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William Shakespeare: Character

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The key to most of Shakespeare's best works is how the character of  the main person drives the action of the play


The works of William Shakespeare seem to provide endless matter for comment. A quick search in a university library will uncover mountains of discussion on the unsurpassed use of the English language, on the fabulous imagery, on the amazing range from the lightest comedy to the deepest tragedy, on the timelessness of the plays, and much much more.

Rather than add yet another detailed study to the mountain of essays, I would like to suggest a thesis for you to investigate.  I invite you to share your thoughts with me and, at your discretion, with everyone through these pages.  The thesis is this:

The key to most of Shakespeare's best works is how the character of the main person drives the action of the play.

While Shakespeare could turn an unlikely plot twist that would make even a modern television scriptwriter blush, most of the main characters stay true to their personalities.  In most of the serious plays the main character (sometimes called the protagonist) needs to choose between two paths (sometimes called a dilemma) that will irreversibly seal the fate of the character.  The interesting thing is not that we readers want to know what the character chooses, but that we know the character can only select one of the choices and remain true to his or her self.  We may want the character to choose differently, but we know that the choice is already stamped within the personality of the character.

How does Shakespeare do this?  If we examine the script we will often find that our whole understanding of the character is established in one or two brief scenes using a handful of lines and actions.  Amazing!

So here is the assignment:  Pick three plays by Shakespeare and look at the character development of the main character.  Does the critical action evolve out of the character?  Or is character revealed through the action?  How does Shakespeare accomplish this in the play?

Here is an extra challenge: Pick three modern television dramas and look at the character development of the main characters.  Does the critical action evolve out of the character?  Does the credibility of the story line lose credibility when action is driven by convenience or chance rather than character?  One example, now perhaps more dated than Shakespeare, is Dallas.  At its best the action always seemed to evolve out of the characters involved.  However, some of the writers drifted towards improbable plot twists and unlikely choices by the characters, thus undermining the credibility of the series.  Again, what do you think?

You can investigate these ideas for yourself.  If you like, you can send your observations to me at gdixon@shared-visons.com .  Please let me know if you would like me to share your observations with others through these pages.

Have Fun!