Any literary work, regardless of the genre it belongs to, has its heroes. The significance of the characters for literary works, including a drama, lies in the fact that they serve as a formal element in the text. The author gives hero or heroes a set of certain internal and external qualities. Using a hero as a person endowed with individual character and able to perform a specific function in the text, the author has the opportunity to organize the internal space of the text. The author sets the stage for the story of his/her work using the heroes that can be romantic, violent, etc. Thus, the characters, not being content, but a form, help the author realize his/her creative ideas. In dramatic works, the characters perform different functions as the basis for creating a logical and coherent plot.
The investigation of the features of the character as a subject, who performs a specific function, provides the reader with the opportunity to understand the author’s intention and thus correctly interpret the meaning and content of the literary work. The dramatic plays are separated from each other by several centuries as well as their historical, cultural, social, political, and other features. Nevertheless, one can find not only the differences but also the similarities between their characters as formal elements of drama. In this essay, the functions of the main characters of both plays as their formal elements will be analysed and compared with each other.
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The Functions of the Characters in Dramas
A character can be seen as “a person depicted in drama” (Wiehardt n. d). Each of the characters manifests him/herself in his/her thoughts, actions, and dialogues as well as in those descriptions, which he/she receives from the author. The value of any character, regardless of its type (positive, negative, neutral; passive and active; static and dynamic) is lies in the fact that it is a method adopted by the author to structure the text and thereby realize his/her own intent (Fleming n. d.). Depending on what functions the character performs as a person, the reader has an opportunity to design the logic and the sequence of development of the storyline. In other words, if the reader receives from the author a description of the hero as a negative one committing negative actions, he/she can anticipate the further development of the story. The functions that a character can perform in the drama can be constructive that is positive; destructive that is negative; or neutral that has no special significance. One should not forget that there are major and minor characters, respectively, the significance of the functions that they perform are not the same. A character is not a substantive element as it is formal. Nevertheless, its importance for the dramatic work is particularly important. In fact, the drama is primarily a description of the functions of heroes, both major and minor, which allow the author to create a holistic product, devoid of gaps in its design.
The Features of Characters Presented in ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Saved’
Each of these dramatic works has its own dramatic storyline that nevertheless resembles each other. ‘Hamlet’ tells of the struggle of the protagonist against the falsehood, dishonesty, hypocrisy, and betrayal, which are firmly rooted in his family members and close friends. Hamlet is an example of both an inner struggle that is spiritual (the question “To be or not to be?”) and external one using weapons and physical force:
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation (Shakespeare 2009, p. 58).
The famous Shakespeare’s tragedy draws the reader’s attention to the eternal questions of human morality, immorality, and ways of combating it. The tragedy is literally saturated with Hamlet’s hatred and disgust for the moral decadence that surrounds him everywhere. In turn, ‘Saved’ is also a story about people who are deprived of conscience and morality; they live an immoral life. One of the main characters, a young woman named Pam, as well as many of the people who surround her, do not know what remorse are. All her life is a subject for the thoughts of herself, and those pleasures that she wants to receive from other people. Unlike Hamlet, Pam does not ask the question “To be or not to be?”
In contrast to Hamlet, who is tormented by pangs of conscience and the inner struggle between light and darkness, Pam reacts to the tragic events in her life quite coolly. In particular, the death of her baby does not cause any pain and anguish in her. It does not make her suffer, and she continues having feelings to Fred, the one who took part in the murder of her child. Hamlet and Pam perform completely opposite functions. If the function of Hamlet is to establish justice, moral principles, and the duty of conscience, the function of Pam is to demonstrate the cruelty and immorality of modern people who can remain indifferent even watching the death of a tiny and innocent child.
In ‘Saved,’ a positive image belongs to a young man Len, who is an offspring from an ordinary working family. Being to some extent a product of his class and not having aristocracy, Len, nevertheless, is capable of such good deeds as mutual aid as well as the attitude towards others based on compromise, forbearance, and tolerance. Len is good in spite of his upbringing and environment, and he remains good in spite of the pressures of the play (Bond 1997, p. 309). Both literary works are united by the fact that only one of the main characters performs constructively in terms of human morality and conscience function, namely the Hamlet from the namesake tragedy and Len from the ‘Saved.’ The authors of both works selected the form of contrasting one main positive hero to numerous negative characters, who are not capable of pure feelings and sincere thoughts. For instance, the central storyline of Hamlet is reflected in two mirrors, namely the lines of two young heroes. Each of the latter sheds new light on the situation of Hamlet.
The first one is the line of Laertes, after his father’s death he falls into the same position as Hamlet after the appearance of the Ghost. Laertes, generally regarded as “a decent young man,” takes the lessons of common sense given by Polonius and is a bearer of established morality. He takes vengeance on the murderer of his father using a cunning plan proposed by Claudius. The second line is presented by Fortinbras. Though he has a small place in the play, his significance is profound for the play. Fortinbras is the Prince, who took the empty Danish throne, the throne of Hamlet. He is a man of action, a strong politician, and military leader. He realized himself after the death of his father, the Norwegian king, in those areas that are inaccessible to Hamlet. All his specifications are directly opposite to the characteristics of Laertes, and one can say that the image of Hamlet is placed between them. Laertes and Fortinbras are ordinary avengers, and the contrast between them make the reader feel the exclusivity of Hamlet behaviour because the tragedy depicts all the exceptional, great, and sublime, which is in Hamlet. Thus, the function of Hamlet as a carrier of spiritual purity and devotion to the high spiritual ideals is opposed to the functions of Laertes and Fortinbras, whose main roles in the drama are to demonstrate such base human qualities as meanness, greed, hypocrisy, etc.
In turn, the author of the ‘Saved’ also contrasts one of his main heroes, Len, with the rest, who are characterized by depravity, cruelty, and coldness. Fred is 21 years old. He is an attractive man, and many girls are fond of him. His visual appeal arises from the fact that he has a tightened and slim figure and high growth. However, the external beauty of Fred pales compared to his inhuman cruelty, which he shows towards his own child taking part in his murder. Fred is arrested, but he does not feel guilty because he believes that it was only a kid (Bond 1997). For him, a child is not a person, but rather an animal that he believes does not know what pain and suffering are. Pete and Barry also partook in the murder of the child. For all of them, killing a child is not only a game or amusement but also a reason to be proud of themselves. This idea is especially close to Barry, who is only 25 years. The paradoxical nature of this situation is that the incredible brutality is shown by the young people from the wealthy families. They are not able to have high moral concepts and values because their moral decline is catastrophic. The murder of the child does not allow one even to call them animals, because animals are not capable of unwarranted and unfounded murder of an innocent creature. Bond (1997) notes that “unfortunately, the causes of human violence can be easily summed up. It occurs in situation of injustice. It is caused not only by physical threats, but even more significantly by threats to human dignity” (p. 13). The same as Hamlet, Len is surrounded by killers, liars, and hypocrites. In fact, “Len is as honest and friendly as it is possible for him to be” (Bond 1997, p. 310).
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The images of the women presented in the play show a different kind of human perversity called depravity, lust, and indifference. Pam first seduces Len in the room of her parents. Once she loses interest in him, she does the same with Fred. Her mother Mary has the same qualities, namely wickedness, indifference to the suffering of others, and inner emptiness. Mary does not shun sexual relationship with Len. She is not worried about the fact that she hit her husband with a kettle. With regard to her grandson, she also manifests coldness and indifference. Mary’s function as well as the function of her daughter is to demonstrate how amoral and immoral may be people who are constantly pretending to be good.
Despite the temporal distance between them, both authors seek to demonstrate the human vices as clearly as possible. To this end, they give negative qualities and vices to most of their heroes. Performing a destructive morally function, these characters allow authors to tell the reader about the terrible evils that continue to exist in the human world. The plays are about such vices as cruelty, indifference to the suffering of others, depravity, lust, and hypocrisy. The authors oppose the negative qualities to positive ones, such as loyalty, honesty, selflessness, dedication, kindness, and mercy.
Hamlet and Len perform constructive functions and thus serve as a way to contrast the human vices and virtues of a person. With the help of their characters, the known playwrights emphasise the features of life of the modern people. This fact can be regarded as the similarity between the authors. As for the difference between the functions of the characters, the main of them is that the heroes of Shakespeare, primarily Hamlet, perform the function of not external struggle, but an inner one. Shakespeare focuses on the spiritual and psychological complexity of choosing between good and evil, virtue and vice. That is why the question “To be or not to be?” permeates the main part of the work.