of these analyses is evoked. This term is mainly used in the purest sense of its Latin origin: discurrere = to run different ways (Oxford Latin Dictionary). The movement implied in this definition is directly connected to the idea of circulation. Due to the “fashionability”2 of the expression discourse in the last decades, the reader of this publication might also think of a more literary theory approach. Wendell V. Harris gives ten different, though related, descriptions of discourse in the Dictionary of Concepts in Literary Criticism and Theory. Six out of the ten descriptions are basic ideas of the discourse definition, which underpin this research: (1) Orderly, coherent thought. (2) The presentation of such thought. (7) In theory of narrative, the presentation or mode of telling of the story. (8) In a phrase like “discourse community”, a shared set of assumptions, procedures, and specifically defined terms. (9) The interaction between language and reality that produces experience or the world-as-understood. (10) A shared understanding of a significant area of social experience within a given culture at a given time in history.3 ← 9 | 10 →

Discourse means focusing on all kinds of written text in order to create a multifaceted network of information and knowledge discussed by intellectuals, scholars, philosophers and writers. The relevance of the different voices in these written texts is emphasised and it is a theoretical way of forming and shaping humans as “subjects”4.

The physiognomical discourse analysed in this work, refers to a period in human history where an extensive transformation of science took place. At the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries, science experienced a certain popularisation. This work refers more than once to the theory of public sphere by Jürgen Habermas and the fashionability of Physiognomy as scientific concept. The scientific discourse was held in many different institutions and could easily involve the public. New founded academies held, for example, public lectures; dictionaries and encyclopaedias appeared on the book market and the periodical publications discussed new inventions and theories. This new approach of gaining and sharing knowledge also created a greater awareness of scientific topics and posed new questions. Physiognomy is one example of everyday use and application of scientific rules. This work will question the scientific nature of Physiognomy and how the intellectuals and public referred to it. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, science also was often questioned. Older forms of pseudo-science, such as alchemy, found in chemistry a valid, much more reliable substitute. Physiognomical discourse brings together theories regarding the relation of the human body and human soul under different definitions. The theory of Pathognomy, fundamental in this work, is included in the physiognomical discourse of the time and is therefore not explicitly mentioned in the title of this work.

This publication focuses on pointing out the relevance of the theatrical production influenced by the physiognomical discourse. The analysis of the literary corpus presented in this publication does not follow a chronological, linguistic, or national order, but tries to emphasise the circulation of the physiognomical idea all over Europe in a specific time frame; approximately 1780–1830. The time frame is dictated by political and cultural events, which are important for the analysis. The beginning of the period chosen for the analysis is set with the year 1780. This is right after Johann Caspar Lavater’s publications of the four volumes of his Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe. Lavater is the central figure of the physiognomical discourse of ← 10 | 11 → the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and this publication will refer throughout to Lavater’s theory and to the criticism it received. In the 1780s, new theatrical genres that related to an awareness of the language of the human body were introduced on the stages all over Europe. These new genres also reflected massive political and social changes in the various societies. The European political map changed the inter-relationships between the different nation states: French plays were largely translated and performed on the English stage, German plays were staged in France, and Italian dramatic and aesthetic theory spread throughout Europe. The circulation of physiognomical discourse was visible both on a theoretical and practical level. Intellectuals travelled from one country to another and shared their knowledge with one another. The end of the analysed period is set at the year 1830. Research on the presence of physiognomical ideas in the literary production of that time, showed a concentration of these ideas in the fifty-year period between 1780 and 1830. From a political and social perspective, the year 1830 represented a turning point in European international relations. In England, 1830 was the end of the reign of King George IV, in France the July Revolution introduced a constitutional monarchy and in the German states the tensions between bourgeoisie and aristocracy became greater and greater. Around 1830 many of the central figures discussed in this work passed away: Ugo Foscolo in 1827, Sarah Siddons in 1831, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand Unzelmann and Leman Thomas Rede in 1832, Edmund Kean in 1833, Christian Friedrich Michaelis and Johannes Jelgerhuis in 1834, Karl August Böttiger in 1835, and Gilbert Austin in 1837.

This publication aims to create a general overview of the physiognomical discourse in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by presenting examples of literary work. ← 11 | 12 →

1 In order to avoid confusion with the term physiognomy for the general appearance and form of things without the scientific connotation, the science Physiognomy is written with the capital letter throughout the entire publication.

2 Jeremy Hawthorn. A Glossary of Contemporary Literary Theory. London: Arnold Publishers, 2000 p.86.

3 Wendell V. Harris. “Discourse.” In: Dictionary of Concepts in Literary Criticism and Theory. New York, Westport, London: Greenwood Press, 1992, 66 p. 66.

4 Paul A. Bové. “Discourse.” In: Critical Terms for Literary Study. Edited by Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. University of Chicago Press, 1995, 50–65 p. 58.

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Starting from the considerations made in the foreword about the idea of a link between the research topic and science in fiction, in this introduction an overview of the scientific nature of Physiognomy is given through examples of articles in the first dictionaries and encyclopaedias and through the theories of some scientists who deal in their research with Physiognomy in general and the scientific nature of Physiognomy in detail. Furthermore, this introduction contains explanations about Physiognomy and literature in general and Physiognomy and theatre in detail. A chapter dedicated to the state of the art should lay the cornerstone for the analyses made in this publication. The methodology applied in this research is explained in the last chapter of this introduction.

1.   What is Physiognomy?

Abstract: This chapter gives an overview of the scientific nature of Physiognomy through examples of articles in the first dictionaries, and through the theories of some scientists and philosophers, such as Aristotle, Della Porta, Lavater and Schopenhauer, who deal in their research with Physiognomy in general and the scientific nature of it in detail.

1.1   Dictionaries and encyclopaedias

In the first part of this introduction some articles published in the first editions of dictionaries and encyclopaedias are analysed. Generally, in the years under consideration there are differences between articles that deal with Physiognomy as an art, those which see it as a pure science and those which do not make a general distinction. In the first category we find Zedler Lexikon, 1741, where one can read: “Physiognomie, die Kunst, welche aus der äusserlichen Beschaffenheit der Gliedmassen oder den Lineamenten des Leibes eines Menschen dessen Natur und Gemüths Disposition zu erkennen giebt.”5

For the writer of this article Physiognomy is definitely an art, but he is also aware of the fact that not everyone who writes on Physiognomy shares the same ← 13 | 14 → opinion: “Von dem Werth dieser Kunst sind die Gedanken der Gelehrten unterschiedlich, indem einige viel, andere wenig darauf halten.”6.

Almost 170 years later, in 1905 in Meyers Großes Konversationsslexikon7 one can find the same explanation of Physiognomy, seen as art.

Both articles call Physiognomy an art, but they do not criticise its purpose. On the other hand, an article published in Diderot and Jaucourt’s Encyclopédie in 1765, addresses the danger of judgments based on Physiognomy: “mais il ne faut jamais juger sur la physionomie”8. Physiognomy is an “art prétendu” (“purported art”) and a “science ridicule” (“ridiculous science”). The aversion towards Physiognomy is explained as follows:

Il est permis de juger à quelques égards de ce qui se passe dans l’intérieur des hommes par leurs actions, & connoitre à l’inspection des changements du visage, la situation actuelle de l’ame ; mais comme l’ame n’a point de forme qui puisse être relative à aucune forme matérielle, on ne peut pas la juger par la figure du corps, ou par la forme du visage.9

With this severe and well-argued criticism, Diderot and Jaucourt deny Physiognomy every raison d’être in a scientific discourse. However, in the first edition of the Brockhaus in 1809, for the first time we can find the word “science” without negative connotation. The article begins with the declaration of Physiognomy as an art, but continues with the conviction that the judgments made by others were often made without much reflection: “Man fällt oft überaus schiefe Urtheile über diese Wissenschaft, über welche noch lange geschrieben werden wird, ohne daß vielleicht je ein in feinen Theilen gegründetes System derselben erscheinen dürfte.”10.

Until this point the various articles are quite short and explain in a few words their position in the discourse about Physiognomy. In 1809, in the Krünitz Oeconomische Enciclopedie11, the presentation of Physiognomy is more detailed. ← 14 | 15 → The Krünitz presents a summary of ideas current from antiquity to Lavater and Gall. Physiognomy remains between science and art, but the article offers an explanation of the reason for it. A distinction is made between scholars who use reason for their observations and those who instead use magic and superstition. In 1857 the Piers Universallexikon adds two further ideas: knowledge and research/exploration: “Physiognomik, im Allgemeinen die Erkenntniß des Innern oder der geistigen Eigenheiten eines Menschen durch sein Äußeres, und zwar sowohl Erkenntniß von Verstandeseigenheiten, als auch Erforschung von Neigungen und herrschenden Gemüthsstimmungen.”12.

In 1904, the Eisler Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe also calls Physiognomy an art, a theory and a knowledge (“Lehre oder Kunde”, “Kunst”13). In 1907, a new point of view is offered by the Kirchner Michaelis Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe. In its first part the article speaks about Physiognomy as art and supposed science (see also L’Encyclopédie and Encyclopaedia Britannica from 1911: “Supposed science”14), but towards the end it says, “Die Physiognomik ist also keineswegs eine vollendete und ausgebildete Wissenschaft, sondern nur eine werdende zu nennen”15. The only dictionary which frequently speaks of Physiognomy as science is the Larousse edition of 1874: “Science qui enseigne à connaître le caractère des hommes par l’inspection des traites du visage”16.

As we have seen, the different articles in dictionaries and encyclopaedias show that there are divergent points of view. In fact, although Physiognomy is seen as science, most of the time it is connected with art or with the criticism of pure science. The purpose of the presentation of different articles is to show examples of criticism of Physiognomy in some encyclopaedias as an introduction to the scientific discourse. The quotations speak the language of their time, of their belonging to a particular philosophical movement as well as that of their authors. ← 15 | 16 →

1.2   Ideas of scientists

In the comments in the secondary literature one can find various explanations of this dilemma of placing Physiognomy in science or art. Various authors have written on Physiognomy and the cultural history of the past centuries17. Paolo Getrevi for example explains that in antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, Physiognomy was always connected with science. Already in the Babylonian culture we speak of a “codified science”18. Patrizia Magli dedicates a short chapter to the Arabian Physiognomy and explains that:

The ancient Arab physiognomy, whose role has been crucial to the spread of this science in Europe. Its origin is lost in the mists of time, confused with that of magic, anatomy, physiology, philosophy, but, above all, with the art of medicine. For the Arabs physiognomy was, for centuries, an art that one has from birth and a craft closely related to that of the physician and of the astronomer.19

In the fourth century BC, we find a study on Physiognomy that in ancient times was attributed to Aristotle, although now his authorship is much disputed. Siegfried Frey explains in his article Lavater, Lichtenberg, and the Suggestive Power of Human Face that the doubts on the authorship of Aristotle came to life with Georg Gustav Fülleborn’s work about the history of Physiognomy (Abriss einer Geschichte und Literatur der Physiognomik, 1797):

He [Fülleborn] evidently felt physiognomy had fallen into such disgrace that he had to save the reputation of its supposed founder, Aristotle. He did so by denying that Aristotle actually wrote the text on physiognomics for which he was famous. For over two thousand years, Aristotle had been hailed for his Physiognomika, which was regarded as the ← 16 | 17 → standard work on its subject. Fülleborn now found that treatise so incoherent and unsatisfactory that it could only be, he concluded, a badly corrupted text […]. This conclusion was so readily accepted that it has since found its way into almost all modern accounts of physiognomics, which hesitate to attribute that text to Aristotle.20

In her introduction to the publication of the text of the Physiognomonica by (Pseudo) Aristotle, Giampiera Raina writes that there are different points of view about the authenticity of this work by Aristotle, but that in the end to prove its authenticity does not really matter: “But to say today whether the text we have is all, in part or in no part by Aristotle is a problem without a solution; in reality, however, it is perhaps a pseudo-problem, because if it is not by Aristotle, it is Aristotelian, as it presupposes widely peripatetic theories.”21.

Following Raina’s quote I assume that the Physiognomica is Aristotle’s work. This work is divided into six chapters. The first chapter begins with a strong affirmation, which can be seen as the main idea of the whole text: “Mental character is not independent of and unaffected by bodily processes, but is conditioned by the state of the body.”22.

Aristotle uses the expressions pathos, soma kai psyche, kineseis. To indicate the characteristics of Physiognomy he uses the word technē. This technē is about “all natural affections of mental content, and also such acquired affections as on their occurrence modify the external signs which physiognomists interpret.”23.

To analyse the different characteristics, Aristotle, and as he explains also his ancestors, uses three different methods: the method of expression, the zoological method and the race method.24 The expression of a person, unconnected to present emotions, may indicate the personality and character: for example, a person may have an angry expression without being really in an angry mood. Some of ← 17 | 18 → the characteristics of the dispositions of human beings may be related to the personality of animals. To explain the various features as applied to men and women, Aristotle uses a dichotomous system; they can be: soft and hard, slow and fast, strong and weak, etc. with only one of the two parts having a positive connotation. Apart from the similarity between humans and animals, there are also many different types of men. Some features are typical for men belonging to particular races. Aristotle uses, but also criticises, these three methods because individually they may not provide safe and scientific results. His conclusion is: “In general it is silly to rely on a single sign: you will have more reason for confidence in your conclusions when you find several signs all pointing one way.”25 Aristotle is convinced that Physiognomy is a science but he also says that it is a science based on probability and that it is not completely accurate. In the discourse of the scientific nature of Physiognomy, Aristotle is important because he introduces a fundamental idea for all successive scientists: Aristotle speaks of signs that the scientist must analyse to gain results and after him several scientists use this as justification and explanation of the scientific nature of Physiognomy.

Magli explains, that in general, physiognomic ideas did not change between Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages.26 The transformation of the concept of science is visible in the High Middle Ages, when scientific knowledge is strongly connected to religion. Getrevi shows as example the Liber de physionomia by Michaelus Scotus (born around 1175 and died after 1232):

The liber appears as a real medical treatise, with a first section on gynaecology and obstetrics, a second focuses on the physiology of the humors and a third on physiognomy. […] Physiognomy is credited then as the most elected part of medicine, rather like a peak of the scientific pyramid, the only one that defining the human model gives reason to the entire cosmic system.27

In earlier modern times there are two main interpretations of Physiognomy: (1) Physiognomy is connected to psychology; (2) Physiognomy is explained through art and paintings and its use in art shows its importance (Cit. Caroli: “Physiognomy, science leaning, in different proportions, now on Psychology, ← 18 | 19 → now on the representation of somatic features, namely on painting.”28). Flavio Caroli presents two examples for the psychological-medical part and for the artistic part: Michelangelo Biondo with his De cognizione hominis per aspectum (1544) and Leonardo Da Vinci with the Trattato della Pittura (~1509–1519).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (May)
Physiognomy Acting theory Eighteenth century Character description Passions Signs
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 328 pp.

Biographical notes

Maria-Christina Mur (Author)

Maria-Christina Mur studied History and Comparative Literature at the University of Vienna, and holds a PhD in European literature from the University of Bologna. Her main research focus is literature and its relation to (pseudo)-scientific theories of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.


Title: The Physiognomical Discourse and European Theatre
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330 pages