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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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9. On the Nature of Evil (Clifffford Librach)

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9.  On the Nature of Evil

CLIFFORD LIBRACH

We begin with a deeply consequential proposition: evil—the intense psychological preoccupation of the self over against any interest or value outside or apart therefrom, causing the deliberate infliction of unjust suffering—is a brooding and omnipresent reality in all of human life.1 It is, as Judaism and Christianity would have it, the default normative and expected resolution of the apparent randomness of all of life. Lurking evil—as pure selfishness—is to be expected. Contrary behaviors: justice, charity, friendship, heroism, sacrifice, decency, honor and humility all must be learned and cultivated. They require intentional and didactic instruction—not necessarily formal (a mother’s lap can be a college of human virtue), but ordered and instructed as well as modeled.

The 20th century experience gives us little basis to imagine otherwise. Evil, it seems, is not episodic and occasional, but constant and presumptive. It is a hovering reality, always presenting its optional availability to persons, tribes and nations. This essay will explore the nature and persistence of evil and use, principally, the Hebrew Bible as its instrumental and instructive text. I will argue that the sinews of civilization form a cultural barrier (which can rather easily be breached, as attested by our last century) to most evil, with its rule of law and normative enforced standards of decency and fairness. But this veneer is thin indeed, and its seemingly easy penetration...

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