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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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5. Iachimo: “By villainy I got this ring” (Louis Scheeder)

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5.  Iachimo: “By villainy I got this ring”

LOUIS SCHEEDER

Iachimo is, admittedly, one of the least admired characters in one of the most underrated plays among Shakespeare’s works. The play in which the character appears, Cymbeline, is often seen as over-complicated and confusing. I prefer to consider the play a post-modern fantasy, rich in nuance, replete with improbabilities, and, moreover, one that is filled with the ridiculous.

I will make the case that Shakespeare is writing at the height of his powers and that Cymbeline is one of the plays most expressive of his considerable genius. I will build upon the characters of Iachimo and Innogen (as Martin Butler, editor of the Cambridge University Press 2005 edition of the play, and I term her), especially in Act 1, scene 6 of the play. Through a brief examination of this scene, I will endeavor to correct some long-held misapprehensions about the play.

Regarding Cymbeline, Dr. Johnson’s famously fabled “incongruity”1 has given way, in recent years, to a phantasmagorical spectacle incorporating many elements that derives its pleasures from those disparate elements of the play. Whereas Othello is more popular, and King Lear the towering masterpiece among Shakespeare’s works, the oft-overlooked Cymbeline is the play most often denigrated for its absurdity of plot. It abounds in the improbable: an old courtier, exiled, living in a cave for twenty years; a married lady subject to a bet about...

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