Villain, Speak: William Shakespeare and the Rhetoric of Evil

©2004 Ross E. Lockhart

Consider, if you will, the opening moments of the movie Star Wars: A New Hope. Upon its release in 1977, audiences were awestruck to witness a starship’s bulkhead disintegrating in a shower of sparks and white-armored shock troops pouring through the opening, firing a barrage of laser beams as they advanced. As a full orchestral score swelled into a dark imperial march, a black-armored man/machine stepped through the opening, his menacing electronic breath resounding through the darkened theatre. Within just a few minutes, Darth Vader, unquestionably one of the most recognized villains of the Twentieth Century had been introduced to an audience of millions around the world. But what would Darth Vader be if you were to take away Ben Burtt’s sound effects, John Williams’s score, and ILM’s special effects? What if you were to take away those physical traits that make up Vader’s dark continence: David Prowse’s stature, James Earl Jones’s voice, and Ralph McQuarrie’s samurai-influenced costume design? Would Darth Vader be the frightening menace that he is without an army of special effect technicians and craftspersons working to make him larger than life? Could Darth Vader personify the nightmares of millions if he had to rely on George Lucas’s words alone? Four hundred years earlier, William Shakespeare was able to create villains far more enduring and provocative than Darth Vader through the power of language alone. Three of these villains, Aaron the Moor from Titus Andronicus, Iago from Othello, and Richard of Gloucester from Richard III stand tall, practically leaping from the printed page, as infamous today as they were in Shakespeare’s day, thanks primarily to the delicious villainy of their rhetoric.

What makes an effective villain? Screenwriting expert Marilyn Horowitz defines a villain as “the obstacle that is preventing the hero from getting what he wants” (Horowitz 60). While that assertion is certainly true in modern screenplays where the “hero’s and villain’s needs are bound together like a double helix” (Horowitz 60), in Shakespeare’s plays the ties between heroes and villains are often infinitely more complicated than the reasonably balanced good guy/bad guy dynamic of current cinema. However, binary connections can be made between Shakespearean heroes and villains, who often can be read as mirror-images, albeit distorted funhouse-mirror images, of one another. In part, this is because Shakespeare’s most memorable villains belong to a dramatic tradition which draws from the models set forth by ancient authors such as Ovid and Seneca. Unlike modern villains, whose wickedness must rely on the flash and bang of cutting-edge visuals to draw the attention of a jaded audience, Shakespeare’s villains express their malice through intricate soliloquies and rapid-fire dialogue. Villainous soliloquies are rarely seen in modern dramas, short of the cartoon villains of James Bond movies, but “the villain of the Elizabethan stage did not have the reluctance of his modern counterpart to reveal his inmost thoughts” (Barnet 10). This technique has alienated some critics, including the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but the Elizabethan stage tradition of sharing the “unabashed confessions of a black heart” (Barnet 10) through grandiose rhetoric is a big part of the continued fascination of Shakespeare’s villains.

At first glance, Aaron the Moor would seem to be just one of the many villains inhabiting the Roman world of Titus Andronicus. Certainly, the manipulative Emperor Saturninus is a despicable character, as are Tamora, Queen of the Goths and her vicious and lascivious offspring Demetrius and Chiron. Even Titus’s motives can be questioned throughout the play, and some of the vengeful behaviors he indulges in are more vile than heroic. But it is Aaron the Moor, lover of Queen Tamora and ethnic outsider among the Romans and Goths of the play that provides the most effective counterweight to the ritualistically formal language of the play’s complicated “hero,” Titus.

Whereas the rhetoric of Titus and his kinsmen the Andronici is filled with the ceremonial flourishes of public language, the speech of Aaron is, as Mary Fawcett writes, “a freer, more self-expressive form of speech, based on a love of the tongue as opposed to the pen” (Fawcett 271). Andronici formalism is first seen in the opening act’s funeral/sacrifice sequence, in which Titus first addresses Rome as if she were a mother, “victorious in her mourning weeds” (Tit. 1.1.70), characterizing her through a rhetorical strategy known as prosopopeia. He then invokes her as a goddess: “Thou great defender of the Capitol, / Stand gracious to the rites that we intend” (Tit. 1.1.78). This characterization of mother-goddess Rome extends into a metaphor of earth-as-tomb as Titus prepares to lay his sons within a womblike catacomb. “O sacred receptacle of my joys,” he calls to the grave, “Sweet cell of virtue and nobility, / How many sons has thou of mine in store, / Thou wilt never render to me more!” (Tit. 1.1.92-95). Beyond Titus’s belief in the deity of the Roman State lies superstition. This is betrayed by his reasons for sacrificing Tamora’s firstborn son Alarbus, indicating the graves surrounding him: “Religiously they ask for a sacrifice. / To this your son is marked, and die he must, / T’appease their groaning shadows that are gone” (Tit. 1.1.124-126). The elaborate formalism with its undercurrent of superstition marks Andronici rhetoric, depicting Titus and his clan as “puzzled, truncated, and oblique” (Fawcett 271).

The free, loose language of Aaron, on the other hand, stands diametrically opposed to Andronici formalism, but its rhetoric is just as strong. Although present throughout the first act, Aaron remains silent until he is left alone on the stage at that act’s conclusion. Aaron’s soliloquy, like Titus’s, begins by praising a goddess, but where Titus’s address was a soldier’s worship of his motherland, Aaron’s goddess is his lover, the very-human Queen Tamora. Aaron praises Tamora’s fortuitous betrothal to Emperor Saturninus in mythic terms, saying that she “climbeth Olympus’s top, / Safe out of fortune’s shot, and sits aloft, / Secure of thunder’s crack of lightning flash” (Tit. 2.1.1-3), placing her among the gods. This mythic tone mocks the formality of Titus’s speech, and its sudden turn into the carnality of Aaron’s wish “to mount aloft with thy imperial mistress, / And mount her pitch” (Tit. 2.1.13-14) reveals that Aaron is more than the simple servant he appears to be. Aaron’s revelation of the extent of the connection between himself and his goddess follows, causing little surprise, but even today it holds the power to shock with its explicit suggestion of racial mingling. Still, there is a beauty and eloquence in Aaron’s description of the woman, whom he, “in triumph long / Hast prisoner held, fettered in amorous chains” (Tit. 2.1.15-16). What marks Aaron as a villain is what he seeks, that is, all of the trappings of power which Titus rejects. Aaron desires both luxury, to “shine with pearl and gold” (Tit. 2.1.19), carnality, and power, and sees Queen Tamora’s ascent to Emperor Saturninus’s side as his opportunity “to wanton with this queen, / this goddess, this Semiramis, this nymph, / this siren, that will charm Rome’s Saturnine, / and see his shipwrack and his commonweal’s” (Tit. 2.1.21-24). Aaron, a prisoner of war within the walls of Rome, will use his goddess and her marriage to Rome’s childish ruler to tear those walls down from within.

Although Aaron is a villain, Shakespeare allows him considerable humanity through the birth of Aaron and Queen Tamora’s son, described by the nurse as “a joyless, dismal, black and sorrowful issue […] as loathsome as a toad / Among the fair-faced breeders of our clime” (Tit. 4.2.66-68). The nurse admonishes Aaron to kill the child, who, with his dark skin, will reveal the forbidden love between Aaron and the Emperor’s bride, but Aaron refuses, asking “Is black so base a hue?” (Tit. 4.2.71). This humanization of Aaron contrasts the gradual disintegration of Titus’s humanity though his crusade of revenge. It is Aaron’s pledge to defend this child, and his threat to Tamora’s sons, “he dies upon my scimitar’s sharp point / That touches this, my first-born son and heir” (Tit. 4.2.91-92), that showcases Aaron not just as a devious foreigner to be booed by an audience, but as a loyal father and therefore, a man who possesses some admirable characteristics.

Once Aaron is captured by Titus’s son Lucius, his fate is sealed. Here, Shakespeare indulges himself with Aaron’s over-the-top confession. Shakespeare’s goal here is to de-humanize Aaron, transforming him from the commendable father back into the monster that encouraged Chiron and Demetrius to rape Titus’s daughter Lavinia, by telling them to “speak, and strike, brave boys, and take your turns; / there serve your lust, shadowed from heaven’s eye, / and revel in Lavinia’s treasury” (Tit. 2.1.130-133). Shakespeare accomplishes this by layering on a laundry list of sins in which Aaron expresses “an almost Puckish sense of himself as evil” (Fawcett 271). Aaron revels in his own acts of villainy, cursing the day in which he “did not some notorious ill: / As kill a man, or else devise his death; / Ravish a maid, or plot the way to do it; Accuse some innocent, and forswear myself” (Tit. 5.1.127-130). Aaron admits to turning friends against each other, deliberately injuring cattle, and setting barns on fire, but, even worse, he brags of digging “dead men from their graves” and setting them “upright at their dear friends’ door” with placating greeting-card messages carved into their skins. (Tit. 5.1.135-140). Whatever sympathy has been roused by Aaron’s brief excursion into fatherhood is dispelled by his litany of cruelties.

Othello effectively reverses the racial dynamic of Titus Andronicus, and its tragic hero, here a Moor among Europeans, must suffer the cruelties of an insider, his own Ancient, the scheming Iago. Evil for evil’s sake, Iago, according to Michael Neill, “lets horrible things loose and delights in watching them run; and the play seems to share that narcissistic fascination-or perhaps, better, Iago is the voice of its own fascinated self-regard” (Neill 395). While Aaron’s villainy is understandable due to his situation of being a privileged prisoner in an enemy’s citadel, Iago is a right bastard. Iago hates Othello. He’s got his reasons. Iago hates Othello for passing him over for a promotion. Iago hates Othello for having a smart, beautiful, desirable wife, and, most of all, Iago hates Othello because he is black.

Of course, Iago isn’t the sort of man to beat around the bush, so he expresses his grievances constantly from the moment we meet him. When asked by Rodrigo whether he hates Othello, Iago’s response, “Despise me if I do not” (Oth. 1.1.14) more than makes a case for it. Iago hates Othello. To Rodrigo, Iago portrays the situation as one of injustice, complaining that “Michael Cassio, a Florentine […] that never set a squadron in the field” has been promoted by Othello to the position Iago desired. If Iago’s characterization of Cassio as a “Florentine” is the first of many hints to Iago’s xenophobia, then the pornographic implications of Othello and Desdemona’s sexual improprieties he describes before her father says it blatantly: “Zounds, sir, you’re robbed; for shame, put on your gown; / Your heart is burst; you have lost half your soul; Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe” (Oth. 1.1.87-90). According to Michael Neill, “this fantasy” possesses “the characteristic anonymity of pornography-it trades only in perverted erotic stereotypes (‘fair daughter’ and ‘lascivious Moor’)”, and serves “to plant the suggestion, which perseveres like an itch throughout the action, that the attractive public face of this marriage is only the mask for something unspeakably adulterate” (Neill 397). Iago’s further threats to Brabantio that Othello, characterized as “the devil” “will make a grandsire of you” (Oth. 1.1.92) and his vivid image of Othello and Desdemona “making the beast with two backs” (Oth. 1.1.117) further reinforces the case that Iago’s rhetoric is based in sexual politics and racial identity.

Sexual politics and race once again surfaces as an issue in Iago’s interchange with Desdemona and Emilia, as he offers a complicated view of women, suggesting to Desdemona and Emilia “you are pictures out of doors, bells in your parlours, wild-cats in your kitchens, saints in your injuries, devils being offended, players in your housewifery, and housewives in your beds” (Oth. 2.1.108-111). Iago’s vivid metaphors amuse the women, but are quickly dismissed as a risqué joke, however, since “it is Iago’s habit to work by implication and association” (Neill 300) and his honest reputation puts him above suspicion of being up to something devious. In this way, “feelings and attitudes that would hardly survive inspection in the light of reason are enabled to persist precisely because they work in this subterranean fashion” (Neill 300).

Iago’s masterwork of villainy is his act of persuading Othello, through implications of infidelity, to murder Desdemona. The “monster […] too hideous to be shown” (Oth. 3.3.108-109) invoked by Othello turns out to be his very own jealousy, a “green-eyed monster which doth mock / The meat it feeds on” (Oth. 3.3.168-169). Iago’s skillful prodding arouses Othello’s jealousies and fears, and Othello’s final admission that he “had rather be a toad / And live upon the vapour of a dungeon / Than keep a corner on the thing I love / For others uses” (Oth. 3.3.272-275) shows that he has been beaten.

In contrast to the case of Aaron in Titus Andronicus, in Othello, Shakespeare does not give Iago a closing confession. Instead, Iago challenges the distraught Othello’s demand of an explanation “why he hath thus ensnar’d [Othello’s] soul and body” (Oth. 5.2.298-299) with silence. “Demand me nothing;” says Iago, “what you know, you know. From this time forth I will never speak word” (Oth. 5.2.300-301), and he remains defiantly silent for the remainder of the play. Iago’s final words offer little answer or excuse for the orgy of violence that has just erupted. Iago is evil simply because he is evil. As Michael Neill writes, “The play thinks abomination into being and then taunts the audience with the knowledge that it can never be unthought: ‘What you know, you know.‘” (Neill 395).

With Richard III, Shakespeare faced the challenge of creating a villain who would carry the play completely. Richard is a new type of villain, one not the dim reflection of a hero, but instead, the play’s protagonist and prime mover. Richard is complex, “a creature of his deformity and jealousy,” writes E. Pearlman, “a character hated by his own mother and who hates all women in return” (Pearlman 424). But despite all of his negative qualities, Richard is an infinitely satisfying speaker, one who is plainspoken, yet “uses rhetoric with no trace of irony” (Hill 464). As R.F. Hill observes, “In Titus Andronicus and Richard III, the characters of Aaron and Richard Crookback constantly disturb the rhetorical mode. Their vigor and humor are presented with a naturalism that makes the language of the other characters look, indeed, frigid, thin, and artificial.” (Hill 464)

This unique rhetorical strategy is evident from Richard’s opening soliloquy. What reads at first like a courtly public address, “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York, / And all the clouds that loured upon our house / In the deep bosom of the ocean buried” (R3 1.1.1-4) soon turns confessional. Richard paints himself as the monster he sees himself to be, “not shaped for sportive tricks / Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass, […] so lamely and unfashionable. / That dogs bark at me as I halt by them” (R3 1.1.14-15, 22-23). But Richard is not a monster in looks alone, he backs up his monstrous countenance with the ambition to do any number of horrible things in order to gain power. “I am determined to prove a villain,” (R3 1.1.30) he confesses, “plots I have laid inductious, dangerous, / By drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams, / To send my brother Clarence and the King / In deadly hate the one against the other” (R3 1.1.32-35).

The extent of Richard’s villainy is in full flower as he courts the Lady Anne, despite having murdered her husband and father in law. Richard flatters her, telling her that it was her beauty that “did haunt me in my sleep / To undertake the death of all the world / So that I might rest one hour in your sweet bosom” (R3 1.2.120-122). He tolerates her insults, and even accepts being spit upon by her, saying “never came poison from so sweet a place” (R3 1.2.144). Richard is persistent in his wooing, ultimately bending her will as he preys on her, suggesting once again that he killed her husband because he was spurned on by her beauty, “’twas I that killed your husband; / But ’twas thy beauty that provokèd me” (R3 1.2.165-166). Once Richard wins this exchange with Lady Anne and she departs, “he drops back into a witty conversational vein” (Hill 465), admitting to the audience “I’ll have her, but I will not keep her long” (R3 1.2.214). Richard closes out the scene by further gloating and revealing his plans to seize power.

But power seized through dishonest means is fleeting, and Richard III exists in a complicated and fantastic moral universe, in which “the wounds of the murdered bleed again in the presence of the murderer, […] where ghosts return to influence and govern temporal events, and where prophecies are fulfilled not in vague and general outline but in specific detail” (Pearlman 424). In the play’s closing act, even though Richard faces certain defeat at the hands of the Earl of Richmond’s forces, he manages a rousing speech to his troops, implying that the enemy they face is unworthy of them. “If we be conquered,” he says, “let men conquer us, / And not these bastard Bretons, whom our fathers / Have in their own land beaten, bobbed, and thumped, / And in record left them the heirs of shame” (R3 5.5.61-64). In a xenophobic moment that would have made Iago proud, Richard further amplifies the consequence, should his men fail in their defense: “Shall these enjoy our lands, lie with our wives, / Ravish our daughters?” (R3 By stooping to such fiery rhetoric in order to fulfill his ambitions, Richard proves himself as “an allegorized and devilish embodiment of evil” (Pearlman 424), every bit fulfilling his promise to “prove a villain,” (R3 1.1.30).

In drama, it is the darkness of a villain that defines and focuses the brightness of its heroes. Effective villains cannot rely on special-effect wizardry to impress an audience, or they risk being taken as an imitator, a Halloween-costumed Darth Vader with no rhetorical muscle. Aaron the Moor, “Honest” Iago, and King Richard are all villains without masks, without costumes, and without special effects. They are dark and vicious men whose ethos is built entirely through eloquence; their ability to articulate well their unabashed confessions and darkest schemes is the very glue that makes them memorable.

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