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Edmund Blackadder
compared to
Severus Snape

This is an intriguing exercise for me to think my way through, as the four sets of Blackadder television series are high on my list of all-time favourite comedy programmes, and Professor Severus Snape is by far my most favourite fictional character!!!

There are, I think, many similarities between Blackadder and Snape, some of them fairly superficial.  There are also some important variances and a fundamental difference of perspective that gives rise to a distinction in how each character ‘feels’.  Snape may turn out to be a part human, e.g. vampire or half-vampire, but for this comparison I am taking the view that he is fully human.

As I want to do this thoroughly I will list all the characteristics of situation, personality, habit and social status I can think of, and try to judge how much of a variance exists:

 

Edmund Blackadder / The Black Adder

Severus Snape

Notes and Comments

 

A series of fictional, family-related characters who seem to grow a little kinder as the generations go by:

Black Adder – set in 1480s

Blackadder II – Elizabethan

Blackadder the Third – Regency

Blackadder Goes Forth – set in World War One trenches during 1914-18

For ease of reference I will label them B-I, B-II, B-III and B-IV respectively.
The most captivating and mysterious character in all of J K Rowling’s fictional world of Harry Potter.

 

 

The Blackadders’ lives are shown in comedy setting and even though they tread perilous courses we are expected always to laugh at their circumstances and their jaundiced wit, although for B-IV the laughter is eventually tinged with pathos e.g. B-IV quote “…whatever it was, I'm sure it was better than my plan to get out of this by pretending to be mad.  I mean, who would have noticed another madman round here?”.

They are amusing, wisecracking characters, and are supported by a small group of excellent contrasting characters.
Snape exists in a non-comic world that has a background of growing menace.  Understandably, the books are lightened by moments of comedy, but they are not written as comedies.  However, Snape as one of the villains, is occasionally the butt of the humour. Variance caused by setting.

 

As Blackadder is the main character, virtually every scene includes him so we see most aspects of his life and how he reacts in almost every situation. The Harry Potter novels are written as seen through Harry’s eyes, so we never get the chance to see Snape ‘alone’ or only with adults.  His range of behaviours may be unnaturally skewed in front of students and certainly in front of Harry. Fundamental difference of perspective; a key problem in making the comparison.

 

Blackadder is a set of characters written for BBC television and portrayed by Rowan Atkinson. Severus Snape is a character written in a series of books and reinterpreted by Alan Rickman in accordance with film screenplays, so because the needs of novel and film differ, at times we have two versions of Snape. Variance caused by screenplay.
Evidence of good education The Blackadders are all well-spoken.  The first two may not be highly educated, but all are articulate – particularly II, III and IV e.g. B-III to his faithful but witless servant “Baldrick, does it have to be this way?  Our valued friendship ending with me cutting you up into strips and telling the Prince that you walked over a very sharp cattle grid in an extremely heavy hat?”

Snape must be well-educated because:

He was a conscientious student at Hogwarts (according to his memory).

Dumbledore has given him a teaching job and put him in a position of responsibility.

Snape is highly articulate e.g. Book 1 chapter 8 “…the delicate power of liquids that creep through human veins, bewitching the mind, ensnaring the senses…” and Book 5 chapter 24 “You have no subtlety, Potter…it is one of the shortcomings that makes you such a lamentable potion-maker…”
Negligible variance.
Degree of cunning

Blackadders are cunning (i.e. shrewd/astute).

B-I and B-II live in a sometimes perilous world, often at the mercy of capricious rulers / employers.  They are by nature survivors and although they do not usually go out of their way to hurt people they will not go overboard in attempting to rescue those who have fallen irretrievably from grace.  Instead they will rationalise the situation and look to stay alive, e.g. B-I quote “As my tutor, old bubble face, used to say: ‘make love and be merry, for tomorrow you may catch some disgusting skin disease’ ”.

We don’t yet know why Snape ‘changed sides’ but if faced with such a choice I doubt that B-I or B-II would have switched sides – they would have stayed put and not worried about propping up an evil regime.  B-III might well have wanted to switch but lacked the courage to do so.

B-IV has a good deal of courage!

Snape is cunning (i.e. shrewd/astute).

Snape lives in an extremely perilous personal situation in a dangerous world, having forsaken Voldemort and thereby made himself a target of a relentless and powerful enemy.

Having been chosen by the Sorting Hat to be a member of Slytherin House, and later appointed to Head that House, Snape surely ranks as a survivor – Slytherins are survivors.

Snape is also ingenious in having broken away from the Death Eaters and lived to tell the tale.

However Snape’s motivation for changing sides may be because he calculates that Voldemort will ultimately be defeated – yet if narrow self-interest is the only driver, would Dumbledore place so much trust in Snape?  I think not – there must be more to Snape than that.
Although both are cunning, Snape’s change of sides points to a key variance and may indicate that B-I, II and III are more natural Slytherins than Snape.
Extent to which they are prepared to be economical with the truth B-I, II and III lie and deceive when it suits their purposes. Snape may not lie openly but he is not always truthful – e.g. in Book 3 chapter 18 I suspect he overhears more of the Shrieking Shack conversation than he admitted, and in Book 5 chapter 19 he turns a deaf ear to witnessed complaints about Slytherin pre-match hexing of Gryffindor Quidditch players. Partial variance.
Degree of personal guilt The Blackadders suffer little guilt from their misdemeanours, but within the context of their times none, so far as I remember, commit serious crimes. Part of Snape’s lack of ease may be to do with guilt over things he did as a Death Eater or simply because he became a Death Eater. Variance.
Enjoyment of / absence of care about others’ pain B-I, II and III either relish or are often indifferent to other peoples’ discomfort / pain. Snape relishes Harry’s embarrassment and is indifferent to other peoples’ embarrassment / emotional trauma.  He seems to make more of an effort to look after Slytherin students. No variance.
Reaction to others’ pomposity B-II, III and IV loath pomposity and where time permits will find a way to prick the balloon of a pompous person e.g. B-II’s reaction to Sir Walter Raleigh bringing home his discovery of the potato to great acclaim; “Bloody explorers, ponce off to Mumbo Jumbo land, come home with a tropical disease, a suntan and a bag of brown lumpy things, and Bob's your uncle, everyone's got a picture of them in their lavatory”. Snape may dislike pomposity but because we are not party to much conversation with only Snape and his peers we lack evidence.  He seems to endure Fudge’s pomposity, certainly when the Order of Merlin is in the offing.  However he detests charlatans – Book 2 chapter 16 Snape stepped forward.  “Just the man” he said.  “The very man.  A girl has been snatched by the monster, Lockhart.  Taken into the chamber of Secrets itself.  Your moment has come at last.”  (Other staff speak in support of Snape while Lockhart splutters.)  “I certainly remember you saying you were sorry you hadn’t had a crack at the monster before Hagrid was arrested” said Snape.  “Didn’t you say the whole affair had been bungled, and that you should have been given a free rein from the first?” Nil or negligible variance.
Reaction to others’ dishonesty B-II, III and IV will seek to expose the dishonesty of others.  B-I is usually too insecure to do this, and probably less concerned about honesty than his descendents will be. Snape seems to have little patience with the dishonesty / rule breaking of others and will seek to expose it e.g. re Black and Lupin, and to a lesser degree Harry. Negligible variance.
Work, status and recognition

B-I, II and III would far rather have a good time than work hard.  Of these three, III is the most conscientious.

B-IV is conscientious and hardworking.

They all like status and recognition e.g. B-III whinges “Something is always wrong, Balders.  The fact that I am not a millionaire aristocrat with the sexual capacity of a rutting rhino is a constant niggle”.

Snape is conscientious about his work.  He appears at key moments of crisis and Dumbledore often uses him to carry out important tasks – e.g. Book 2 chapter 9 helping to check the school for escaped prisoner, Black; Book 5 chapter 26 complaining about the Occlumency workload “You do know why I am giving up my evenings to this tedious job?”

(I’m longing to know what less tedious thing he would choose to fill his leisure time.)

Snape craves recognition e.g. Book 3 chapter 21 the promised Order of Merlin.

I presume, being a Slytherin and therefore ambitious, he likes status; I cannot believe he would enjoy running around for Dumbledore if the tasks were menial or trivial.
Slight, probably negligible, variance.
Degree of interest in what they can do for others

The Blackadders’ observations of others are made with a sarcastic sense of humour; they have an inbuilt sense of fun.  Beyond self-interest they usually have little interest in their interlocutors, although B-II did once try to teach Baldrick to count…

Blackadder: “Let's try again.  If I have two beans and then I add two more beans, what does that make?”

Baldrick: “Umm... a very small casserole.”
There is no evidence of Snape having much sense of fun – perhaps he would say ‘life is a serious business’.  Although Snape is often sarcastic and sometimes humorously so, he is quite often angry with Harry because there is information he is trying to put across which Harry is failing to take up e.g. Book 5 chapter 26 “You are lazy and sloppy, Potter!...”. Partial variance.
Ability to laugh at self The Blackadders, particularly I, II and III will clown around and send themselves up. Snape does not like to look a fool and will not send himself up, e.g. Book 3 chapter 11 he pushes away the stuffed vulture hat from the Christmas cracker. Variance.
Ability to socialise / contribute to conviviality

They are happy to let their hair down e.g. B-I explains “You see, the thing about heaven is that heaven is for people who like the sort of things that go on in heaven.  Like, well, singing, talking to God, watering pot plants…” and B-II moans “Oh, God, God, God!  What on earth was I drinking last night?  My head feels like there's a Frenchman living in it…” and B-III declaims “A man may fight for many things.  His country, his friends, his principles, the glistening tear on the cheek of a golden child.  But personally, I'd mud-wrestle my own mother for a ton of cash, an amusing clock and a sack o’ French porn”.

B-I and II are not above debauchery.

We never see Snape letting his hair down – even at the Yule Ball Book 4 chapter 23 he is not reported as dancing or even dining.  Did Dumbledore order him to patrol the school instead?  Admittedly Snape has Karkaroff’s fears to deal with, and the worry of his own developing Mark.

Snape never eats at Grimmauld Place Book 5 chapter 4.  Why is he unsociable?

He loathes Black too much?

He hates the ‘hangers on’ e.g. the Weasley kids?

He is naturally aloof?

He has special dietary needs?

(I suspect it’s the first three.)
Variance.
Warmth and the ability to sustain friendship Despite their habitual sarcasm Blackadders have a warmth and are not without friends and a loyal servant.

Snape seems to be a natural loner – perhaps by choice – although, seeing Hogwarts through the students’ eyes, we don’t have much opportunity to judge.  The only time we see him treating someone as a ‘friend’ is at the Yule Ball with Karkaroff, and his behaviour prior to meeting Harry and Ron is perfectly mature and normal.

His sense of responsibility results in concern for others (or is it the other way around?), but we have not seen this portrayed with warmth.
Variance.
Exposure of own emotional responses The Blackadders lead their emotional lives very much in the open.  They have a world-weary honesty about themselves / their feelings / their circumstances e.g. B-III quote “I'm as poor as a church mouse, that's just had an enormous tax bill on the very day his wife ran off with another mouse, taking all the cheese”.

Snape keeps his emotional life a strict secret and implies to Harry that he is above feeling emotion – Book 5 chapter 24 “Fools who wear their hearts proudly upon their sleeves, who cannot control their emotions…weak people…”

Actually I think Snape is being understandably less than frank here; his reactions, often hastily covered up, reveal that he does have emotional responses which he usually wants to keep hidden – certainly from Gryffindor students, for example;

Harry asks “What is in the department of Mysteries?” … “What did you say?” Snape asked quietly and Harry saw, with deep satisfaction, that Snape was unnerved … They glared at each other … Snape looked agitated; but when he spoke again he sounded as though he was trying to appear cool and unconcerned…

Snape works hard at not showing emotion; the only one he lets slip through is anger.

(A sudden thought…  Was he angry at having unshielded access to Harry’s thoughts because some memories that are painful to Harry are also painful to him, e.g. images of Lily?)
Key variance.
Preparedness to toady to others Apart from B-IV, all the Blackadders are a little obsequious when it is likely to advance their purpose. Snape can be a little obsequious when it suits his purpose e.g. in Book 3 chapter 21 when thanking Cornelius Fudge for the offer of the Order of Merlin. No variance.
Style of dress

B-I and II dress as richly as their finances will allow, in order to boost their image.  However, they often where black but usually picked out with silver.  B-II may be limited by the dress code of his employment and B-IV wears smart army uniform.

But they are all wise enough not to draw attention to themselves whenever the more prudent course of action is to keep a low profile.

Apart from wearing green at the Slytherin Quidditch final Book 3 chapter 15 Snape always wears black and without ornament.  Why?

It is part of his ‘act’ – he likes to play the brooding sorcerer who emerges from and melts back into the shadows?

He’s not interested in clothes – his mind is on less trivial matters?

He wants to be inconspicuous?

He feels black is ‘correct’ – it’s his equivalent of Barty Crouch’s pin striped suit?

He’s in mourning?

He thinks it’s cool?  (Yes, it is!!!)

Rowling wants us to think he’s a bat or a vampire.

(Personally, I suspect it’s the first point, which in a way is still about image, but it could well be the second point so I have scored this as a variance.)
Variance.
Ability to flirt All the Blackadders flirt; I, II and III do so as much as possible. We have never seen Snape flirt but he seems ill at ease socially and may not like to flirt in case he is made to look a fool. Probable variance.
Animal magnetism of the fictional character

The Blackadders are not conventionally handsome, yet there have considerable sexual chemistry and powers of attraction – particularly II and III.  This is so within their own (fictional) world, and it also spills over into the audience reaction.

Rowan Atkinson is not a classic pretty boy, but he knows how to turn on the sardonic charm.  It is part of the extreme popularity of the series.
Rowling seems to go out of her way to make Snape unattractive – uneven teeth which more than once we are told are yellow, and we are often reminded about the greasy hair.  Yet Snape is one of the most sexy characters in her books – the reams of adult fan fiction, photographs and artwork on umpteen fan sites are irrefutable evidence of this, and Alan Rickman is a past master at playing sardonic, sexy villains.  Again Rickman’s fan sites are testament to the huge appeal of his unconventional good looks. Little variance.
Vocal pitch and use of voice The Blackadder voices are not lightweight, but their sound is not used extensively to special effect.  Blackadders sneer but don’t often make use of their voices as a major weapon of intimidation – not to the degree that Snape does.

Snape’s deep voice is remarkable and he uses it ruthlessly.  Naturally soft, it ranges from whisper quiet to snarling.

Alan Rickman’s deep, raw cadences are an excellent choice for Snape’s voice.
Partial variance
Eyes and their route to the mind behind

The eyes – a window into the personality.

The Blackadders have black hair and cunningly lively, dark, watchful eyes.  Their eyes are not cold like Snape because the mind behind them has far more self-assurance, and often a sense of fun shines through.  They do not shut you out so much as Snape’s eyes do.

The eyes – a shuttered window?

Snape has black hair and cold, black, watchful eyes.  ‘Cold’ is a term often used to describe his expression / demeanour, and I suspect he often appears to be on his guard – this impression originating mainly from his eyes.  I sense he lacks self-assurance, not because of doubts about his technical ability, more likely his ability to handle social situations.  But perhaps I’m reading that wrong – perhaps he deliberately shuts people out to avoid mental penetration.
Partial variance

 

I have excluded the criteria relating to the comedy / non-comedy setting, and to the different perspectives.  I always give the novels precedence over the screenplays because, to me, the-Snape-of-the-books is the true Snape.  Of the 19 remaining criteria, 7 show nil or negligible variance, 10 show a reasonable degree of variance and 2 show key variance.

Conclusion  My conclusion is that despite a few superficial similarities Snape and Blackadder are fundamentally different, mainly because of Snape’s decision to keep his emotional responses undisclosed and his lack of sociability / unease in social situations.  He also has a degree of inner strength or bravery some of the Blackadders do not possess, but, typical of Snape, he keeps it hidden!

Further Theories  I think Snape’s unease in social situations stems from childhood humiliations or from too often being the butt of other peoples’ jokes; and his requirement to limit his emotional responses comes from two sources – his innate reserve and his current circumstances of being Dumbledore’s spy upon, or maybe within, the Death Eaters.

Afictionado, 3rd March 2004