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What Makes A Character Memorable

by Thomas Tome about a month ago in literature
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William Shakespeare has created a magnitude of unique and purely human characters in all his works such as Iago from Othello and Cleopatra from Antony and Cleopatra. His unique characters also served as inspiration for other unique literary figures such as Iago being the template for Milton's Lucifer from Paradise Lost. However these three characters all have something in common, it's their personalities. They are often self-destructive, narcissistic, envious, and borderline psychopathic or sociopathic tendencies. And ultimately their humanity.

Iago, will be the first example. To surmise the plot of Othello Iago is envious of the Othello the title character because he was given a promotion over him, he is envious of Othello always being chosen over him and he also believes that through “Moorish magic” Othello was able to seduce and lay with Iago's wife although this came later in the play and Iago never had evidence to such a thing. So he begins to seek revenge, because he is envious of Othello for getting the promotion that he believed to be his. What he deserved, which leads to his narcissism. He only hates Othello concretely because he has something that Iago wants, and he is willing to do whatever it takes to destroy Othello for taking what is his. To do so he plans everything out, relaying on the flaws of the other characters and setting up chance circumstances that appear a certain way unless aware of what is happening. He is exacting his vengeance in a cold and calculating way, putting on a guise of honesty and friendship, oh “honest Iago” (1.III.336) the most loyal of friends. For a more modern example of Iago's behavior the film American Psycho almost captures Iago's thought process as to how he exacts his revenge.

Throughout the play he whispers in the ears of others luring them into his web by playing at their emotions or their flaws. Like in Act 2 scene III when Iago talks Cassio into having “but one cup” (2.III. 35) with him. He gets Cassio drunk when he was told not to by Othello, but listens to Iago because he is his friend, and is encouraging him to enjoy the revelry that the others are partaking in,to the point that violence ensues amongst the soldiers. Cassio gets out of control and when asked what happened Iago responds that Cassio is easily susceptible to the drink. Iago denies any and all actions, claiming that Cassio can not hold his drink. However during his quest for revenge he begins to suspect that Othello is the cause of all his problems, and that Desdemona was meant to be with him and he no longer only wants to hurt Othello but ends up going after her as well, he destroys her reputation and image alongside Othello's, by having Othello and Cassio do the dirty work. Cassio who has a weakness for women, so Iago encourages him to confide to her in secret “confess freely to her” (2.III. 337), to the point that it appears that an affair is starting between the two. But by the end in act 5 he begins to fall apart, he is getting exposed for what he is and his ally Roderigo is killed, and from behind Iago stabs Cassio in the back, and his mask begins to fall apart and the real Iago begins to shine through the cracks. And by the end once he has completed his mission he takes his own life because he no longer has anything to live for. His self destructive nature comes from his psychotic tendencies, which all stems from his narcissistic personality. He believes that what he deserves, what is his, was stolen from him by Othello because he according to Iago is magical, due to his otherness.

That is the narcissism at play, thinking everything in the world is his, that he is superior in everything. But when he is overlooked he blames it on the otherness, the things he does not understand, because it is not him. His narcissism then extends into psychotic actions, the manipulation of people, those he called friends and forces them into his dirty work without any problems because his manipulation stems from knowing the weaknesses of those around him. Then using that to his advantage he fabricates ideas and lies centered around those weaknesses, such as Cassios weakness towards the drink and women and pins the drunken brawl on him. And all of that was centered around a lie that Iago told to Cassio, that he would not tell anyone that he in terms of Cassio grabbed a drink, but he told Montano that Cassio disobeyed a direct order from Othello. In the aftermath he tells Cassio to confide to Desdemona in secret, in an act of falsified friendship and tells Othello that there seems to be something happening between the two. He created a situation through manipulation and lies. His psychotic tendencies, is what leads him exactly to his self destructive actions, which is his final act of the play. Killing himself because he has nothing left in his life, his personality is what leads to his demise.

Lucifer from Milton's Paradise Lost is said to derive from Iago's character, therefore he suffers from envy, and narcissism. The reason for him being cast from Heaven is because he refused to bow to humans believing them to be lesser beings. This could fall into the category of narcissism because he believes angels to be greater than humans and should not have to lower their heads to them. This ensues a war in Heaven between God and Lucifer which ends with Lucifer being cast down to Hell with his followers where they take on monstrous appearances. Already his self-destructive behavior has made itself known. He refuses to bow to humans and in turn is tossed aside to Hell, forever barred from Heaven. But he makes the best of a horrible situation and decides that he will make a “hell out of heaven” and a “heaven out of hell”. Lucifer also has a habit of bringing people together with his words, and this does not stem from a psychotic personality but more of a sociopathic one. When he arrives in hell he delivers a speech to his followers claiming that they will rise, that their feelings of their current situation is nothing but a state of mind, again “heaven of hell” and “hell of heaven”. This could be called manipulation because he is able to use his words to get his followers to remain true to his cause because he claims that in hell they will be “free” and that to “reign in Hell'' is better than Heaven. Then there are his interactions with Adam and Eve in the garden, using his words he is able to trick Eve into eating the fruit, then getting Adam to eat it. When he does this, God casts them from paradise. Lucifer doesn't mock them or rub his victory in their faces, but instead is humble and says something along the lines of “hell will welcome your offspring”. He is still manipulative like Iago and a narcissist as well but is not a psychopath, but a sociopath.

Lucifer doesn't care about others, only his own purposes and goals, such as making a kingdom in Hell to rival Gods in Heaven. He wants what was taken from him and what he believes to be his, to be superior to humans and to never have to bow down to them, and in subsequent results to not have to bow to God's will and his plan. He would rather be free and have free will, and sometimes that is at the expense of others such as Adam and Eve, and his followers. This is evidence of his sociopathic personality, while he does experience emotions they are not the driving force behind his actions it's his desire to be better than God and humans because he sees himself as superior. He also doesn't really care about others, not his followers or their desires as he tries his best to ensure that they remain loyal to him, that in hell they are “free”. But in his mind and heart he is afraid that he made the wrong decisions that if he asks God he will be forgiven. A psychopath wouldn't think like this. Which is what makes him more of a sociopath, someone who is able to feel remorse and empathy, which is what Lucifer does. He questions if his rebellion in Heaven was a mistake, that if he bends the knee to humanity and to God he will be allowed back into Heaven. Now from the evidence it shows Lucifer doesn't really have a self destructive personality, but he does. His self doubts unravel him, again when he was wondering if God would forgive him. He thinks he is a failure that made a terrible mistake and is falling apart at times. That is what makes him self destructive, he doesn't know if he is doing the right thing, that he is making nothing one big and eternal mistake, but he is able to resolve that throughout Paradise Lost.

Cleopatra from Antony and Cleopatra is a real piece of work, in that she is a mess. She is a full blown narcissist, in that only she matters. When Antony leaves for Rome, Cleopatra uses her resources to know what exactly is going on with Antony. Her priorities are to know if she is on Antony's mind at all times “does he miss me”, “is he thinking of me”. These are the kind of questions going through her mind. But prior to when Antony left he kissed a pearl and had it brought to Cleopatra and she asked something along the lines of “was he sad or happy” (1.V. 59), now this would be a simple answer but in her mind it is not; if he was sad than he loved her, if he was happy then he didn't love her, if he was sad than he was morning his wife, if he was happy than it was because he was leaving Cleopatra. To her those were all possibilities, but all that mattered to her was that she consumed his every thought.

Once she hears that Antony is to marry Augustus' sister, she begins to learn everything she can about this woman. Her appearance, the sound and pitch of her voice, anything and everything known about this woman was to be brought to Cleopatra, so she could compare Octavia to her beauty, to her voice. All to ensure that she is better than her and that she and only she will consume Antony's thoughts still. It's clear she is a narcissist, but it's because of that, she is able to wrap Antony around her finger and control him like a puppet. She manages to manipulate Antony to betray Augustus and Rome itself. Her narcissism is a strength because she knows she is beautiful and that any man would want her, and she relies on that to bend men to her will and have them obey her every whim, such as going to war against Rome, and engaging them at sea. Her narcissism and manipulative nature makes her a psychopath in that everything revolves around her and she has control over others to make it happen.

In Act 2 scene V Cleopatra assumes Antony to be dead. At first she is angry that her lover is dead but quickly gets a change in attitude in that if the murderer “yields” than he will have gold and her “blue veins to kiss”. She knows that any man will lust after her and will do anything she says. Without trying she is able to whip men into submission and obey her every word. All this stems from her narcissism, that she is a goddess walking among mortals because of her divine beauty. And as mentioned above this ties into her manipulation and psychopathic personality. She has no emotions, at least ones she shares with other people. She has only ever shown love toward herself and destiny towards others as she has threatened to pour molten gold down the throat of her servant for interrupting her. She has no sense of empathy or care for the feelings of other human beings, only what she gets, and only her own sense of self matters. She even sacrifices Antoys victory in battle to try and seduce Octavius, which ends up failing. And because of that Cleopatra wanted to kill herself. To ensure that no one could make a mockery of her or tarnish her image. She is a true textbook narcissist, with psychopathic tendencies that result in the deaths of others and is capable of manipulation due to her sex.

Now during the times in which each text was written such descriptions into a person's personality, aside from narcissism, were not coined yet. No one knew what exactly a sociopath or psychopath was. Which is what makes these characters so great. They broke the mold of most character archetypes and showed readers and other writers that to make a compelling character, an interesting character. Is to show that they are human, maybe even more human than the reader. Having them respond or act more so on their base urges and instinct. These characters reflect parts of the human mind that society requires to be tossed aside, or at least controlled. These characters don't do that. They embrace the chaos or the shunned aspects of humanity to achieve what they want.

Now an argument could be made that this is the role of any vice character, to be the opposite of society's norms, or a character that gives into their desires or is the embodiment of their desires and sinful things. That could be the reason for the humanity they show. But even then a vice character is still somewhat formulaic, they follow a set pattern and have a foil to be the opposite of everything they stand for. But none of these characters are vices, they are not trying to sway a character down a set path like in Henry IV with Falstaff and Hotspur each trying to lead the Prince down a different path like an angel and devil on his shoulder. They follow a formula in that neither character makes complete sense without the other, they need that contradiction that takes away from their humanity and makes them more of a moral.

Iago, Cleopatra, and Lucifer are not morals, they are not trying to guide someone down a certain path, they have no need for a foil character to complete them. That is because they act, they act on their base desires and ambitions. They manipulate the thoughts and actions of others to get what they want, to achieve goals without dirtying their own hands. Hide their real faces behind a mask of shadows. Or they show who they really are, but when they do no one notices it. Because of their voice. The way they speak is so human, they all have a silver tongue. Something no vice character has, in that they can never pull the main character to their side. They can make a lie into truth and the truth into a lie. By manipulation or perspective. Clearly these three characters are not vice characters, but something else entirely. Because of their humanity, narcissism, and overall personalities.

William Shakespeare was a great writer capable of creating such unique and human characters that many of them have become archetypes for future characters, such as Milton's Lucifer. A character that embraces the worst aspects of humanity, or is attached to the darker parts of the mind. They stand out the most because they are what the readers can never be.


About the author

Thomas Tome

Hello, my name is Thomas, and I love to write. I have a lot of ideas for stories and poems and I want to start sharing them with other people and hopefully get a bit of a following. FYI I am a huge nerd as well.

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  • Cameron Martinabout a month ago

    Really wasn't sure where you were going with this essay at first. The characters are usually what we demonize in ourselves and in others. But that is also precisely the point, isn't it? Humans are creatures driven by logic and instinct. To be free in one direction, their instincts and desires can be appreciated. Excellent piece Tom!

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