Common Types of Shakespeare Characters

Certain types of Shakespeare characters appear throughout The Bard's plays. Whether comedies or tragedies, Shakespeare plays use these easily recognizable character types to help the audience quickly grasp his sometimes-complex storylines, allowing us to invest in the emotions of what's happening.

Shakespeare Tragedies
The main character in all Shakespeare tragedies posesses a tragic flaw; an element of his or her personality that drives the story forward. This flaw leads to an error that eventually causes a downfall. In Othello, the lead character is given to terrible fits of jealousy that eventually lead him to kill his wife. The title character of Hamlet is a prisoner of his own indecisive nature, leading to several deaths.

It is important to understand that Shakespeare's tragic heroes are neither all good nor all evil. Truly evil characters are scarce in Shakespeare, although the mischevious Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream or the manipulative Iago in Othello do employ sinister tactics to achieve selfish goals. While Shakespeare's heros suffers from their mistakes, they do learn from the experience and must make a serious decision based on what they have learned. Many scholars feel that this tragic flaw is what makes Shakespeare's characters so memorable; it allows the audience to truly relate to the character.

Several of Shakespeare's plays have supernatural characters. The chorus of witches and the ghost of Hamlet's father are good examples. These ghosts serve as a device to forewarn the hero of his impending doom.

Minor Characters
Shakespeare's plays are not just about the heroes. The Bard populated his plays with a wide variety of characters. There are kings, queens, commoners, merchants, fairies and ghosts. No matter if the character was a ghost, queen or merchant, they fall into three standard types of characters.

  • Stock Characters: These are stereotypical and one-dimensional characters. They are instantly recognizable and often predictable. They may provide comic relief, be menacing or deliver vital news.
  • Dynamic Characters: These characters undergo a change over the course of the play due to their experience. Juliet is a dynamic character; at the beginning of the play she is a dutiful young daughter. By the end of Romeo and Juliet she has become a determined but doomed woman.
  • Foils: The sole purpose of this character is to provide a contrast with another character, often the lead character. This opposition magnifies the qualities of the lead character. Horatio from Hamlet is a foil character. He is practical and down to earth, while Hamlet is idealistic and a visionary. 
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