It’s no mean feat to whittle down the great male characters of William Shakespeare’s plays to a list of five. The majority of Shakespeare’s works are set in male dominated worlds and populated by strong, complex and witty male characters, many of which are even granted the title of the play like Hamlet, Othello and King Lear, not to mention the exhaustive list of historical plays starring an array of Richard’s, John’s and Henry’s.
Yet to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, here are the top five best male characters that stand out as some of the bard’s greatest creations.
- NICK BOTTOM, THE WEAVER
If you want a laugh then Nick Bottom is your man. One of the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bottom, as the name suggests, is the clown of the piece. He is a working class figure with big aspirations and a larger than life personality. His overconfidence often over shadows the rest of the
play and draws the attention away from the lovers’ quarrel and towards the fantasy world of the fairies. His transformation into an ass, symbolic of his foolishness, his bogus relationship with Titania the Queen of the fairies and his ignorance of all of the above is hilariously crafted. Although the target of this folly is Titania, Bottom is the epicentre of humour in this play, climaxing with his melodramatic performance as most fair Pyramus in the final scene.
Best Line: ‘I have had a dream past the wit of man to say dream it was.’ (IV.i.206)
In the tragedy of Hamlet we have the Prince of Denmark, a philosophical and contemplative fellow who is a deep and complex character. His obsessive compulsion to seek the truth of his father’s death and ensure justice is served makes him a sympathetic character even if his actions are not always clear. His dramatic behaviour blurs the line between sanity and insanity as he contemplates suicide in possibly Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquy. It is often disputed whether Hamlet has gone mad or whether he is putting on an act – it’s all down to interpretation. Supposedly named after Shakespeare’s own son, Hamnet, who died during childhood, he no doubt meant a lot to his craftsman and so has to be one of the most important male characters.
Best line: ‘To be, or not to be; that is the question’ (III.i.58)
The loyal friend to Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio is the voice of reason who strives to keep peace between the two warring families, the Capulets and the Montagues. He is a witty sceptic who mocks love, contrasting with the romantic Romeo who is blinded by adoration for Juliet. His cynicism is a breath of fresh air and a welcome change from the flowery language of the star-crossed lovers. His death is the turning point of the play as it turns Romeo down a darker path as he seeks revenge, which ultimately sets the tragic fate of the two protagonists. Mercutio defies death with a jest, a testament to his witty character. If only Romeo had listened to his friend, it would have been a very different play.
Best Line: ‘If love be rough with you, be rough with love. Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down’ (I.iv.27-28)
The most bad-ass baddy in Shakespeare, Iago is the scheming right hand man in Othello who pushes his master into doubting his friends, murdering his wife and committing suicide. Whilst his jealously and lack of regard for his own wife clearly marks him as the bad guy, he is without a doubt a master of manipulation who cleverly twists the mind of Othello whilst remaining his trusted companion. This two-facedness renders him rather evil, yet it also demonstrates his brilliant intelligence, until of course, the shit hits the fan and he’s found out. Though I’m sure his captures must have been a little impressed by his achievements – talk about how to win friends and influence people!
Best Line: ‘I will wear my heart upon my sleeve for daws to peck at; I am not what I am.’ (I.i.64-65)
The comedic lover tops the list as the most memorable character in Much Ado About Nothing, a comedy which follows the troubles of two sets of lovers. The subtext and comic back and forth banter between Benedick and Beatrice clearly indicates their affection for one another, yet Benedick’s unwillingness to commit and his rebuke of love and marriage makes their courtship a little less straight forward. Whilst the play involves mistaken identity, confessions at the altar and a faked death, the excitement of the narrative arises from Benedick’s genuine change of heart and his touching commitment to Beatrice on realising that he does indeed love her. Move over Romeo, this is the perfect Shakespearean man we dream of.
Best Line: ‘I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be buried in thy eyes.’ (V.ii.92)
Image credit: Tom Watchorn