Shakespeare's Characters as Symbols
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Many Represent Themes or Motifs

By Michael J. Cummings

.......Which literary characters do you think of when someone mentions love at first sight?.
.......
It's a fair bet your answer is Romeo and Juliet. The tale of these fictional teenagers, who pledged themselves to each other after their first meeting, is probably the most famous love story in world literature. The play has been staged or published in virtually every major language—including Chinese, Arabic, Hindi, Russian, Croatian,
Turkish, Japanese, Urdu, and Korean. Scores of movies have been based on its plot.
....... One reason for the popularity of Romeo and Juliet and other Shakespeare plays is that the author developed characters in them that have universal appeal. They are like people in every culture. Every country has its merrymaking Falstaffs, melancholy Hamlets, evil Iagos, ambitious Macbeths, jealous Othellos, sultry Venuses, and young lovers like Romeo and Juliet. However, not every culture has a Shakespeare. He had the power to immortalize characters as archetypes representing particular themes or motifs, such as valor, honesty, deceit, bigotry, and—in the case of Romeo and Juliet—love at first sight.
....... These themes and motifs teach us about life, and we measure ourselves and others against the characters who represent them. Sometimes the characters become metaphors in our speech and writing, helping us to simplify the task of explaining a motivation, an emotion, or a desire.
The following table was compiled to give examples of characters associated with certain themes and motifs. Readers can click on the link on the right to access in-depth information about the character and the play in which he or she appears.


Characters Themes or Motifs Work
Adonis
Attractive teenager as prey for adult lust
Venus and Adonis
Aguecheek, Sir Andrew
Merrymaking, buffoonery
Twelfth Night
Alonso
Wrongdoing, remorse
The Tempest
Andronicus, Titus
Revenge
Titus Andronicus
Angelo
Hypocrisy
Measure for Measure
Antiochus, King of Antioch
Incest, evil
Pericles, Prince of Tyre
Antony, Mark Ambition, pragmatism
Julius Caesar
Antony, Mark
Dereliction of duty, overwhelming desire (for Cleopatra)
Antony and Cleopatra
Antonio
Bigotry
The Merchant of Venice
Arcite and Palamon
Friendship, broken friendship, reconciliation
The Two Noble Kinsmen
Ariel
Esprit, magic, impishness, whimsy The Tempest
Beatrice
Contempt and insults for the man she loves
Much Ado About Nothing
Benedick
Contempt and insults for the woman he loves
Much Ado About Nothing
Bertram
Haughtiness
All's Well That Ends Well
Bottom, Nick
Buffoonery
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Brabantio
Racial prejudice
Othello
Brutus
Heroic villain (or villainous hero)
Julius Caesar
Caesar, Julius
Leadership, ambition, condescension, glory
Julius Caesar
Caesar, Octavius (Octavian)
Ambition, cunning, intelligence
Julius Caesar
Cassius
Jealousy, cunning, conspiracy
Julius Caesar
Caliban
Savagery
The Tempest
Calpurnia
Premonition, Foreboding
Julius Caesar
Camillo
Honesty, uprightness
A Winter's Tale
Celia Friendship As You Like It
Claudio Wrongful Imprisonment Measure for Measure
Cordelia
Nobility, honesty
King Lear
Coriolanus
Pride, condescension, military prowess
Coriolanus
Cressida
Fickleness
Troilus and Cressida
Desdemona
Fidelity, Innocence
Othello
Edmund
Disloyalty, treachery, betrayal
King Lear
Falstaff
Carousing, wit, overindulgence, boastfulness
Henry IV (1), Henry IV Part (2)
Faulconbridge, Philip Bravery, Military Prowess King John
Ferdinand and Miranda
Love at first sight
The Tempest
Flavius
Loyalty, friendship
Timon of Athens
Goneril and Regan (Sisters)
Greed, Selfishness, Hatefulness
King Lear
Guildenstern
Betrayal
Hamlet
Hamlet
Indecision, revenge, sensitivity, intelligence
Hamlet
Henry IV (Bolingbroke) Guilt
Henry IV (1), Henry IV (2)
Henry V
Leadership, courage, patriotism
Henry V
Henry VI
Weakness, piety
Henry VI (1), Henry VI (2), Henry VI (3)
Henry VIII
Pride, defiance
Henry VIII
Holofernes
Pedantry
Love's Labour's Lost
Horatio
Friendship, loyalty
Hamlet
Hotspur
Bravery, defiance
Henry IV (1)
Iago
Racial prejudice, revenge, deceit, pure evil
Othello
Imogen
Fidelity, nobility
Cymbeline
Joan la Pucelle (Joan of Arc)
Heroism (French perspective), Sorcery (English perspective)
Henry VI (1)
Katharina
Willfulness, unruliness, and eventually submission
The Taming of the Shrew
Kent, Earl of
Loyalty to the king
King Lear
King John
Mean spirit, weakness, cowardice
King John
King Lear Dottiness, selfishness, temporary insanity, suffering, redemption
King Lear
Laertes
Decisiveness (compared with Hamlet, his rival)
Hamlet
Lavinia
Innocent bystander, victim of heinous crime
Titus Andronicus
Leontes
Jealousy, vindictiveness
A Winter's Tale
Lepidus
Weakness
Julius Caesar
Lucrece
Beauty, Innocence, sexual prey
The Rape of Lucrece
Macbeth
Ambition, murder, guilt
Macbeth
Macbeth, Lady
Ambition, murder, guilt, madness
Macbeth
Macduff
Integrity, Justice
Macbeth
Malvolio
Puritanism, priggishness
Twelfth Night
Ophelia
Fragility
Hamlet
Othello
Jealousy
Othello
Sly, Christopher
Drunkenness
The Taming of the Shrew
Pericles
Nobility, loyalty, integrity, suffering
Pericles, Prince of Tyre
Petruchio
Dominance, control (in good humor)
The Taming of the Shrew
Polonius
Sycophancy, verbosity
Hamlet
Portia
Wealth, beauty, eloquence, bigotry
The Merchant of Venice
Prospero
Beneficent sorcery, wisdom
The Tempest
Puck
Esprit, magic, impishness, whimsy
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Richard III (Gloucester before his coronation)
Ambition, deceit, murder, pure evil
Richard III
Romeo and Juliet Love at first sight, immaturity, desperation Romeo and Juliet
Rosalind
Friendship, love, intelligence
As You Like It
Rosencrantz
Betrayal
Hamlet
Shylock
Persecuted Jewry, revenge against Christians, avarice
The Merchant of Venice
Soothsayer
Prophecy, ill tidings, doom
Julius Caesar
Talbot
Bravery, military prowess
Henry VI (1)
Tarquin (Sextus Tarquinius)
Lust, rape
The Rape of Lucrece
Thaisa
Chastity, virtue
Pericles, Prince of Tyre
Timon of Athens
Foolish generosity and later hatred of mankind
Timon of Athens
Titus Andronicus
Revenge
Titus Andronicus
Valentine and Silvia
Love at first sight The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Venus
Lust; seduction
Venus and Adonis
Vincentio, Duke of Vienna
Leniency as a Ruler
Measure for Measure
Virgilia
Gentleness
Coriolanus
Witches
Supernatural, Sorcery, Prophecy, Foreboding
Macbeth