The Lifelike Characters Of Shakespeare

The Lifelike Characters Of Shakespeare

by V.S. Ravi - Tuesday, October 25, 2022 07:59 PM IST
The Lifelike Characters Of ShakespeareMacbeth (Pxhere)
  • How Shakespeare created characters who seemed to have an intellect of their own, independent of the playwright.

Shakespeare had the highest vocabulary in history. He filled his plays with about one million words (about 9,36,433 to be precise) out of which 27,870 are ‘different words’ (the highest vocabulary in history). 

Considering that he never went to college nor had access to any dictionary to learn those words, the magnitude of his vocabulary baffles our imagination.

It represented 40 per cent of the total vocabulary of the English Language up to the year 1623. 

To put it in perspective, the average person has only a speaking and writing vocabulary ranging from 2,000 to 3,000 words, and a recognition capacity of about 5,000 words. In great writers these figures grow to one-and-a-half-times or twice the number — Milton had a vocabulary of 10,000 words and Homer 9,000 words. The King James Bible has 8,000 words. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary lists 4,50,000 words and the Oxford English Dictionary lists 6,15,000 words.  

Today, our Modern English has two million words followed by German which has 1,86,000 words, Russian with 1,36,000 words, and French with a pathetic figure of 1,26,000 words. 

This enormous vocabulary as well as several other mind-boggling faculties e.g., his understanding of human nature and every human emotion, and his knowledge of about 50 different figures of speech (no other poet has crossed even 10 or 15 at the most) enabled him to impart unique individuality and personality to every character he created .

Therefore, while in the case of all other dramatists, the characters are like 'types' stuck to the canvas or ‘puppets' controlled by unseen strings, Shakespeare's characters are 'real persons', who act on their own, once created --Malvolio,  Mercutio, Brutus, Falstaff, and Hotspur are not mere puppets.  They behave like real human beings, who have a will of their own.

You have to hear only one sentence, uttered by any of those characters and you can rightly guess the identity. This is also the case with Rosalind, Portia, Viola, Desdemona, Cordelia and Cleopatra. They are real women. Each has her own separate identity, and individual charm.

According to the great Shakespearean scholar  Logan Pearsall Smith, Dryden records the tradition of Shakespeare himself having said that if he had not got Mercutio killed, in Act 3 Scene 1, in Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio would have killed him. 

In his essay "On knocking at the gate in Macbeth" the great essayist De Quincey points out that  murder in ordinary cases, where the sympathy is wholly directed to the case of the murdered person is an incident of coarse and vulgar horror; and for this reason--that it flings the interest exclusively upon the natural but ignoble instinct by which we cleave to life; this would little suit the purpose of the poet.

What then must he do?

He must throw the interest on the murderer. Our sympathy must be with him. In the murderer and such a murderer as a poet will condescend to there must be raging some great storm of passion -- jealousy, ambition, vengeance, hatred--which will create a hell within him and into this hell we are asked to look. 

Referring to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth  De Quincey observes

“In Macbeth for the sake of gratifying his own enormous and teeming faculty of creation, Shakespeare has introduced two murderers, and as usual in his hands, they are remarkably discriminated.” 

No other dramatist in all literature has achieved such a feat.

On coming to know that he had been made the Thane of Cawdor, as the witches had predicted, Macbeth develops an ambition to become the King by murdering Duncan. Lady Macbeth encourages him but as she knows his timid nature she says: 

"Yet do I fear thy nature, it’s too full of the milk of human kindness, to catch the nearest way”

meaning Macbeth's timidity would ruin their their plan to murder Duncan. When Macbeth develops cold feet and says:

"We will proceed no further in this business

He hath honoured me of late, and I have bought

Golden opinions from all sorts of people

Which would be worn now, in their newest gloss

Not cast aside so soon”

She gets irritated and replies:

"Was the hope drunk 

Wherein you dressed yourself ? Hath it slept since?

And wakes it now,  to look so green and pale, 

At what it do so freely? From  this time,

Such I account thy love . Are thou afeard

To be the same in thine own act and valour

As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that

Which thou esteem’st  the ornament of life

And live a coward in thine own esteem

Letting’ I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would’

Like the poor cat in the adage 

and again:

"I have given suck and know

 How tender it is to milk the babe that loves me.

I would while it was smiling in my face,

Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums

 And dashed the brains out had I sworn as you 

Have done to this”

Even as Macbeth talks about a possible failure she lectures him on how to commit the murder spelling out the gory details. The cold and clinical manner in which she gives those instructions shocks Macbeth, who exclaims:

"Bring forth men-children only, for thy undaunted mettle should compose nothing but males”.

After the deed is done, when Macbeth is trembling with fear and says, 

“But where could I not pronounce Amen?

 I had most need of blessing and 'Amen' Stuck in my throat!” 

Lady Macbeth says:

 “These deeds must not be thought

After these ways; so it will make us mad! 

And again says when she finds Macbeth becoming a nervous wreck

“Why worthy Thane,

You do unbend your noble strength to think

So brainsickly of things?” 

Macbeth is protected from emotional disintegration by his strong-willed and domineering wife, till she herself falls apart emotionally due to guilt towards the end and can no longer protect him. 

When we examine Desdemona's character in Othello, we are confronted with another aspect which makes us realise what a magician Shakespeare was.  

Desdemona was so innocent, so chaste, and her love so pure, that she was incapable of even suspecting that another person would suspect her fidelity. 

Her innocence is reflected in the following exchange of words between her and Othello

Desdemona : Upon my knees, what doth your speech import?

I understand a fury in your words,

But not the words.

Othello :Why, what art thou?

Desdemona. :Your wife, my lord. Your true and loyal wife....

Othello: Come swear it damn thyself

Lest being like one of heaven, the devils themselves 

Should fear to seize thee. Therefore be double damned

Swear thou art honest

Desdemona : Heaven doth truly know it. 

Othello : Heaven truly knows that thou art false as hell.

Desdemona: To whom, my lord? with whom? how am I false?

Othello : Ah, Desdemona , away, away, away.

Then, a little later Othello addresses  her  as an "impudent strumpet!"

Desdemona:. By heaven, you do me wrong.

Othello : Are you not a strumpet

Desdemona : No, as I am a Christian.

If to preserve this vessel for my lord

From any other foul unlawful touch

Be not to be a strumpet, I am none

One recalls the poem The Tiger by William Blake. He asks the Tiger:

"Did he who made the lamb make thee?"

We are tempted to ask Shakespeare “Did you who created the innocent , chaste and virtuous  Desdemona, also create the wicked, scheming, and ambitious  Lady Macbeth?" 

This dialogue between Othello and Desdemona has no parallel in literature.

The extraordinary ability of Shakespeare in creating lifelike characters, can be noticed in King Lear also. Let me first take up the behaviour of Lear's wicked older daughters Goneril and Regan. 

Both Goneril and Regan, King Lear's older daughters are clever to know Lear's weakness to succumb to flattery without thinking of the motive. He convinces himself that they truly love him, unconditionally. 

On the other hand, innocent Cordelia truly loves him, but does not declare her love in the manner her sisters did, merely because she brings her love for her future husband into the discussion. 

She incurs Lear's displeasure and wrath. 

This theme dominates the play’s opening scene. The scheming sisters exploit the one fatal flaw in Lear's character, mentioned above, to get a major chunk of the property, and deprive innocent Cordelia of her share. Their wicked behaviour towards Lear is matched by his own foolishness, misplaced trust, and pride.  

In Act 1 Scene 4,  Goneril confronts her father with her complaints about the ‘hundred knights and squires’ who are staying with him in her castle. She complains that their noisy, arrogant and pleasure-seeking behaviour has made her home ‘more like a tavern or a brothel, than a graced palace’ and asks him to cut down on his number of followers.  Lear is angry that Goneril should question him when he has given her everything. He curses her. . His curse quoted below is unquestionably the greatest passage in all literature :

"Hear, nature, hear; dear goddess, hear!

Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend

To make this creature fruitful!

Into her womb convey sterility!

Dry up in her the organs of increase;

And from her derogate body never spring

A babe to honour her! If she must teem,

Create her child of spleen; that it may live.

And be a thwart denatured torment to her!

Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth;

With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks;

Turn all her mother's pains and benefits

To laughter and contempt, -- that she may feel

How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is

To have a thankless child".

This passage is  not only Shakespeare's greatest but also undoubtedly the finest and most powerful in the entire history of English literature. 

The question arises as to who Is More Evil: Goneril or Regan?

At first, Regan appears less evil than Goneril. She follows Goneril’s lead in plotting against Lear, but doesn’t instigate as much violence.

Eventually, though, Regan reveals that she is just as cruel as her older sister. She encourages her husband to rip out Gloucester’s eyes, then betrays him by having an affair with Edmund.

Goneril and Regan both get romantically involved with their political ally Edmund. When Goneril realises  that Edmund was also involved with her sister, she poisons Regan and kills herself. 

The remarkable ability of Shakespeare to discriminate between two similar characters can also be noticed in the case of minor actors in the same  play they appear together.

For example in Antony and Cleopatra, one can easily distinguish between the two handmaidens of Cleopatra, Charmian  and Iras.

They are both close to her but Charmian  comes out more prominently discussing with Cleopatra, her personal matters-- even her passion for Antony !  

So also we have two tribunes, Marullus and Flavius in Julius Caesar, who scold the crowds that have come to see Caesar’s triumphant march to Rome. It is Marullus who sets the pace, for the conversation with the crowd.

During Antony’s funeral oration, you can make out the first Plebian easily by the way he takes charge of the gathering.

Similarly in Hamlet, one can easily distinguish between Francisco, Bernardo, and  Marcellus in the very first scene. 

This superhuman  ability of Shakespeare to create two characters who are real persons at the same time, as against mere puppets or types, created by all the other dramatists, puzzled me a lot, for a very long time. Then one day it struck me:

I had a dream once and in this dream I was discussing a subject with another man. It occurred to me that I was dreaming and I said to myself " If this is a dream I am doing the talking for both sides. Consequently I ought to know in advance what the other man is going to say". In my dream I tried this experiment. I asked  the other man a question, and before he answered I had made up my mind what the answer was going  to be. To my utter surprise, and astonishment, the man did not say what I expected he would say. 

When I woke up it  occurred to me that I had discovered the secret of Shakespeare. He did when awake, what I did when asleep-- that is he created real characters, so perfect that they acted independently of him.

It is precisely for this reason that you cannot take the views of any particular character in Shakespeare as his own though in a few profound passages of  his greatest plays, this marvellous man, might have unguardedly let slip a few personal opinions – in the insane jealousy of Othello, in the kaleidoscopically fluctuating moods of Hamlet, in the tempestuous agony of Lear, in the profound mysticism of Prospero, and the  terrifying verdict of a mentally shattered Macbeth who views life as a “tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing".

V.S.Ravi is a distinguished and highly decorated IPS officer having served both the Government of AP and the Government of India, for 35 years. He retired in 1998. He is a scion of the Alladi family, being a grandson of the Late Sir Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, one of the Chief architects of the Constitution . Sri Ravi is one of the foremost authorities on Shakespeare in the country. He has contributed articles on Shakespeare to the Hindu and News Time Now. He passed Physics (Hons) with distinction and he has kept himself in touch with the latest developments in science and technology.
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