Theatre is a unique and intricate art form, and playwriting is both an art and a craft. The beauty of the language, the story, the setting, its dramatic structure, plots and subplots, style, and themes are all critical elements of a dramatic text. Ultimately, however, it is the quality and depth of the characters, their interrelationships, their actions and reactions that will bring a play to life, give it vibrancy, and create and move its dramatic arc. All drama is about conflict, and conflict is largely a function of character. And it is in the creation and manipulation of character by the playwright which will determine the essential dramatic nature of his play.
Shakespeare wrote with the understanding that his plays were meant to be interpreted and brought to life by actors on the stage. The mimetic nature of drama is what makes that transformation possible, giving each character a distinctive, individual voice, allowing them to interrelate, and generating for the audience the perception that they are watching the events of the play as they happen. However, by its very nature mimesis limits the tools that the dramatist can use to create this effect. Whereas the author of narrative fiction can freely describe the setting, characters, back story and the events of the plot, a dramatist must rely on the words and actions of the characters to convey those expository, diegetic details. And the playwright must do so in a way that not only moves the action forward but is also consistent with both the character and the circumstances of the moment. As a result, the skills and techniques with which a dramatist creates and manipulates these characters are critical.
The source materials on which Shakespeare based most of his plays stories, poems, myths and chronicles - were largely narrative and their adaptation required a restructuring of those diegetic elements. Making the audience aware of the given circumstances of the play, its setting, who the characters are and their relationship to each other was vital. Elizabeth stage tradition, without elaborate sets and props to aid the audience's imagination, made this all the more challenging. Shakespeare often used his opening scene or monologue to "set the stage" and convey this information. In Romeo and Juliet he utilized the dramatic device of a Chorus, a narrator outside the action, to open the play and set the stage for the audience. In sonnet form he tells the entire story of the play:
Two households, both alike in dignity
(In fair Verona where we lay our scene)
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of the two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents strife. (Prologue. 1-8)
This simple, straightforward introduction lets the audience knows exactly what is coming and it is left for the play to bring the story to life.
In 1Henry IV, however, Shakespeare's approach to the initial plot exposition is more complex and character driven. In a single short scene he clearly establishes the end of the War of the Roses, the rebellion of the Welsh under Glendower and his capture of Mortimer, the English victory over the Scots and Hotspur's refusal to yield his prisoners to the crown. But rather than using a simple narration, as he does in Romeo and Juliet, here Shakespeare takes the opportunity to use that plot exposition to establish the relationship of the King with his counselors, as well as to clearly define the essential elements of King Henry's character. In fact, Shakespeare does more than just give us a character sketch of Henry; he uses that opening moment of the play to give us a glimpse into his mind and heart.
So shaken as we are, so wan with care,
Find we a time for frighted peace to pant
And breathe short-winded accents of new broils
To be commenced in strands afar remote. (I.1.1-4)
These opening lines and those that follow reveal his horror over the civil war, his guilt over the killing of Richard II and his own usurpation of the crown, and his desire for peace and a crusade to the Holy Land. Later in the scene he openly expresses his disappointment in Prince Hal and his envy of Northumberland's son, and wishes
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
And called mine "Percy," his "Plantagenet"! (I.1.86-88)
This revelation tells us much, not only of his own feelings, but also of Hal's reputation at court, that his father the King could so demean him in front of his own counselors. As in Romeo and Juliet this short scene sets up much of the action of the play, but here it does so in a way that not only states the facts, but also gives us the beginning of insight into many of the major characters of the play.
Throughout both plays Shakespeare uses this problematic restructuring of the diegetic to the mimetic as an opportunity to explore essential characterization. Juliet pleads to the approaching night at the beginning of Act III, scene 2:
Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steed,
Toward Phoebus' lodging. Such a wagoner
As Phaeton would whip you to the west
And bring in cloudy night immediately.
Spread they close curtain, love-performing night,
That runaways' eyes may wink, and Romeo
Leap to these arms, untalked of and unseen. (III.2.1-7)
Not only do these lines set the scene as early evening, and the fact that she waits for Romeo to come to her, their vivid imagery and heightened language paint a clear and delightful picture of a passionate young bride eagerly and impatiently anticipating the arrival of her beloved and the joys of the night that lie ahead of her. The juxtaposition of this image with the violence that preceded it and the Prince's declaration of Romeo's banishment only heightens the dramatic tension of the moment creating a stark contrast that actively draws the audience into the horror that is to come, and it is Juliet's passion and joy expressed so lyrically in the metaphors of her speech that makes this dramatic contrast possible.
Shakespeare's skill in using language to create and explore character and to manipulate those characters within the circumstances of the play goes well beyond transforming diegesis to mimesis. Historically and artistically, Shakespeare's plays evolved, in part, out of the traditions of late medieval morality plays such as Mankind and Everyman, and you can see the vestiges of their influence in his earliest plays. These morality plays were largely allegorical, set in no particular time, and the stories they told were meant to serve as lessons to their audiences in how to live their lives. Their characters were representative rather than personal and individual, symbolizing different aspects of humanity, morality, good and evil. These characters were simple, clear and easily recognizable by their audiences, two dimensional representations of single character traits. Early Modern playwrights moved away from the simplistic morality plays and their work became increasingly intricate with interwoven plots and subplots. In doing so, the characters they created became more and more complex. Earlier Elizabethan plays such as Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy and Marlowe's The Jew of Malta still strongly stressed the essential morality of their characters, with their heroes and villains clearly defined. But Shakespeare took his characters a step further making them multi-layered and emotionally complex, with conflicting motivations and passionate needs and desires. It is this individuality and complexity, this depth of emotion and essential personal conflict within his characters that create the drama in his plays and move their plots forward. Having only his character's dialogue with which delineate and define them, he took advantage of every tool and technique available to him, and using style, tone, idiom, rhetorical devices, class and regional dialects, and the contrast between verse and prose, he created in his characters that illusive quality of "personality."
One of the most effective tools Shakespeare used was his ability to give each character his or her own unique voice. This is most obvious in his differentiation between his upper and lower class characters. In both Romeo and Juliet and 1 Henry IV, Shakespeare demonstrates his versatility time and again in the creation of characters that speak clearly in the language of their origins. In each of these plays his characters live in related but separate worlds, which revolve around each other, touching only peripherally. And, in each case, it is the characters that bridge the gap between those worlds who act to enable the action of the play.
Stanley Wells, in his introduction to Romeo and Juliet in the Oxford Complete Works, speaks of the range of Shakespeare's literary expression:
The plays' structural formality is offset by an astonishing fertility of linguistic invention,
showing itself no less in the comic bawdiness of the servants, the Nurse, and (on a more
sophisticated level) Mercutio than in the rapt and impassioned poetry of the lovers.
Shakespeare's mastery over a wide range of verbal styles combines with his psychological
perceptiveness to create a richer gallery of memorable characters than in any of his earlier plays
The subtlety of his characterization is extraordinarily rich and complete, his choice of words and phrasing tailored to each character and the world in which he lives. The nobility speaks in verse, even their most conversational or antagonistic speech heightened, defining and emphasizing their position and status. The parents express both caring concern and autocratic insensitivity. The lovers rhapsodize in lyrical sonnets and love poetry, oblivious to the world around them. His comedic lower classes, servants and peasants, concerned with the raw, human details of everyday life, speak colloquially in prose. The Nurse, however, falls in a class between. While her language reflects that same bawdy humor, earthy quality and country phrasing as the servants, and she speaks in prose publicly, as when approaching Romeo (II.4), her occasional use of verse to Juliet and her mother suggests her more intimate association with the family:
And then my husband (God be with his soul,
He was a merry man) took up the child.
"Yes," quoth he, "Dost thou fall upon thy face?
Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit,
Wilt thou not, Jule?" And, by my holidam,
The pretty wretch left crying and said "Ay."
To see now how a jest should come about!
It is Shakespeare's placement of the Nurse in this unique position of being both outside the family yet part of it, that allows Juliet to see her as both a mother figure and as a friend and confidante who can be trusted to act as a go-between. A similar relationship exists between Romeo and Friar Lawrence, who, as a cleric, occupies that same ambiguous position in the community both of it and outside it. Shakespeare endows him with a warm, sympathetic heart to balance his clerical sternness, and his position as Romeo's mentor and confidante enables him to influence the outcome of the play in a unique way. He alone could consent to marry the couple and, since he alone knows of their marriage, only he could give Juliet the potion which, in the guise of a solution to their problems becomes their downfall.
The same subtleties of character can be seen in the Montague and Capulet young blades. As a group they are rowdy, brimming with testosterone and as ready to fight as to make love. Their language is filled with sexual innuendo and banter, puns and quibbles that build on each other to exaggerate their competitive nature:
SAMPSON: I will show myself a tyrant.
When I have fought with the men, I will be civil
with the maids; I will cut off their heads.
GREGORY: The heads of the maids?
SAMPSON: Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads.
Take it in what sense thou will.
GREGORY: They must take it in sense that feel it.
SAMPSON: Me, they shall feel while I am able to stand,
and 'tis known I am a pretty piece of flesh. (I.1.20-30)
The individual young men, however, have very different styles and very different personalities. In Benvolio we see a young noble, a friend and cousin to Romeo, sympathetic and realistic. His speech is moderate, playful but with the air of a gentleman. In Tybalt, "The Prince of Cats," Shakespeare creates the proud, elegant, aggressive, suspicious, arrogant young aristocrat, quick to anger, with a supercilious air. Mercutio, on the other hand, like the Nurse and Friar Lawrence, stands apart from the other young men. He is an extraordinary character, with the quick mercurial wit suggested by his name, a poet and intellectual, imaginative and sexual, at times bitter and brooding. His language soars, exploring every device in fantastic rushes of rhetoric:
True, I talk of dreams,
Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy,
Which is as thin of substance as the air
And more inconstant than the wind, who woos
Even now the frozen bosom of the North
And, being angered, puffs away from thence,
Turning his side to the dew-dropping South. (I.4.103-110)
Mercutio's quicksilver tongue and temperament is not all that sets him apart. As the Prince's kinsman, he is socially affiliated with neither the Montagues nor the Capulets. His position outside the feud, yet drawn into it by his friendship with Romeo, makes him a catalyst in the action. His extravagant word-plays and exuberant flights of fancy in the first two acts lighten the atmosphere and give the play the air of a comedy. It is only upon his death in Act III, scene 1 that the action turns deadly and the tragedy begins, presaged by his own words "A plague o' both your houses!"
In 1 Henry IV, written several years after Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's skill at creating varied and strongly differentiated characterizations continued to mature. Its nature as a history play necessitated characters that were very different from those in Romeo and Juliet, less romantic and more grounded in the real world. But that need for a sense of historical realism only serves to heighten the subtlety of Shakespeare's characterizations. Robert J. Fehrenbach, in his article in the Shakespeare Quarterly, wrote:
In a successfully constructed drama and 1 Henry IV has always been considered one
of Shakespeare's best plays one expects to find methods of characterization appropriate
to the characters depicted. This expectation is not disappointed in 1 Henry IV.
It is this appropriateness that makes the characters in this play so vivid. Once again Shakespeare depicts different worlds and populates them with characters that seem to belong there. Even more than in Romeo and Juliet, the stark contrast between these worlds and the characters that inhabit them influence the events of the play. And, as before, it is the characters who bridge those worlds that move the action.
King Henry embodies the world of the Lancastrian Court. A private man, secretive, distant, calculating and, as described by Fehernbach, "a Machiavellian king," his court is formal, unemotional, structured and defined by the verse it speaks. Yet, while his reign is central to the play, it is neither about him, nor is it his actions that truly move the plot. Owen Glendower embodies the Welsh traditions of romanticism and imagination in contrast to Henry's reserve. Yet, as part of the various factions rebelling against Henry, the Glendower and the Welsh play but a supporting role in the play.
Once again it is the outsider, young Harry Percy, both a part of the Court and outside it, a guest of the Welsh but not of them, the epitome of what a prince should be yet a rebel against his King, who is a goad to action of the play. Hotspur's nature is true to his name. He is passionate, hot blooded, open, and direct. James C. Bulman describes him as:
A romantic figure impulsive and valiant, young Harry Percy embodies all that is glorious
about feudal chivalry its code of honour, its passion for heroic achievement in arms, its
emphasis on loyalty to self and family over state.
While historically Harry Percy was far more Henry's contemporary than he was Hal's, Shakespeare's manipulation of the historical Hotspur gave Hal a rival for his father's respect, an example of princely action, a contrast with his own behavior, and, ultimately, an equal opponent whose defeat was necessary to ensure the security of the kingdom he would inherit from his father.
The inhabitants of Eastcheap and the rough, colloquial, bawdy and irreverent language of the thieves, ruffians and other denizens of the Boar's Head Tavern form a strong dramatic opposition to the worlds of the Court, the Welsh, and the rebels. Characters like Bardoph, Poins, and Mistress Quickly help create a vivid image of the attractions and dangers that this world holds for Prince Hal.
Here too, it is the outsider who is the focus of the action. Sir John Falstaff is a knight, a mock king in his own domain. But that domain is the Boar's Head and his throne more apparent than real. He is fat, vain, irresponsible, indulgent and larger than life, a likeable old reprobate and thief who was born into one world, lives in the other and aspires to the respectability that he can have in neither. Originally called Sir John Oldcastle, borrowed from that fact-based companion of Prince Hal in Shakespeare's source play, The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, Falstaff's characterization can be seen to have evolved from the Milos Gloriosus of Roman comedy, Vice of the medieval morality plays, and even the Lord of Misrule of traditional Christmas celebrations. But Shakespeare's creation, although written for the talents of the Elizabethan clown, is more than just a caricature. Falstaff the man, a complex, intriguing and layered character, is the magnet that draws Hal to the Boar's Head, the surrogate father that fills Hal's need, and the rival to the King for the mind and heart of the Prince. Without him there would be no drama, only a history.
Ultimately, though, it is Prince Hal who is the focus of the play. And, not surprisingly, he too is an outsider. Caught between the Court and the Tavern, pulled in all directions by the strong personalities around him, his father on once side urging him to duty, Falstaff on the other tempting him to sin, and, on the periphery, his rival and role model, Hotspur challenging him to prove himself and his worth, it is not until Hal finally decides which world he belongs to that he will be able to defeat Hotspur, reject Falstaff's influence (if not yet Falstaff himself) and be accepted by his father.
Both Romeo and Juliet and 1 Henry IV showcase Shakespeare's craftsmanship in characterization. The subtle differences in his crafting of even the smallest character, both psychologically and in the language that defines them, gives them the strength, personality and individuality that makes their interaction so vital and compelling. While his linguistic versatility and skillful storytelling is undeniable, it is Shakespeare's characters and his masterful manipulation of their carefully drawn individuality that gives these plays their vivid dramatic reality and dimension.
--- Arlene Schulman, January 2007