Tuesday, July 21, 2009


This will sound like a homework question, but it’s been 20something years since I was in high school so you’ll have to trust me that it’s not :).

It’s easy to find ways in which Shakespeare’s villains feel guilt for their actions, whether it’s Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking, or Claudius’ outright “My offense is rank, it smells to heaven” prayer.  Should we count Edmund’s last minute redemption, too?

What I’m interested in is bad guys who feel no guilt at all.  I was trying to explain to my boss last week why Iago is such a nasty son-of-a-gun, and I realized that when it comes to his actual crimes, there are other bad guys that did far worse.  It’s just something about him.  I think it has a great deal to do with the fact that, as far as I can tell, he never feels a shred of anything for his victim, right up until the last words we hear.  That’s what’s so scary.

Who else?  I’m expecting Richard III to make an appearance, though truthfully I’m not familiar enough with the play to know if he has any moments where he stops to think about other people.


JM said...

Interesting how Edmund denounces "the plague of custom", yet, when he knows his death is imminent seems willing to call on what might be viewed as a "customary" practice--last minute repentance-- as a last resort. To me, it's a hollow attempt--a stab in the air-- at redemption. I'm not even sure he has any shred of belief in the sense of goodness he calls on. Personally, I don't buy it. Tell him he'll somehow live--he goes back to being "good ole Edmund".

Strangely, Iago, at least for me, has something more substantial that he's reacting to. He outlines it in the very beginning of the play, and taken for what it's worth, can make a lot of sense overall, to a lot of people (even today). Whether or not it warrants the level of his revenge isn't the question in this case--but how much is he truly convinced that it does ? I think his lack of "repentance" is because to the end he still feels somehow justified.

But I think it could be said that both Edmund and Iago were somehow "passed over" (their complaints contain similar "bastardy" elements) ; one literal and one representational, resulting in their sense of lack of status, and the treatment they both rail about. It seems that Edmund is simply out for himself for more single and absolutely personal reasons. He's just plain wantonly greedy. Iago's "principle" seems a little--though not by much--clearer I think. (?) I'd have to think more on't , in any event.

Duane said...

Iago's motivation is a topic unto itself (is it really all because he was passed over for a promotion, or that Othello is sleeping with his wife?) I'm more intrigued by his complete lack of emotion over anything that he's done. You can imagine that if another dozen people got in his way, regardless of who they were, he would simply eliminate them. He's a machine.

I admit, I'd have to go back and study Edmund more. He's surrounded by family, and women who throw themselves at him. Aren't there at least times where he might be making a human connection with them? Or are they all entirely fodder for his schemes? I don't know. That last minute repentance sticks out too sharply at the end.

kj said...

Aaron from Titus Andronicus.

Bill said...

This is Bill from shakespeareteacher.com. For some reason, I am only able to post via my Google Account. Anyway...

Richard III has a few moments of guilt. The night before the Battle of Bosworth, Richard is visited in his sleep by the ghosts of all the people he has killed. He wakes up and has a speech that is quite penitent, though once fully awake he returns to his former self. It's relevant to your question, though, because Iago has no such moment. Here's an excerpt from the speech:

"My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
Perjury, perjury, in the high’st degree:
Murder, stern murder, in the dir’st degree;
All several sins, all us’d in each degree,
Throng to the bar, crying all, ‘Guilty! guilty!’
I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;
And if I die, no soul will pity me:
Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself?"

Duane said...

Hi Bill,

Sorry for the inconvenience, been having trouble with spammers lately and experimenting with Blogger's options for cutting back.

I love that speech, it's pretty much exactly the kind of thing I was looking for. Is it weird that as I read that what flashed in my brain was the Pilate's Dream song from Jesus Christ Superstar?

"...Then I saw thousands of millions
Crying for this man
And then I heard them mentioning my name
And leaving me the blame..."

Jeremy said...

About Edmund: It's not so much that he's greedy as much as he's an opportunist and (more importantly), he wants what other people have, whether it's his brother's land or someone's wife. I always felt at the end, he again wants what Edgar is getting: redemption.

JM said...

I think it might be a mistake to view Iago one dimensional. Too often he's played that way and I think it takes an important facet out of both the play and the character. As you say, he'd probably go through anyone or anything to achieve his goals. But there is no other option--he must see his goal to the end. He must succeed--at any cost. That's the viewpoint of the Machiavellian philosophy, still alive and well today, and patently evident in certain of our contemporaries. I don't think naming them is necessary. Did they have any misgivings when certain plans and manipulating circumstances were put into effect--having a direct bearing on literally thousands of lives? They couldn't afford misgivings and still succeed. Neither can Iago.
Have our contemporaries no heart at all; are they totally inhuman? Do they feel anything as a result of what they've done? Do they feel anything at all--ever about anything or anyone. It wouldn't be apparent, judging their decision-making--but is that true? They have wives, children, relatives. Iago has a wife--what might Emelia have known once about him? Was she just one more manipulation?
Another question arises: how much does innate character affect the wholesale adoption of a philosophy? And once an individual is convinced that the philosophy is sound, do we take the belief into account when assessing that individual, who certainly must believe it completely in order to operate so blindly according to its tenets? Has Iago convinced himself so completely of something that he has no "choice" but to behave as he does? Shakespeare writes a few one-dimensional characters, but I've never found one with such an involved stake in things, nor one with a role as large as Iago's. None of them are on stage long enough to have a need to explain their actions.

John said...


New reader here (found you through a Twitter search on "Shakespeare" fwiw). The first unrepentant villain that comes to mind is Don John in Much Ado About Nothing. He's not famously evil, but he's as bad as they get in that play and he's uniformly "grrr!" about life.

Duane said...

Hi John, and welcome! Yes, your namesake also came to mind when I was running through the unrepentant villains, but for the life of me I just can't take him seriously. Everytime I think of him I imagine him in a big black tophat and cape, twirling the ends of his handlebar mustache and tying Hero to the railroad tracks.

John said...

Agreed, really, he's not much of a villain. To quote an article I found a moment ago at suite101.com (I wanted to fact-check that his name was, in fact, "John"), "Don John finds himself in a tricky role: he’s the villain in a marriage comedy. Whatever he does, it’s not going to prevent the eventual joining of hearts and hands." I hesitate to armchair-psychoanalyze Shakespeare, but I can't help imagining that he couldn't be bothered to invest too heavily in Don Plot Contrivance.

ALL of that being said, he fits the description. He even loses his voice in the end, Iago-like. Heck, he comes to justice off-stage as far as I recollect.

catkins said...

What about Regan? What a hideous creature! Scheming to the end. And blithely calling for plucking out of Gloucester's second eye. What remorse did she ever show?

Leo said...

Tut, 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.

Aaron is the King of Evil. No one else comes close.