Villains In Shakespeare Essay, Research Paper
When reading a story, people tend to identify with the hero. They like to think of themselves as heroes in their own lives and the success of a hero in a story makes them feel better about their chances of success in their own lives. However, a hero is only as great as the obstacle he can overcome. The obstacle can be a natural disaster or even a wild animal but it is a human villain who himself develops and changes as the story unfolds that can be the most challenging, and therefore interesting obstacle to overcome. In fact, it is the villain who makes the story exciting. What is a story without a villain? For example, what would the story of Cinderella be without the ever-present evil of Cinderella?s wicked stepmother and stepsister?s. And the ending of the story would be much less satisfying if the prince did not have to run all over town, shoe in hand to find his true love. We would never have come to know and love the seven dwarfs if Snow White wouldn?t have been kicked out of the house by her jealous stepmother. It is the villain who moves and compels the story. It is the villain who provides the conflict that in turn sets the story into motion. As George W. Williams says of Iago ?…The most energetic of the number and because of that energy… the most interesting (Williams, 96).? It seems that many of the best theatrical moments go to these shadowy figures.
There are many characteristics that define a villain. Shakespeare does an outstanding job of creating tremendously well developed villains, the type of villains that you ?love to hate?. I will use two of Shakespeare?s most famous villains, Iago and Claudius, to examine the character and function of villains in a drama.
For one, villains are self-serving. These egocentric characters place their own interests above the interest of others. They refuse to accept the idea of a higher morality and pursue their own ends at the expense of the rest of the world (Geitzen, 2). When Iago doesn?t get the job that he thinks he deserves, he sets out to destroy Cassio, who did get the job, and Othello, who gave Cassio the job. He is willing to build himself up at the expense of ruining Othello?s life. Claudius kills his brother and takes the throne for himself while he parties and drinks away his nights and isn?t doing the best for his country. He puts his own power before the welfare of the state of Denmark.
Secondly, villains are aggressive. The antagonists set out to attain their goals. They make things happen, and force other people to react. When something in the world causes discontent for a villain, he sets out to change the order of things, or at least make himself feel better (Geitzen, 2). Iago creates situations and facts about Desdemona?s infidelity in order to build up and add concrete information to his case against her, leaving no room in Othello?s mind for doubt on Desdemona?s guilt. Claudius doesn?t wait for his brother to die of natural causes, he creates the ?natural causes? that lead to his brother?s death.
Most villains are also loners. This may sound contradictory, for one cannot be a villain without others to dupe. And yet, the villains are isolated individuals. They have no genuine relationships with any of the other characters in the play. All their interactions are based on falsehoods and deceits. The villain may have allies, but these characters will be used or discarded once they have served the villains needs (Geitzen, 2). Claudius, for example, marries Gertrude on the pretense that he truly loves her. However, he has no real feelings for her. When Gertrude is about to drink from the poisoned cup, Claudius warns her with a tepid ?Gertrude, do not drink (Hamlet 5.2.291).? Maurice Charney calls Iago a master of a withering and dismissive contempt (Charney, 256). Even as he is setting up Roderigo to kill Cassio, he refers contemptuously about Roderigo saying, ?I have rubbed this young quat almost to the sense (Othello 5.1.11)?, calling Roderigo by a derogatory term meaning boil or pimple. In fact, Iago would be just as happy if Cassio kills Roderigo as he says ?Now, whether he kill Cassio, or Cassio him, or each do kill the other, every way makes my game (Othello 5.1.12).? He wins either way.
Villains are also inevitably forces of decay and instability. Whenever a villain practices his craft, chaos immediately follows (Geitzen, 3). As a result of the scheming of Iago, Desdemona and Emilia are murdered, Roderigo is murdered indirectly by retribution, and Othello and Barbantion have committed suicide. Cassio only survives because the attempt on his life is unsuccessful. Villains can never build up order, never create, but may only destroy. The kingly villains who try to maintain an ordered state are doomed to fail. Throughout ?Hamlet?, images of disease and decay persist. There is indeed, something rotten in the state of Denmark, and Claudius is at the root of it. As early as line nine of the play, Francisco admits that he is “sick at heart.” These words are a harbinger of the catastrophe that is to come. Hamlet views life as “an unweeded garden? things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely” (1.2.135-7). When Polonius betrays his thoughts by asking if Hamlet will walk out of the air — fresh air being bad for invalids — Hamlet’s reply is morbid: “Into my grave” (2.2.207). This sickness in Denmark, and all that destruction that comes with it, is a direct result of the King’s unnatural ambition (Geitzen, 8).
Finally, villains are self-deceptive. Shakespeare?s villains know that goodness and justice usually win yet they can convince themselves that they will be the exception to the rule and triumph over the forces of good (Geitzen, 3).
The villains also have a formidable arsenal of weapons at their command, and they use them well. The evil ones know tricks that turn the less intelligent, but virtuous people against whom they pit themselves into mere playthings, sources for evil minded enjoyment. These tools are essentially sideline goals for the villain?s victory (Geitzen, 3).
Villains discourage success. When other people do well, it builds up their ego and moves them slightly away from being pawns of the villain. Success in others runs contrary to the purpose of a villain. By turning every victory into a defeat, by spoiling every triumph, the villain advances his own aim a little farther. Claudius poison?s Hamlet?s wine in case he should win at fencing; Iago turns Cassio?s promotion into a weapon against him. In this way, Claudius and Iago are furthering their goal.
Villains exploit weakness. They recognize the flaws in other human beings, and make these defects into tools to be used to attain their ultimate goal. Willingness to trust, jealousy and anger are mere playthings for the villain. A villain looks for that fatal chink in the armor and then aims directly for that most vulnerable spot. His villainous capacity for self-deception, though, keeps him from seeing his own flaws (Geitzen, 2).
Villains cause people to doubt one another or themselves. A man?s trust in his wife or son is a powerful bond but one that can shatter with some carefully placed words. Iago has no trouble convincing Othello of Desdemona?s infidelity. By severing the links between people, the villains isolate and weaken their victims. To the Machiavellian mind of a villain, breaking people up into factions makes them easier pray. By causing enough doubt, the villain can reduce others to the way he sees the world: that we are each a faction onto ourselves (Gietzen, 3). Claudius has an amazing ability to make his evil acts appear to be acceptable. When he marries Gertrude, Hamlet is the only one who reacts normally to this abnormal, incestuous situation (Coe, 99).
Villains mislead their prey, by misrepresenting facts, or by distracting their prey from fully realizing, and acting on, the facts they know. People make choices base on the information available to them. Control of this information grants control of the resulting choices. Villains understand this and know how to alter people?s perception in a way that aids the villain (Geitzen, 4). Desdemona?s father might have been overjoyed at her marrying Othello, but Iago presented the information to him in a way that made the situation unbearable. When Roderigo discovers that Iago has been pocketing his money, he screams at Iago and threatens him. However, when Iago tells him some fanciful plot to capture Desdemona?s heart, Roderigo forgets Iago?s threat and agrees to kill Cassio. Iago himself admits to fooling people. As he says about Othello:
The Moor is of a free and open nature
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,
And will as tenderly be led by th? nose
As asses are (1.3.390-93)
The ability to say the right things at the right time is what makes a villain so successful (Charney, 254).
Claudius and Iago have a lot in common, but they are also quite different. Both Iago and Claudius use poison as a tool of their evil schemes. However, the poison that is used by Claudius is physical poison in the liquid state. He kills the king, Hamlet, by pouring poison in his ear. He also poisons the sword he is to use to fight Hamlet as well as the water that Hamlet may drink. Iago, on the other hand, is an expert at poisoning people?s minds. Iago tricks Othello into believing that his wife is having an affair without any concrete proof. Othello is so caught up in Iago?s lies that he refuses to believe Desdemona when she denies the whole thing (Williams, 97).
While both Claudius and Iago are villains, their morality systems are different. Although Claudius has been said to be more of a hypocrite, based on his outward shows of affection for Hamlet (Coe, 5), his conscience is much in evidence in the play. Claudius has no illusions about the magnitude of his own guilt, and his questions to G-d are searing in their passionate intensity:
What if this cursed hand
Were thicker then itself with brother?s blood,
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow? (3.3.43-46)
Although Claudius admits his guilt, he is not truly penitent because he knows that he cannot be forgiven (Charney, 243).
Since I am still possessed
Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen. (3.3.53-55)
Nevertheless, Claudius? admission of his guilt, even if it is only to himself, and the obvious difficulty he has in living with feelings, make him more human.
Iago is also full of hypocrisy. One minute he hides his hatred for Cassio, and dismisses reputation as ?an idle and most false imposition? (2.3.68-69). The next time we see Iago, he is acting as a close friend and confidant to Othello, despite his dislike for the Moor, and tells him ?Good name in man and woman, dear my lord, / Is the immediate jewel of their souls? (2.3.155-156). On the other hand, Iago?s technique for controling others clearly demonstrates his connection to Satan. Iago captures the souls of his puppets by offering them gratification in exchange for service. Roderigo desires Desdemona, Cassio desires a return to favor, and Othello desires certainty. Iago grants his pawns their wishes at a high price (Geitzen, 10).
In 2.3, Iago himself makes a connection between himself and Satan, saying,
Divinity of hell!
When devils will the blackest sins put on
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows
As I do now (345-8)
He further expounds on his nature as corrupter of Othello: ?I?ll pour? pestilence into his ear,? as he plans to slander Desdemona. As for her goodness he ?will turn her virtue into pitch/ And out of her own goodness make the net/ That shall enmesh them all.? Once Iago obtains Desdemona?s handkerchief, he gloats that Othello will ?Burn like the mines of sulphur? (3.3.332). After Iago has convinced him of Desdemona?s infidelity, Othello thunders ?All my fond love I do thus blow to heaven? Arise black vengeance from the hollow hell? (3.3.448-50). As Othello swears to destroy Desdemona, he kneels, and after a moment, Iago kneels with him. This stunning image is an overt pact with the devil, and the scene ends with Iago?s ominous line ?I am your own forever.?(Geitzen, 10) This brazen, amoral, abuse of another?s trust and feelings to achieve his evil goals makes Iago the epitome of villany.