Character and characterisation

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Characterisation is the process by which a character’s personality is made known to the audience. In drama, this can be through dialogue, actions, props, costume and staging.

How are the following techniques used to develop character?

  1. Introductions: (Include comments about them before they first appear and their first appearances)
  2. Things heard about in report: (Said by others, but not seen on stage by the audience)


Imagery patterns

  • wealth/value
  • biblical imagery
  • animal imagery
  • classical imagery
  • bonds/agreements/oaths



Shylock and Jessica

Why are the following relationships important? Think about the contribution made to characterisation, themes, gender relationships etc.

  • Bassanio and Portia
  • Shylock and Antonio
  • Jessica and Lorenzo
  • Nerissa and Portia


Some settings are associated with particular characters, which means they

Dramatic irony


  • music
  • caskets
  • storms/tempests
  • rings


Portia by John Everett Millais

Portia the prize Find quotations to support each comment made in italics
For the first half of the play, Portia is presented as the rich and fair lady of Belmont pursued by many suitors. Shakespeare makes sure the audience appreciates her worth by making her the passive victim of a test with very serious rules. Any man attempting it must be prepared to leave immediately if he fails, he must never reveal the contents of the casket he chose or ask anyone to marry him again. Shakespeare spreads out the opening of the caskets by the three suitors over 11 scenes to increase her value as a prize. In Belmont is a lady richly left.

I may neither choose whom I would nor refuse whom I
dislike; so is the will of a living daughter curbed
by the will of a dead father.

She entertains the audience with witty character assassinations of her suitors, and later demonstrates what we now consider to be racial prejudice when she dismisses the Prince of Morocco in Act 2, scene 7: A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go./ Let all of his complexion choose me so. (By so, she means ‘in this way’ — i.e fail to win her.)
Although her father is dead, his influence spreads beyond the grave because he still holds control over Portia through the test. When Bassanio chooses the lead casket she immediately passes into his control, and all her riches with her. You are reading the play 400 years after it was written. Do you think a daughter should obey the will of a dead father? What might his motives have been?

Shakespeare is careful to hide most of Portia’s talents until after the lottery of the caskets. One effect of this is that she appears (even more so) to be a beautiful maiden enchanted by a spell, awaiting her prince charming to appear and solve the mystery that will free her. This fairytale element further enhances mythical Belmont’s contrast with commercial Venice.

Portia saves the day
Portia becomes the dominant character in the play when she has secured a husband she loves and is told about Antonio’s downfall. Thinking and acting quickly, she sends to Padua for legal advice, plans the trip to Venice and invents a suitable cover story to conceal her absence from Belmont. Just in case the audience was in any doubt about Portia’s qualities, Jessica praises her in Act 3, scene 5 line 61ff. How does this prepare the audience for her performance in the trial scene that follows?
Portia is very impressive in the trial scene, although she has earlier described herself as an unlessoned girl, unschooled, unpractised. Cool-headed throughout, she manipulates the course of events to allow Shylock every opportunity to relent. She would seem to prefer to win the case by appealing to the highest qualities human beings can hope to possess, which are apparently lacking in Shylock. Only when, all possibilities are exhausted does she fall back on the last resort of the law.
Women’s issues
It is ironic that just as she is passed from father to husband with no control over herself, Portia is also robbed of the credit for her performance in court because she is disguised. Her courageousness throughout the trial demands calmness and confidence because it is a mailer of life and death. It befits her modest nature that she should accept this lack of recognition, even though, she alone, apart from the Duke, has thought to seek legal advice.
Just as Shakespeare manages to make the audience sympathise with a villain, he makes us admire a woman although her gender is not revealed to the other characters. She is doing what before the late twentieth century would have been considered man’s work, and her part would have been played by a boy actor. Perhaps Shakespeare secretly admires such qualities in a woman but has disguised them in a way that made them acceptable to an Elizabethan audience.
Portia - Henry Woods