One of the things we really love about Scott is that he is not as straightforward a writer as he may seem at first glance. His direct descriptions of characters don't always match up with their actions.
For example, Scott comes right out and says that Brian de Bois-Guilbert has an "air of haughtiness, easily acquired by the exercise of unresisted authority" (4.2). In other words, he's a proud snob who's used to getting his own way. This appears to be a piece of direct characterization, since Scott is giving us explicit information about Bois-Guilbert's character.
But while Scott tells us that Bois-Guilbert is proud and used to getting his own way, he shows us a Bois-Guilbert who is changed by his love for Rebecca. The novel's direct characterizations of Bois-Guilbert don't always jive with his actions and development over the course of the book, as when he begs Rebecca to run away with him and when he self-destructs during the duel with Ivanhoe rather than allowing Rebecca to be executed.
Similarly, we are told over and over again about King Richard's bravery and honor, but his long resistance to taking his throne back suggests a layer of irresponsibility amid all of that courage.
We think it's more important to keep an eye on what the characters do than on what they say. The actions of the characters in Ivanhoe often speak louder than Scotts' words.
The names of the characters in Ivanhoe are deeply significant. We already mentioned in "What's Up With the Title?" that Ivanhoe's own name comes from an English nursery rhyme. Rowena is a great name for an ideal English lady, since it's the name of one of the first English queens in the fourth century. The historical Rowena was also the daughter of Hengist, whom Cedric mentions all the time. Isaac in the Bible is a Jewish patriarch, the son of Abraham. Rebecca is Isaac's wife in the Bible, which makes things a little weird, since she's Isaac's daughter here. The point is, Isaac and Rebecca are both familiar Old Testament names that Scott's audience would associate with Jewish identity.
The in-jokes really start to come in with the Norman names. For example, remember the brothers Albert and Philip Malvoisin? "Malvoisin" literally means "bad neighbor" in French. Reginald Front-de-Boeuf is Reginald Ox-Face, as his shield design reflects. (See "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" for more on Front-de-Boeuf's shield.) Lucas Beaumanoir's last name literally means "beautiful manor" – perhaps a reference to the very fine establishment he has going as leader of the Knights Templar. These names sound believably French, but they also have double meanings to entertain Ivanhoe's readers.
Physical descriptions are a pretty good way of gauging how Scott feels about a certain character. Ivanhoe, our hero, is young and handsome. Bois-Guilbert, our villain, is older, stern and kind of angry-looking. And take this description of Isaac:
[H]is high and wrinkled forehead, and long grey hair and beard, would have been considered as handsome, had they not been the marks of a physiognomy peculiar to a race which, during those dark ages, was alike detested by the credulous and prejudiced vulgar. (5.12)
Scott is saying that, by today's standards, Isaac's features are impressive, but by the standards of the prejudiced Middle Ages, he looks repulsive. There's a disconnect between the way Isaac looks objectively and the way the characters in Ivanhoe evaluate his appearance. Scott's first physical description of Isaac also conveys the horrible prejudice that surrounds him. In this way, physical description becomes a way for Scott to get at something important about Isaac's character.
Cedric identifies himself as Saxon. Bois-Guilbert, De Bracy, and Malvoisin all seem to consider themselves Norman. Saxon and Norman identities come with a whole host of prejudices and resentments that set them against each other.
Then there is this third nationality, English, which is more complicated. The outlaws in the forest swear to "Merry Saint George for England!" (31.23), and King Richard thinks of himself as King of England, the king of the outlaws and the Normans and the Saxons. He doesn't just represent one side or the other.
What English identity means in Ivanhoe is a little hard to pin down, but it has positive associations with freedom and fair play. The older generation of guys, who still identify as Saxon or Norman, appear much more prejudiced, even self-serving, than Englishmen like Ivanhoe.