Saturday, 31 December 2011

The Recipe for a Great Shakespearean Villain

Edmund Keen as Richard III
Have you ever wondered how Shakespeare made his villains? Want to create your own Shakespearean villain? Well, you need wonder no more. Here is an easy-to-follow recipe for the perfect Shakespearean baddie.

Although, in actual fact, this recipe is universal, because the ingredients that go into a good Shakespearean "wrong 'un" are exactly the same ones that make any good literary, theatrical or film villain.

  • First, you will need an ‘outsider’. A character can be made an outsider by a number of factors, including his, or her, appearance. For example, the deformed Richard III or Aaron in Titus Andronicus, who is made an outsider by the colour of his skin. Alternatively, a character’s status may push him, or her, to the fringes of polite society, as is the case for the illegitimate Edmund in King Lear.

It’s important to mention that, at this point, if the character is not correctly handled, he may not turn to villainy. There are cases, such as Othello, in which the outsider is, in fact, the hero.
  • Next, the outsider must be ‘wronged’ or, at the very least, feel that he, or she, has been slighted in some way. For instance, in Othello, Iago is passed over for the lieutenancy and feels that the role of ensign is entirely beneath him. Another good example is the Queen of the Goths, Tamora, from Titus Andronicus, whose pleas to spare the lives of her sons fall on deaf ears.

  • Stir in some fabulous dialogue. All great villains must have a set piece monologue or soliloquy (usually a soliloquy). The master of villainous soliloquies being Iago, of course, although Richard III runs him a close second.

Edwin Booth as Iago

  • Then, add a dash of unpleasantness, purely for the sake of unpleasantness. The really great Shakespearean villains have a hint of unmotivated evil about them. This can be seen in Edmund’s seduction of both Regan and Goneril in King Lear. Another example of over-the-top malice is Don John’s plot to ruin Hero’s reputation in Much Ado About Nothing.
  • Finally, it is essential that a great villain is not ‘over-eviled’. Possibly the best example of this is Aaron from Titus Andronicus, who seems thoroughly loathsome and beyond redemption...until he becomes a father and something almost tender emerges in him.

Ira Aldrige as Aaron
Shakespeare always manages to give his character’s flaws, desires and ambitions. In the case of the villains, these flaws, desires and ambitions are all too human, which means they are much more than just pantomime figures.

Their evil deeds are, usually, bred from a place of pain, frustration or, in most cases, bitter resentment. And that’s something that most of us can relate to.

Disclaimer: Results may vary depending on the quality of ingredients and equipment used. All aspects of this recipe will not always apply to every villain; there are those pesky exceptions that prove the rule. However, the above method can be applied to the vast majority of Shakespearean villains.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Seriously, What is it All About?

Shakespeare was my first love. Because he's been dead for almost four hundred years, it was a rather one-sided relationship. I'm not entirely sure he ever felt the same way about me and, I suspect, he was seeing other people. Nonetheless, my passion continues to burn as strongly as it ever did.
William Shakespeare (The Cobbe Portrait)
No matter what you think of him, you have to admit, he sported a rather fine beard, didn't he? Anyway, I digress.

What Possessed Me?

I was prompted to create this blog and begin work on a series of ebooks, (the first of which will be available from all the usual online places in the new year - will keep you updated) because it never ceases to amaze me that there are people who do not share my love for the Bard of Avon.

Yep, some even go as far as to hate him (just writing that makes me gag). A loathing of Shakespeare is a completely alien concept to me and one that I don't think I will ever truly comprehend. However, I have tried to. And what I came up with is this: people dislike Shakespeare, because they don't understand him.

I am convinced that if Shakespeare is taught (and I say taught, because I'm fairly sure the problem begins in schools) in a way that makes his plays and poems accessible, then people will appreciate his genius. I think those who claim Shakespeare is irrelevant, crusty, staid and...I can barely bring myself to write this...boring, simply find his plays impenetrable.

Simple as A,B,C

Often, the route to understanding Shakespeare's plays is simply watching them, rather than reading them. After all, they're plays not novels.

Sometimes, however, a further examination of Lady Macbeth's motives, Hamlet's procrastination, Rosalinde's cross-dressing or Iago's villainy is required.

In addition, having definitions of some of the more archaic Shakespearean words can make things a little clearer. For example, simply knowing that 'cozen' means 'to deceive' and that 'sooth' means 'in fact' or 'indeed', can be extremely helpful in unravelling what, to some, may appear an impossibly difficult literary knot.

That said, I'm not one of those who believes that the answer is writing Shakespeare in "plain-speak" or modern English, although that may have its place on occasion. 'Translating' Shakespeare into modern English is akin to drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa. Yes, Marcel Duchamp, I'm talking to you.

Who would have thought she could sport such a handsome beard, too? But, again, I digress with talk of facial hair.

That's Entertainment

On the other hand, I'm grossly opposed to viewing Shakespeare's plays in an elitist, precious manner. It's important to remember that they were written for the entertainment of the masses, or at least those who could afford to go to the theatre.

They were not highbrow. In fact, quite the contrary, some of Shakespeare's work is decidedly lowbrow.

I firmly believe that Shakespeare is still for the masses and the writers of West Side Story, Kiss Me Kate, The Lion King, 10 Things I Hate About You and She's The Man (to name but a few) obviously agree with me.

And it's not just modern retellings that prove popular. Did you know that every four hours a production of Macbeth is being staged somewhere in the world? That's a lot of actors who have to remind themselves to call it 'The Scottish Play'.

So, the plan is to create a blog that examines and explains Shakespeare's plays and poems in a way that is interesting, enthusiastic and, occasionally, amusing.

If there's something about a sonnet, play or specific character that you've never understood and would like explained, please get in touch. I feel I must qualify that with: I won't do your homework for you. However, I will endeavour to help point you in the right direction.