71 pages 2 hours read

Joseph Kesselring

Arsenic and Old Lace

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1941

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Character Analysis

Mortimer Brewster

Mortimer Brewster is the protagonist of Arsenic and Old Lace. He is a somewhat begrudging drama critic and Abby and Martha’s nephew. Mortimer’s plans to marry Elaine Harper are jeopardized when he learns that his seemingly benevolent aunts are actually murderers. This prompts Mortimer to reject Elaine for her own safety and question everything he thought he knew about his beloved aunts as he attempts to resolve his family’s crimes. Mortimer often plays the comedic foil to other characters, meaning that his more grounded, realistic reactions to the play’s events highlight the zany behavior of the Brewsters. Mortimer’s name also functions as a joke in the play, as “Mort-” derives from the Latin for “death”, suggesting the very connection to lethal violence that Mortimer fears is his inevitable birthright.

Most of Mortimer’s struggles pertain to his identity. Though his anxieties are underscored by comedy, they motivate many of Mortimer’s choices throughout the play. Mortimer’s judgment is impacted by his complex relationship with his family. He fears that being a Brewster means eventually succumbing to insanity. He sees this replicated in generations of his family, beginning with his murderous colonial ancestor and ending with his brothers, Teddy and Jonathan.