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The Inevitability of Characterization
For some years now the critics have been trying hot to talk about Shakespeare's characters, as if they were eccentric old aunts whose manners were not to be trusted in public. However, the characters will not go away, and we are still Victorian at heart and assume their well-bred motivation and decorous conformity of manner. Consistency in character is a law of the realistic drama, and actors and audiences have for too long been living in the shadow of Ibsen and Chekhov, Stanislavsky and Freud, exposed to the limited dramatic style perpetuated by the picture-frame stage and the photographic actuality of film and television. Thus actors try to stay in character, and critics write as if there were some definitive characterization called, say, Hamlet or Lear. It remains the common assumption, as voiced by Moody Prior when speaking of Othello in 1947, that "the end of drama is the exposition of character and that all other elements are contributory to this end" ("Character in Relation to Action in Othello," Modern Philology 44, May 1947, p. 225).
It is nevertheless certain that a sense of character is close to the center of the dramatic experience. Plays need characters: actors need them and audiences need them. Voices, legs and other mortal attributes help audiences recognize what is human in the drama and an actor needs a comforting stability in a character to be able to impersonate and reproduce it. Since the writer can supply only imperfect clues to work with (when Hamlet and Helena wear black, they are judged to be in mourning) an audience is obliged to complete the human being on the stage for itself. Nor is it improper for an audience to talk about a character as if he were alive after the curtain has fallen-it is as natural to talk about the guests at a party after they have left. However, during the performance itself, an audience perceives not a character, but an actor busy at his work of simulation--sometimes the same thing, sometimes not.
It is also certain that Shakespeare is aware that he must help his actor do his job. He wonderfully helps the boy who is charged with playing a mature and complicated part like that of Cleopatra, setting up a careful sequence of character images, loyal and quixotic, sensitive and sensual, noble and shrewish, symbolic and realistic, picking his way from one contrasting scene to another in order to create the many-sided creature we know. Yet in minor and major parts he is careful to supply little details of sight and sound, small pegs to hang a mask upon. Feeble, the ragged recruit in Falstaff's company in Henry IV, Part II, may be a walking skeleton, but he will bear "no base mind" (3.2.235). Capulet's bully of a First Servant happens to be partial to marzipan (Romeo and Juliet, 1.5.8). Beatrice must approach her friends close by the ground "like a lapwing" (Much Ado about Nothing, 3.1.24). Preparing to meet her lover, Cressida fetches her breath "as short as a new-ta'en sparrow" (Troilus and Cressida, 3.2.32-3). It is a commonplace that Shakespeare can get a character in a line or two.
There are a few occasions when Shakespeare refuses his audience insight into character, as if he wanted the audience itself to supply the missing information and complete the equation set up on the stage-a way of encouraging participation. Any character who remains silent when he might be expected to react and speak his mind prompts us immediately to fill the vacuum, as when Juliet remains "speechless" when her mother tries to persuade her to marry Paris (Romeo and Juliet, 1.3). The scene in Much Ado about Nothing in which Beatrice eavesdrops upon Hero and Ursula (3.1) again provokes the audience into a participatory response as she is fed false information about Benedick's love for her. The tone of this scene differs in several respects from the previous eavesdropping scene in which Benedick is informed of her love for him, and is fundamentally different in the matter of speech and silence: where Benedick completely opens his thoughts to the house, laughably giving himself away, Beatrice remains quite silent, so that, as her friends castigate her, the audience scrutinizes her features for any signs of her feelings, and we are temporarily refused the comfort of straightforward "characterization." Hero seems to relish the opportunity to lambaste her with
But Nature never fram'd a woman's heart Of prouder stuff than that of Beatrice. Disdain and scorn ride sparkling in her eyes.... (49-51)
There was just a chance that the public Beatrice might have been pleased to hear this affirmation of her outward image, but her demeanor and her inability to break her silence suggest another side to Lady Disdain. To mark the occasion when she is finally alone, she closes upon her audience with a short confessional quasi-sonnet, rhyming and joyful, and she speaks verse for the first time:
What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true? Stand I condemn'd for pride and scorn so much? Contempt, farewell, and maiden pride, adieu! No glory lives behind the back of such. (107-10)
By Shakespeare's device of silence, the player is able to emphasize the mixture and the muddle of her feelings, and to everyone's satisfaction reveal and confirm her true and passionate nature.
Inconsistency in Elizabethan Characters
Many warning signs in the plays of Shakespeare tell us that definitive and consistent characterization is a false target. For one, it is another commonplace that the characters have many lines that are "out of character." In his introduction to S.L. Bethell's groundbreaking book of 1944, Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition, T.S. Eliot acknowledged that verse drama was "a different kind of play":
It may allow the characters to behave inconsistently, but only with respect to a deeper consistency. It may use any device to show their real feelings and volitions, instead of just what, in actual life, they would normally profess or be conscious of.... (x)
In How to Read Shakespeare (1971) Maurice Charney underscored this sentiment with the frank statement that "Shakespeare's characters sometimes speak not for themselves but for the play" (p. 86). He reminded his reader of the apparently inappropriate lyricism of Caliban's lines about his magic island: "The isle is full of noises, / Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not" (The Tempest, 3.2.133-4); and of the glowing account of Cleopatra's barge from a drunken veteran like Enobarbus:
The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne Burn'd on the water: the poop was beaten gold; Purple the sails.... (Antony and Cleopatra, 2.2.191-3)
These incongruous speeches are, of course, partly choric in function, and Shakespeare is simply making good use of the character who happens to be on hand at the time.
In The Rape of Cinderella (1970) E.P. Nassar points also to Juliet's unexpected wit for a girl of fourteen when she learns of the death of her cousin Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet:
Come, cords, come, Nurse, I'll to my wedding bed, And death, not Romeo take my maidenhead. (3.2.136-7)
This joke is not to be explained away by social or psychological …