Who Are the Greatest Shakespeare Characters?

atkins-bookshelf-literatureConstantin Stanislavski, one of the most influential theatre directors and father of the Stanislavski method (known as method acting), declared to his acting students: “there are no small parts, only small actors.” Fortunately for actors, William Shakespeare created plenty of parts for actors — large and small to accommodate every ego and range of talent. During his career, Shakespeare wrote 43 plays and created 1,223 characters that strut and fret their hour upon the stage, delivering an impressive 34,895 speeches. Although Shakespeare’s characters are drawn from life, they are much larger than life — and like his plays and sonnets, they are timeless. As Ben Jonson noted in the preface to the First Folio, “He was not of an age, but for all time.” So, who are the greatest characters from the immortal works of Shakespeare? The names that quickly come to mind are Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and Lear — the tragic heroes that elicit fear and pity, perpetually studied and dissected in English courses throughout the world. However, with more than a thousand characters to consider, there are sure to be impassioned debates, scholarly and otherwise, about who are the greatest characters from Shakespeare’s works. Perhaps another way we can approach the question is to simply examine which Shakespeare characters have the largest roles; who gets to strut and fret the longest up on the stage? Thanks to the endeavors of dedicated Shakespeare scholars we can answer the question objectively, in three different ways: by number of lines, by percentage, and by number of speeches. A review of the three lists reveals two obvious facts: male roles dominate the lists, and Hamlet delivers the most lines. Any actor who plays the role of Hamlet, considered one of the most challenging and prestigious, must memorize 1,495 lines and take heed of Hamlet’s advice: “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc’d it to you,/trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of our / players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines.”

The greatest Shakespeare characters by total number of lines (character, play, number of lines):
Hamlet, Hamlet: 1,495
Richard, Richard III: 1,171
Iago, Othello: 1,098
King Henry V, Henry V: 1,028
Coriolanus, Coriolanus: 897
Othello, Othello: 887
Timon, Timon of Athens: 865
Vicentio, Measure for Measure: 852
Mark Antony, Antony and Cleopatra: 851
King Lear, King Lear: 758
Richard II, Richard II: 758
Edward III, Edward III: 749
Marcus Brutus, Julius Caesar: 728
Titus Andronicus, Titus Andronicus: 723
Macbeth, Macbeth: 719
Leontes, Winter’s Tale: 692
Cleopatra, Antony and Cleopatra: 686
Rosalind, As You Like It: 677
Prospero, Tempest: 674
Falstaff, Henry IV, Part II: 637

The greatest Shakespeare characters by percentage of total number of lines within each play:
Hamlet, Hamlet, 37%
Timon, Timon of Athens, 34%
King Henry V, Henry V, 32%
Richard, Richard III, 31%
Iago, Othello, 31%
Vicentio, Measure for Measure, 30%
Prospero, Tempest, 30%
Macbeth, Macbeth, 29%
Edward III, Edward III, 29%
Titus Andronicus, Titus Andronicus, 28%
Marcus Brutus, Julius Caesar, 28%
Richard II, Richard II, 27%
Rosalind, As You Like It, 25%
Pericles, Pericles, 25%
Mark Antony, Antony and Cleopatra, 24%
Coriolanus, Coriolanus, 23%
Berowne, Love’s Labour’s Lost, 22%
Petruchio, Taming of the Shrew, 22%
Portia, Merchant of Venice, 22%
King Lear, King Lear, 22%

The greatest Shakespeare characters by total number of speeches:
Falstaff: 471
Richard III: 409
Henry V: 377
Hamlet: 358
Othello: 274
Iago: 272
Antony: 253
Timon: 210
Cleopatra: 204
Rosalind: 201
Brutus: 194
Vincentio: 194
Coriolanus: 189
Lear: 188
Henry VI: 183

Read related posts: The Shakespeare Thefts: In Search of the First Folio
When was Shakespeare Born?
The Legacy of Shakespeare

For further reading: playshakespeare.com/study/biggest-roles

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