Five of the best... antiheroes
Antiheroes come in many shapes and sizes. The word is defined by its opposite, the traditional hero – ‘antihero’ roughly refers to any protagonist lacking in traditional heroic, moral qualities. As mainstream morality changes over time, so does the antihero. Here are five of the best.
*Spoiler warning one* The below spoiler warning gives away which five characters we’ve chosen
*Spoiler warning two* This blog post contains spoilers for Hamlet, Phèdre, Hedda Gabler, Look Back in Anger and The Threepenny Opera.
Albert Finney as Hamlet back in 1975. Photo by Anthony Crickmay.
‘Hero or antihero?’ That is the question that’s appeared in at least a few Hamlet exam papers. The prince of Denmark, arguably Shakespeare’s greatest protagonist, has already been considered from a whole host of standpoints: literary, ethical, psychoanalyst and beyond. Needless to say, consideration of his character (like all the other characters here) deserves much more than 1/5th of a blog post. Still, that’s all the space we’ve got, so we’ll make it snappy.
One of the great things about many antiheroes is doubt. The character, stuck between two or more courses of action, has to juggle their own desires with the ethical course of action. While a hero might swashbuckle their way to a happy ending, the antihero is more nuanced and difficult. Hamlet perhaps embodies this more than anyone. After all, what six words sum up the difficulties and doubts of dramatic decision better than his?
‘To be or not to be.’
That’s the question.
Helen Mirren as Phèdre in our 2009 production. Photo by Catherine Ashmore.
The world of Greek tragedy is a muddy one, morally. It’s there that Jean Racine’s 17th-century tragedy, Phèdre, finds its hero. Phèdre, based on the mythological queen Phaedra, was already the subject of plays by Euripides and Seneca. Just like most myths, her actions vary from piece to piece: we’ve decided to focus on Racine’s version, played by Helen Mirren in 2009.
Phèdre’s actions are a mixed bag, at best. She’s at least partly responsible for two deaths: her stepson, Hippolyte, with whom she’s madly in love, and her nurse and confidante, Oenone, who lies to Phèdre’s husband to keep the aforementioned love a secret. She does eventually repent, and kills herself (very Greque). That leaves the total body count for the play at three, a third the size of Hamlet.
Ruth Wilson in the artwork for our upcoming production of Hedda Gabler.
Like Hamlet and Phèdre, Hedda Gabler is rightly considered one of the greatest roles in the history of drama. Antiheroes, you see.
At the start of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, the title character is newly married to a not-quite-brilliant academic called George Tesman. In the course of the play, his academic rival, Eilert Løvborg, arrives, throwing the marriage into disarray. Hedda encourages Eilert, a recovering alcoholic, to drink, and eventually to shoot himself with a pistol. Her actions lead not only to his suicide, but eventually her own.
Hedda Gabler has been looked at from a psychoanalytic point of view, despite being written ten years before Freud first started publishing on the matter. It’s also been seen as an embryonic discussion of mental illness, which offers one of the interpretations for why Hedda acts as she does. Her loveless marriage is another – Ibsen leaves the audience to decide for themselves.
Hedda Gabler comes to the Lyttelton Theatre later this year. To witness Ruth Wilson’s depiction of the title character, you can click here and buy yourself a ticket.
Michael Sheen as Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger, 1999. Photo by Ivan Kyncl.
Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, written in just over two weeks in a deck chair on Morecambe Pier, was the play that birthed the phrase ‘angry young men’. The term, which is first seen in a Royal Court press release, was originally used to describe the author. It could have just easily referred to the protagonist, Jimmy Porter, a working-class man trapped in a tumultuous marriage with an upper-class woman called Alison.
Porter is unlike the other antiheroes in this list, in that he doesn’t actually kill anyone. Instead, his ‘antiheroism’ is shown in tirades against his wife and her friend, Helena, with whom he forms a love triangle. These rants provide some of the play’s most memorable lines:
‘One day, when I’m no longer spending my days running a sweet-stall, I may write a book about us all. It’s all here. (slapping his forehead) Written in flames a mile high. And it won’t be recollected in tranquillity either, picking daffodils with Auntie Wordsworth. It’ll be recollected in fire, and blood. My blood.’
The anger wasn’t especially well received at first and most of the reviews were negative. In time, though, Osborne has come to be recognised as one of Britain’s most important 20th-century playwrights. Not bad for an angry young man.
Mack the Knife
Rory Kinnear as Mac the Knife in The Threepenny Opera. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith.
Some of the antiheroes we’ve looked at are tortured by the conflict between their desires and their knowledge of what is right. Others are justly angry. Some, though, just want to enjoy the ride. Captain Macheath (or Mack the Knife), protagonist of The Threepenny Opera, seems to have but one concern: not getting caught.
Here’s what the newspapers list him having done, in Simon Stephens’ current version:
wanted on suspicion of over 30 violent assaults
Mack: They smile at you when you walk in the room.
Polly: Of 23 street robberies. Of four act of arson.
Mack: Given half a chance they will take everything you have.
Polly: Of dismembering two shopkeepers in Dalston. Alive.
Polly: It says that in Leyton you seduced two 14-year-old sisters.
Mack: They told me they were 20, Polly. I swear.
Many playwrights create antiheroes that we can understand. We see the worst of ourselves in them and care about them more as a result. Brecht took quite a different approach; his famous ‘distancing effect’, often referred to as ‘Brechtian alienation’, was a technique by which the precise opposite would happen. Nobody in the audience is meant to associate with Mack the Knife. Given the list of crimes above, that’s a relief.
The Threepenny Opera has its final performance tomorrow on 1 October. Click here to get last minute tickets.
Disagree with the five we’ve chosen? Don’t think they’re antiheroes at all? Let us know your suggestions.