on June 13, 2004
Someone has calculated that more than eight hundred characters appear in Shakespeare's 38 plays--an astonishing variety of kings and queens, fairies and witches, jesters and fools, peasants and dukes, villains and heroes.
In A Theatergoer's Guide to Shakespeare's Characters, Robert Thomas Fallon, professor emeritus of English at La Salle University in Philadelphia, has chosen some sixty of these figures to examine. "Aside from Shakespeare's extraordinary poetic powers," he writes, "it is the range and depth of his characters that is most astonishing."
The author admits that any such survey is bound to be inadequate: "Aside from the sheer numbers, the range and depth of them is so rich, so vast, so varied, that mere summary must fall short of satisfaction."
Fallon points out that Shakespeare never leaves us entirely comfortable with a character, never able unconditionally to reject his villains or embrace his heroes: "His figures have familiar human flaws that often impel them to tragically destructive acts, but at the same time they appeal to our sympathy precisely because those flaws are so very human and familiar."
For example, Coriolanus is insufferably arrogant, but he is a valiant warrior devoted to his country.
Othello is a vengeful murderer eaten with "the green-ey'd monster" of jealousy, but he never entirely loses the aura of "the noble Moor."
Macbeth is the story of a good man gone wrong. We witness his tragic decline into evil, a man egged on to wicked deeds by Lady Macbeth, much as King Ahab was encouraged by Jezebel to persecute the prophet Elijah.
Hamlet, his "native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought," is distressingly indecisive and profoundly contradictory. As the British novelist Anthony Trollope put it, "When men think much, they can rarely decide." Nevertheless, Hamlet is finally moved to action when confronted with the task of killing his stepfather. Hamlet, says Fallon, is "Shakespeare's most exasperating tragic character. . . . Hamlet defeats us."
Romeo is impulsive and hotheaded, but he is young and we tend to wink and forgive him his youthful excesses.
Although Brutus is "the noblest Roman of them all," he joins a conspiracy to assassinate Caesar.
Othello shows how Shakespeare unmasks the tragic dual nature of mankind, portraying the human spirit as at once noble and brutish: "We, like the Moor, are gifted with the capacity to conceive a soaring vision of joy and fulfillment, but, again like him, we can be reduced to primal rage when those riches are snatched from us. Both a lesser angel and a greater ape, we swing precariously between the two natures, unwilling to surrender the one and unable to subdue the other."
Unconcerned with taking a position on ideological issues, Shakespeare's purpose in these plays is to "hold as 'twere a mirror up to nature," to record the "abstracts and brief chronicles of the time." Declining to pass moralistic judgments on his characters, he presents them instead in all their nobility and baseness, virtues and vices.
Shakespeare takes few pains to explain why his villains are evil. He simply sets them before us in all their multicolored wickedness. His villains are moved by passion, lust, greed, envy, guilt, fear, anger, revenge, hubris, and blind ambition: "They act in a manner appropriate to their twisted nature. We watch them plot their crimes, relish the outcome, manipulate others to provide the occasion, and then destroy their victims with stony unconcern for the suffering they inflict."
"The range of Shakespeare's characters," writes Fallon, "is extraordinary. [They] are often complex; they are torn by divided loyalties, inflamed with sudden passion, immobilized by melancholy, brightened with joy. [They] excite interest because they reflect our own dilemmas, which themselves have no easy answers."
Various critics have called this book eloquent and lucid, highly informative and wonderfully reader-friendly, entertaining and accessible, free of academic jargon, distilled without being dunderheaded, accessible without dumbing down Shakespeare. I agree. The sketches Fallon offers help us make the experience of a performance more enjoyable, and increase our appreciation for the breathtaking scale of Shakespeare's achievement: