Shakespeare's Characters

Students of Shakespeare from William Hazlitt through Harold Bloom think of Shakespeare as someone who embraced the new philosophy of individualism by making each of his characters a unique personality, responsible to noone but his or her self. But a late medieval mind or an early Elizabethan one might have appreciated Shakespeare differently, his characters embodiments of abstract virtues and vices, Polonius of self-importance and pomposity, Macbeth of ruthless ambition, Romeo and Juliet of love heedless of its surroundings, very much like Dante’s Paolo and Francesca  who swirl around as the winds of Hell will carry them because they have no anchors. If that is the case, then Shakespeare stocked his plays with characters who acted according to the types of characters available to a playwright of the time. A way of bringing those two ideas together and which enhances not only our sense of Shakespeare but of modern psychology, is to realize that Shakespeare presented each of his characters as true to their own essence and, moreover, that they were each, deep down, what they each appeared to be. 

This is a set of propositions easily applied to those of Shakespeare’s characters who are most obviously what we would today call “deviant”. Richard III is a hunchback, and so to be spurned for that reason, even though his hunchback is also a symbol of his own bent character and his self-loathing. He is able to use his deformity to serve his evil ambitions because Lady Anne, among others, finds his not so well hidden malevolence intriguing and even alluring, and thinks she can manage it, which is what also happens when people think that other political figures of sinister mean, who they distrust and even despise, as was the case in Ike’s handling of Richard Nixon, one party thinks that the other can be used for their own purposes and then gotten rid of. Not so easily is the force of evil disposed of.  So Richard III is what he appears to be, a ruthless schemer out for only himself whom people of better character nevertheless put up with. Richard III’s disfigurement is not a social problem, a cause to which people can become sympathetic, but merely the truth which people find difficult to attend to because they have reasons not to.

The same is true of Shylock, a figure today used as a symbol of the ravages of anti-Semitism. That is not what Shakespeare took Shylock to be, however moving is his speech about the fact that Jews too bleed. Rather, as my Shakespeare teacher, Andrew Chiappe, suggested to his class a long time ago, Shylock is a representative of his type, which prefers the carefully attended to accumulation of wealth to the foibles of the aristocrats, who do not know very well how to manage their fortunes, given as they are to make wagers on caskets and on sea adventures, as well as given to much fustian about the quality of mercy. The aristocrats are too carefree and irresponsible; Shylock, like the rest of his race, is obviously too traditional and legalistic. There is no happy medium between the two types and that is the tragedy of the play, not that Christians triumph or that Jews pay the price of being shamed. 

William Hazlitt portrays Othello as a noble figure who is undone because an intrigue that renders him jealous and then incapable of acting in any but the audacious manner which had led him to his great military victories. But that is to miss the context. Othello is, after all, a Moor, and so his rise to power, based on ability rather than family, is bound to be unsettling to those among whom he now makes his life. What will bring about his undoing, and so right the social balance? It could hardly be just a handkerchief. It must be his basic character. So, deep down, whatever the rank which he attained, whomever the woman he has married, he remains the Moor, and the tragedy is that he returns to the unbridled passion for which his kind is known. He is what he seems to be and the tragedy is, in part, that he could not quite manage to escape what he is. Yes, that is a very conservative message, but it is in keeping with Shakespeare’s sense that there is a natural order to society, a view he shared with other figures of his period, Marlowe an exception to that rule.

The proposition that Shakespearean characters do not basically change, do not abandon a nature that is clearly visible, is true even of the one that is put out there as the model of character development. Henry V goes through the stages that Erik Erikson would say are the way all people develop. The saga of Henry IV, parts I and II, and Henry V, is a bildungsroman (as well as much else). Prince Hal begins as a youthful carouser, the associate of Falstaff and other low friends. He begins to become serious, is stirred to seriousness, by the contrasts made between himself and Hotspur. Jealousy roused his consciousness and his conscience  (these two “c”s being matters Erikson would see as very closely related). Hal puts Falstaff behind him when he becomes Henry V and then takes on the weighty responsibilities of managing a war with France, fully aware that he is sending Englishmen to their doom, and then has the grace to woo the French princess so as to serve the political needs of his kingdom. He has gone from hedonist to the self-sacrificing servant of statecraft. 

This individualistic reading of Henry V makes sense, but there is also a darker reading. Henry is not a deeper version of Hal but the same old Hal, irresponsible and peremptory as ever. He did not have to be so harsh in abandoning Falstaff. Once king, he embarks on a questionable war more in the name of glory, that point nowhere better articulated than in his St. Crispin's Day speech, which proclaims the pride of battle rather than the need for battle, and he later uses his old wiles as a womanizer to win over the princess. John Kennedy had these same qualities: the womanizer who rose to high places and then engaged in questionable and very dangerous adventures, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, however much the people at large may have come to adore his manner. His was not the age of Camelot but the age of Henry V. 

The same can be said of the ever agonizing Hamlet, who is defined by his overt status as a Renaissance student at Wittenberg who has to confront the more backward Danish court, never able to square his learning with his superstitious and contentious roots. So Hamlet does what he is trained to do, which is to posture, so as to cope with his revulsion at the down and dirty machinations and emotions of his surroundings. He never does learn to do so, to take a stand or to withdraw from his intrigues-- or does so only late, when he has made enemies who will not forget that he is a threat, and so he is defeated.

My colleague, Morris Woskow, a psychologist, once said, I think to shock me, and he succeeded, that modern psychologists had a very different view of human nature than Shakespeare (and, I would add, Freud, who also went after deep passions revealed in symbolic actions). I took him to mean that people are understood by psychology to be driven by quotidian concerns. They want to have pleasant relations with other people and do adequately well at their work, They manage their lives accordingly even though their calculations are upended by constant misreadings of the situations in which they are caught up. As a sociologist, I am certainly appreciative of this pragmatic reading of human motivation, given as we are to think the same thing, people following rather slavishly the customs of their times and satisfying their immediate ends rather than any ultimate ends. But I remain apprehensive about abandoning the Shakespearean insight that people are at least a little bit heroic in that they are filled with big ambitions as well as big vices of which they are aware but give voice to only in moments of stress and in soliloquies.