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SecondaryEnglishThe Arts

Shakespeare’s characters – What they tell us about their times (and ours)

Stylised illustration showing the face of William Shakespeare

Zoe Enser looks at several recurring archetypes in Shakespeare’s works, and what they say about the Bard’s contemporary surroundings and artistic intent…

Zoe Enser
by Zoe Enser
DOWNLOAD A FREE RESOURCE! Persuasive writing – Advice for KS3 and KS4 English students
SecondaryEnglish

The more you learn about the plays and characters of Shakespeare, the more you become aware of certain recurring ideas, and this is most certainly true of his characters.

The king, the daughter, the wife, the soldier and the fool all appear across the body of his work and will have had certain resonance to his audience.

To be the king

The patriarchal figure is a powerful one, dominating many of Shakespeare’s stories. From dead fathers in Hamlet, Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothing, to elderly and misguided ones in King Lear and The Tempest, they often dominate the tales.

Kings, of course, provide a key focus for the history plays and often cross over in the role of the father too. Lady Macbeth, on preparing to kill King Duncan, claims she would have killed the old man himself ‘had he not resembled my father’ (Macbeth, II, I, 14–15).

The kingship of Duncan, and indeed the concept of kingship more widely, is an interesting area to explore in Macbeth. Duncan is associated with an aged wisdom – kind, innocent and firmly linked to an understanding of divine right and The Great Chain of Being – an idea the then monarch, James, had been keen to promote in his ‘Divinity of Kings’ tome.

However, like Lear, Duncan also displays a naivety and lack of foresight that ultimately leads to his demise. Just as Lear is unable to see the danger before him in the form of his daughters – greedy for power and cruel in their methods – so is Duncan unable to see his own downfall in the guise of Macbeth.

He trusts too quickly and fails to guard against the threats that surround him. He has already experienced the treachery of Cawdor and yet he continues to expose himself to peril, seemingly having learned nothing from these past experiences.

Other kings and leaders in the histories present perhaps a more positive view of leadership, with Henry’s ascent to the throne seeing him throw off childish things, in the form of Falstaff, and adopting a more humble and inclusive leadership in which he says:

“I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires”

(Hen. V, IV, iii, 24–27)

Fathers and blockers

Shakespeare’s father figures, many of whom are leaders in society too, often perform the function of the ‘blocker’ – a familiar role in traditional narratives. They are there to be overcome; a barrier to true happiness. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming of the Shrew, A Winter’s Tale, The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet all include fathers who are, depending on your viewpoint, protecting their daughters from the dangers of the world outside, but equally preventing their pursuit of true happiness.

They are figures of authority, often representing society – much as with family as a whole – and are often controlling and manipulative. They isolate their daughters from the rest of the world and would frequently rather see the death of their daughters rather than hear of their dishonour or disobedience. Hero in Much Ado About Nothing, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet and Cordelia in King Lear are all constrained by the whims of their fathers, indicative of ideas of property and gender.

Exploring the parent-child relationship with students can be a particularly useful way to begin examining the plays, as it is something which, even with the best relationships, students can very much identify with.

The mother, the queen, the hag

Mothers are notoriously absent in many of Shakespeare’s plays, with Lear’s daughters – Ophelia, Desdemona and Hero – all notably motherless. In Romeo and Juliet, the deficit of Juliet’s mother (seemingly distant from her daughter and unsympathetic to her pleas not to marry) is emphasised by her relationship with the Nurse, filled with a closeness and care absent in the actual mother-daughter relationship.

Those who are there – older women and those with questionable maternal instincts – don’t fare much better. In Coriolanus, Volumnia seeks to maintain her own power within Rome through her political ambitions for her son. She is proud of his status as a heroic soldier, referring to his wounds as if medals of honour and persuading him to play out her own ambitions:

let
Thy mother rather feel thy pride than fear
Thy dangerous stoutness, for I mock at death
With as big heart as thou.
Do as thou list,
Thou valiantness was mine, thou suck’dst it from me

(Coriolanus, III, ii, 125–129)

Volumnia’s techniques to persuade her son to her ends echo the words of Lady Macbeth, who ‘Shame[s] to wear a heart so white.’ Both women seek greater powers for their ‘partner in greatness’, but ultimately realise they are unable to control what it is they unleash.

Macbeth no longer needs his wife’s counsel as his tyranny takes hold, leaving her wracked with guilt and her implied suicide. The ‘fiend-like queen’ we see in this play recurs in the mother figures Shakespeare deploys, much like the wicked queens of fairy tales.

In Hamlet, Gertrude is prepared to maintain her place on the throne by marrying her dead husband’s brother. The question as to how much she was complicit in the murder is one which Hamlet and the audience must continue
to puzzle.

The use of the older women in Shakespeare’s plays to represent evil deeds and desires is perhaps indicative of societal attitudes towards older women during this period. No longer capable of childbearing, these women are either deleted from the plays, no longer serving the required function, or cast as villains full of unnatural desires, hungry for power and prepared to go to any lengths to achieve this.

The soldier

Returning soldiers are a recurrent concept in Shakespeare’s plays, from Much Ado About Nothing to Othello. Coriolanus is perhaps the most extreme example – no longer regarding himself as a man, frequently referring to himself as a ‘thing’ throughout the play and more a weapon of war or machine than a man, scarred and moulded by his experiences on the battlefield.

As he attempts to become ‘author of himself’ – rewriting his position within his new world and, attempting, and failing, to resist the ambitions of his mother – he is renamed and redefined, but ultimately lost in this new world he needs
to navigate.

Equally, Macbeth’s tactics on the battlefield do not translate well into his position as king, and tyranny and bloodshed become the signature of all he does once he is no longer a soldier.

The fool

Fools often do not play by the same rules as their masters or those around them and are often outside of some of the usual bounds of social order, with Feste moving between the houses of the two different households in Twelfth Night with apparent ease. They bring elements of the carnivalesque to the plays, often capering and contorting alongside their songs and witticisms, provoking some much-needed comic relief.

They also seem to have a freedom to speak in ways which would not be accepted from characters of a different position. For example, the truth that the Fool in King Lear offers to the King is at times sharp and brutal, offering Lear his ‘coxcomb’ in exchange for the crown, calling him out for the fool he is.

The fool often speaks more truth than those characters around him, either wrapped up in riddles and songs (as with Feste and double plays), or in the words of the Porter in Macbeth, ‘dark in their presence.’ The idea of the ‘fool that sees’ again predates Shakespeare, as does the supposed wise man who is blind.

In King Lear, neither the King nor the supposedly wise Gloucester can see the truth and it is only when they are blinded, either by their madness or the vicious attack from Lear’s daughter, Goneril, they can begin to see the truth of the world around them.

Zoe Enser is a former classroom teacher and head of English; this article is based on an edited extract from her book, Bringing Forth the Bard: A guide to teaching Shakespeare in the English classroom (Crown House, £16.99)

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