The Roles of the “Villain” in Shakespeare’s Plays

M.A. student

Early Modern Theatre, essay 2

14, January, 2004-1-14

Among the numerous roles in Shakespeare’s plays, there are some villains profoundly depicted, each exhibiting some unique features in personality and mindset. Their villainousness is so striking that the reader of the plays cannot help contemplating the dark side of human nature and exploring the motives of their evil behavior. Some of the villains --- represented by Edmund in King Lear --- are comparatively easy to analyze, while some others to some extent beyond the common expectation, making themselves examples of utter wickedness: Iago in Othello, for example.

As is stated by David Lowenthal, ancient Greek and Roman tragedies do not necessarily have villains. Terrible acts the roles may commit, they seem totally believe in the righteousness of their behaviors. And most of the tragedies are caused by human weaknesses. But the situation changes in Christian times. Being a dualistic system, Christianity sets a fundamental difference between good and evil, right and wrong. So the Christian drama naturally has a tendency of demonizing the evildoers, with the Vice in English morality plays as a precise example. “In post-classical tragedy, the number of villains increases, as does their villainousness.”[1] Under the influence of the two traditions, Shakespeare creates both the types of figure, ranging from the poor victims of their mental weaknesses to the embodiments of evil. As I see it, the profundity of Shakespeare lies in that, in depicting a villain, he always provide some convincing reasons --- at least some clues --- to explain their corruptness. Shakespeare seems to have some doubts of the idea of the born villain and perceive the co-existence of good and evil in people, which accords with modern psychological theory. Even in the demonized Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus, the audience can find the virtue of “caring truly for his offspring”[2] which is totally absent in the “civilized” Romans. Furthermore, carefully studying the text and the social background of the time, one may even find some incentive of his villainy.

As is mentioned above, Edmund in King Lear and Aaron in Titus Andronicus are the typical instances of the lists of villains in Shakespeare’s plays. By comparison, one can clearly find Shakespeare’s definition of the concept “villain”. And more important, one can sometimes read Shakespeare’s explanation of “the making of a villain”, which may help understand the complicated human nature more deeply than before reading them.

In Shakespeare’s works, Either the Machiavellian villains or the incarnation of evil always share some common qualities. They are rebels of the existing belief, social order and degree, they are destroyers of beauty and virtues; they do not believe in the upgrade of human being, but good at pinpointing the weakness of others and making use of them for their own benefit; they are talented actors, crafty in disguising themselves under the cover of good sorts; they are ambitious activists rather than philosophers, they never waste time like Hamlet when carrying out their plans. Nor do they bother to justify their evil behaviors like the hypocrite; they do not need to convince or deceive their sense of guilty because they are mentally twisted for various reasons. Besides, they manage to get rid of any moral restrictions that prevent them from committing evil things, and hence they always appear to be sheer rationalists. They never curse their fates, but try all means to change them or simply take revenge for them. Therefore, they always display a desperate courage facing their fates. When they eventually fail, they never show the least timidity and beg for forgiveness. They are quite self-dependent because they never totally trust anybody else. On the other hand, they are extremely lonely deep in heart.

With all these similarities, Shakespeare’s villains do demonstrate their unique features. Shakespeare thoroughly understands that different experiences make different characters. So in his plays, there are no two villains completely the same. Furthermore, he supplies, apparently or vaguely, the reason or the motive of their twisted personalities. The degrees of their twists in personality also vary, with Edmund comparatively normal, and Aaron the radical extreme.

The striking feature of Edmund can be defined as “materialism”, mainly expressed in the emotion of “contempt”. The traditional religion, moral code, belief in