Evil is not an entity that lends itself to quantification. However, there are various ways to measure levels of malevolence, and there are certainly some baseline requirements that one must meet to be truly evil. Therefore, I present six guidelines to evil: conscience, understanding, method, reason, effectiveness, and response. These will be elaborated on in turn. Before we begin analyzing characters, note that two elements of the six are basic necessities for an individual to be considered evil – one, he must understand the full implications of what he is doing, and two, he must not hesitate because of conscience or internal goodness.
The former represents a sign of naivete, the latter a sign of virtue. However, it is safe to say that both Iago of Othello and Uriah Heep of David Copperfield are both aware and willful. And although Iago may appear more villainous, it is really Uriah Heep who embodies the soul of Satan. The guidelines of conscience and understanding, already addressed, are fairly even with Iago and Uriah. Both fully understand the consequences of their actions, and neither cares about the destruction of lives, family, or property of others.
But the actual methods they use are vastly different, and here is where the difference begins. Iago seeks the destruction of Othello, and he attains it by feigning honesty and using everyone around him as a repository for Iago’s lies and deceptions. Uriah Heep seeks the destruction of Mr. Wickfield through feigning honesty, but he uses blackmail as his weapon, not gossip. Everything for Uriah is held close to his chest; until Micawber comes, no one knows anything of his methods. Certainly the method for evil, while a deciding factor in wickedness, is a stylistic manner.
It is important, but not in determining whether Iago or Uriah is a more sinful character. But the method affects every other measurable aspect of transgression, so it must be stated. The first quantifiable characteristic of evil is reason – the basis the character has for committing his sins. It may appear initially that those with no good reason for their actions, i. e. Iago, are more evil, but that is a path too easily taken. If the embodiment of evil is Satan, then to decide the matter, one must examine what Satan does. His reason for creating Hell is sensible: he wanted to rule, not be ruled.
For his transgressions against humanity, he is asserting his leadership and dominance to God. Satan never commits senseless acts of violence; he always has a purpose in deed. Otherwise he could not be true evil; he would be a purposeless mess of randomness. So, in this way, Iago’s lack of a cogent motive lessens his ability to be truly satanic. On the other hand, Uriah Heep is clear in reason. He wants money, power, and stature in the form of the law firm, and sex in the form of Agnes. His goals are clear, his methods are planned.
Because he is so sure, he does not need to repeatedly wax philosophically about why he is committing his deeds. But Iago does, and is less evil in this way. The fifth aspect of malevolence is the effectiveness of the method. Uriah Heep clearly has an extremely effective method because he has reasons and he keeps his plans and lies to himself. He embezzles money while convincing everyone around him, including Mr. Wickfield, that Wickfield himself is losing it through bad business. He then leverages the lack of money in Wickfield’s family to try and force Agnes Wickfield to marry him.
The fact that Uriah fails in his goal is not nearly as important to the model of evil as the tightness of the plot. Evil is never measured in terms of actual results; an accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy, killing dozens, is far less evil than the hate crime of tying a minority to the bumper of a car – or even the planning of such an event. So it makes sense to rate effectiveness more as a measure of the completeness and layout of the plan, rather than what happens. This gives more “evil credit” to the best thought-out plans, which is how it should be.
But of course, Iago’s plot is pretty badly slapped together as time goes on, and he is extremely lucky that no one figures it out or questions his honesty before Othello kills Desdemona. In David Copperfield, everyone knows that Uriah is a weird guy with something up his sleeve, and no one trusts him very much, but this doesn’t help them toward stopping his plot. Uriah’s plan is set up much more effectively, with only the care of a true satanic force, whereas Iago’s is slightly slipshod. Finally, it is essential to consider the response of the character after being captured.
Iago seems a bit defeated – he can no longer play honest ancient, so he is quiet. When the gig is up, his power to be evil is gone; his only strength was manipulating people who didn’t trust others. The truth comes out, and Iago looks like a pathetic truant. But Heep comes out much stronger. He’s always been a slimeball, and when he’s captured, he is no different. When David visits him in jail years later, he’s same guy he always has been, in this case manipulating the jailers so he can get out early. While Iago seems content to sulk in his failure at getting caught, Uriah isn’t giving up.
Thus he fits the model of evil better; Satan does not give up, nor falter. Although “evil” in itself is such a subjective term, it is possible to use these criteria to measure Uriah Heep against Iago. Iago may be called the most evil character in literature behind Satan, but he really pales next to the iniquities of Heep. Only Uriah is well planned, well reasoned, and persistent like the Devil. When the scores are totaled, the comparison isn’t even close. Shakespeare may deliver Iago as a wicked man, yes, but he is no Uriah Heep.