The Seventh Age of Man-Shakespeare’s Character Deaths

Shakespeare“Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

-Jacques, As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII

This, of course, is the final part of the famous, “All the world’s a stage” speech, but I am highlighting this one specific part for a reason. Saturday, April 23rd was not only Shakespeare’s 452nd birthday, but it was also the 400th anniversary of his death.

The cause of Shakespeare’s death is a topic of some debate. This, however, did make me think about the deaths of so many of Shakespeare’s characters. So, rather than talk about the death of Shakespeare, I figured I would elaborate on the death of his characters.

Many of Shakespeare’s characters met with an untimely demise, particularly in his histories and tragedies, with three of his comedies also having character deaths; these deaths though, are more minor characters, and happen offstage.

Stabbing and poison tended to be the two most popular means by which a character died. Execution, (i.e. for a crime, etc), was also common. It would be safe to assume that, in Shakespeare’s day, anyone condemned to execution was probably either beheaded or hanged. And anyone who died in combat or a battle, was most likely stabbed. But as you will see below, almost nothing was off-limits. I will do my best to include all characters who die in a play, in the order that they die, including even the most minor characters, and the ones who die offstage or before the beginning of the play.

I’ll go by play and begin with the histories.

Shakespeare wrote these plays out of order. This is to say, that he did not write the histories in the order in which these events actually occurred. Nonetheless, with the exception of Henry VIII, when read in the correct order, one history play leads right into the next one. I will go through the histories chronologically.

 

The Life and Death of King John

Limoges, Duke of Austria:  Beheaded during battle by the Bastard. Austria was believed to have been the one responsible for the death of King Richard.

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First page of King John in the 1623 First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays.

Arthur: Jumps off a wall, though it is unknown whether this was an act of suicide or an attempt to escape his English captors.

Melun: A Frenchman who is already dying when he warns the English nobles that King Louis plans to kill them following his victory. Melun is a very minor character, only appearing this one time, and cause of death unknown, but most likely wounded during the battle.

King John: As is common, the titular character of Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies usually meets his or her demise eventually. And for King John, it happens when a discontented monk poisons him.

 

The Life and Death of Richard II

John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster: Dies of an illness. Richard than immediately seizes all Gaunt’s land and money, that would rightfully belong to Gaunt’s temporarily exiled son, Bolingbroke. The latter, by the way, becomes King Henry IV.

Bushy and Green: Two faithful supporters of Richard, who are executed by Bolingbroke, to win over the Duke of the York and gain his support.

Duke of Aumerle’s co-conspirators: Bolingbroke has now crowned himself King Henry IV, and the Duke of Aumerle, along with a group of others plan to rebel against Henry. Henry executes Aumerle’s company, but spares Aumerle himself.

King Richard II: Executed by mistake when a nobleman, Exton, murders him, falsely believing that was King Henry’s wish.

 

King Henry IV, Part One

Harry Percy, Hotspur: Killed by Prince Hal in single combat.

Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester: Captured during the Battle of Shrewsbury and sentenced to death by Henry.

 

King Henry IV, Part Two 

King Henry IV: Dies of an illness. His son, Prince Hal, becomes King Henry V.

 

Agincourt_miniature

Depiction of the Battle of Agincourt.

The Life of King Henry V “Once more unto the breach, dear friends.”

 

Earl of Cambridge, Lord Scrope, and Sir Thomas Grey: This trio plans to kill King Henry, and when Henry learns of their plot, he calls for their executions.

Sir John Falstaff: Falstaff’s death is not seen; we only hear about his passing. We learn that he died of a broken heart, after King Henry, who was one of Falstaff’s dearest friends when he was a prince, rejected him when he came to Henry’s castle and said that he never wanted to seem him again.

 

King Henry VI, Part One

King Henry V: He dies unexpectedly at the prime of his life, leaving England in turmoil, and his son to succeed him.

Duke of Bedford: Dies in France, following the Battle of Rouen.

Lord Talbot and his son, John Talbot: They become trapped by the French Army and then subsequently killed by them, when Lord Talbot’s request for reinforcements goes unanswered.

Joan la Pucelle, a.k.a. Joan of Arc: Burned to death by the Duke of York.

 

King Henry VI, Part Two  

Duke Humphrey of Gloucester: Accused of treason, Suffolk has Gloucester imprisoned and then executed before he can be tried.

Cardinal Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester: Contracts a fever and subsequently dies.

Wars of the Roses

The beginning of the Wars of the Roses in King Henry VI, Part 2.

William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk: Killed by pirates while banished for his role in the death of Gloucester.

Jack Cade: Looking for food, Cade climbs into the garden of Alexander Iden and killed by Iden himself.

Duke of Somerset: Killed by Richard during a battle at St. Albans.

Lord Clifford: Killed by York during a battle at St. Albans.

 

King Henry VI, Part Three

Edmund Plantagenet, Earl of Rutland: During an attack on York’s castle, York’s son, twelve-year-old Rutland, is murdered by Clifford.

Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York: Stabbed to death by Clifford and Margaret, but not before they forced him to stand on a molehill and wipe his brow with a handkerchief smeared with the blood of his son, Rutland.

Earl of Warwick: Killed at the Battle of Barnet.

John Neville, Marquis of Montague: Warwick’s younger brother, also killed at the Battle of Barnet.

Father (Son Who Has Killed His Father): During the Battle of Barnet, a young man enters dragging the body of a man he has killed. He lifts the man’s helmet off and realizes that he unknowingly killed his own father.

Son (Father Who Has Killed His Son): Shortly thereafter, during the Battle of Barnet, a man enters dragging the body of a younger man that he has killed. When he lifts this young man’s helmet, the older man realizes that he unknowingly killed his own son. Henry witnesses both of these incidents.

Duke of Somerset: During the Battle of Tewkesbury, he is captured with three others, and sentenced to death.

Prince Edward: Also captured at the Battle of Tewkesbury, and stabbed to death by York’s three sons when Edward refused to recognize the House of York as the legitimate royal family.

King Henry VI: Henry was captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Richard goes there to kill him, and after an argument between the two, Richard stabs Henry in a rage. This is the Richard who goes on to become Richard III.

 

richard3

King Richard III.

The Life and Death of Richard III “Now is the winter of our discontent.”

George, Duke of Clarence: Sent to the Tower of London based on false accusations made to King Edward by Richard. Richard later orders two men to kill Clarence. Believing that Edward ordered his death, Clarence tells his murderers that his brother, Gloucester (Richard), will pay them more for his life than the king will for his death, and refuses to believe them when his murderers tell him that Gloucester ordered his death.

King Edward IV: King Edward is already ill, and Richard uses the news of Clarence’s death to bring about the King’s death quicker.

Rivers: With Clarence and Edward out of the way, Richard orders the murder Lord Rivers to isolate the Queen and prevent the immediate crowning of the Prince.

Lord Hastings, Lord Grey, and Sir Thomas Vaughan: Relatives of the Queen, who are arrested and then beheaded by Richard, as they accompany the young Prince en route to his coronation.

Edward, Prince of Wales and Richard, Duke of York: After being led to the Tower of London by Richard, the latter orders Buckingham to kill them. When Buckingham refuses, Richard hires Sir James Tyrell, who finishes the job.

Lady Anne Neville: Richard’s queen, yet he poisons her so that he can be free to woo his niece, and Edward’s remaining heir, Elizabeth of York.

Duke of Buckingham: After being Richard’s ally before, Buckingham later rebels against him, is captured and executed.

Sir Robert Brackenbury: It is announced that Sir Brackenbury has died fighting for Richard in The Battle of Bosworth Field.

King Richard III: At the climax of the Battle of Bosworth Field, Richard is unhorsed, (“A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!”) and subsequently killed by Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, who now becomes Henry VII.

 

The Life of King Henry VIII

Duke of Buckingham: Cardinal Wolsey falsely accuses Buckingham for treason and has him arrested. He is later executed.

Cardinal Wolsey: After his villainous scheming is discovered by the king, Wolsey quickly falls from grace. Now following the path of humility and honesty, Wolsey leaves the court for a monastery, where dies soon after.

And now, onto the tragedies.

I will do these in a certain order as well, from the least bloody play with the least amount of deaths, leading up to the bloodiest play with the most fatalities.

Boydell_Coriolanus_plate_29

A scene from the final act of Coriolanus, where Volumnia pleads with her son to reconsider his attack on Rome.

 

The Tragedy of Coriolanus

Caius Marcius, Coriolanus: He is killed by Volscian conspirators for betraying them. He halted his attack on Rome and formed a peace treaty between the Volscians and the Romans, after he had told the Volscians that he would lead them to a victory against Rome.

 

Timon of Athens

Man: A junior officer of Alcibiades kills a man in “hot blood”. This man is a minor character, and this is all we know about his death.

Timon: He dies in the wilderness, having lost all money and means. His overt generosity and compassion has undone Timon, causing his friends to take advantage of him and ultimately betray him.

 

Troilus and Cressida

Patroclus: Killed by Hector during battle.

Hector: Captured by Achilles who then instructs the Myrmidons.

 

othello

Othello and Iago.

Othello, the Moor of Venice

Rodrigo: Stabbed in secret by Iago, to stop Rodrigo from revealing their plot to kill Cassio.

Desdemona: Smothered to death by Othello, who thinks that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him.

Emilia: When she realizes Iago’s plan to make Othello think that Desdemona had been unfaithful, she exposes her husband to Othello, and Iago fatally stabs her for it.

Othello: Othello then realizes Desdemona’s innocence and overcome with grief and guilt over killing her, kills himself.

 

The Life and Death of Julius Caesar “Beware the ides of March”

Julius Caesar: Assassinated by Cassius, Marcus Brutus, Casca, Decius Brutus, Lucius Cinna, Metellus Cimber, Trebonius, and Caius Ligarius in the Capital.

Cinna: An innocent poet who, mistaken for the conspirator Lucius Cinna, is killed by a mob who has formed to drive Caesar’s murderers from Rome.

Portia: Brutus’s wife who, under the stress of his absence from Rome, committed suicide by swallowing hot coals.

Cassius: Asks his servant Pindarus, to kill him after hearing that his best friend Titinius has been captured.

Titinius: It turns out that he was not captured, but upon seeing Cassius’s corpse, kills himself.

Marcus Brutus: After losing his latest battle, he commits suicide by asking another soldier named Strato to hold his sword while Brutus runs onto it.

 

Romeo and Juliet

Mercutio: Tybalt challenges Romeo to a duel and when Romeo declines, his best friend, Mercutio, agrees to fight Tybalt instead. Tybalt ends up fatally stabbing Mercutio.

Tybalt: Stabbed by Romeo for killing Mercutio.

Count Paris: A suitor to Juliet. He is stabbed by Romeo when he startles the latter at Juliet’s gravesite.

Romeo: Believing that Juliet is dead, Romeo drinks poison and then lays down beside her.

romeojulieta

Romeo and Juliet.

Juliet: Wakes up from the deep sleep she was in; the reason everyone thought she was dead. When she sees Romeo’s dead body beside her, she stabs herself with her dagger.

Lady Montague: Romeo’s mother, who we hear died from grief over the death of her son.

 

Antony and Cleopatra

Fulvia: Third wife of Mark Antony, who prior to the beginning of the play, had rebelled against Octavius and then died.

Enobarbus: He deserts Antony and goes to Octavius’s side. Antony sends Enobarbus his goods rather than confiscating them. Enobarbus is so overwhelmed that he dies from the shame of his disloyalty.

Eros: Antony asks Eros to kill him by running him through with a sword. Unable to do it, Eros kills himself.

Mark Antony: In an attempt at suicide, he manages to only wound himself. He is hoisted up to Cleopatra’s monument and dies in her arms.

Cleopatra: She refuses to surrender. Betrayed and captured by the Romans, Cleopatra learns that Octavius will parade her once he triumphs. She kills herself by getting bitten by an asp.

Iras and Charmian: Cleopatra’s serving-maids who kill themselves after Cleopatra dies.

 

The Tragedy of Macbeth “Double, double, toil and trouble.”

King Duncan: Stabbed by Macbeth, in order to fulfill the Witches’ prophecy that Macbeth will one day become king.

Two Guards: Framed for Duncan’s death by Lady Macbeth, Macbeth later kills them to keep them from professing their innocence.

Banquo: Killed by three assassins that were hired by Macbeth. They were supposed to kill Macbeth’s son, Fleance, as well, but he escapes. Macbeth arranges for the murder of Banquo and Fleance, because he fears a prophecy that says that Banquo will father a line of kings.

Lady Macduff and her son: When Macbeth learns that Macduff has fled to England, he demands that Macduff’s castle be seized and that he and his family be killed. Macduff is not at the castle when it is seized by his wife. Lady Macduff, and their young son, are killed.

Lady Macbeth: Overcome with guilt for the deeds that she and her husband have committed, Lady Macbeth goes mad and eventually kills herself.

Macbeth-Hamlet

Macbeth and Banquo encounter the three Witches (top) Hamlet and Horatio in the graveyard with Yorick’s skull (bottom).

 

Young Siward: Killed in combat by Macbeth.

Macbeth: Macbeth was told by the Witches that he cannot be killed by any man of woman born, so he does fear Macduff when he encounters him in battle. Macduff reveals that he was born, not naturally but, “from his mother’s womb, untimely ripp’d”, meaning that he was born by Caesarean section. He then beheads Macbeth, thus fulfilling the Witches’ final prophecy.

 

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark “To be, or not to be. That is the question.”

King Hamlet: Hamlet’s father, who is killed before the play begins. It is said that he died of a snakebite, but his ghost comes to Hamlet and tells him that he actually died at the hands of his own brother, Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, who poured poison into his ear. This way, Claudius could marry Gertrude and become the King.

Polonius: Stabbed by Hamlet, while hidden behind an arras. Hamlet kills Polonius, thinking that it is the king who is hidden there.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: Hamlet’s friends who, at the King’s request, escort him to England. Unbeknownst to them, they carry a commandment from the King that orders Hamlet’s death. Hamlet figures out what’s going on and secretly switches the commandment for his death, with one that orders the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet escapes them when they are attacked by pirates. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern continue onto England and their fate. In the final scene of the play, we learn that indeed, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.”

Ophelia: Driven mad by the death of her father, Polonius, at the hands of Hamlet no less, she drowns herself in the nearby brook.

Queen Gertrude: The first of several deaths that occur in the final act. The King has poisoned a cup of wine that he intends to give to Hamlet if he survives his challenge with Laertes. When Hamlet gets a hit on Laertes, the Queen, not knowing that the cup is poisoned, raises the cup to him. The King tries to stop her, but she drinks from it anyhow and dies.

Laertes: He had conspired with the King to kill Hamlet, as he was angry with Hamlet for killing his father, Polonius. He envenomed the tip of his sword and cut Hamlet, there was then a skirmish, in which Laertes and Hamlet switched swords, and Hamlet cut Laertes with the poisoned tip. With his dying breath, he tells Hamlet that the King is to blame and offers peace between himself and Hamlet. He dies shortly after the King does.

King Claudius: Hamlet, enraged at Claudius for everything that he has done, stabs him with the poisoned sword and pours the poisoned wine between his lips, thus killing the King.

Hamlet: By now, the poison from Laertes’s sword is overtaking Hamlet. He calls Horatio to his side and proclaims Fortinbras as his successor, before dying and…”The rest is silence.”

 

King Lear

Duke of Cornwall: Killed by a servant of his who is enraged when he sees Cornwall and Regan gouging out Gloucester’s eyes.

Servant who killed Cornwall: Killed by Regan for killing her husband, the Duke of Cornwall.

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King Lear and his Fool, as Lear madly rages at the wind.

Oswald: Killed by Edgar, when he tries, on Regan’s orders, to kill Edgar’s father, Gloucester.

Regan: Poisoned by her sister Goneril, when she learns that Regan planned to marry Edmund, who was wooing both sisters at the same time.

Edmund: Wounded by his brother, Edgar, in a trial by combat.

Earl of Gloucester: Edgar announces that Gloucester has died. He believed Edgar to be dead, and then died himself from the shock and joy of learning that Edgar was still alive, once Edgar revealed himself to him.

Goneril: Commits suicide when she realizes that all of her evil plans have failed.

Cordelia: Prior to his death, Edmund had sent Cordelia and Lear off with secret joint-orders from him and Goneril for the execution of Cordelia. As he dies, Edmund tries to stop the order for her death, but he is too late.

Executioner: Killed by Lear when he killed Cordelia.

King Lear: He dies from a combination of grief over Cordelia’s death and all of the hardships he has recently endured.

 

And yet, of these last three, neither Macbeth, Hamlet, nor King Lear is Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, nor the one with the most deaths.

That prestige goes too…

Titus Andronicus

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Aaron cutting off Titus’s hand, as the handless Lavinia looks on.

Titus Andronicus is so rarely performed today because of its gory content. In fact, during the Victorian era in England, this play was banned. Understandable, as the play includes stabbings, beheadings, rape, loss of body parts, and a pie reminiscent of something that could have been served by Hannibal Lector.

Alarbus: Oldest son of Queen Tamora. Sacrificed by Titus in order to avenge the deaths of his own sons during the war.

Mutius: Accidentally killed in a scuffle by his own father, Titus.

Bassianus: On the advice of Aaron, Bassianus is killed by Demetrius and Chiron, so that they can rape Lavinia.

Martius and Quintus: Titus’s sons whom Aaron frames for the death of Bassianus. Enraged that they murdered his brother, Saturninus sentences them to death.  Aaron then falsely tells Titus, that Saturninus will spare Martius and Quintus. When Titus cuts off his hand and sends it to Saturninus, the latter sends him the severed heads of his sons along with Titus’s own severed hand.

Nurse: Tamora gives birth to a mixed-race baby fathered by the Moor, Aaron. To keep the race of the child a secret, Aaron kills the Nurse.

Demetrius and Chiron: Tamora’s sons who raped Lavinia and then cut off her hands and cut out her tongue so that she could not identify them. But she wrote their names in the dirt using a stick held with her mouth. Because of what they did to his daughter, Titus cuts their throats and drains their blood. He then says he will “play the cook.” He grinds their bones into a powder and bakes them into a pie that he later serves to their mother.

Clown: Titus encounters the Clown and asks him to deliver a message to Saturninus on his behalf for payment. The Clown agrees, but when he delivers the message to Saturninus, the latter has the Clown hanged, and it seems that there is no apparent reason for this.

Lavinia: Titus asks Saturninus if a father should kill his daughter if she has been raped. When Saturninus answers yes, Titus kills Lavinia and tells Saturninus what had happened to her.

Tamora: She did not know what had happened to her sons, Chiron and Demetrius. Titus serves her the pie that he baked her sons into, and she, not knowing of the ingredients, eats it. Once she is done, Titus tells Tamora that her sons had been baked into the pie that she was just eating. Titus then kills Tamora.

Titus Andronicus: Immediately after Titus kills Tamora, Saturninus, who was married to Tamora, kills Titus.

Saturninus: Right after Saturninus kills Titus, then he is killed by Titus’s son, Lucius.

Aaron: For all of his evil deeds and schemes, Aaron is buried chest-deep and left to die of thirst and starvation.

Last, but not least, the three comedies that included character deaths.

 

Cymbeline “Fear no more.”

Cloten: Guiderius meets Cloten outside of the cave where Guiderius lives with his two Faed_postumus_and_imogensons. Cloten does nothing but insult Guiderius which leads to a sword fight, that ends with Guiderius beheading Cloten.

Queen: She has been slowly wasting away because of the disappearance of her son, Cloten. It is later announced that she has died suddenly, and that, upon dying, she was unrepentant and that she confessed to villainous schemes against her husband and his throne.

 

Pericles, Prince of Tyre

Cleon and Dionyza: Cleon is the governor of Tarsus and Dionyza is his wife. When Pericles leaves to rule Tyre, he leaves Marina, his infant daughter, with the couple. As she grows, however, they realize that Marina is more beautiful than Philoten, the true daughter of Cleon and Dionyza, so the latter decides to murder Marina. Pirates soon kidnap Marina, and when Pericles arrives in Tarsus, Cleon and Dionyza falsely tell him that Marina has died. They are later killed by the people of Tarsus for their plot to kill Marina, and for lying about her fate.

 

The Winter’s Tale

Mamillius: Died of a wasting sickness and grief that was brought on by the imprisonment of his mother Hermione, by his father Leontes.

Wheatley, Francis, 1747-1801; 'The Winter's Tale', Act IV, Scene 3, Perdita, Florizel and Polixenes

Polixenes (seated), Perdita, and Florizel.

Antigonus: Exit, pursued by a bear. One of Shakespeare’s most famous stage directions, and while we don’t see or hear about Antigonus meeting his end, it tells us exactly how he died.

So, while the true cause of Shakespeare’s death may be uncertain, the fate of several of his characters most certainly is not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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.