Recently, the theatrical group I belong to decided to devise a play, with its foundations in Shakespeare, in which a Puck-like character rebels against his master. This project, with the working title “Oberon Must Die”, arose from a suggestion by one member of the group, who wanted to conflate certain Shakespearean characters together to create new ones. However, as the project proceeded, it became clear that some of the suggested conflations weren’t working and that other characters seemed to form natural clumps. Eventually, we identified fourteen key archetypes (though there are, of course, numerous other incidental characters that “serve to swell a progress or two”) which we named rather whimsically. Although it is rare in Shakespeare for all of them to be present in any one play every play will have at least six or seven of them present - our own, obviously, ended up incorporating all fourteen.
These archetypes are:
- The Big Lunk: A romantic hero type, but lacking something, so not entirely heroic - for instance he can be indecisive, unintelligent or easily misled. He is always a young man. In Shakespeare, he is represented in characters such as Romeo, Hamlet, Troilus, Claudio (Much Ado About Nothing), Orsino (Twelfth Night), Orlando (As You Like It) Lysander, Demetrius (A Midsummer Night's Dream), Ferdinand (The Tempest) and Leonatus (Cymbeline).
- The Innocent Babe: The babe is often a tragic character , a victim of malignancy, whether this causes - or, in comedy, seems to cause - death. She is young - often very young and is personified in Shakespeare in Ophelia (Hamlet), Desdemona (Othello), Imogen (Cymbeline), Hero (Much Ado About Nothing), Cordelia (King Lear).
- The Flawed Ruler: Generally found in tragedy, this powerful man with a flaw which causes -or nearly causes, in comedy - his downfall. He is usually an older character. Examples: Oberon (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) Prospero (The Tempest), Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, Cymbeline, Anthony, Brutus (Julius Caesar).
- The Bright Young Thing: This is a girl who takes matters into her own hands to get what she wants - BYTs are generally those who bring about the resolution of comedies. They are (obviously) young, though often older than the babes. BYTs include: Helena (All's Well That Ends Well), Portia (The Merchant of Venice), Viola & Olivia (Twelfth Night), Rosalind (As You Like It), Kate (Taming of the Shrew), Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing), Miranda (The Tempest).
- The Malign Influence: A character who causes trouble out of hatred, jealousy or temper. He actively wishes others ill and works toward that. He can be any age. Some Malign Influences are Iago (Othello), Don John (Much Ado About Nothing), Cloten (Cymbeline), Claudius (Hamlet), Tybalt (Romeo and Juliet), Cassius (Julius Caesar). Hecate (Macbeth).
- The Sidekick/The Clever Servant. The friend or servant of either the Big Lunk, the Innocent Babe or the Bright Young thing who helps them sort out their problems. They are often older, but are not necessarily so. Where they are friend rather than servant they often share the fate of the hero/heroine, either dying or marrying depending on the genre of the play. Examples include Benvolio (Romeo and Juliet), Maria (Twelfth Night), Benedick (Much Ado About Nothing) Diana Capilet (All's Well That Ends Well), Celia (As You Like It), Odysseus (Troilus and Cressida).
- The Imp of Mischief: A misleading character, often supernatural, who misleads and deceives people, makes fun of them, sets cats among pigeons for amusement’s sake, but is not actively malign. Their age is irrelevant, and they may be male or female. Examples: Puck (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Ariel(The Tempest), Parolles (All's Well That Ends Well), Sir Toby Belch(Twelfth Night), Mercutio (Romeo and Juliet), The Witches (Macbeth).
- The Mistreated Villain: A character who does things which the audience perceives as wicked, but only because he has been driven to them by the way he has been treated. The age of this character is irrelevant, but they are often older and long-suffering. Examples: Caliban (The Tempest), Shylock (The Merchant of Venice).
- The Powerful Woman: Often seen as malign, this is a woman who has real power over the fate of other people as well as herself, and is therefore someone to fear. In tragedies, she always dies, and in comedies she will usually come under the influence of a male character in some way. She is generally mature. Some powerful women from Shakespeare are: Lady Macbeth, Goneril and Regan (King Lear), Cleopatra, Titania (Midsummer Night’s Dream) Cymbeline's Queen.
- The Figure of Fun: This character is pretty much present purely to be laughed at. He (and it is generally a man) often pretends to more intelligence than he has, and generally gets his pomposity punctured. The age of this character doesn’t matter. Some examples are: Dogberry (Much Ado About Nothing), Malvolio (Twelfth Night), Polonius (Hamlet), Nick Bottom (A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
- The Wise Fool: The word “fool” in this context is a positional denotation, rather than an intellectual one. Often quite sharp and shrewd, the wise fool is character who is allowed to tell unpalatable truths to rulers without being punished, by virtue of their position. Examples: Lear's Fool, Jaques (As You Like It), Lavatch (All's Well That Ends Well).
- The Comic Relief: A Servant/Friend who helps the lead(s) but is generally not too intelligent. They usually have no particular pretentions to intelligence and while they are often made gentle fun of they don't suffer for it. Some examples include Nurse (Romeo and Juliet), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Twefth Night), Verges (Much Ado About Nothing), The Mechanicals (Midsummer Night’s Dream).
- Tragedy’s Minion: This is a character who is manipulated by the Malign Influence into acting in his favor and against one of the leads, though they are generally innocent in themselves of any malign intent. For instance: Margaret (Much Ado About Nothing), Emelia (Othello).
- The Narrator/Chorus: This is a character who fills in the story, and may influence it significantly, but more in passing than by intent. Example: Prince in Romeo and Juliet
The mixture of these archetypes within a play will determine the tone of it, as much as the genre will determine the final outcome: tragedies liberally laced with the lighter characters (The Imp, The Figure of Fun, The Comic Relief) such as Romeo and Juliet will be more shocking in their tragic elements than a because of the contrast with the lighter-hearted elements, where a tragedy which lacks these figures, like Macbeth will be more tense and brooding.