Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 July 2019
In classical Latin, ‘persona’ meant a mask used in a theatrical performance. The term came into Old English in the thirteenth century (via Anglo-Norman parsone, parsoune, person, persoun), and was used, much as in other European languages, as a category in law, grammar and theology. ‘Personal’ and ‘personality’, also via Anglo-Norman, appeared in the fifteenth century, as did the term ‘personage’, which denoted a person in relation to their rank, appearance or generic status or type. The emergence of the term ‘parson’ for a clergyman is a curious offshoot, but shows how the word was understood to designate a role as much as a unique individual.
Surprisingly, given the term's origin and later productivity, persona was not part of theatrical terminology; and in contrast to French, ‘personage’ was only occasionally used in English to refer to a character in fiction. The term ‘dramatis personae’ was not adopted in printed plays until around the end of the seventeenth century. This was possibly influenced by European convention (there were lists of personas in Spanish plays, and of personnes/personnages in French ones), but only in English was the term persona reintroduced in its Latin form, making it distinct from ‘person’ or ‘personage’.
From here it was quickly and widely applied to real-life contexts to capture the way an outward role might be performed socially or constructed rhetorically. Usages from the 1730s in the plays of Henry Fielding and the literary criticism of Richard Bentley are already metaphorical, referring to editorial personae, or the assembled company in a scene. As part of authorial strategy, the practice could involve the adoption of a pseudonym, or the projection of certain traits within the frame of a narrator figure or individual characters. Around the same time, the term ‘personification’ emerged, bestowing a name on the already familiar artistic practice of embodying abstract concepts or inanimate objects in the form of human figures or fictional characters. These semantic developments betokened a wider institutionalization of the by-now established process of ‘self-fashioning’ (Greenblatt 1980), through both textual and visual performance. It also coincided with the rise of first-person literary fictions which very often deployed the persona of the traveller as narrator/protagonist, for instance, in the foundational novels of Defoe and Swift (Adams 1983).