Familiarity with Shakespeare’s leading players is pretty universal. Everyone has heard of Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet whether or not they have read or engaged with the plays.
But within his stories resides a rich and complex web of B-characters that keep the plays alive and performed hundreds of years after they were written.
From incestuous mothers, bastard sons with an appetite for destruction, fat and marauding highway robbers to wayward friends, the embedded stories of Shakespeare’s characters within his plays add an extra layer of dimension for readers to take away.
In this article, I’ll examine three of my favorites and what we can learn from them in writing and life. But first, a little story of my own about an unfortunate encounter with a Shakespeare puritan.
Maybe you have a similar experience?
It happened after a night at the Almeida Theatre in London. My boyfriend was stuck in traffic and couldn’t make it, and I had an empty seat to my left.
Women have a unique way of catching each other’s eye sometimes and following up with a smile. It’s a safe gesture and not generally mistaken for a sex offer; which sometimes happens with the other gender. So it was that a middle-aged woman noted the empty seat beside me and took it upon herself to keep me company.
She was excited about this production of the Merchant of Venice which was transferred to a modern-day Las Vegas setting. Her husband sat beside her, and in other parts of the auditorium were two sons.
At the end of the play, the woman and I exchanged email addresses. Like me at the time, she used to go to the theatre a lot. Not £100 ticket venues but the smaller and more affordable places.
That same night, she emailed me and copied her sons in to ask how I had enjoyed the piece. I repeated what I’d said at the theatre; I thought it was fun, and I enjoyed the Vegas setting.
Later on that evening, I received an email from one furious son who was seething with rage. The words were practically bouncing off the screen. How dare someone change the location of a Shakespeare play, how dare the iambic pentameter be spoken in a Vegas accent, and the worst sin of all was me enjoying it.
Woah, angry man. I didn’t ask for your opinion on my opinion, and more importantly, I couldn’t care less. I responded to the enraged fellow to say ‘each to their own,’ hoping to call an end to the unpleasant conversation.
But no, he leveled one final email attack saying that if people (i.e. me) were too stupid to understand Shakespeare in its intended setting, then they shouldn’t go to the theatre in the first place. Wow. Silence from mother and I just left it there.
This piece is for you, angry, middle-class theatre man. Shakespeare’s stories were not created for especially for you, and they don’t need to live up to your vision of his authenticity.
Real writers know that stories are for everyone and that there are beauty and depth in the way that other people adapt and respond to them.
Below I look at the stories of three B-characters in Shakespeare’s plays: Henry IV, King Lear and Hamlet. In these examples, I would say that the B characters are as interesting and exciting as the leading players.
Whether or not you are a fan of the bard, these characters have strong lives of their own.
Henry IV P1 & P2
Henry IV P1 is a coming of age tale that takes a roguish and reluctant young prince Hal through the irresponsible last days of adolescence and on to his father’s court to take up his destiny as the future King of England, Henry V.
Jack Falstaff is Prince Hal’s mentor in bad behavior. He’s a fat and lovable villain and one of Shakespeare’s best comic characters. A master of wit and a drunkard Falstaff makes for a good companion for Hal in his last days of recklessness and abandon.
Queen Elizabeth I was so delighted by the character of Jack Falstaff after seeing the Henry plays that he wrote an entirely new comedy to include him ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor.’
Outside of Shakespeare, the fictional Jack Falstaff was also the subject of a Verdi opera and an Orson Welles Film Chimes At Midnight starring Jeanne Moreau. I think it’s safe to say that Falstaff is a crowd-pleaser.
Falstaff is a thief and vagabond,
“that reverend Vice…father ruffian.”
He is grey-haired, wholly untrustworthy and one of the best Shakespearean characters; a loveable rogue.
Where The Henry plays are seen as coming of age pieces about Henry there’s also a universal streak of Falstaff in all of us; some choose to accept, and others fight hard to subdue, but the story is as much his as it is Henry’s.
We don’t trust him, but we’re glad he’s there to lead Hal astray and down a hedonistic path. Falstaff lives a life of abandon that takes a level of fearlessness that most of us wouldn’t be comfortable with.
It’s a heartbreaking moment when Hal casts off his old life of drinking and debauchery for his regal responsibilities. Though we know Hal must make this break with his youth, it pains us to see Falstaff abandoned in this way.
“Banish not him thy Harry’s company.
Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.”
At the end of Henry IV, P1 Falstaff and his motley inn crowd have fought on the battlefield for King Henry, and we start to see the change in Hal from boy to King. Further down the narrative line in Henry V Hal makes the break for good.
“I know thee not old man.”
Falstaff takes to his bed and never recovers. The news of his death reaches his old companion in Henry V, but he has made his break from his former tutor of chaos.
And in this way, Shakespeare serves us up the perfect mix of laughter and sorrow in the fate of Falstaff.
2. Edmund, bastard son of Gloucester
On the eve of stepping down from his throne, King Lear asks his three daughters to compete in their flattery by describing to him how much each of them loves him. When Cordelia, his youngest, refuses to play the game she is banished and disowned with the two older sisters splitting her share of Lear’s realm.
Into this mix of power and family themes enters Edmund, the bastard son.
In the first scene, Gloucester introduces his son to his friend.
“His breeding, sir, hath been at my charge:
I have so often blushed to acknowledge him,
that now I am brazed to it.”
And so our sympathy for Edmund is woven, even as we watch him create a trail of deception and carnage.
First, he concocts a false plot that leads Gloucester to believe that his legitimate son is planning to kill him. Then attaches himself romantically to both of Lear’s eldest daughters causing a jealous feud with one poisoning the other before taking her own life.
With Cordelia’s execution and a trail of blood behind him, Edmund seeks redemption in the final moments, a rarity amongst Shakespearean villains.
Following a mortal wound from a sword fight with his brother Edgar, he confesses his role in the death sentence of Cordelia, and he sends forth a pardon to save her life.
“I pant for life: some good I mean to do,
Despite of mine own nature.”
He fails in both saving Cordelia’s life and saving his own.
He’s a beautiful villain to watch, and bears a likeness to the Game of Thrones’ character Ramsay Bolton. Both are disrespected and disregarded because of their illegitimate status. Both are brutal, and they are both forced to pay with their lives for their sins.
The question of the value of legitimacy is in the air in the play as Lear is a man thwarted by the power grab made by two legitimate daughters.
Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, is often portrayed as a cold-hearted woman. She marries the brother of her deceased husband, how soon after his death we don’t know but for the young, spoiled Prince Hamlet it is too soon.
To Hamlet and the audience, she can seem cold.
“Do not forever with thy vailèd lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust.
Thou knowst ’tis common: all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.”
When he is visited by the ghost of his father and tasked with avenging his death Hamlet descends into a melancholy spell as he puts off the act of killing his uncle Claudius.
Fair enough Hamlet and we understand your frustration with your mother. However, she is choosing To Be over his Not to Be.
The mysteries around Gertrude are numerous. Did she conspire in the death of her husband? Does she grieve him? Did she marry Claudius for power or security or safety?
We judge without considering her circumstances, and in the play, she is punished not only for her new marriage but ultimately for Hamlet’s delayed response. Four hundred years since the birth of the play and Gertrude is still judged.
Gertrude isn’t the only character that has fascinated writers in Hamlet either.
In 1996 the playwright Sir Tom Stoppard presented the play ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
This play is a metaphysical look at two of the B characters in Hamlet; the two friends of his who are paid off by Claudius and sent on a mission to kill Hamlet.
As the audience, we know the fate of these two characters who die in Hamlet but how much agency do they have within their own story?
Shakespeare’s characters thrive on and so do all brilliantly drawn B figures in the stories we read and watch.
The enduring power of Shakespeare plays lies in their dramatization of the human condition in all its ugly and beautiful manifestations. All of the characters mentioned above share a richness and a strong sense of their own story. Is there something we can take from this as we craft our own stories?
I could go on with at least two characters from each of the plays that I’m familiar with, but I hope this has given you an idea of the power of the story within a story that is alive and thriving in Shakespeare’s works.
Thanks for reading.