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Playing Shakespeare's Villains


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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Introduction: Playing Shakespeare’s Villains: Bloody, bawdy, remorseless, treacherous, lecherous! (Louis Fantasia)


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Introduction: Playing Shakespeare’s Villains: Bloody, bawdy, remorseless, treacherous, lecherous!


On my wall hangs a Japanese carving, The mask of an evil demon, decorated with gold lacquer. Sympathetically I observe The swollen veins of the forehead, indicating What a strain it is to be evil. “The Mask of Evil”, Bertolt Brecht1

Unlike Brecht’s evil demon in the poem above, Shakespeare’s villains rarely strain to be evil. They are smooth, unctuous, without conscience, and surprisingly successful. Richard and Claudius become kings. Edmund almost does. In a zero-sum game, Iago wins and Othello loses. Don John escapes at the end of Much Ado, and the shipwrecked villains in The Tempest are forgiven in the end. Even mischievous Puck takes mortals to be gullible fools. Crime may not pay, but in Shakespeare’s world it doesn’t cost very much. This may be, perhaps, because Shakespeare does not see the world in a Manichean good/evil dichotomy. Rather, I believe, he situates evil on a continuum of human behavior.

We think we know who comes to mind when we speak of Shakespeare’s “villains”: the usual suspects such as Aaron the Moor, Edmund, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, etc. People who do bad things to nice people. But what about Caliban, Regan and Goneril? Are they evil or are they victims? What about Bolingbroke and Margaret and the other political opportunists, revolutionaries, and, yes, losers? History is written by the winners and the...

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