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Playing Shakespeare's Villains

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Edited By Louis Fantasia

The essays in Playing Shakespeare’s Villains trouble our assumptions of what—and who—constitutes "villainy" in Shakespeare’s works, through probing and provocative analyses of the murky moral logics at play in the Bard’s oeuvre. Shakespeare spreads before us a panoply of evil, villainy, and amorality—of characters doing bad things for good reasons, bad things for bad reasons, and bad things for no reason at all. How does Shakespeare handle culpability and consequence? How much does he justify his villains’ actions? How much do we enjoy watching people get away with murder and mayhem? What are we to make of the moral universe that Shakesperare presents: a universe in which some villains are punished and others seem to be rewarded; where mischief can quickly turn violent; and where an entire world can be brought down by someone’s willful insistence on having one’s way? Questions like these animate the discussions in this lively volume, the second in the Playing Shakespeare’s Characters series.

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2. “A few drams of eale”: An Overview of Evil in Shakespeare’s Plays (Timothy Harris)

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2.  “A few drams of eale”: An Overview of Evil in Shakespeare’s Plays

TIMOTHY HARRIS

Our wills and fates do so contrary run That our devices still are overthrown; Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own. Hamlet, 3.2.234–36

Evil as a metaphysical principle comes in two kinds: a positive principle that actively pits itself against “good”; and a negative principle that is simply the privation or absence of “good,” which it nevertheless (pace St Augustine) actively erodes. The former we like to appeal to when justifying ourselves and our cause in what we care to believe is a just war or quarrel; the latter we tend to have recourse to when accounting for individual wickedness, though the erosion can be more general, as in the corruption or collapse of a political order and the evils that attend these. This second principle, with its paradoxical combination of mere lack and an active gnawing away at the “good” is the more interesting one, since it allows for the complexity of human activity, whether individual or communal, and qualifies any easy or delusory belief in the necessary rightness of one’s self or cause. It allows for the fact that, whatever one’s theology or metaphysics, good and evil are inextricably mingled in our world, and sometimes it is difficult to tell one from the other.

The latter principle also makes it more difficult to draw ready...

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