In a Shakespearean tragedy, if you were one of the title characters you could quickly assume you would be dead by the end of the production, and you would be right 100% of the time. Romeo, Juliet, Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello… the list goes on. It was no joy being selected as the primary character. As Alexa would say, “He broke the main character immunity,” which says that there should be some kind of protection around the protagonist.
Luckily for Shakespeare’s protagonists, even though they die by play’s end, somebody learns something from it, every single time. Sometimes it’s the main characters themselves, before they’re brutally murdered or commit suicide, and other times it’s other characters who will hopefully carry on with this knowledge learned to be better human beings of their own accord.
So, armed with this as my basis for plot structure, I get a little wary when an author creates a 3-dimensional protagonist who is going through a lot, internally and externally. Especially when the author makes me care for this character. I am her biggest cheerleader, hoping against hope that this won’t turn out to be a Shakespearean tragedy, that she won’t die some horrific death as some kind of lesson. I find myself hoping for Alexa’s “main character immunity.”
But then again, I find myself drawn to the other side too. Sometimes I get a sense of rightness when they die, especially when there really was no way out, because it means the author is bowing to realism, because in real life we don’t always get to keep the ones who we care about. Far too often, we also don’t get to learn whatever lesson, whatever moral, is supposed to be waiting for us as a result of the protagonist’s journey. We are just left wanting more. More time. More chances. More understanding.
I want to ask Romeo if he would have done things differently if he knew she wasn’t really dead, or if he would have succumbed to societal pressures anyway. I want to ask Othello if he could have ever envisioned a world where he wasn’t so different, where he wouldn’t rely on others for his own sense of worth. I want to query Hamlet about what really constitutes getting even, and if it’s even worth it, if avenging his father’s death was really worth it.
But does it really matter? Maybe that’s why Shakespeare’s comedies didn’t often feature character names, because even he knew that if you were looking for a happy ending it needed to be for everyone, not just for some main characters. If you’re going to abuse the rules of reality, you might as well go all the way and give everyone positivity as a salve for whatever ails. If you’re going to give in, then give in all the way, and laugh about how ludicrous it all is.
Can you tell I’m struggling with my own titles lately?