My Son Has A Question

I was asked today by my 4yr old son, “Who is the smartest person in Shakespeare?”
I said “Good question, I’ll have to check.”
Here’s me checking. Who’s got an idea? I’m trying to figure out which characters I would think of where smart is a defining characteristic. Does that go hand in hand with scheming, and must the answer be a villain? Or is it potentially a strategic thing, and the answer is political/military/historical?

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11 thoughts on “My Son Has A Question

  1. First thought I had was Portia, from Merchant of Venice. She's by far the smartest character in her play, despite stiff competition from Shylock. It's obvious from the ring trick that her intelligence surpasses Bassanio's. She has by far the most serious role in her male disguise out of all the cross-dressing comic heroines, but she handles herself with incredible ease and manages to trick everyone around her. We can debate the ethics of her behavior, but not her sheer brainpower.

  2. Especially if Portia figured out how to win the case on her own, during the trial. (Which I don't suppose the author intended, but as Margaret Webster wrote, it could be an exciting way to play the scene, now that everybody "knows the story.")

    Portia is a good choice. I also might mention Helen in All's Well. She's a doctor, she can hold her own in conversation with everyone from lowlifes to royalty. She's not smart about the guy she loves, I guess, but which of us is?

    Trying to think of a male character as smart as either of these ladies. The four scholars in LLL end up making fools of themselves. Prospero's studies kind of backfire on him. I'll have to think some more.

  3. So maybe Shakespeare has three kinds of smart characters: the book smart (Hamlet, Jacques, Richard II), the street smart (Helen, Portia, Henry V), and the chessmaster (Oberon, Rosalind, M4M Duke).

    Then there's the book smart chessmaster (Prospero), the street smart chessmaster (Richard III), and the book smart street smart (Shylock).

    Finally, there's the book smart street smart chessmaster (Iago).

    Smartest person in Shakespeare? I'll go with Iago.

  4. I'm going to have to agree with Bill on this one…because there are so many different types of smart. Hamlet spent at least a good part of his time as a student at Wittenburg so he's got the book smarts going for him.
    I'm also thinking that Rosalind is another contestant for smarts. Hamlet and Rosalind have the most lines of any of Shakespeare's characters. They have to have some brains to hold your interest.

    If you're after cunning, then Iago and Richard III have it in spades. I think the only reason Iago might edge out Richard III is because Richard III was written when Will was quite a bit younger and had a bit less life experience under his belt. I wonder how different Richard III would've been had it been written after say 1603.

  5. "Hamlet and Rosalind have the most lines of any of Shakespeare's characters. "

    They are the longest male and female roles, respectively. Is that what's meant? Because Rosalind doesn't make the top ten longest roles in all of Shakespeare. (According to the most complete ranking I've found online, she's #16, or #17 if one includes Edward III.)

    Sorry… this length-ranking fascinates me (partly because wrong info gets passed along in books surprisingly often, like William Redfield saying Iago is longest), but it doesn't affect the main argument. I agree that Rosalind is another good candidate for lots of smarts: she fools a lot of people, handles several kinds of suitors and situations with aplomb, eats contests of wits for breakfast, and brings a seemingly insoluble situation to a happy conclusion.

  6. I don't think I've ever really imagined Rosalind as smart, but that probably says more about the production of As You Like It that I saw. She was a giggling school girl who could barely contain herself whenever she was in Orlando's presence. It didn't seem like she was fooling anybody, it seemed like everyone else was just really stupid.

  7. I hope nobody minds me chiming in. (:
    My immediate thought was of Claudius in Hamlet. Claudius handles politics with an almost golden ease, while he can also think quickly and well even under the worst kind of pressure. He has a cunning mind which solves problems in a way which is almost marvelous to see. So yes, I do see Claudius as being Shakespeare's smartest character.

  8. I give it to Beatrice. She outwits everyone in Much Ado.

    But in general, Shakespeare's female characters tend to be smarter than their male counterparts.

  9. Portia is very intelligent, but she's also a hypocrite. Shylock is also pretty smart, but he's utterly naive. He just doesn't get it. The law is against him, and yet, for most of the story, he believed that it was for nobody, that it was equal, and if you're not used to being treated equally, that translates to that it's for you. Poor guy!

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