Some theatre each day keeps the doctor away…

On Character, Plot, Verse, and Shakespeare

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“But Falstaff, like the actor who plays him, is only what he appears to be; and what he really is, even if it could exist, wouldn’t concern us.

I stress this because for the last century or so serious literature has been largely character-centred.  A book called Shakespearean Tragedy, by A.C. Bradley, appeared near the beginning of this century, with a thesis that Shakespeare’s tragedies, in contrast to the Greek ones, were tragedies of character.  The tragedy comes about because a particular character is in the one situation he can’t handle.  If Hamlet had been in Othello’s situation, there’d have been no tragedy, because Hamlet would have seen through Iago at a glance; if Othello had been in Hamlet’s situation, there’d have been no tragedy, because Othello would have skewered Claudius before we were out of Act One.  True, certainly; but it seems clear that Shakespeare didn’t start with a character and put him into a situation: if he’d worked that way his great characters would have been far less complex than they are.  Obviously he starts with the total situation and lets the characters unfold from it, like leaves on a branch, part of the branch but responsive to every tremor of wind that blows over them.  Bradley’s is still a great book, whatever one may say of it, but it’s conditioned by the assumptions of its age, as we are by ours.  One of the greatest benefits of studying Shakespeare is that he makes us more aware of our assumptions and so less confined by them.” –Northrop Frye on Shakespeare

The bold emphasis is mine.  I agree wholeheartedly with the emphasized bit.  This is what I mean when one can create a character by merely pulling the levers of one’s personality.  If I were writing Hamlet (shut up), and I was at the scene where Hamlet finds for certain that his father was murdered, I might think, “my character is aggrieved by this.  Does he have an exaggerated sense of honour, unlike myself (who finds the idea of maintaining one’s honour somewhat foolish and barbaric).”  (To divert for a moment, there are two types of people in the world (and I’m paraphrasing this from somewhere else): those who believe in strength/honour, and are quick to violence; and those who think violence is abominable.  The former group thinks the latter group cowards, and the latter group thinks the former thugs.  Something like that.)  To continue: “Yes, his honour makes him feel the need for revenge.  But is he brash, and does he have bravado where violence is concerned?  (Unlike myself, who would, unless provocated to extremes I wish not to imagine, would suffer the blows of fate without lifting a finger.)  Yes, he has more courage than I.  But, from earlier scenes, I would have pushed the intelligence-lever as far as it would go, and once a lever has been pulled, one shouldn’t un-pull it, unless there’s been a specific motivation for the character to have its levers changed.  (A once brave character could have its courage-lever changed if it had been enslaved and had its will broken, for instance.)  And so there’s a conflict there (between intelligence and honour and courage) that would make the character hesitate, perhaps.”  And so on.

On the topic of unpulling: what should happen instead, most of the time, I think, is that one lever overpowers another, a lever that hadn’t come into play yet, for example.  A good illustration of this would be when a character “snaps”.  I’m fairly certain this is what happens most of the time, rather than a lever being unpulled, because if a dramatist is trying to create human simulacra, or exaggerated simulacra (is that a word?), then having a character who changes their personality traits on a whim fails to be a good simulacrum.

Each situation that a character is exposed to is an opportunity to show off another lever.  The more levers a character displays, the more complex and fascinating, I think.  I’ve always thought the ‘character exercises’ espoused by various creative writing institutions – whereby playwrights/etc are asked to list the quirks and traits, the likes and dislikes, of their characters – are somewhat missing the point, for they are all superfluous to the main spirit of the character, and lead to banal and useless inanities such as characters saying what their favourite foods are.  What does Hamlet’s hesitation have to do with whether he likes Weetbix or not?  If one concentrates on the superfluous instead of the levers, then the characters will all be virtually the same at heart, and hence boring.  The real danger of concentrating on the superfluous, however, is that it makes one think that a character has been set in stone before the first words of the play are even written.  And, as Frye points out, if Shakespeare had done that, then his characters wouldn’t have been as complex – if a character, once established at the start, does nothing surprising afterwards, then complexity is reduced, methinks.  What could be more surprising, for example, than Hamlet not killing Claudius when he’s praying?  It’s the perfect opportunity to kill him and not be blamed, and yet he doesn’t take it.  I’d argue that that scene, with that outcome, would be impossible for someone who thinks of a character as immutable from the start.  (Of course, we see the entire play in hindsight, and think, “of course he couldn’t have killed him”, but that’s to assume that this ultimate expression of hesitation was evident in Hamlet before the scene was written by Shakespeare, which it most likely wasn’t.  There’s a duality to it, where that scene is both the cause and effect of his ultimate hesitation.  Once Shakespeare makes Hamlet freely choose to hesitate, then he becomes, in the eyes of the audience, a character that, by his own personality, was forced to hesitate.  If Shakespeare had let him kill Claudius then, we would have no quibbles accepting that Hamlet was such a character as would kill Claudius while he was praying, but we would be talking about a different Hamlet.  Does that make sense?)

What Shakespeare does on top of all this, I think, is that he often hides the reason for why a lever is pulled.  One thinks of Leontes in The Winter’s Tale (not that I’ve read it, but I’ve read about it), being inexplicably jealous, yet without any real reason for being so, especially when compared to the source material.  What this has done, over the years that Shakespeare has been admired, is create ‘puzzles of cause’ that provide a multiplicity of interpretations for the same character.  We read a biography for two reasons: gossipy curiosity, and to know why.  Different biographies provide different reasons for why, while the gossip stays the same (unless new information has come to light).  I think much the same might apply to why we find Shakespeare’s characters so fascinating.  The other reason is that humans are often irrational, and irrationality is rather hard to write convincingly, unless the character is mad.  Perhaps Shakespeare found that removing parts of a character’s reasons for certain actions/moods helped created the illusion of irrationality, and hence made for more real, more human, characters.  Having a few levers pulled before the play begins not only differentiates a character from another, but creates a mystery to it, if the backstory is not explained.

Then again, even us real humans don’t know why we act they way we do a lot of the time.

I have no evidence to back up such a sweeping generalisation, but my feeling is that the largest character-reason-gaps happen at the start of the plays, not during.  Then again, Hamlet’s hesitation is a reason-gap, even with all of his rationalisation and justification of it – as Frye says, Othello would’ve killed Claudius very quickly.

Plot, then, is the artifice by which a character is gradually summoned into being.  The difficult part is that the plot also has to be entertaining.  And so character and plot will propel each other, the plot contriving to put characters in certain situations to show off their levers, the characters showing off exactly the right levers so as to turn the plot in the direction it needs to be going to be entertaining.  This is why farces use stock characters most of the time – the plot is so contrived that any deviation by a character, any expression of difference, would derail the clockwork nature of the plot, and the entire artifice would come crashing down.  Is it any wonder that Shakespeare never wrote a farce?  (Well, there was the Comedy of Errors, but that hasn’t exactly produced any famous characters.)  As in most facets of life, balance is the key, I suppose.  Action movies, too, often suffer from weighing themselves too far on the side of the plot, such that most action heroes can be explained with the terms “determined” and “brave” and “very skilled at killing people”.

This symbiosis is why characters cannot be transplanted from play to play without ruining the other plots they are placed into.  Most would agree that the plot constitutes the form of a play, but presumably less people would concur that the characters are also part of the form.  (My God, I find myself almost agreeing with Sontag when she argued that form and content should be treated as the same, or whatever it was that she said.  I’ve long been against such an idea.)

But then the verse – speaking of Shakespeare – is the form as well, but on a smaller level.  If we think of dialogue, of verse, as miniature actions made by the character – or rather, smaller levers being pulled – then we see that dialogue, too, is form.  (Now I remember what my argument against Sontag was – that if the content is the entire play, the form is the way in which it is presented/directed.  I don’t think I had as much of a problem with her singularity of form/content in regards to novels/poetry.  That was it.  Phew – all is well again.)

So as I’ve come to realise, the way the verse is written – the form of the verse – can have as much of an effect, if not more, of the emotional/characterising information it transmits to the audience as the actual words contained within it.  This perhaps seems obvious to most, if one considers the idea of prose dialogue, where the placement of punctuation affects how it is spoken, and thus how a character is perceived.  But this principle applied to verse had slipped my mind somewhat, and to be perfectly honest, I don’t think I’m skilled enough with blank verse to be worrying about such things at the moment.  (Neither, it seems, was Shakesepeare at the start of his career, which gives one hope.)  Nor are my reason gaps developed, and I doubt I’m anywhere near mastering lever-pulling at the subtle level I’d want it to be pulled (which relies, no doubt, quite heavily on not just the big actions but the smaller actions that come within the verse.)

What needs to be mastered before a masterpiece can be written with any certainty?  Plot, character, and verse.  One suspects that Shakespeare knew more levers than anyone else in history, while having a supreme mastery over verse by the time he finished.

I have confidence that I will improve – otherwise I wouldn’t be writing at all, I suspect.

But to continue these random musings.  I think the reason why satire has a shorter shelf-life than other forms of drama is that the satiric mode taints the verse, and thus closes off part of the form that could otherwise be used for character.  Plus, if the object being satirised dies, so too does the satire with it.

But the muse has called it a day, and so, no more.

Yet after all of that, I stumble across another quote by Frye:

“In drama, characterization depends on function: what a character is follows from what he has to do in the play.  Dramatic function in its turn depends on the structure of the play: the character has certain things to do because the play has such and such a shape.  Given a sufficiently powerful sense of structure, the characters will be essentially speaking dramatic functions, as they are in Jonson’s comedy of humours.  The structure of the play in its turn depends on the category of the play: if it is a comedy, its structure will require a comic resolution and a prevailing comic mood.”


Written by epistemysics

November 5, 2012 at 1:52 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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