Why do audiences adore Shakespeare's 'baddies', despite their dastardly deeds? We asked Shakespeare expert Alexey Bartoshevich, whose lectures are part of our free Russian-language Entire Shakespeare online course.
Who are Shakespeare’s most famous villains?
My pick for the most famous Shakespearean villain would be Iago, the scheming adviser who steers Othello to murder his wife. Second place would go to the cunning anti-hero Richard III. What makes them memorable is that they are not simple personifications of villainy, but multi-layered, complex characters. These are not trivial, one-note bad guys, but Renaissance villains on a grand scale. Richard III, for instance, is more than just a power-hungry murderer; he is a dark genius and master manipulator who seduces the audience. All other characters in the play, good and bad, are no match for the force of his personality. The same can be said about Iago. No wonder that the Russian poet Alexander Blok wrote about the infernal black glow that radiates from Iago, in his article, 'The Secret Meaning of the Tragedy Othello'.
Do any of Shakespeare’s villains lack all redeeming qualities?
I guess it would be the treacherous Don John from the comedy Much Ado About Nothing. He plays dirty tricks and almost has the innocent Hero killed by making it seem as though she is unfaithful to her fiance Claudio, for no reason other than his malicious wish to do harm to a fellow human-being. At the end of the play, he is forgiven, but this still doesn’t persuade him to repent.
Regan, from King Lear, is another good example. At the beginning of the play, she is nothing more than a toady to her older sister, the hateful and deceitful Goneril. However, she gradually becomes tougher, until she matches and surpasses her sister's first rejection of their father, by not only refusing him shelter, but driving him out into the storm. Lear’s question, 'What stone her heart is made on?' is reasonable. Shakespeare's ability to show the process of becoming a villain is one of his great artistic achievements.
Were Shakespeare’s villains more complicated than previous theatrical villains?
The idea of what it means to be a villain was formed long before Shakespeare, even before the adoption of the Christian system of values. But there is a fundamental difference, almost a gap, between Shakespeare’s villains and the villains in ancient ‘morality’ plays and the plays written by his predecessors. Shakespeare developed an understanding of the mental complexity of the wicked. His bad guys are vivid, fully fleshed-out characters, whose personalities have eternal depth.
For instance, let's take Shylock from The Merchant of Venice. What could be more repellent than a spiteful moneylender who demands in court the right to cut a pound of meat from a debtor with his own hands, and who is already sharpening his knife with the sole of his shoe?
But Shylock’s story in Shakespeare’s play is a story of the Jewish people, humbled and tormented by persecutions. His unapologetic wish to take bloody revenge upon his enemies is gained through deep suffering. The depth and complexity of his character have been revealed over the historical course of time. Gradually, actors and directors began to discover Shylock’s emotional motives: performing the play became less about how to excuse him, and more about how to explain him. This understanding became especially acute in the century of the Holocaust. It directly affected the theatrical interpretation of The Merchant of Venice – including in Russia. Our nuanced view of Shylock today is different from the view of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, who saw him as nothing more than a comic villain.
Do you think that Shakespeare found his own villains attractive, and that’s why the audience have sympathy for them?
I have no doubt that Shakespeare loved his villains, perhaps even more than his virtuous characters. My sense is that they amused him as an artist, and were to him, just as they are to us, a way to explore his interest in the paradox of what it means to be human. For instance, Macbeth is a murderer and a sufferer at the same time. In Shakespeare’s early, ultra-violent tragedy Titus Andronicus, the character of Aaron the Moor is a depraved monster, an incarnation of pure evil. But even he is given a trait of humanity by the young playwright – he loves his illegitimate child.
Would Shakespeare take the view that nobody is all bad, but the victim of their circumstances?
I don’t think that Shakespeare placed distinct emphasis on circumstances, although he took them into consideration – for example, Shylock, who has just been discussed. To Shakespeare, a man was a creation of his own will, a product of his own decisions. His characters consequently had no right to make reference to what Fyodor Dostoyevsky called ‘being plagued by circumstances’ in his novel Crime and Punishment. In Shakespeare's eyes, each man determined himself and was responsible for the consequences of his choices. The crucial role of circumstances in people’s lives was not seriously discussed until much later, in the 19th century, during the blossoming of the psychological novel, which examined the extent to which human personality depends upon social environment.
What lessons do Shakespeare's villains provide?
The main and perhaps the only lesson to be learned from Shakespeare’s villains is not to repeat one's misdeeds. Shakespeare's villains usually get what they deserve, but at the same time, other characters who don't deserve to suffer and die – such as Ophelia in Hamlet, Desdemona in Othello, and Cordelia in King Lear – do anyway. The ancient concept of tragic guilt or hamartia – a flaw or mistake that sets off a chain of unfortunate events – often doesn't apply to Shakespeare's characters. This confused a lot of moralists during the Age of Enlightenment.
But teaching moral lessons is hardly the main purpose of the arts. What is more instructive for a modern audience is trying to gain an insight into the characters' motives, both hidden and obvious, and the mysteries of their subconscious minds. Through this process, we may be able to learn something significant about human nature, which enriches us as humans.
Take part in the British Council and Arzamas Academy's free Russian-language online course, 'Entire Shakespeare'.
You can also learn how Shakespeare concocted the perfect insults to describe his villains with the 'Taunt like a Bard' game, available in English as part of the course materials.