In Julius Caesar and in The Alchemist, what traits identify characters as protagonists, antagonists, major, or minor secondary characters?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and in Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, the functions and statuses of the different characters can be determined by a number of factors.  Those factors include the following:

  • The titles of the plays. The title Julius Caesar quite obviously suggests that Caesar will be the main character, or protagonist, of the play.  To a different degree, the title The Alchemist suggests that Face is the main character, although Face seems more a part of a trio of main characters (including Subtle and Doll Common) than the obviously main character himself.
  • The attitudes and attention of the other characters. In Julius Caesar, most of the other characters are obsessed with Caesar to one degree or another. He is the chief focus of their concerns, and the fact that some of them feel the need to kill him ironically suggests his importance, both to the play and to the political world of ancient Rome. In The Alchemist, Face is the man whom most of the dupes want to meet. He is at the center of their attentions and their ambitions.
  • The number of lines spoken by each character. Caesar has many lines in Shakespeare’s play and also some of the most important speeches. The same is true of Face in The Alchemist. To some degree, the number of lines spoken by other characters in both plays is an indication of the importance of those characters to the design of each work.
  • The extent to which a character determines developments in the plot of the play. Caesar is the driving force in Julius Caesar, at least until his death. If his ambitions had not been so strong, he might never have been killed (and the play might never have been written in its present form). Other characters respond to him, rather than he to other characters. For this reason alone, he is the protagonist, or major character, for much of the play. After Caesar’s death, Marc Antony in a sense becomes the protagonist for many of the reasons already stated. Meanwhile, in The Alchemist, Face is obviously the leader of the trio of charlatans who make fools of most of the other characters. Subtle is also inventive in creating developments in the plot, but Face still edges him out in this department.
  • The antagonists of both works are the characters who seem to be in most conflict with the protagonist. In Julius Caesar, the most significant antagonist, at least eventually, is Brutus. He is the man whom the other conspirators hope to involve in their conspiracy. He is the man who can pose the most effective opposition to Caesar. In The Alchemist, there is no really major antagonist, unless that role is assigned Surly, who eventually sees through the scam perpetrated by Face, Subtle, and Doll, and who tries to unmask it. Yet Surly is to some degree ineffective, and thus he is not the kind of major antagonist that Brutus is in Julius Caesar. The same is true, and for the same reason, of Ananias and Tribulation Wholesome.
  • Secondary characters in the two plays include such figures as Doll Common, Sir Epicure Mammon, Abel Drugger, and Dapper (in The Alchemist) and Cassius, in particular, in Julius Caesar.

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