Contrast and Correspondences

Characters in plays can often be classified by way of contrast or correspondences. In Middleton’s and Rowley’s The Changeling, for example, the characters in the main plot and the ones of the subplot are exposed to similar conflicts and problems and thus correspond with one another on certain levels, while their reactions are very different and thus show the contrasts between corresponding figures. Beatrice, the protagonist of the main plot, and Isabella, Alibius’ wife in the subplot, are both restricted by their social positions as wives and daughters. However, while Beatrice oversteps the boundaries by having her suitor, Alonzo, killed in order to be able to marry Alsemero, Isabella fulfils her role as faithful wife and does not break the rules even when two suitors make advances to her. The themes of sexuality and adultery play an important role in both plots, yet they are pursued in different ways. While Beatrice commits adultery, albeit somewhat involuntarily at first, Isabella resists the temptation and remains virtuous. Sexuality is discussed with subterfuge and only implicitly in the main plot and yet sexual encounters take place, whereas the same topic is discussed in an open and bawdy manner in the subplot where ultimately nothing happens.

The husbands in the two plot-lines can also be described in terms of contrasts and correspondences. While Alsemero trusts his wife and does not see what is really going on between her and De Flores (it is only through hints by his friend that he starts to feel suspicious), Alibius is highly suspicious of Isabella and for this reason does not allow her to receive any visitors during his absence. Ironically, as the plot-lines unfold we learn that Alibius’ suspicions are groundless since Isabella remains firm and faithful, whereas Beatrice in a sense cheats on her husband even before they are married.

By presenting corresponding characters in such a contrastive manner, their individual characteristics are thrown into sharper relief and certain qualities are highlighted with regard to the overall plot. We can say that the characters in the subplot of The Changeling function as foils to the characters in the main plot because they bring out more effectively the main characters’ features (a foil is a piece of shiny metal put under gemstones to increase their brightness).

Character Constellations

Characters can also be classified according to their membership in certain groups of characters both across the entire play as well as in individual scenes. In other words, questions like ‘Who belongs to whom?’ and ‘Which characters are friends or foes?’ are also essential in drama analysis. If one considers the overall structure of the play and groups of characters therein, one deals with the constellation of the dramatic personnel. Constellations can be based on sympathies and antipathies among characters, on how they act and react to one another, etc. Usually, one can make the distinction between heroes and their enemies or protagonists and antagonists, and one can find characters who collaborate and support one another, while others fight or plot against each other. Obviously, character constellation is a dynamic concept since sympathies/antipathies can change and groups of people can also change. On stage, groups can be presented symbolically by certain distinctive stage props or costumes and also through their gestures and relative spatial position to one another. In the following picture from a lay performance of Sharman MacDonald’s After Juliet, the opposing members of the Houses of Capulet and Montague can be identified by the fact that they appear in differently coloured spotlights (green and red respectively), and by their final positioning in the play which already marks their newly aroused antagonism: They have picked up their swords and face one another, ready for a new fight.

click on pictures to enlarge

Character Configurations

In contrast to character constellation, the term configuration denotes the sequential presentation of different characters together on stage. Configurations thus change whenever characters exit or enter the stage. In the first scene of Shakespeare’s Richard III, for example, Richard appears on stage alone first, followed by the entrance of his brother Clarence and Brakenbury with a guard of men, after whose exit Richard is on his own again before Lord Hastings joins him. Before the first scene closes, Lord Hastings exits and Richard remains once again alone on stage. Configurations typically underlie the overall structure of scenes but, as the example of Richard III shows, configurations can even change within scenes.

Configurations are important to the extent that they show up groups and developments among groups of characters, which, in turn, is essential for the development of the plot. In Richard III, Richard’s frequent appearances alone on stage already reveal him as a loner and an outsider but also as a cunning schemer, whose interactions with other characters are thus unravelled to be false and underhanded.


Key-Terms:


character constellation
hero
protagonist
antagonist
character configuration
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