A lesson on character in drama

“We're actors — we're the opposite of people!”

Rosencrantz and Guidenstern Are Dead

We encounter characters in drama very differently to how we encounter them in novels or short stories. If reading a play we get a lot less information about characters than those we read about in prose texts; if watching a play then obviously we watch actors embody the characters and we accept the dramatis personae - the persons of the drama - for the duration of the performance.

This willing acceptance of one person pretending to be another is the basis of all drama, the convention that underpins all others. It is so ingrained in human culture we rarely give it a second thought but it is worth considering further as it allows us to consider the different contributions a playwright, actors and the audience make in the construction of character in drama.

David Ball offers the following thoughts on the subject:

Scripts contain bones

"Play characters are not real. You cannot discover everything about them from the script. The playwright cannot give much, because the more that is given, the harder it is to cast the part. The playwright must leave most of the character blank to accommodate the nature of the actor. This is one reason novels are longer than plays: novels need no gaps for actors. So there is more of Ahab than of Oedipus; in fact, there is more Miss Marple than Oedipus. Scripts contain bones, not people.

Good playwrights limit their choice of bones to those which make the character unique. Onto that uniqueness the actor hangs the rest of the human being.

The bones - the carefully selected character traits included in the script - are revealed via action. Devices such as a chorus, or narrator, or presentation of interior thoughts via soliloquy, or exposition...are peripheral, call for special conventions, and rarely offer information not revealed elsewhere - and better - through action. Such devices should not be ignored, but they are auxiliary to action as a source of information."

So if the playwright provides the "bones" and the actor the "rest of the human being", what is the role of the audience? Firstly, we bring the willingness to accept the pretence; we accept that this person we know as, say, Benedict Cumberbatch, is now Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, without experiencing any cognitive dissonance. Secondly we bring certain expectations about how characters on stage can and will behave, expectations that the playwright might fulfill, frustrate or challenge. We might expect, for example, that a character will change or develop in some way, an expectation that is fulfilled in Master Harold and the Boys but challenged in Waiting for Godot.

Lastly, we bring an interest in human beings. Plays - like films - offer us a socially acceptable form of voyeurism. We are interested in watching others because we are interested in ourselves and the complex mess that is human nature. Tennessee Williams stated that he drew "every character out of [his] very multiple split personality" and the plays we engage with are those where the characters on stage tap into different - and often conflicting - aspects of our personality. We see aspects of ourselves in Stanley and Blanche, Antigone and Creon, Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude and Ophelia, but also - perhaps especially - in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, watching from the shadows as the drama plays itself out.

The Importance of Action

Note David Ball's insistence on action being the primary means of characterization in drama. When we read drama texts many people's tendency is to read the dialogue as the primary source of information and to skim over the stage directions; when we watch a play, it will often be the case that the opposite occurs - that is, it is the look, behaviour and movement of the characters that strikes us more than the things they say. Students need to understand this difference and be sensitive to it as they explore and write about their play texts.

Continuing his ideas on dramatic characters, David Ball states "What a character does is half the revelation.  Why the character does it is the other half."  This can be connected to Stanislavski's influential thinking about characters in terms of seeing objectives and super-objectives as informing their actions on stage, the objective being the reason behind any action and the super-objective being the over-reaching goal or through-line for a character, connected to the overall outcome of the play.  

"Every objective must carry in itself the germ of action."

Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares (1936)

The questions and actiivities below are designed to give students some frameworks and prompts for exploring how playwrights create and use characters in plays; these can be used and adapted for any play being studied, or as preparation for analyisng unseen extracts from plays in Paper 1.  

Objectives and obstacles

Give students a character to focus on and ask them to discuss and feedback on the following 4 questions:

  1. What does the character want (what is their super-objective)?
  2. What is in the character’s way (obstacle)?
  3. What is the character willing to do to satisfy the want?
  4. Does what they want/obstacles/what they are willing to do change across the course of the play?

Follow up with discussion and feedback around these three questions:

  1. How easy is it to agree on what a character wants?
  2. What does the ease or difficulty of answering the question tell you about the character and their portrayal? 

Character Types and Functions

While it is straight forward to ask 'What does this character want?' it is not always easy to answer.   The harder it is to answer, the more complex the character, which leads us to consider the different types of characters we get in plays.  

Character types

In order to determine and discuss the types of characters in a play you are studying, ask students to plot the characters on the following series of lines.  

1. Complexity

simple/stereotype                                                                                                                                                                   complex

2. Development

static                                                                                                                                                                                       dynamic

3. Character and Action

passive/reactive                                                                                                                                                                    proactive

4. Significance

minor                                                                                  secondary                                                                                    primary

The final question of a character's significance should lead to discussion of terms such as protagonist, antagonist, hero and villain. These terms are not always appropriate and students should be encouraged to examine them critically in relation to the play being studied, rather than using them unthinkingly.  

As well as considering what types of characters are in a play, students should become familiar with talking about the function that a character serves within the text.  A tight focus on function means students will be focused on the playwright, their intentions and their choices rather than talking and writing about characters as if they are real people.   Most characters can be considered to have a plot function (i.e. how they serve the plot) but characters can have other functions too such as being a narrator, a foil, a messenger, a fool, comic relief, or they might have importance in relation to the play's themes.  

Mapping Characters

Rather than just considering characters in isolation it is important for students to consider the 'web' of characters a playwright has created and how all the characters work together in terms of communicating the central concerns of the text.  

Ask students to map the characters from a play.  When first getting to know a play this can be a 'family tree', looking at the relationships they have with one another.  For more detailed analytical exploration, however, the following are examples of prompts that can be given to students:  

  • Primary, secondary and minor characters

  • Simple and complex characters 

  • Character relationships 

  • Character values

  • Character function 

  • Hierarchy/social rank

  • Character and representation

  • Thematic significance (best here to give students a specific theme from the play)

It can be interesting to give the same prompt to the whole class and compare different maps produced by different groups of students, using these as a basis for discussion. Alternatively have different groups within a class mapping according to a different prompt, as this will also yield interesting comparisons.  

Bring together the class’s thinking, exploring the question:

How does the writer use interactions between particular characters and/or groups of characters to engage the audience in the broader social concerns and/or human truths of the play? 

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