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Life After Death for Characters in Shakespeare's Macbeth, Hamlet, and Romeo and Juliet

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By Edited Nov 13, 2013 1 2

Romeo and Juliet

Developing character is a notoriously tough task for a writer. There's the straightforward method, which our Creative Writing 101 professor warns us never, ever to use. (Ex.: "He's a complicated man. No one understands him but his woman.") Then, there's the nuanced method, which uses action and dialogue to imply certain character traits. (Ex.: "Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice in a church where a wedding has been.") Suffice it to say that Method Two takes considerably more effort to both implement and interpret.

Enter the plays of William Shakespeare. In addition to being solely comprised of action and dialogue, Shakespearean characters are notoriously difficult to pin down thanks to the Bard's incredibly complex style. In fact, Shakespeare writes on so many levels that some of his characters' personalities continue to develop even in death. Just think about how Shakespeare uses suicide to change our impression of certain characters (and the people around them) even from beyond the grave.

The first Shakespearean suicides that spring to mind are probably the ones from Romeo and Juliet, but these don't actually tell us anything about the young lovers that we don't already know; instead, think about a play like Macbeth, where Lady Macbeth's suicide comes as a surprise that forces us to rethink her earlier behavior. The play begins with a prophecy promising Macbeth the Scottish kingship. Despite Macbeth's initial temptation to speed the prophecy along by killing the current king, he quickly comes to his senses and decides to let destiny play itself out. Too bad he's already made the mistake of telling his wife.

Lady Macbeth isn't exactly what you'd call a delicate flower, so when her husband changes his mind about the assassination, she doesn't lose any time in calling him an unambitious pansy. To drive her point home, she then insists that his change of heart equates to backing out on a promise – and that, had SHE given her word to do so, she would gladly dash out the brains of own baby. Apparently, this does the trick because before long, Macbeth's up to his elbows in royal blood.

So when Lady Macbeth later kills herself in a fit of madness, it comes as a revelation that perhaps she isn't as cold-blooded as we first thought. After all, it's hard to go insane with guilt if you have no conscience to needle at you. If anything, the lady's death forces us to judge her husband more harshly; if the woman who comes across as evil incarnate can't stomach his behavior, what does that say about Macbeth?

Ophelia's suicide in Hamlet is similarly game-changing not only for her own character development, but also for Hamlet's. After Hamlet discovers that his father was murdered by his uncle, he becomes unstable and famously contemplates (but decides against) committing suicide. When he then accidentally murders Ophelia's father, he doesn't so much as say "pardon," let alone offer his condolences. At this point, it's still difficult to say whether Hamlet is only pretending to be crazy or has truly become unhinged.

Upon hearing of her father's murder, Ophelia very clearly loses her mind, spouting off lots of nonsense poetry and then drowning herself. Despite her cool and collected attitude thus far – especially in the face of her boyfriend's hurtful and often embarrassing words – this turn for the worse helps us realize just how much she has endured (and that, despite what he'd have us believe, Hamlet doesn't have a monopoly on suffering).

Moreover, Ophelia's suicide makes the theory that she and Hamlet have had premarital sex seem much more likely. Before Hamlet kills Polonius, there's still hope that he and Ophelia can one day be together. However, once that window of opportunity closes, a deflowered Ophelia would be nothing more than damaged goods at this particular time and place in history. And if that's not enough character development for you, keep in mind the light this casts on Hamlet's own behavior; when viewed side-by-side with Ophelia's insanity, Hamlet's weirdness suddenly seems far too hesitating and controlled to qualify as genuine madness.


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Comments

Sep 17, 2010 11:23am
vetochemicals
Great article Paul! I hope IB will feature this at some time for you, it's a thumb's up:)
Sep 21, 2010 2:39am
PaulThomson
Hey Veto, Thanks :)
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