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Shakespeare’s delineation of characters

Orson Wellesas Macbeth and Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth.   | Photo Credit: UNKNOWN

Considering that Shakespeare did not even go to college, the magnitude of his intellect baffles our imagination. He was the greatest genius mankind has ever known. In addition to his unequalled vocabulary of 27,280 words, he possessed several mind-boggling qualities, which defy explanation. His greatest strength was imparting individuality and personality to a character, when other dramatists were satisfied with characters who became ‘types’. This feature is particularly noticeable when there are two similar characters in a play. He creates this effect in such a manner that his characters behave like ‘real people’. Shakespeare himself had reportedly said that if he had not killed Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio would have killed him!

As De Quincey had observed, “In Macbeth, in order to gratify his own inordinate and teeming faculty of creation, Shakespeare has introduced two murders, and as usual in his hands, they are remarkably discriminated.” (Macbeth and Lady Macbeth)

On hearing that he had been made the ‘Thane of Cawdor’ as the witches had predicted, Macbeth gets ambitious to become the king, by killing Duncan. But Lady Macbeth who knows him observes, “ Yet to I fear thy nature;/ It is too full of the milk of human kindness;/ To catch the nearest way” meaning Macbeth’s timidity would come in this way. When Macbeth suddenly develops cold feet and says, “We will proceed no further in this business;/ He has honored me of late…”She replies: “Was the hope drunk/ Wherein you dressed yourself…/ Art thou afeard/ To be the same in thine own act and valor/ as thou art in desire.” And again: “I have given suck and know/ How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me;/ I would while it were smiling in my face/ Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums/ And dash’d the brains out, had I/ So sworn as you have done to this.”Even as Macbeth talks about a possible failure, her reply shocks Macbeth, who says, “Bring forth men-children only/ For thy undaunted mettle shall compose/ Nothing but males.” After the deed is done, when Macbeth is trembling with fear and says, “Wherefore could I do not pronounce Amen?/ I had most need of blessing and Amen/ Stuck in my throat!” Lady Macbeth says, “These deeds must not be thought/ After these ways; so it will make us mad!”

“Why worthy Thane,/ You do unbend your noble strength to think/ So brainsickly of things?” Throughout the play Macbeth is protected from emotional disintegration by his strong-willed and domineering wife, till she herself falls apart due to guilt towards the end. Thus anyone reading Macbeth can easily identify whether the speaker is Macbeth or Lady Macbeth, by merely listening to the lines, even if one is blind-folded!

In Antony and Cleopatra, the Egyptian Queen has two attendants, Charmian and Iras. They are both close to her but Charmian comes out more prominently discussing with Cleopatra even her passion for Antony.

In Julius Caesar, two tribunes Flavius and Marullus chide the crowds who had come to see Caesar. It is Marullus who sets the pace. Similarly during Antony’s funeral speech, you can make out the first Plebeian easily by the way he takes charge of the gathering.

Thus Shakespeare’s characters are not ‘types’ stuck to the Canvas or ‘puppets’ controlled by unseen strings. They are real persons in whom good and evil mingle (unlike as in ‘types’) and who act on their own, once created. Falstaff, Mercutio, Hotspur, Brutus, and Malvolio, are not mere characters who behave like ‘types’. They are real human beings, who have a will of their own. You have to hear only one sentence, and you can immediately guess the identity of the speaker. Same is the case with Rosalind, Portia, Viola, and Cleopatra. They are real women. Each has her own separate identity, and individual charm. In the entire history of the world no other dramatist has achieved this unique feat.

It is precisely for this reason that you cannot take the views of Shakespeare’s characters as his own, though in a few profound passages of some of his plays this extraordinarily marvelous man might have unguardedly let slip a few personal opinions — in the kaleidoscopically fluctuating moods of Hamlet, in the tempestuous agony of Lear, in the profound mysticism of Prospero and in the terrifying verdict of a mentally shattered Macbeth who views life as a “Tale told by an idiot./ Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

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Printable version | Jun 17, 2021 4:52:09 AM |

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