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Thread: Motiveless Malignancy

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    Motiveless Malignancy

    Thinking about what Coleridge has termed the motiveless malignancy, I was reconsidering Shakespeare's plays. What do you think about the seemingly motiveless (or at least losing the sight of their motives and destroying just for destruction's sake along the way) villains. The first in mind is of course Iago. I am also very interested in Don John of Much Ado.

    What do you think about them? Are their villain status really motiveless? Or do they have good motives? If so, do you think they lose sight of it along the way? What do you think this implies with regards to the nature of evil presented in the plays?

    Oh, this is in no way an assignment that I'm trying to do by the way. I have been reading about the evil characters and I just wondered how others see them?

    Like a motiveless trickster figure? Or are their evilness is rooted in something much more human?
    Do you think their characters reveal something about the nature of envy?
    What I thought was that envy after a while creates an unbreachably conflict within the characters with regards to their self-worth. When they are unable to deal with this conflict, I usually feel like they want to destroy the goodness in the others. It's a bit like a child psychology, think a child for example, who has no toys, cannot afford them, and will not let others enjoy it either, and so destroys them.

    Iago's own unhappy marriage (which is kind of due to his view against women and their unrepressable sexuality) and his constant jealousy is one factor in "poisoning" Othello's happy marriage, in my opinion. If the initial reason of his actions, the promotion of Cassio to lieutenancy instead of him remained the sole reason of his malignant actions in the play, there would be not so much reason after he had assumed Cassio's place mid way in the play in my opinion. He absolutely cannot stop until he can bring on others the misery he feels himself.

    Or Don John, for example, his envy for Don Pedro and of course the nature of Don Pedro in his ease in forming social connections is one of the reasons he is so bent on bringing ruin to others. It's not that he will be able to raise in position or esteem by his actions, he just wants to bring the others down.

    I'm also thinking Oliver in As You Like It, although I admit his situation as a villain is a bit more different. His initial fear is the possible usurpation maybe, of his kingdom by the youngest brother Orlando, who is loved by the multitude (reminding one of Claudius' fear of Hamlet's popularity). Oliver's envy of Orlando's natural gentility is the base of his desire in keeping Orlando ignorant. There are a bit similarities and differences with regards to Oliver type of villain I guess.

    I am not very much acquinted with historical plays but I have been thinking abou the types of evil, especially the Iago type of evil.

    What do you think? Any reasons for their villainy comes to mind? Any other characters?

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    Registered User Jackson Richardson's Avatar
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    Thank you for this. As it happens I'm re-reading Othello at the moment for their first time since school.

    I'll write more later. For the moment in the Histories there is Richard III "I am determined to prove myself a villain".

    There's also the interesting take on Iago in Verdii's opera Otello "Credo in un Iddio crudel" which gives Iago a theoretical basis for his nastiness. I think it is just petty spite and looks for justifications later.
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    Registered User Jackson Richardson's Avatar
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    I've just spent ten minutes on youtube trying to find Iago's Credo with English subtitles. No luck. There's a number of concert performances and some even with piano accompaniment (why bother?) but the best I could find is this with Japanese subtitles.

    I hope your Japanese is up to it.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q77PyBQzO84
    Previously JonathanB

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    Registered User kelby_lake's Avatar
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    Pretty much all the villains in Shakespeare are outsiders and/or illegitimate. In some cases, such as Don John, being a bastard may just be an easy shorthand for villainy; he's a bit of a weak character.

    Iago like other Shakespeare villains presents himself as an outsider but it is his social ambition which has been thwarted (although he purports not to care about this). Othello is an outsider and yet he has been able to succeed where Iago cannot (whether Iago believes that Othello has cuckolded him or not, there may be an added sexual jealousy). Iago and other Shakespeare villains accept their villainy quite easily, though in some plays (such as Measure for Measure) the villain is 'redeemable'.

    Potentially there's a moral lesson with the villains that no one is above human emotions and they are driven to villainy by sins that are recognisably human.

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    Quote Originally Posted by kelby_lake View Post
    Pretty much all the villains in Shakespeare are outsiders and/or illegitimate. In some cases, such as Don John, being a bastard may just be an easy shorthand for villainy; he's a bit of a weak character.

    Iago like other Shakespeare villains presents himself as an outsider but it is his social ambition which has been thwarted (although he purports not to care about this). Othello is an outsider and yet he has been able to succeed where Iago cannot (whether Iago believes that Othello has cuckolded him or not, there may be an added sexual jealousy). Iago and other Shakespeare villains accept their villainy quite easily, though in some plays (such as Measure for Measure) the villain is 'redeemable'.

    Potentially there's a moral lesson with the villains that no one is above human emotions and they are driven to villainy by sins that are recognisably human.
    Edmund in King Lear, too. What I love about Edmund is that he embraces his villainy, but at the same time he seems pissed off about it. He's got this huge chip on his shoulder, but he's also one of the few people in the play who seems to be really enjoying himself. He knows what he is, he hates it, and he loves it. He's a bit like Catullus in that way. Very human and very believable.

    Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law
    My services 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 moon-shines
    Lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?
    When my dimensions are as well compact,
    My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
    As honest madam's issue? Why brand they us
    With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?
    Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
    More composition and fierce quality
    Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,
    Go to the creating a whole tribe of fops,
    Got 'tween asleep and wake? Well, then,
    Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land:
    Our father's love is to the bastard Edmund
    As to the legitimate: fine word,--legitimate!
    Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
    And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
    Shall top the legitimate. I grow; I prosper:
    Now, gods, stand up for bastards!

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    A very interesting question. Makes one think out of the literature borders. What makes people harm other people with no obvious reason? Why is somebody jealous for somebody else's happiness? Isn't somoone's happiness supposed to make others happy, too?

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    Registered User mona amon's Avatar
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    Regarding Iago, I think he's a total psychopath, and that's probably what Coleridge meant when he referred to him as "motiveless malignity". We may try and Iago himself may try searching for motives for his behavior, but in the end nothing that we can come up with - not being promoted, his suspicion that Othello and Cassio may be having an affair with his wife Emilia - nothing is sufficient to explain such monstrous evil. There is no attempt by Shakespeare to humanize Iago. No empathy, sympathy, remorse, or anything else resembling human emotion.
    Exit, pursued by a bear.

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    Registered User Jackson Richardson's Avatar
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    There's a sense in which all villains are outsiders, by virtue of being a villain. However in Iago's case there is no sense in which he is shown as any reason to regard himself as out side society - he's good ol' reliable Iago, the ultimate honest Jo. Othello has reasons to consider himself an outsider - Iago plays on that.

    I'm sorry to disagree with Mona, but from my experience as a child in a school playground, petty spite and malice are standard human attitudes.

    And Iago must get a thrill from having such power over others while nobody notices.
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    On reflection the nastiest act in Shakespeare is not by someone who thinks she's an outcast at all: Goneril blinding Gloucester in Lear "Out vile jelly". Last time I saw it live I had to close my eyes while it was happening. OK, she has a motive in her terms to be cross with him, but blinding him is out of all proportion.
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    I'm not being glib, but as appalling as that is, it is surpassed in nastiness by the gang rape of Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, which is followed by her tongue being ripped out so she can't speak her assailants' names, and her hands being chopped off so she can't write their names, either. But the pair who set up the crime are definitely outsiders. Tamora is a captive Gothic queen, and her lover Aaron is a Moor. But there is a motive: Tamora is avenging the human sacrifice of her son by Titus, Lavinia's father. And all in poetry. What a play!
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 03-11-2015 at 07:54 PM.

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    I've not read the play, but I am familiar with that most famous, bizarre and horrific of stage directions.

    Quote Originally Posted by JonathanB View Post
    There's a sense in which all villains are outsiders, by virtue of being a villain. However in Iago's case there is no sense in which he is shown as any reason to regard himself as out side society - he's good ol' reliable Iago, the ultimate honest Jo. Othello has reasons to consider himself an outsider - Iago plays on that.

    I'm sorry to disagree with Mona, but from my experience as a child in a school playground, petty spite and malice are standard human attitudes.

    And Iago must get a thrill from having such power over others while nobody notices.
    I agree with the last line. Iago is absolutely fascinated with his own ingeniousness and becomes obsessed with trying out the full extent of his powers of manipulating others like puppets, but he's quite cold about all this, and it's his total lack of passion that makes all his professed motives seem like mere rationalizations rather than root causes. Envy, malice, spite are human emotions, but in Iago's case they do not explain the obsessed intensity and single mindedness which he displays in bringing about the destruction of others much more noble than himself. He's all head and no heart in a truly extreme sense, and that's what makes me think of him as a crazy psychopath with no human characteristics. I guess it's Shakespeare's skill that he makes such a one dimensional character not just interesting but totally mysterious and fascinating.
    Last edited by mona amon; 03-12-2015 at 01:29 AM.
    Exit, pursued by a bear.

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    Registered User Jackson Richardson's Avatar
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    As it happens I'm reading Titus at the moment and got to Act 2 Scene 3, the point where the RSC editors think WS took over from George Peele.

    It is Aaron who puts Tamora's sons up to the rape. Come to think of it,could he be a precursor of both Iago and Othello?

    In Act 1, not only does Titus have one of Tamora's sons killed off stage, but casually kills one of his own sons for no powerful reason.

    The blinding of Gloucester takes place on stage which is what turned my tummy.
    Last edited by Jackson Richardson; 03-12-2015 at 03:30 AM.
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    Aaron is described, anachronistically, as a Moor. Shakespeare means Muslim, of course, although technically the Moors were later Mediterranean Muslims, like Othello. But even early Islam would have been too late for the Roman-Gothic clash (Rome had been sacked by the Goths more than a century and a half before Mohammad's birth). Interestingly Aaron has a Jewish name--the Arabic would have been Harun--which shows his outsider status to have been more important than any closer ethnic details. Shakespeare inherited a European tradition from the Crusades and the Reconquista that Jews and Muslims were mutual enemies of Christ, and that Muslims in any case were existential enemies of Christendom. Aaron is the mortal enemy of Shakespeare's world just as the Goths were the mortal enemies of ancient Rome.

    It's harder to say much more about Aaron, since he didn't really exist. Unlike Shakespeare's other Roman plays, Titus Andronicus is wholly fictional. It's not even clear that Shakespeare would have cared about the plays anachronisms. He was writing a horrifying work about the horrific era of late Roman antiquity. For me that gives the play a nightmarish quality that it might have lacked if it had just been a history. Titus Andronicus is a nightmare, right? It holds you for its duration and the best you can do is to try to shake it off on waking.
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 03-12-2015 at 10:47 AM.

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    Registered User Jackson Richardson's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Pompey Bum View Post
    Aaron is described, anachronistically, as a Moor. Shakespeare means Muslim.
    I'm not convinced by that. Apart from the fact that Islam dates from 500 CE, there's no reference to Aaron's religion. But there are repeated references to his negritude. I've just read "Aaron will have his soul black like his face" (Act 3.1) and "a fly/That comes in likeness of a coal black Moor" (3.2). Lavinia mocks Tamora for her "raven coloured love" (2.3). And in 2.3 Aaron says "My fleece of woolly hair that now uncurls/Even as an adder when she doth unroll/ To do some fatal execution".

    He's sub-Saharan African, all right, though how that was shown on the Globe stage with neither slap nor stage lights I don't know. (Same goes for Othello and his thick lips.)
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    How much did Shakespeare really know of sub-Saharan Africans (aside from the fact that some Moors were black)? Would he even have conceived of "blacks" as an ethnic group? Isn't the point that Othello and Aaron were outsiders to the world of European "Christendom" (which is how Shakespeare would have seen it)? Personally I think we distort things a little when we try to impose our later racial categories on the early modern/late Medieval world. That doesn't mean that Shakespeare isn't describing characters we would think of as "blacks," just that he conceives of those characters in different ways than we do. The past remains a foreign country. And when in Rome...
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 03-12-2015 at 11:41 AM.

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