In Terry Eagleton’s How to Read Literature, he examines the existence of fictional characters. First looking at an excerpt from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Eagleton examines the characters of Theatre:
“be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like the insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep…”
The theatre can teach us some truth, but it is the truth of the illusory nature of our existence. It can alert us to the dream-like quality of our lives, their brevity, mutability and lack of solid grounds. As such, by reminding us of our mortality, it can foster in us the virtue of humility. This is a precious accomplishment, since much of our moral trouble springs from the unconscious assumption that we will live forever. In fact, our lives will meet with as categorical a conclusion as the end of The Tempest. This, however, may not be as dismaying as it sounds. If we were to accept that our existence is as fragile and fugitive as that of Prospero and Miranda, we might reap some advantage from doing so. We might cling to life in a less white-knuckled way, and so enjoy ourselves more and injure others less. Perhaps this is why Prospero, rather strangely in the context, urges us to be cheerful. The transience of things is not wholly to be regretted. If love and bottles of Châteauneuf-du-Pape pass away, so do wars and tyrants.
Here, Eagleton speaks on the characters of a play, and by extension the characters of novels, short stories, poems, and all other forms of fiction, and their illusory and fading existence. They are only real in the plot of the work. They have no true pasts or futures outside of the literary work.
Eagleton takes this to draw on an important point about our existence. That we, ultimately, are just as illusory and fading. While this thought can be depressing, it can also better our lives and our state of mind.