Much Ado About Characters

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

As referenced by my previous three posts about Shakespeare, I am an avid fan of the Bard. Shakespeare himself is interesting of course, but what is he most well-known for? His plays. Comedies, tragedies, and histories, that explore love, loss, gain, greed, power, corruption, and other definers that make us laugh, cry, yearn, or think.

Many components of any dramatic piece make up the whole of the play. The idea of the play and what it will be about, the playwright who puts that idea onto paper, the actors who crawl into the skins of their characters and bring them to life before our very eyes, and of course, the characters themselves.

Shakespeare’s plays are ripe with characters that are brave and weak,  courageous and cowardly, courteous and greedy. Kings, queens, servants, messengers, husbands, wives, knights, soldiers, and lovers all have a place amongst the broad spectrum of Shakespeare’s plays. His major characters, and even some of the minor ones, stay with us long after we have read the play or seen a production of it.

I cannot go into detail about every single one of Shakespeare’s characters, there are far too many. So what I will do, is define some of my favorite Shakespearean characters, who in some cases, are also some of the Bard’s more famous ones.

Much Ado About Nothing

Facsimile of the title page of the quarto version of Much Ado About Nothing.

Much Ado About Nothing:  Benedick

In this Shakespearean comedy the villainous Don John feels that his brother, Don Pedro, has promoted another man, Claudio instead of Don John himself, and Don John than sets out to ruin the wedding day of Claudio and his fiancée, Hero. A plot that almost works too. However, amidst all of this, is the merry war of wits between Signior Benedick, one of Don Pedro’s men, and the lady Beatrice, cousin to Hero. It is implied that the two of them had a brief, one-night fling in the past and now whenever they meet, the insults fly fast and furious between the two.

Benedick is not only my favorite character in this play, but he is also one of my two favorite Shakespeare characters. However, you can barely talk about Benedick, without also talking about Beatrice.

Benedick is actually one of the more comical characters in this play. He is not a clown by any means, but his determination to remain a bachelor his entire life, and to never love any woman, makes way for his friends to mock him. His responses are always cynical views toward love, but funny nonetheless. Don Pedro credits Benedick as a man who can cheer up the rest of them because of his humor. Benedick cannot understand why any man would want to marry, and mocks Claudio’s resolution to wed Hero. Despite his humor however, Benedick also proves to be a courageous and loyal friend; his loyalties lying first with Don Pedro and Claudio. However, when Don John disgraces Hero by falsely accusing her of being unfaithful to Claudio, Benedick, knowing this is untrue, and also knowing that Claudio believes these rumors, challenges Claudio to a duel.

The Benedick and Beatrice “skirmish of wit” is an ongoing theme throughout the play, and Beatrice’s views toward love and marriage mirror those of Benedick, which of course, makes them the perfect match for each other in the long run. As she tells Benedick, “I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow, than a man swear he loves me.”

Benedick and Beatrice-Branagh and Thompson

Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh as Beatrice and Benedick in the 1993 film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing.

The first time we see these two together, we know that there is some kind of feud between them. After all, the first thing that Benedick says to Beatrice is, “My dear Lady Disdain, are you yet living?” Even Beatrice’s comments about Benedick before he first appears, give us some insight into their relationship, or lack of one. Yet these strong feelings of contempt toward each other, are also hiding their almost unwilling feelings of affection toward each other.

Don Pedro however, knows that these two should be brought together, and he plans a way to bring Benedick and Beatrice “into a mountain of affection, the one with the other”. Don Pedro, Claudio, and Hero’s father, Don Leonato, pretend to have heard that Beatrice is in love with Benedick, while making sure that Benedick can hear them. Hero, and one of her waiting women, Ursula, play the same trick on Beatrice, by pretending to have heard that Benedick is in love with her. Their views toward love, and each other, instantly change, and by the end of the play they are married to each other.

It shows a sort of transformation for these two characters, or maybe, more of a realization. They know that they love each other, but are unwilling to show or admit it. And the resolution of both Benedick and Beatrice to remain unmarried for the rest of their lives, almost seems as if they were holding out for each other. And for Beatrice it could also be because of how she was spurned by Benedick in the past, and she now refuses to trust or love any man.


Title Page to the second quarto version of Romeo and Juliet, 1599.

Romeo and Juliet:  Mercutio

We may not know much about Mercutio’s back story or family, beyond the fact that he has a brother named Valentine, yet his presence in the play, is vital to a major plot point later on. I mentioned above that Benedick is one of my two favorite Shakespearean characters; Mercutio is the other one.

Mercutio is a close friend of Romeo’s and is always hanging around with him, and Romeo’s cousin, Benvolio. We also know that he is related to the prince somehow as well. Mercutio is not a Montague nor a Capulet, but because of his close association with Romeo, he still partakes in the feud on the side of the Montagues.

Mercutio is a frivolous and mischievous character, yet he is also very hot-blooded, and is easily offended, especially by anything that the Capulets say against himself or his friends. He has a particular quarrel with Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt. He is also the bawdiest character in this play, and possibly in any of Shakespeare’s plays. Most of the sexual innuendos in the play come from Mercutio, and about half the things that Mercutio says are sexual innuendos. He is a loyal and loving friend toward Romeo, yet mocks the fact that Romeo is in love; though Mercutio knows nothing about Juliet, and thinks that Romeo is still in love with Rosaline, the girl he is in love with at the beginning of the play. His take on love is not really cynical like Benedick’s view is, but a rather more carnal outlook on love. And his humor overall is on the more coarse and carnal side. Mercutio also angers Juliet’s nurse as well with his perverse behavior, but in his own light-hearted way, also makes jokes about the Nurse’s age, calling her “ancient lady”. Needless to say, Juliet’s nurse is not amused in the least, and she calls Mercutio a “scurvy knave”, and perhaps he is. He is also witty and clever, as he demonstrates in his Queen Mab speech. Mercutio’s name was derived from mercurial, which means, “having an unpredictable and fast-changing mood” as Mercutio does, and the origin of the word “mercurial” comes from the Roman messenger god, Mercury.

R&J A3, S1,The Death of Mercutio Remeo's Friend Edwin Austin Abbey, 1904

Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene 1, The Death of Mercutio, Romeo’s Friend by Edwin Austin Abbey, 1904.

However, Mercutio’s death at the hands of Tybalt is a major point in the play, and it kind of sets the whole latter half of the play into motion. Mercutio and Benvolio encounter Tybalt and a group of his friends. Tybalt seems ready to challenge Mercutio, but he is really seeking Romeo, who enters the scene then. Tybalt challenges Romeo, but unbeknownst to anyone present, Romeo has just secretly wed Juliet, and he refuses to fight any of her kinsmen. Mercutio calls Romeo’s refusal “vile, calm, dishonorable submission” and challenges Tybalt on Romeo’s behalf. Tybalt accepts, and when Romeo tries to part them, he only unintentionally helps Tybalt to strike Mercutio. Tybalt reaches under Romeo’s arm, and fatally stabs Mercutio. As Mercutio is dying, he asks Romeo, “Why the devil came you between us? I was hurt under your arm.” Mercutio dies, and his final words are putting a curse on both, the house of Montague and the house of Capulet; a curse that seems to carry through.

Romeo, feeling grief over the death of his best friend, and guilt by knowing that Mercutio was killed, not only on Romeo’s behalf, but also by way of Romeo’s intervention, challenges Tybalt when the latter reenters after having fled once he fatally hurt Mercutio. In this duel, Romeo kills Tybalt, and is exiled for it. Meanwhile, Juliet is on an emotional roller coaster of her own when she learns of this. She is devastated by the death of her cousin, angry with Romeo for killing him, and also distraught over her new husband’s exile, whom she still loves, despite the fact that he murdered her cousin.

Mercutio’s death is a turning point in the play, because of the domino effect that occurs from there onward. Up until this point, everything seemed to be going relatively well, at least for Romeo and Juliet. Their families were still feuding with each other, but they were married now, and they hoped that their marriage would put an end to the feud. Mercutio’s death changes the play’s outcome from what could have been a happy and harmonious ending, to the tragic one that it becomes. It is possible that without Mercutio’s presence in the play, or without his death at the very least, Romeo and Juliet  may not have been a tragedy at all.

Title Page of Q2, 1605

Title Page of the second quarto version of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, 1605.

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark:  Hamlet, Horatio, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern

Yes, I have four favorite characters from this play, and no, I can’t say that I like any one of them more than the other three.

Hamlet of course, is a rather complex character, and based on what’s going on in his life, it’s no wonder. While Hamlet’s away in Germany at school, his father suddenly dies, and even though Hamlet is next in line, his uncle Claudius usurps the throne to become the king, and subsequently marries Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. Yes, it’s enough to drive anyone insane. Although Hamlet’s seeming madness is only an act put on by the prince himself. But there’s a method to his madness, so to speak.

By now, the ghost of Hamlet’s father has told Hamlet that he was murdered at the hands of Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius. He fears that the ghost could have been the devil and before taking revenge against his uncle, first wants to have proof that he really did kill Hamlet’s father. Hamlet figures that if others think he is mad, then they will talk freely around him.  While Hamlet is trying to get evidence of his uncle’s act of murder, Claudius and Gertrude are attempting to learn the cause of Hamlet’s madness. They send for his childhood friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to see if they can “glean what afflicts him”. Polonius, thinking that Hamlet’s madness may have to do with unrequited love from his daughter Ophelia, arranges for her to meet with Hamlet alone, with Polonius and Claudius secretly watching. After a normal and courteous greeting toward each other, Hamlet suddenly turns cruel toward Ophelia, mocking her, insulting her, and telling her to go live in a nunnery. Though we later learn that this was all part of the same act, and that perhaps Hamlet knew that Polonius and Claudius were watching. For after Ophelia dies, Hamlet shows up at her funeral, and declares, “I loved Ophelia!” .

Hamlet’s murder of Polonius prompts Claudius to send Hamlet away to England. And Polonius’s murder kind of sets the stage for everything that happens after. His murder causes Ophelia to go mad, and ultimately kill herself. It brings her brother, Polonius’s son, Laertes, back from France to  avenge his father’s death. Thus, Claudius arranges for a duel between Hamlet and Laertes, with Laertes having a poisoned sword tip. He cuts Hamlet with the poison sword, Hamlet gets the sword and hurts Laertes, Gertrude unknowingly drinks the poison wine that Claudius meant for Hamlet, and as Laertes dies, he admits that the king is to blame. Hamlet calls Claudius, an “incestuous, murderous, damned Dane”, and kills him with both the poison sword and the poison wine.

Horatio-in red & Hamlet-in black-Gravedigger Scene-Eugene Delacroix

Horatio (in red) and Hamlet (in black). The Gravedigger Scene by Eugene Delacroix, 1839.

Hamlet seems mad, but he is actually witty, clever, and a bit light-hearted in the way he portrays his madness. He also gives us some of Shakespeare’s most well-known lines and speeches: “To be, or not to be”, “the play’s the thing,” “Alas, poor Yorick!”, and so on.

Horatio is Hamlet’s schoolfellow and closest friend, and really the only true friend that Hamlet has. Horatio is also the only major character in Hamlet, who does not die during the play’s events, and is in fact very much alive at the end of the play. As Horatio is the only one that Hamlet can safely confide in, he is the only person who knows that Hamlet’s madness is not really madness at all. And in a way, Horatio may be the one device that keeps Hamlet sane. After all, Hamlet can’t trust most of the people that he is surrounded by, and the majority of them don’t trust Hamlet, but Hamlet does have Horatio, whom he knows is trustworthy, and who does not fear Hamlet’s madness, because he knows that Hamlet is not mad at all. Horatio is also the only person in which Hamlet divulges the message from his father’s ghost, regarding his uncle’s murder.

Horatio is a philosopher, and does not believe in the paranormal or supernatural. Thus, when the guards tell him of seeing Hamlet’s father’s ghost, he does not believe them, and agrees to watch with them the third night, mainly to prove them wrong, but he is horrified when the spirit really does show up. To everyone else in the play, Horatio possibly comes off as a more serious  and dry character, and in a way, he is.  But he is not boring, and when alone with Hamlet, we can see the depth of his emotions. With Hamlet, Horatio is a bit more carefree and can even joke around with the prince, and when he learns of the duel between Hamlet and Laertes, he advises Hamlet not to answer it, because he knows that Hamlet will lose, and there is a kind of genuine sadness in him when he voices this, because he cannot bear the thought of seeing his friend get killed. He tells Hamlet, “If your mind dislike any thing, obey it: I will forestall their repair hither, and say you are not fit.” But Hamlet tells Horatio that if he does not fight Laertes now, he will eventually have to fight him later. Gertrude, Laertes, Claudius, and then Hamlet, all die in this last scene. And once more, we see how much Horatio cared for his friend, when he says, “Now cracks a noble heart. Goodnight sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

Lithograph, R&G in flute scene-Eugene Delacroix

Hamlet (center), Guildenstern (left), and Rosencrantz (right).
Lithograph, Hamlet with Guildenstern by Eugene Delacroix, 1835-43.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; you can’t talk about one without the other. Indeed, they are a unit; never appearing separately in the course of the play. They are two of Hamlet’s childhood friends, that Claudius and Gertrude send for in the hopes that they can cheer up Hamlet and learn the cause of his madness. When they first arrive, Hamlet greets them enthusiastically, and after some playful conversation and banter, Hamlet asks them if they are visiting him on their own, or if the king and queen have sent for them, causing Guildenstern to eventually admit, “My lord, we were sent for.”

In a way, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are minor characters, who play a major role in Hamlet‘s plot. They come in about halfway through the play, and we’re not given much information about them, except for the fact that they were friends of Hamlet’s when they were all younger. They showed up because the king and queen asked them to, Hamlet knows this and he knows why they were sent for, therefore, he does not trust them. He’s friendly enough with them at first, and cheerfully talks with them about the acting troupe who is on their way to put on a performance at the court that night. But after this, he acts just as mad around them as he does around everyone else, and when they ask him questions in an attempt to learn what’s troubling him, he only gives inane responses that have no relevancy to the question, such as, “I am but mad north north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.” He feels he cannot trust them, so he gives nothing away to them. After Hamlet kills Polonius and Claudius sends Hamlet away to England, he sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to safely see him there. To further prove his distrust of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, when Hamlet tells his mother that they are escorting him to England, he says, “My two schoolfellows, whom I will trust as I will adders fang’d, they bear the mandate; they must sweep my way, and marshal me to knavery.”

Unknown to anyone else, Claudius is sending a letter with them that asks the king of England to immediately put Hamlet to death. Hamlet suspects this and in the middle of the night, he writes another letter, signs it with Claudius’s name, and asking the king of England to immediately put Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to death. That night they are attacked at sea by pirates who abduct Hamlet. He asks them to bring him back to Denmark in exchange for money, which they do. When Horatio asks Hamlet about the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet replies, “Why, man, they did make love to this employment. They are not near my conscience.”

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Oldman and Roth)-flipped

Tim Roth (Guildenstern) and Gary Oldman (Rosencrantz) in the 1990 film Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, based on the play of the same name by Tom Stoppard.

Yet, it can appear as though Hamlet’s distrust of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern may be a bit unfounded. Yes, they did only come after the king and queen asked them to, and they did try to get answers from him to learn the cause of his madness. But they also seem to be genuinely happy to see their old friend, Hamlet, and they really had no way of knowing that the king was going to ask them to escort Hamlet to his doom. And it does not look as if they knew that the document they carried from the king commanded Hamlet’s death. They appear to have been innocent victims, who were brought, unwillingly or no, into a game of power, greed, and vengeance, that eventually led to their untimely fate.


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