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Thursday, June 2, 2016

Characters of No Importance

It occurred to me only recently that Shakespeare would often stick a character in a play that does not serve the plot but speaks for the average person or, more likely, the playwright himself. The character of no importance observes the absurdity of everyone else in the play and  the absurdity of life itself. He sometimes takes part in the action, but always maintains a detached outsider's viewpoint. Some examples that are particularly memorable to me are:
  • The Fool (King Lear)
  • The Bastard (King John)
  • Enobarbus (Antony and Cleopatra)
  • Thersites (Troilus and Cresida) 
There is a long list of Shakespearean fools on Wikipedia, but those characters are identified by the traditional definition of a theatrical fool, who serves a particular function on stage. Thus, Falstaff is classified as a fool even though he is also a central character in Henry IV. 

What I'm talking about, however, is a character that channels Shakespeare's own opinions, which is perhaps closer to the role of chorus, except this "chorus" is a lot more irreverent and cynical and sometimes vicious, and never represents the values and perspective of nobility. 

In general, Shakespeare seemed to be fairly careful in disguising his own opinions and had very limited use of chorus-like devices. When he did use a person as the chorus, he is there to tell the audience about stuff like "previously on this series ..." or "imagine some visual effects here ..." 

Given all the caution, Henry V is an extraordinary play in which he presented two nearly-opposing viewpoints: One of the king and his noblemen and one of the average soldiers. The two sides came to a head when Henry disguised himself to visit the camp at night before the battle of Agincourt and heard the real thoughts among his men. A couple of guys said:

Then I would he were here alone; so should he be sure to be ransomed, and a many poor men's lives saved. ... 
But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few diewell that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.

The guys never appear again. After the battle, the king hanged his old buddy Bardolph.

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