Sunday, 18 August 2013

The Fine Line Between Shakespearean Heroes and Shakespearean Villians

Shakespeare's characters are never simple
What makes an interesting character, whether he or she is in a movie, a novel, a play or a TV series? 

Depth and complexity. Hidden, perhaps dark, facets that are teased out when that character is put under pressure.

Quite simply, we don't want to take one look at this person and think we know all there is to know. And this is just as true of heroes or protagonists as it is of villains or antagonists.

How Heroes And Villains Are Portrayed

Throughout human history's forms of storytelling, fashions for characterisations have fluctuated. In the Medieval morality plays, for example, characters were personifications of moral attributes: there was good and there was bad, and ne'er the twain shall meet.

Flash forward around half a millennium, to early TV shows, and we had a very similar set-up: the goodies wore white hats, the baddies wore black and we knew exactly where we stood. And on some level, there's a comforting satisfaction in that.

However, today (and in various periods of history), we favour a much more complicated view of human nature. Hugh Laurie's House is not all bad, but neither is he all good. In other words, to a lesser or greater extent, he is just like most of us. In fact, I might go all the way and say, all of us. After all, even Gandhi wasn't quite as saint-like as he might have seemed to the outside world.

We are complex beings, with desires often warring against a sense of morality. It is this that makes us interesting and it's watching this war play out in another's life that can make for gripping entertainment.

Shakespeare's Heroes Aren't All Heroes

Even someone as 'good' as Desdemona
has a naughty streak
So, where does Shakespeare fit into all of this?

Well, he didn't want to portray a simplistic view of existence; he wanted to show life (and people) for the contradictory mess it often is.

Consequently, I think it would be difficult to find a main character who is completely 'good' in a Shakespeare play.

Even someone like Desdemona, who seems like a perfectly well-behaved woman, does something pretty outrageous by disobeying her father and marrying her choice of man. That's a sin we may be able to forgive her for, but it's a sin nonetheless; and would certainly have been viewed as one in centuries past.

But what about the heroes, surely they must be good, otherwise they're not worthy of the name. Well, 'hero' in this sense doesn't mean 'hero' as we've come to think of it - often attached to 'super'. But, here again, we can see a complexity: think Batman, he might be doing the 'right thing', but his methods are often questionable.

Anyway, I digress. Shakespearean heroes aren't like Superman. In fact, they are some of the most flawed characters within the plays.

I've written before about the ways in which Hamlet could be viewed as a villain.

I also notice that Macbeth is often mistaken for a villain. It's true there are no other baddies in the piece, unless you count the witches, but Macbeth is not a Shakespearen villain, he's a tragic hero - a good man, so deeply flawed that he transforms, in front of our very eyes, into a monster.

Similarly, King Lear is a man who thinks he's more sinned against than sinning, but is that true? He certainly doesn't do anything that would win him a 'father of year' award.

Ultimately, I think, it comes down to the perception Shakespeare has chosen to give us. As I mention in the post on Hamlet, if you look at the play through Ophelia's eyes, we might not feel quite so sympathetic to Hamlet's cause. But we don't see the events in Elsinore from her point of view, we see them from Hamlet's. We, therefore, understand (sort of) his manic behaviour and we excuse it.

Are Shakespeare's Villains All Bad?

Is Shylock a villain? If he is, he's
certainly not evil for the sake of evil
So, can the same be said for the villains?

Yes, absolutely it can. We see and hear a considerable amount of Iago's thoughts, but we're still not viewing the play exclusively through him. If we were; if we knew exactly what it is that got his goat, perhaps we would feel, as he does, that he's righteous in his attempt to destroy Othello.

Is Shylock a villain? Is Antonio a hero? Neither of them seem to fit those roles comfortably. The Merchant of Venice, which is supposed to be pretty light-hearted compared with the tragedies, is far from black and white, and despite its seemingly cheery ending it is, I think, intended to makes us think about the nature of right and wrong.

But maybe I have the view I do because I was at one time setting my sights on a career in acting. As an actor, you can't come to a role believing that a person is wholly good or wholly bad - well, you can, but the portrayal is likely to be very two-dimensional.

Actors Need to Find Something Sympathetic in The Roles They Play

Even Richard III has facets of his character
we can feel sympathy for
If you're playing Richard III, for example, you have to figure out why he believes himself justified in his actions, because he undoubtedly does - and you have to feel that way, too.

He would see himself as the hero, and actually so does Shakespeare, because Richard is another of his tragic heroes - the most villainous villain of them all but, yet again, not all bad.

And I suppose it's not unreasonable to suggest that as an actor himself, Shakespeare approached his writing as a performer, immersing himself in each character as he wrote, to ensure that there was truth behind every line, motive and action.

It could be that Shakespeare felt empathy for each of his characters and revelled in their imperfections.

Hamlet's, "...there is nothing either good or/bad, but thinking makes it so." is the perfect way to sum up Shakespeare's characters. The good ones, like Macbeth or Othello, are often tempted by the 'dark side'. And the bad ones, even rotten to the core ones, like Aaron, can prompt fascination and show a flash of a redeeming quality.

Heroes and villains are complicated creatures in Shakespeare's plays.

Friday, 2 August 2013

What's Iago's Beef? Why Does he Want to Ruin Othello?

What's Iago's motive? | Edwin Booth as Iago
Iago is one of the greatest villains in literary and dramatic history, but is it possible that he is motivated by nothing more than evil? Would he be as fascinating if that were the case?

The name ‘Iago’ is synonymous with villainy and evil. He is without doubt one of Shakespeare’s most popular antagonists, but what do readers or audience members learn about this dastardly character?

Most importantly, what can we unearth about what it is that drives his seemingly insatiable desire to destroy Othello?

What Does Iago Tell Us?

Well, he tells us a lot. But he doesn't really get into the nitty-gritty of why he's hell bent on ruining Othello. Yes, we know there's professional jealousy at play. And maybe a good old fashioned dose of racism, too. Is that enough cause to destroy someone so absolutely, though?

It seems fair to say, Iago’s motivations are intentionally obscure and his final words certainly confirm this notion, “Demand me nothing: what you know, you know: From this time forth I never will speak word.”(V.ii). Of course, largely due to his naiveté and willingness to trust absolutely, Othello doesn't actually ‘know’ anything of Iago's true nature.

Was Shakespeare in a rush to finish? Was he just too lazy to write a thorough explanation? Or is this uncharacteristically silent Iago a deliberate change from the verbose, soliloquising man we think we've come to know?

In any case, given that Iago doesn't want to provide a motive, it might be argued that he does what he does simply because he can. However, this view of things is much too simplistic for my liking.

Does Iago's Ambition Drive him to Ruin Othello?

One of the most obvious reasons for Iago to plot against Othello is ambition. It's certainly enough to kill for (just ask Macbeth), so a few lies and a bit of betrayal is minor in comparison - bear in mind, Iago doesn't plan for things to pan out quite the way they do.

He is undoubtedly a Machiavellian character and it is clear that Othello’s decision to promote Cassio ignites a rage within him, “Cassio's a proper man: let me see now: To get his place and to plume up my will In double knavery – How, how? Let's see”(I.iii). It is from this point that Iago begins to formulate a plan to earn what he deems his ‘proper place’ by destroying Cassio.

At this stage of the game, it seems almost as if the only motive Iago has is to take Michael Cassio’s position. So, it could be claimed that, in fact, the aim is not to destroy Othello at all. In other words, Othello’s downfall is merely a side effect of Iago’s plot.

But, as Peggy Lee asks, is that all there is? Surely not.

Does Insecurity and Romantic Jealousy Drive Iago? 

Is Iago seeking revenge because Othello has had
an affair with Emilia?
Iago’s plot seems far too deliberately inclusive of the destruction of Othello for it to be collateral damage.

So what's his beef against Othello?

One reason Iago could have for wishing to ruin Othello is sexual jealousy. In one of his many soliloquies, Iago tells us that he suspects his wife, Emilia, has had an affair with Othello, “But partly led to diet my revenge, For that I do suspect the lusty Moor Hath leap'd into my seat…”(II.i) 

In fact, if Iago's to be believed, Emilia didn't stop there. He is even of the opinion that she and Cassio have had (or at least may have) an affair, “For I fear Cassio with my night-cap too…”(II.i).

Now, it is made clear that both Othello and Cassio have quite a way with the ladies. So, it's not beyond the realms of possibility from that point of view.

Additionally, Emilia doesn't seem too averse to dabbling with infidelity, as she tells Desdemona that she would never be unfaithful in daylight, but "I might do't as well i' the dark."(IV.iii)

However, it's only fair to add that she tempers that by saying, “Marry, I would not do such a thing for a joint-ring, nor for measures of lawn, nor for gowns, petticoats, nor caps, nor any petty exhibition; but for the whole world,-- why, who would not make her husband a cuckold to make him a monarch?”(IV.iii)

Therefore, despite Iago’s suspicions, it seems that Emilia has remained faithful. At least that's my hunch - like so much of the play, it is something that we can never be sure of one way or the other.

So, Why Does Iago Want to Destroy Othello?

The mystery of Iago's motives is part of his appeal
Kenneth Branagh as Iago in Othello, 1995
The fact of the matter is, we can't really know. Perhaps it's one of the reasons he gives us, maybe it's a combination of them - or they might be the 'excuses' he uses to justify his actions, both to himself and to us.

Because he refuses to say, we'll never know for sure. We're left to draw our own conclusions, and that's unquestionably part of his appeal.

For more on Othello, take a look at Is Othello a Tragic Hero? and Is Desdemona a Helpless Victim?