Real person or construct?

Until about the middle of the twentieth century, some critics, and many readers and theatre-goers, wrote and spoke of characters in plays as if they were real people with a life that continued off-stage.

More on confusion of character with reality: In 1850, Mary Cowden Clarke even published The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines, in which, building on hints and ideas from the plays, she imagined the upbringing of each heroine; Ophelia, for example, she describes as a child watching the ‘wide expanse of sea … swelling before her; while a feeling of awe would creep over her at the thought of a watery death.'

Nowadays it is accepted that characters are constructs— that is, they have no real existence but are created by the writer and given shape for a particular purpose.

So we need to ask:

  • Why did Shakespeare give this particular character his or her characteristics?
  • What would be the result if they were different?
  • What would be the result if that character were not introduced at all?
More on the effect of character on plot: Of course the plot would be altered considerably if, say, there were no Ophelia in Hamlet — but what would be the result if she were as confident as, for example, Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing?

For each character, then, we can look at:

  • How Shakespeare has presented them
  • Their effect on the drama
  • What Shakespeare's purposes might have been.
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