Character Analysis

by Debra Bruch

Published in Apollo's Voice, vol. 9, no. 5, June 2002, 6-8.

(See Character Exercise Form)

Plot and character interrelate. Either the characters create events or they are affected by them. For instance, in Hamlet, Claudius and Laertes create the situation during the fencing match by poisoning the foil. But sometimes characters are affected by outside forces. In Desire Under the Elms, Eugene O'Neill tries to create an outside force that permeates the world of the drama in such a way that characters are affected by it. Describing the environment of the drama, he writes,

Two enormous elms are on each side of the house. They bend their trailing branches down over the roof. They appear to protect and at the same time subdue. There is a sinister maternity in their aspect, a crushing, jealous absorption. They have developed from their intimate contact with the life of man in the house an appalling humaneness. They brood oppressively over the house. They are like exhausted women resting their sagging breasts and hands and hair on its roof, and when it rains their tears trickle down monotonously and rot on the shingles.

Other examples of outside forces affecting characters are war in Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children and fate dictated by the gods in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. In Hamlet, death as a supernatural force permeates the world of the drama through the Ghost of the dead king.

Characters are not people. Rather, a character can be seen as a recipe, a configuration of physical and psychological traits. The actor's job is to transform a character into a person. A notable exception is seen through the work of Vsevolod Meyerhold. Meyerhold sought to reveal the essence of humanity by gestures, poses, glances, and silences. He coined the term biomechanics as an approach to revelation wherein all psychological states are determined by specific physiological processes. The art of the actor is plastic form in space. Therefore, the actor must study the mechanics of his or her body and reveal an inner essence through physical patterns of movement.

Nevertheless, the traditional approach to character analysis in Western theatre is to study physical and psychological traits. A person can ask several questions to discover a character's traits.

What does he look like?

Examining a character's physiological characteristics helps to discover physical traits. For instance, Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is a short, unattractive man. Willy says about himself, "I'm fat. I'm very --- foolish to look at, Linda. . . . . and a salesman I know . . . I heard him say something about --- walrus." In The Dividing Line, Debra Bruch describes a character named Clarence. She writes, "Rev. Clarence Matthews looks like a short wizard. He is forty-nine years old, has gray hair and bushy eyebrows, often puts his feet up, and smokes a big-bowl pipe. He plays with his smoke, blowing rings and letting it wreath around his head so that he often seems to wear a halo."

A character's clothes also helps discover traits. Hamlet is dressed in black. In The Madwoman of Chaillot, Jean Giraudoux describes how the Madwoman is dressed. She is dressed in the grand fashion of 1885, a taffeta skirt with an immense train -- which she has gathered up by means of a clothespin -- ancient button shoes, and a hat in the style of Marie Antoinette. She wears a lorgnette on a chain, and an enormous cameo pin at her throat. In her hand she carries a small basket. She walks in with great dignity, extracts a dinner bell from the bosom of her dress, and rings it sharply.

How does he speak?

What does he want?

A play portrays characters in pursuit of an objective. A character's objective will vary according to his consciousness of his wants. In Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, Amanda wants her daughter, Laura, to marry. In Hamlet, Claudius wants to keep his throne. Hamlet, however, doesn't seem to know what he wants.

A character's objective will also vary according to the strength of his motivation. Some characters, like Iago and Richard III, are highly motivated. Furthermore, a character's objective will vary according to the source of desire. That is, the source may be instinctive (the objective will seem spontaneous), a rational decision (the objective will seem deliberate), a willful choice (the objective will seem obstinate), or an impulse (the objective will seem emotionally impulsive). Other characters' source of desire will seem weak. Hamlet is a character who portrays a weak objective.

How does he get what he wants?

Some characters, like Iago, are devious while others, like Hogan in A Moon for the Misbegotten, are manipulative. What a character actually does to get what he wants is determined by his personality. In other words, different characters who are faced with the same situation will respond differently.

An example can be seen in Gorki's The Lower Depths. Characters are in similar if not the same situation and yet they respond to it differently. For instance, Nastya retreats from the world into books while Pepel tries to change his situation by changing himself and his life. He says, "I told you -- I'm through with being a thief, so help me God! I'll quit! If I say so, I'll do it! I can read and write -- I'll work -- He's been telling me to go to Siberia on my own hook -- let's go there together, what do you say?"

What does he do when faced with problems or adversity?

Sometimes a character will react differently when faced with adversity than when threatened. Throughout Brecht's Galileo, Galileo voices his opinions and knowledge quite loudly. However, when faced with torture, he recants. On the other hand, in Anouilh's Becket, Becket faces death with arrogant fearlessness.

What is his mood or emotional state?

Hamlet is melancholy. Besides Hamlet, other characters have dominant emotional states which determine his or her actions. Galileo is frustrated. Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman is mentally and emotionally confused. Felix in The Odd Couple is an emotional melting pot which bubbles and spews.

What do other characters say about him?

Sometimes we can gain insight about a character by what others say about him or her. For instance, in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, Gaev talks about Lyubov. He says, "Don't blubber. Aunt's very rich, but she doesn't like us. First, sister married a lawyer instead of a nobleman. And then her conduct, one can't call it virtuous. She is good, and kind, and nice, and I love her, but, however one allows for extenuating circumstances, there's no denying that she's an immoral woman. One feels it in her slightest gesture." However, what others say about a character is not necessarily true. Lyubov may not be an immoral woman.

What does a character represent?

Sometimes a character represents something larger than himself. For instance O'Neill's Hairy Ape represents the lost working man class. In medieval dramas such as Everyman, often a character will represent concepts of virtues and vices like greed and sloth.

What is a character's station in life?

Sometimes a character's station in life helps determine who he is and what he or she does. At times, also, a playwright will use a character's station to conflict with who he is. For instance, Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark, and yet he does not behave like a prince according to other characters.

What is expected from the character?

At times, a character's station in life promotes certain expectations. In the world of the drama, Hamlet is expected to seek revenge for his father's murder. But expectations are not always due to a character's station in life. In The Lower Depths, Pepel is a thief and people expect him to be dishonest. Galileo is a knowledgeable scientist and characters expect him to tell the truth. The Hairy Ape is uneducated and characters expect him to be stupid and brutish.

And yet expectations are at times in conflict with who a character is. Pepel is honest, Galileo lacks integrity for he steals the idea of the telescope, and at times the Hairy Ape portrays a profound understanding.

How does culture and society shape a character's actions?

This question is closely tied to a character's expectations. But this attack focuses on the culture and society portrayed in the world of the drama. Sometimes, that world influences who a character is and what he does. For instance, in Strindberg's Miss Julie, the personality traits of both Jean and Miss Julie are highly determined by their society.