The observer character in Shakespeare's four great tragedies

Althea Mae Coleman, Fordham University


In his greatest tragedies, Shakespeare manages the critical manipulation of audience involvement and detachment through the use of a class of characters called observers. These characters, whom Maynard Mack included in his discussion of foils and who have often been called "choric" characters, function in a way different from, though in some cases complementary to, the foil or evil protagonist. At the same time, they go beyond the choric function of commenting on the action. Through their intimate and usually positive involvement with the hero, the observer characters focus the audience's attention in the most positive way upon the hero. In these great tragedies, such a mediator of audience response is necessary because the hero is a man bloody, violent, often self-righteous, and whole-heartedly committed to what must be recognized as criminal and even atrocious acts. Because the audience's relationship with the hero is focused through the observer, they come to see the protagonist's tragedy from the inside--and therefore to understand it, even though they may not approve of it. At the same time, however, the observer character distances the audience somewhat from the hero's tragedy because, although the observer often defends the hero (or the hero's values) against the foils and general naysayers of the world of the play, they themselves represent a kind of middle ground more closely approximating the audience's position vis-a-vis the hero's excessiveness. By creating this middle ground, the observer character does not mute the audience's reactions, but instead puts them in context so that by the end of Hamlet, for example, the audience can remain sympathetic with Hamlet even as they can accept the justice of his death. Although the observer character is adapted differently in each of the great tragedies, Horatio in Hamlet defines in important ways the role of the observer: loyal, steadying, a moral norm in the values of the play. In King Lear, it takes three characters--the Fool, Cordelia, and Kent--to accomplish the observer role as it is fulfilled in Hamlet. The observers in Macbeth (primarily Banquo and Rosse) and in Othello (particularly Casio and Emilia) serve to ariticulate the moral standard originally identified with the hero himself while maintaining audience interest in and sympathy with the two heroes' inner torments. In the conclusion of this study, I also suggest how the observer character functions in the two late Roman tragedies, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, as well as in the romances.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature|Theater

Recommended Citation

Coleman, Althea Mae, "The observer character in Shakespeare's four great tragedies" (1990). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9105783.