WHILE Shakespeare does not moralise, a number of his characters do. Moral judgements and dilemmas also lie at the heart of his greatest plays.
Written at the peak of his powers, Hamlet and Measure For Measure exemplify this well.
Two maxims of Francis Bacon, a contemporary of Shakespeare, illuminate the issues at Hamlet’s core: “Knowledge is power” and “Revenge is a kind of wild justice”.
The appearance of his father’s ghost creates dilemmas for Prince Hamlet. Is it ever just to seek revenge? And can Hamlet do so without hurting his mother, Queen Gertrude, who succumbed to an incestuous proposal and married a murdering brother?
Hamlet is Shakespeare’s most questioning hero.
Keenly feeling his father’s loss, he is also contemplating suicide. The question “To be or not to be?” is possibly the most famous – and unsettling – line in Shakespeare.
Mistakenly killing Polonius, the Lord Chamberlain, Hamlet’s first decisive act misses the mark.
When Hamlet finally achieves justice for his father, the blood of four men will be staining his hands. His own death inevitably follows. Tragically, for this sweet prince, “the rest is silence”.
“I am a poor fellow that would live.” Thus pleads Barnadine in Measure For Measure. A prisoner on death row, Barnadine demands to die another day. This presents another noble character with a moral dilemma – someone must be executed to save an innocent man.
Ironically, the perpetrator of the most damnable actions answers to a surprisingly heavenly name.
“We must not make a scarecrow of the law” proclaims Angelo, who is deputising for absent Duke Vincentio. Angelo’s brand of justice is fiercely moral. Highly religious, he enforces legal statutes strictly, showing Christian charity to none.
Having condemned Claudio to death for having sex before marriage, hypocritical Angelo’s own personal failings are exposed and judged. He finally over-reaches himself when he encounters Isabella, sister to condemned Claudio and a novitiate nun.
Petitioning the Deputy to plead her brother’s case, Isabella’s purity and chastity inflame Angelo’s sinful lust.
His response is a shocking and indecent proposal. Sleep with me to save your brother, is his demand. Filled with righteous indignation, Isabella chooses morality and faith over family. She cannot compromise her spiritual beliefs.
Like Hamlet, Duke Vincentio exposes dishonesty by guile. Disguising himself as a Friar, he too becomes a “looker on”.
Valuable knowledge gained dubiously, whilst acting as a spiritual confessor, helps Vincentio deliver life-changing results. Mercifully, his even-handed justice prevails and brave Isabella gains more than she hoped. Her virtue is rewarded with a second proposal. But marriage to the Duke will create another dilemma.
Do any of these passionate characters have the X-Factor for you?
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Hamlet: The Prince of Denmark who agonises about the best way to avenge his father’s death at the hand of his uncle, now his stepfather.
Queen Gertrude: Hamlet’s mother who, after her husband’s death, agrees to marry his brother with what some regard as indecent haste.
Measure for Measure
Vincentio: The Duke of Vienna who disguises himself as a friar in order to go among the people and spy on the affairs of his city.
Isabella: The novice nun who, in appealing to save her brother’s life, is put on the horns of a terrible dilemma.
Still time to cast your vote
IT is not too late to vote for your favourite Shakespeare character and play.
The winners of both contests, organised by Newcastle Theatre Royal and promoted by The Journal, will be revealed on April 23, Shakespeare’s birthday.
A sculptor will then be commissioned and on April 23, 2012, the North East’s favourite Shakespeare character will be unveiled as a permanent homage to the Bard at the theatre on Grey Street.
Throughout the competition, launched last year, Hamlet has been one of the front-runners.
But given the character’s tendency to freeze with indecision, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that someone else could catch him on the line.
What about chaste Isabella, for instance? Her case is eloquently put today by our expert, Christine Chapman.
The shortlisted characters – a long list drawn up by experts at Durham and Newcastle universities – can be found online.
:: Click here to vote for your favourite shakespeare character