Characters of Action?

Here’s a question. Who among Shakespeare’s characters do you think *says* the least, but is still most crucial to the play? Hamlet, as we know, never shuts up. I’m looking for his opposite. Somebody who manages to say very little but still accomplish great things.
The Prince from Romeo and Juliet would be an example, although only technically — he shows up to say “Look if there’s any more violence in the streets somebody’s going to be executed,” and then later, when there’s violence on the streets, he shows up to banish Romeo. Both important plot points. Technically he wraps the play up but I don’t count that so much among the “action” bits.
I say “technically” because he’s really a minor character who only shows up just to make these points. It’s not like he’s got much stage time.
Compare Cordelia, who disappears after her big opening scene for awhile, and then comes back strong at the end. But I don’t know how her line count would compare with some others.
Ophelia certainly doesn’t get to say much – but can we really count her in this list? Is she ever anything more than someone else’s pawn?
I’m not sure if I’m getting across my premise. Trying to drum up some conversation, it’s been quite here recently.

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14 thoughts on “Characters of Action?

  1. Young Fortinbras is considered to be Hamlet's exact opposite. Hamlet spends the entire play talking and debating what to do. Young Fortinbras, on the other hand, appears at the end of the play to avenge the death of his father – no questions asked. While not necessarily a significant character, Young Fortinbras is no doubt a man of action.

  2. I think Iago's sudden silence towards the end of Othello is a nice instance of this … thought throughout the WHOLE play he is pretty mouthy. Something about his "I'm not sayin' another word!" moment is very powerful/

  3. Doctor Pinch in Comedy of Errors comes to mind. He's in just one scene and speaks very few lines. But he's usually the comedic highpoint of the production, and he introduces a significant plot-point (the claim that Antipholus and Dromio are possessed) as well as placing one of each set of twins in custody, where they remain until the last scene of the play.

  4. A good point, although not really what I had in mind. While Fortinbras is presented as a man of action, he doesn't really do anything in the play – he's just constantly on his way, and arrives at the end. I'm talking about characters who have significant action within the play. For example, could you figure out a way to do without Benvolio? How would you fix the opening fight scene?

    Want to hear something amusing? Spurred by this question, but before you comment, I queued up another post which you will see shortly on what characters you could remove completely from a production. I used the example of Olivier getting rid of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. But you know what? He got rid of Fortinbras, too 🙂

  5. I'm going to say Laertes on this one, as opposed to Fortinbras. At least Laertes has a great fight scene, in addition to almost starting a revolution. Also, should we count the plotting with Claudius as talking, or action, since it is put into place?

  6. Iachimo doesn't accomplish reat things, but he causs tons of trouble. He disappears for a long stretch of the play, too.

    Owen Glendower has few scenes, but exerts a strong influence on the plot of H4 1.

    Theseus (if not doubled with Oberon)is not a huge part, but is crucial to MSND.

  7. I know, but Midsummer is very much an ensemble piece, with quite a few characters having nearly the same number of lines. I think it may be because Theseus is "bookended," so to speaks that he appears less of a force than he is.

  8. Ed: you're right, line-counts are all relatively similar Dream, especially because the play is so short. And it's very much an ensemble piece. I think Theseus' long-absence from the stage makes him dwindle in perceived importance, especially because all his actions in the last act are either commenting on other, funnier characters (the Mechanicals) or getting pre-empted (he gives an apparent epilogue only to have Puck and Oberon show up and give better ones).

  9. Alexi, you're so right about Theseus, esp. when the same actor isn't playing Oberon. And as beautiful as Theseus's goodnight is ("The iron tongue of midnight hath told twelve…"),it is indeed overshadowed by the others. It's as if Theseus never can be quite good enough, either with what he says, or when he says it. As usual, Shakespeare loves irony.

  10. I love Theseus; it's intriguing how much of the poet and the skeptic is wrapped up in one character. It's especially interesting when he's doubled with Oberon, because then there's the irony of his disbelief in the lover's story–even though, in a way, he himself instigated it.

    As for important minor characters, I would like to mention Jessica from The Merchant of Venice. Very small line count, very significant and complex character–plus, the whole "pound of flesh" plot hangs on her elopement.

  11. Allie: You're absolutely right about Jessica. She says very little, but cutting her would be unthinkable. A similar thing can be said for Mamilius. Really small role, but hugely important to the story.

  12. Sometimes Fabian is combined with Feste, but I don't see it. I guess it's tempting to do that, perhaps, for economic reasons, and also b/c Fabian just kind of shows up well into the story, but Fabian brings a blue-collar presence to a play that is dominated by higher status characters.

    And one of the great lines in the play is Fabian's "improbable fiction" observation. I just can't imagine Feste saying that line.

  13. I'm not really sure about line counts of each character, but I can give my impressions.

    Hero has a lot of stage time in Much Ado and is an important character to the plot, but never seems to have much to say for herself.

    Third Witch doesn't have many lines in Macbeth, but look at how she impacts the course of the play.

    Duke Frederick has a smaller part in As You Like It as his influence would suggest.

    And you might also consider John of Gaunt in Richard II or Julius Caesar in Julius Caesar, but perhaps that's cheating.

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