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

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, he 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 sychological 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 efinition 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 enefit; 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 law and order become the target of mockery to him. His soliloquy at the opening of Act 1, Scene 2 apparently indicates his basic attitude to life. For him the idea of “Nature” signifies a world without law and order. One is entitled to whatever one can gain by one’s wits without considering the sense of guilt or the punishment from inside. As Ian Johnston points out, “(F)for him,… there is no standard of virtue which determines the value of one’s life. People are what they are, and that is simply a compound of desire and talents to seize opportunities. [3] This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeit of our own behavior, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars; as if we were illains by necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on. An admirable evasion of whore-master man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star!

My father compounded with my mother under the dragon’s tail, and my nativity was under Ursa Major, so that it follows, I am rough and lecherous. Fut! I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing. 4] (1. 2. 109-122). In his words, Edmund shows no respect to the metaphysical thought of human being and no admiration for human dignity as well. Moral code is nothing but a restrict for his constant pursuit of personal benefit. Edmund is just a materialist, but not an atheist.

His opening lines reveal his real belief: Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law My service are bound. Wherefore should I Stand in the plague of custom, and permit The curiosity of nations to deprive me, For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines Lag of a brother?… I grow, I prosper. Now gods, stand up for bastards! (1. . 1-21) Refusing to abide by the traditional “order”, Edmund follows the cruel and unscrupulous natural law of competition. Just like Robert Speaight points out, Edmund is easier to be understood by modern people, because he represents an attitude to life of a new age. This is the free-for-all society, the jungle of unrestricted competition, the swaggering, rampant capitalism of the New Age. Here is adventure instead of custom, contract instead of status, man instead of God. “[5] Most of the evil plans in human brain are not brought into reality simply because of the effect of sense of uilty. As long as human conscience is suppressed, the heinous evildoing will be inevitable in such brutal competition. Another impressive characteristics of Edmund is his endless greed.

American psychologist Erich Fromm wrote in his book Escape from Freedom that greed is a bottomless pit that exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction. [6] Through his speech, actions, and relationships with other characters, Edmund becomes a character gradually ruined by avarice to the point that nothing lse matters except for the endless snatch for social status and material possessions. Edmund seems to become more and more greedy as the production progresses. In Act 1, all his ambition is to take the place of his elder brother, Edgar.

But, as his ambition gradually expands out of his control, what begins as a simple plan to get all of his father’s inheritance becomes more and more despicable. While talking to the Duke of Cornwall, he seizes another opportunity to have his father arrested for treason. Edmund sees this as an opportunity to progress forward in his quest for material hings, and, rather than simply being given the inheritance that is rightfully his brother’s, realizes that he could also get his father’s castle and lands all at once. The vulnerable blood bond between Edmund and his father immediately gives way to the material benefit.

The final stage of Edmund’s greed comes in Act five when he captures King Lear and his supporters in battle. Perhaps he is thinking of another greater plan for himself: With the help of his newly gained lovers, Regan and Goneril, he may possibly become King of Britain. Driven by the extreme ambition, Edmund orders Lear’s execution. It is such constantly expanding greed that finally consumes him. Ian Johnston’s analysis of Edmund’s personality points out: “it’s important to note that Edmund (unlike Richard of Gloucester or Macbeth) does not have his eye fixed on any final goal.

He wants to stir things up so that he can improvise his way to a better position, which for him means attain more power and prestige”[7]. It is also worth noting that when Edgar appears and turns the situation, when “(T)the wheel is come full circle”(l. l. 164) and all the efforts of Edmund turns out in vein, Edmund’s conscience seems awakened. Hearing his father’s death, he begins to see the err of his ways and responds: This speech of yours hath moved me, and shall perchance do good? (5. 3. ll. 90-191) However, what touches him most, I choose to believe, is the death of Regan and Goneril. Not only does he realize that his greed also leads to their deaths, but also he is awakened by the loss of two women who “truly” love him. Edmund is never loved and respected by his own father. Ironically, from the two evil women, he for the first time feels the wonderful and unfamiliar feeling: being loved, being cherished, and being trusted. Oddly enough, it is the other two vile characters that bring about Edmund’s redemption.

He acknowledges this with: “Yet Edmund was belov’d! The one the other poison’d for my sake, And after slew herself” (5. 3. ll. 214-16). And, perhaps, this makes his sudden change understandable. A man who has spent his entire life unacknowledged, scorned by his father, when suddenly faced with love, from two different women (twisted though they may be), might begin to understand some of the pleasures of the world. By turning from his evil ways and asking forgiveness, Edmund rises above the anks of the irredeemable villain and become a man of penitence.

His change can not simply be explained by a desire to save himself on his deathbed — being a rebel of the traditional religion and value code, he has little fear of an afterlife and the corresponding punishment — so it must comes from the exterior, and causes the changes within himself. It is reasonable to believe that, if he had received the love earlier, Edmund probably would not fall down to the list of villains. Compared to the remorse of Edmund, Aaron chooses to maintain a villain till the end of his life. Simply because of this, he is entitled a superior place than Edmund in the list of villains.

Being a rascallion of a higher rank, Aaron apparently possesses all the features Edmund has. However, his unique villainy is much more inexcusable than that of Edmund. Like all villains, Aaron is also greedy for power and status. In his soliloquy at the beginning of act 2, the Moor declares his ambition in such literary words: Then, Aaron, arm thy heart and fit thy thoughts To mount aloft with thy imperial mistress, And mount her pitch whom thou in triumph long Hast prisoner held fettered in amorous chains, And faster bound to Aaron’s charming eyes Than is Prometheus tied to Caucasus.

Away with slavish weeds and servile thoughts! I will be bright, and shine in pearl and gold To wait upon this new-made empress. To wait, said I? — to wanton with the queen, This goddess, this Semiramis, this nymph, This siren that will charm Rome’s Saturnine And see his shipwreck and his commonweal’s. Hollo, what storm is this? [8] Compared with Edmund, Aaron is not only a materialist, but also a complete atheist. He does not believe in anything beyond the material world, such as love, religion, conscience, and virtues.

He even does not ask for the natural power for strength. As is stated in Shakespearian Tragedy, “the natural world is not itself corrupt: it simply reflects the corruption of the observer”[9]. In Aaron’s eyes, nature is “ruthless, dreadful, deaf and dull”(2. 1. 128), “fitted by kind for rape and villainy”(2. 1. 117). The word “barbarian” appears seven times in Titus Andronicus, most of which refers to the conspiracy and brutality committed by Aaron. In the play, this figure does not represent “greed” and “materialism”, but “revenge” and “hostility”.

The difference between Aaron and Edmund is easily identified. Edmund’s credo is that: “Let me, if not by birth, have lands by wit; All with me’s meet that I can fashion fit”(1. 2. 167-69). He does not deliberately take revenge on anybody. He has no particular desire to injure his father or his brother; he just wants them out of his way, so he can be what he wants to be. Just as Ian Johnston concludes: “His later complicity in the torturing of his father is a logical extension of this attitude to life, not part of his original desire to mutilate Gloucester”[10].

But his willingness to etray his father indicates just how much he sees other people merely as instruments to be manipulated to get to his own goal. However, Aaron’s incentive is quite different. From the beginning of Titus Andronicus, he seems have a negative and cynical attitude to everything and everybody. All his pursuits for status and power are for the purpose of becoming a stronger devil and destroyer. Every move he makes only serves the goal of revenge on the whole human being. Demetrius and Chiron are manipulated in order to destroy Lavinia; Saturninus is manipulated to destroy Titus

Andronicus; Even his lover, Tamora, is used to destroy Saturninus and the Roman society. Except his own infant son, Aaron disdains everybody, every kind of human emotion, and the whole value code in “civilization”. In the last act, Aaron declares: But I have done a thousand dreadful things As willingly as one would kill a fly, And nothing grieves me heartily indeed But that I cannot do ten thousand more. (5. 1. ll. 141-44) Edmund chooses to abandon the moral code and follow the cruel natural law; while Aaron chooses to stay on the evil side and makes himself the enemy of human ethics out of his own free will.

Aaron’s hostility against the human nature and the “civilization” is so determined that he shows no regret at all before his death. He refuses to make any compromise with civilization and the world. Unlike Edmund, Aaron needs neither atonements and redemption nor the conscience awakened by human love, because he feels neither righteous god nor true love from others for him. Although Aaron and Edmund are both considered typical villains, they are not completely demonized figures. As modern psychological theory proves, there are no crime or evildoing totally motiveless.

With analysis, both the wo figures’ motive and the reasons of their villainy can be traced out. Edmund’s corruptness is due to his shameful origin and Glocester’s neglect of the responsibility of a father; while Aaron’s hostility against “civilization” is mainly the result of the common but unfair prejudice against his race. Edmund’s excuses are apparently provided in King Lear, and there have already been so many critics, such as Foakes, who have tried to let Edmund off the hook.

As David Lowenthal points out, King Lear is the culmination of a frequent Shakespearean theme, “the idea that the forces of evil equire for their operation the willed neglect or ignorance of or carelessness about the responsibilities which sustain justice in the human community”[11]. King Lear neglects his duty as a king; Glocester ignores his obligation as a father. Born as a bastard son of a noble family, Edmund was raised by his father since his childhood. The play does not tell the audience whether his mother also came in with Edmund, but from common knowledge we know it is not likely.

We do know from the play that, losing the shelter of mother, Edmund naturally needs more care and love from ather. But what he receives from Glocester is only humiliation and indifference. He is hidden isolated like a stain of the family and the respectable nobleman. He has been sent abroad for nine years, and will be out again. His father prevents him from entering the court, and hence deprives him of his right to control his own life. Apart from the waste of his energy and intelligence, Edmund also has to face the insulting words from his father who has himself made the mistake.

Who can bear to hear one’s own father talking about his own sinful “sport” in such a casual, ven sarcastic tone? Both Edmund and Edgar are the sons of Glocester, but Edgar is born to inherit everything from his father, while Edmund get nothing but a disgraceful status. And everybody acknowledges the gap between the brothers who have not much difference in talent and intelligence. In this case, it should not be expected that Edmund have any gratitude for his father and family, and it is hard to imagine his personality not twisted.

To Edmund, the goal of first priority is to “get ahead”, to justify his existence all by himself. From the end of the play, e find that the love from others, even from such wicked sisters, can bring him back to normal human feelings, because through their love, Edmund finally finds the significance of his life. In Titus Andronicus, the role of Aaron is created to form the contrast and conflict between “civilization” and “barbarism”. But the boundary between them is quite vague. In the first act, the “civilized” Romans commit most of the atrocities.

On the other hand, Aaron the Moor, whom the Bartels calls the “consummate villain”, shows a family loyalty towards his child, which Titus conspicuously lacks in the first scene. The civilized Titus kills his son “in a bad quarrel”(1. 1. ll. 342); the “barbarous Moor”(5. 3. ll. 4) is willing to reveal his own guilt if only his son might survive. This is a clear hint that Aaron is not simply depicted as an embodiment of evil. Some critics believe that the virtue bestowed on the role is to make a sharp contrast to the cruelty of the “civilized” Romans, thus conveying the moral that following a “false god” is sometimes much worse than atheism.

At the same time it also determines that the role of Aaron is more complicated than the role of Vice in the morality play. He eeds to be analyzed as a specific person rather than the incarnation of devil as he claims himself to be. As is showed in the play, the most important difference in appearance between Aaron and other roles is “race”. In Titus Andronicus, racism is quite common in Roman society. At the age of Shakespeare, racism as a concept was not yet understood. But an awareness of race and also an attaching of symbolic meaning to a certain race prove the existence of “racialist ideology”.

Emily C. Bartels concludes: “Titus Andronicus presents the [racial] stereotype as the one reliable measure of difference, he one stable and unambiguous sign of Otherness within a “wilderness” of meanings”[12]. However, it might be better to interpret the play otherwise: it manages to explain the reason and cause of certain race relating to evil. Aaron’s selfless love for his son just proves he is by no means a born devil, but a twisted soul willingly choosing to be the enemy of the existing civilization. In the play, there are many signs indicating that a Moor is not welcome in Rome.

Even the innocent Lavinia compares Aaron to a “raven”(2. 3. ll. 83). Coincidentally, when Aaron brings Titus a false hope of saving his sons, Titus says: “Did ever raven sing so like a lark/That gives sweet tidings of the sun’s uprise? “(3. 1. ll. 158-59) When the righteous Bassianus condemns Tamora, he also mentions the color of the Moor: Believe me, Queen, your swart Cimmerian Doth make your honour of his body’s hue, Spotted, detested, and abominable. (2. 3. ll. 72-74) From his point of view, committing adultery is infamous. But committing adultery with a black Moor makes the crime much worse.

When the nurse and Lucius mention Aaron’s color, they both draw attention to the connection between his color and the devil. Of course Lucius has enough reason to call Aaron a “devil”(5. 1. ll. 145), but when the nurse describes the newborn baby as a devil, she is apparently speaking out a common prejudice: A joyless, dismal, black, and sorrowful issue. Here is the baby, as loathsome as a toad Amongst the fair-faced breeders of our clime. (4. 2. ll. 66-68) The baby is described as “sorrowful” and “dismal” only because he is “black”. His fate is doomed because he is not “fair-faced”.

The most important clue as to Aaron’s incentive is his reaction to such a prejudice. He himself seems to willingly accept the racial stereotype of he white society. Sometimes he draws attention to his color and his racial difference, his “woolly hair”(2. 3. ll. 34), his black face (3. 1. ll. 204) as well as his “coal-black” hue (4. 2. ll. 101). He even cynically uses the biased language to describe his own wickedness. When the Goth blames him for never flushing in confessing his crimes, he replies: “Ay, like a black dog, as the saying is”(5. 1. ll122). For most of the time, Aaron seems too glad to accept that he is a devil.

But he chooses the Gothic princes, Demetrius and Chiron, as his disciples rather than his own black son. Being a Moor in Europe at that time, Aaron cannot escape from the influence of the racialist ideology. He is born black, and naturally bears the “sign of devil”. Undoubtedly, he is “irreligious”, “filthy” and “barbarous”. However, these names are just the most common titles put onto any black people. Even if he had chosen another way of life, can he totally get rid of these insults? Moreover, can anybody who grows up under such circumstances maintain heartsease and calmness?

In the play, Aaron appears so close to a devil and so determined to carry on that the audience may aturally connect his incentive to “revenge”. As Bartel analyses: “Aaron himself recognizes his color difference as alien and ultimately alienating. “[13] Finding no way to defeat the common-acknowledged prejudice, he chooses the most radical way — being a real devil as the white people claim the Moor to be. By alienating himself, he can freely take revenge on those who discriminate and tend to persecute him. In the later adaptations of the play, Aaron is described as a more complicated figure.

In Titus Andronicus: The Rape of Lavinia (1687) by Edward Ravencroft, Aaron is no longer the straightforward black villain. The role is given more lines; and he is depicted as a heroic figure, an oppressed figure seeking vengeance. This adaptation recognizes the role’s complexity, which is in accordance with Shakespeare’s original version. However, it should be noted that, in Shakespeare’s version, Aaron is not simply the enemy of Rome, but the enemy of the whole white world. The essential difference between the two lies in Aaron’s loyalty to the Goths.

Being the avenger for the black Moor, Aaron cannot pay total fealty o his Gothic mistress, although his animus to the Goth is less obvious than that to the Roman. Considering his status, one may easily draw the conclusion that Aaron is not respected among the Goth. He is regarded as nothing more than a minion, a slave-like servant, and an infamous pet lover of the queen. Nobody treat him seriously. The princes call him “lad”, but show no respect in their words. In return, although Aaron’s stratagem does help Tamora take her revenge to the Roman, his real purpose is to arouse the cannibalism within the white people.

By turning the Gothic princes into evils, Aaron cruelly mocks the superiority of the white. When Titus sends the weapons and the letter to Demetrius and Chiron, he even does not bother to remind them of the approaching threat. Like their mother, the princes are only Aaron’s tools whom he manipulates to carry out his own revenge. He uses them to commit devilry and at the same time laughs at their “treacherous hue” (4. 2. ll. 116). Unlike Edmund, when his lover is killed in the last act, he shows no sorrow or regret and dies as a sheer devil. Aaron is not an individualist like Edmund, but an avenger for a race.

The heart s filled with hatred against the white and allows no room for their love. The only passion he shows is for his black son, an infant who shares the same color with him and is treated as a copy of himself. Aaron’s pursuit and personality are fully demonstrated in his attitude to his son. For most of the time in the play, he seems to gladly accept the prejudice on his race and deliberately act on it. But, holding the black baby, Aaron begins to reveal his heart and defend his color: … is black so base a hue? Coal-black is better than another hue In that it scorns to bear another hue; (4. ll. 73;101-2) For his son, Aaron readily gives up all he has and begins a life of a deserter. His ambition is displayed in his expectation for his son. He wants to make the baby a heroic warrior, which is very likely the original ideal of his own, because the black son is “the figure and the picture of my [his] youth” (4. 2. ll. 107). It is obvious that he does not want his son to repeat his life. He has already chosen to be an avenger, a devil to others; and there is no way to turn back. Only in his son can he see some hope of enjoying a healthy life.

With the development of the civilization and society, people are paying more and more attention to the research of human nature. The complexity of human beings is generally acknowledged, which offers a much larger space for the research and understanding of the roles of villains in Shakespeare’s plays. Therefore, the roles of villain in Shakespeare’s plays are frequently observed with modern vision and hence get farther and farther away from the embodiment of evil. On the stage, Shylock was for several times interpreted as a wrathful heathenish rebel, a representative f the oppressed and discriminated Jewish people.

Even Iago, whom Coleridge once defined as a “motiveless villain”, is described by Fintan O’toole as to some extent a tragic hero, a bewildered soul getting lost in the change of the social order and value code[14]. As Ian Johnston points out: “In the twentieth century we have become familiar with … evil, largely as the result of World War II, in which horrific evil was organized, carried out, and justified by ordinary people… The frequent attempt to demonize such individuals, that is, to make them as abnormal and unnatural as possible, s one indication of how uncomfortable we are with the notion that they are recognizably normal. [15] Facing the villains in Shakespeare’s plays is in fact to face the human nature. The increasingly exploration into their hearts helps understand the motives of their evil act better. But there are even more questions aroused than before. What is the good of justifying their motives? To what extent can those “somewhat justified” motives justify their crime that can never be justified? And the most important, are these various interpretations the sign of social development or the degenerate moral code?

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