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  by: Joy Marie Tiong 

    Most simply a character is one of the persons who appears in the play, one of the dramatis personae (literally, the persons of the play). In another sense of the term, the treatment of the character is the basic 
part of the playwright’s work. Conventions of the period and the author’s personal vision will affect the treatment of character.  

    Most plays contain major characters and minor characters. The delineation and development of major characters is essential to the play; the conflict between Hamlet and Claudius depends upon the character 
of each. A minor character like Marcellus serves a specific function, to inform Hamlet of the appearance of his father’s ghost. Once, that is done, he can depart in peace, for we need not know what sort of person he is or what happens to him. The distinction between major and minor characters is one of degree, as the character of Horatio might illustrate.  

    The distinction between heroes (or heroines) and villains, between good guys and bad guys, between virtue and vice is useful in dealing with certain types of plays, but in many modern plays (and some not so 
modern) it is difficult to make. Is Gregers Werle in The Wild Duck, for example, a hero or a villain?  

    Another common term in drama is protagonist. Etymologically, it means the first contestant. In the Greek drama, where the term arose, all the parts were played by one, two, or three actors (the more actors, the later the play), and the best actor, who got the principal part(s), was the protagonist. The second best actor was called the deuteragonist. Ideally, the term “protagonist” should be used only for the principal character. Several other characters can be defined by their relation to the protagonist. The antagonist is his principal rival in the conflict set forth in the play. A foil is a character who defines certain characteristics in the protagonist by exhibiting opposite traits or the same traits in a greater or lesser degree. A confidant(e) provides a ready ear to which the protagonist can address certain remarks which should be heard by the audience but not by the other characters. In Hamlet, for example, Hamlet is the protagonist, Claudius the antagonist, Laertes and Fortinbras foils (observe the way in which each goes about avenging the death or loss of property of his father), and Horatio the confidant.  

    Certain writers-- for example, Moliere and Pirandello--use a character type called the raisonneur, whose comments express the voice of reason and also, presumably, of the author. Philinte and the Father are examples of the raisonneur.  

    Another type of character is the stereotype or stock character, a character who reappears in various forms in many plays. Comedy is particularly a fruitful source of such figures, including the miles gloriosus 
or boastful soldier (a man who claims great valor but proves to be a  
coward when tested), the irascible old man (the source of elements in the character of Polonius), the witty servant, the coquette, the prude, the fop, and others. A stock character from another genre is the revenger 
of Renaissance tragedy. The role of Hamlet demonstrates how such a stereotype is modified by an author to create a great role, combining the stock elements with individual ones.  

    Sometimes group of actors work together over a long period in relatively stable companies. In such a situation, individual members of the group develop expertise in roles of a certain type, such as leading 
man and leading lady (those who play the principal parts), juveniles or ingénues of both sexes (those who specialize as young people), character actors (those who perform mature or eccentric types), and heavies or villains.  

    The commedia dell’arte, a popular form of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, employed actors who had standard lines of business and improvised the particular action in terms of their established 
characters and a sketchy outline of a plot. Frequently, Pantalone, an older man,  generally a physician, was married to a young woman named Columbine. Her lover, Harlequin, was not only younger and more handsome than her husband but also more vigorous sexually. Pantalone’s servants, Brighella, Truffaldino, and others, were employed in frustrating or assisting either the lovers in their meetings or the husband in discovering them.  

    A group of actors who function as a unit, called a chorus, was a characteristic feature of the Greek tragedy. The members of the chorus shared a common identity, such as Asian Bacchantes or old men of 
Thebes. The choragos (leader of the chorus) sometimes spoke and acted separately. In some of the plays, the chorus participated directly in the action; in others they were restricted in observing the action and 
commenting on it. The chorus also separated the individual sins by singing and dancing choral odes, though just what the singing and dancing were like is uncertain. The odes were in strict metrical patterns; 
sometimes they were direct comments on the action and characters, and at other times they were more general statements and judgments. A chorus in Greek fashion is not common in later plays, although there are instances such as T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, in which the 
Women of Canterbury serve as a chorus.  

    On occasion a single actor may perform the function of a chorus, as do the aptly named Chorus in Shakespeare’s Henry V and the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Alfieri in the View from the Bridge functions both as a chorus and a minor character in the action of the play.  


The Norton Introduction to Literature (Combined Shorter Edition), edited by Carl E. Bain, Jerome Beaty & J. Paul Hunter  
Copyright 1973 by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. and published simultaneously in Canada by Goerge J. McLeod Limited, Toronto  

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