Sunday, 18 August 2013

The Fine Line Between Shakespearean Heroes and Shakespearean Villians

Shakespeare's characters are never simple
What makes an interesting character, whether he or she is in a movie, a novel, a play or a TV series? 

Depth and complexity. Hidden, perhaps dark, facets that are teased out when that character is put under pressure.

Quite simply, we don't want to take one look at this person and think we know all there is to know. And this is just as true of heroes or protagonists as it is of villains or antagonists.

How Heroes And Villains Are Portrayed

Throughout human history's forms of storytelling, fashions for characterisations have fluctuated. In the Medieval morality plays, for example, characters were personifications of moral attributes: there was good and there was bad, and ne'er the twain shall meet.

Flash forward around half a millennium, to early TV shows, and we had a very similar set-up: the goodies wore white hats, the baddies wore black and we knew exactly where we stood. And on some level, there's a comforting satisfaction in that.

However, today (and in various periods of history), we favour a much more complicated view of human nature. Hugh Laurie's House is not all bad, but neither is he all good. In other words, to a lesser or greater extent, he is just like most of us. In fact, I might go all the way and say, all of us. After all, even Gandhi wasn't quite as saint-like as he might have seemed to the outside world.

We are complex beings, with desires often warring against a sense of morality. It is this that makes us interesting and it's watching this war play out in another's life that can make for gripping entertainment.

Shakespeare's Heroes Aren't All Heroes

Even someone as 'good' as Desdemona
has a naughty streak
So, where does Shakespeare fit into all of this?

Well, he didn't want to portray a simplistic view of existence; he wanted to show life (and people) for the contradictory mess it often is.

Consequently, I think it would be difficult to find a main character who is completely 'good' in a Shakespeare play.

Even someone like Desdemona, who seems like a perfectly well-behaved woman, does something pretty outrageous by disobeying her father and marrying her choice of man. That's a sin we may be able to forgive her for, but it's a sin nonetheless; and would certainly have been viewed as one in centuries past.

But what about the heroes, surely they must be good, otherwise they're not worthy of the name. Well, 'hero' in this sense doesn't mean 'hero' as we've come to think of it - often attached to 'super'. But, here again, we can see a complexity: think Batman, he might be doing the 'right thing', but his methods are often questionable.

Anyway, I digress. Shakespearean heroes aren't like Superman. In fact, they are some of the most flawed characters within the plays.

I've written before about the ways in which Hamlet could be viewed as a villain.

I also notice that Macbeth is often mistaken for a villain. It's true there are no other baddies in the piece, unless you count the witches, but Macbeth is not a Shakespearen villain, he's a tragic hero - a good man, so deeply flawed that he transforms, in front of our very eyes, into a monster.

Similarly, King Lear is a man who thinks he's more sinned against than sinning, but is that true? He certainly doesn't do anything that would win him a 'father of year' award.

Ultimately, I think, it comes down to the perception Shakespeare has chosen to give us. As I mention in the post on Hamlet, if you look at the play through Ophelia's eyes, we might not feel quite so sympathetic to Hamlet's cause. But we don't see the events in Elsinore from her point of view, we see them from Hamlet's. We, therefore, understand (sort of) his manic behaviour and we excuse it.

Are Shakespeare's Villains All Bad?

Is Shylock a villain? If he is, he's
certainly not evil for the sake of evil
So, can the same be said for the villains?

Yes, absolutely it can. We see and hear a considerable amount of Iago's thoughts, but we're still not viewing the play exclusively through him. If we were; if we knew exactly what it is that got his goat, perhaps we would feel, as he does, that he's righteous in his attempt to destroy Othello.

Is Shylock a villain? Is Antonio a hero? Neither of them seem to fit those roles comfortably. The Merchant of Venice, which is supposed to be pretty light-hearted compared with the tragedies, is far from black and white, and despite its seemingly cheery ending it is, I think, intended to makes us think about the nature of right and wrong.

But maybe I have the view I do because I was at one time setting my sights on a career in acting. As an actor, you can't come to a role believing that a person is wholly good or wholly bad - well, you can, but the portrayal is likely to be very two-dimensional.

Actors Need to Find Something Sympathetic in The Roles They Play

Even Richard III has facets of his character
we can feel sympathy for
If you're playing Richard III, for example, you have to figure out why he believes himself justified in his actions, because he undoubtedly does - and you have to feel that way, too.

He would see himself as the hero, and actually so does Shakespeare, because Richard is another of his tragic heroes - the most villainous villain of them all but, yet again, not all bad.

And I suppose it's not unreasonable to suggest that as an actor himself, Shakespeare approached his writing as a performer, immersing himself in each character as he wrote, to ensure that there was truth behind every line, motive and action.

It could be that Shakespeare felt empathy for each of his characters and revelled in their imperfections.

Hamlet's, "...there is nothing either good or/bad, but thinking makes it so." is the perfect way to sum up Shakespeare's characters. The good ones, like Macbeth or Othello, are often tempted by the 'dark side'. And the bad ones, even rotten to the core ones, like Aaron, can prompt fascination and show a flash of a redeeming quality.

Heroes and villains are complicated creatures in Shakespeare's plays.

No comments:

Post a Comment