William Shakespeare seemed to have had a propensity for unlikable titular characters. Many of his plays, particularly the tragedies, were named for selfish, indecisive, vengeful, or otherwise just unpleasant men. It’s difficult to enjoy a work of literature or theater when the protagonist is unappealing, but plays like Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello have endured for centuries.
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, starts off sympathetically; his father the king has recently died and Hamlet has good reason (if you can consider the word of a ghost “good reason”) to believe that his mother and uncle (who, by the way, has married his mother shortly after his father’s death) planned his father’s murder. He is charged to seek vengeance for this wrongdoing, but is unsure of how to act. And is unsure of how to act. And is unsure of how to act. Does he kill his uncle Claudius? Does he kill his mother? Does he kill himself? It’s this dilemma that inspires his famous soliloquy (and what’s probably the most famous of the Hamlet quotes) “to be or not to be.”
Othello (the Moor), while also unlikable, is very different from Hamlet. He begins the play as a relatively pleasant character; and a modern reader may be inclined to sympathize with him based on her distaste for any racism she may detect in the other characters. He seems like a strong solider, loving husband, good friend. But soon, his right-hand man Iago casts doubt into Othello’s mind about the very innocent friendship between his wife Desdemona and a young up-and-comer named Cassio. Othello’s unable to look past his jealousy and ultimately suffocates his wife in their own bed, just about eliminating any goodwill he had earned from the audience earlier in the play.
And then there’s Macbeth. Quick Macbeth summary: Like Othello, he distinguishes himself on the battlefield and returns home to Scotland as a hero and all-around beloved guy. Then thinks take a slightly Oedipal turn. Macbeth receives a prophesy from three witches (more on them later) that will eventually be made King of Scotland. Unlike Oedipus, Macbeth likes this prophecy and doesn’t do his best to make it not come true. In fact, when he tells his wife about the prophecy, she immediately begins plotting the king’s death. Conveniently enough, the king is planning to stay with the Macbeths shortly after they make that decision and Lady Macbeth successfully emasculates her husband until he does the deed.
He only gets more unlikable from there. Apparently, once he realized he was capable of murder, he figured what’s the harm in killing a few more people? Eventually he becomes so obsessed with himself and his power that he can’t even be bothered to mourn his own wife, who was driven to suicide by her extreme guilt. He utters one of the most influential Macbeth quotes, “full of sound and fury; signifying nothing” as he’s essentially claiming that his wife’s suicide is coming at a really bad time for him, and while William Faulkner may have found those words inspiring, they fall a little flat for the average person.