Villains in Williams Shakespeare's 'Othello' and John Webster's ‘The Duchess of Malfi’

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The concept of tragedy within plays is to highlight the dramatic style of humanity, through our encounters with sorrow and terrible events. Specifically, in Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedies, this approach to tragedy was filled with dynamics based upon the characters of the plays actions. Often, the source of such tragedies stemmed from the conspiring roles of villains. The existence of villains is a term that has constantly become defined through labels in literary, historical and movie groups throughout history. Often though, these labels can be subjective and often vague when using terms such as hero vs villain. To see beyond these labels and stifled understandings of such roles, one must consider the creators intention of these villainous characters, through the characters past, intentions, principles and prejudices. Villains often always drive the force of evil or dramatics in literature and film, an obvious genre being that of tragedy. Regarding tragedy plays, we describe villains as usually unredeemable, as they are typically constructed to warn the audience against such negative actions. Villains regarding fiction, commonly play the role of an adversary whose sole intention is to collide and destroy the heroes story arc, either through killing them or damaging them in some other way. The villain is portrayed as an obstacle and a source of conflict for the hero to fight and struggle to overcome. In most cases, the villain is the polar opposite of the hero, holding negative traits compared to the hero’s positive traits.

Regarding our understanding of modernity, villains have grown to become almost loveable, in the sense that we as the audience can identify and relate to the character through their flaws. An example of this archetype stems from Shakespearian style villains, which some argue originated the complexity of villains in the three-dimensional sense. Shakespeare was known to use the role of his villains to warn his audience of the consequences following one's misdeeds. Yet along with this concept, Shakespeare showed no mercy to other non-villainous characters, causing them to suffer similar fates to the villains. Hence the genre of tragedy, Shakespeare expressed this theme by involving all characters in the violence and drama of the play, a confusing notion to moralists of the Enlightenment.

A common trait used in Shakespearian villains was also that of making the character an outsider that is isolated from the rest of the world. Whether this is through his or her appearance, their social standing or their past. Though there are cases in which the hero is actually the outsider, as seen in the role of Othello. Shakespeare inspired this concept of fleshed out villains through characters such as Iago in his play ‘Othello’.

Iago is a Venetian soldier throughout the play, now serving under the newly promoted lieutenant Othello, the Moor hero of the play. Considered being one of the most tragic and cruelest villains in Shakespeare’s plays, Iago is a bizarre villain because his actions are expressed in a secretive manner, and come from a place in his mind that is not easily identifiable. A master manipulator, Iago is capable of identifying people's weakness and using it against them. As seen in his manipulation of Othello through his wife and Cassio’s intolerance for drinking alcohol. Iago is manipulative in an often humorous sense, as seen in scenes between him and the naïve Roderigo. 'Roderigo: ‘Wilt thou be fast to my hopes if I depend on the issue?’; Iago: ‘Thou art sure of me’” (Act 1, Scene 3). This strange dynamic almost sheds a positive light on Iago, who seems to entertain the audience by manipulating this oblivious character. These interactions also reveal unreasonable and somewhat cowardly traits in Iago.

From the first scenes of the play, we see that Iago is bitter towards Othello, for having superseded him in the position of lieutenant. “But he, sir, had the election; And I, of whom his eyes had seen the proof/ He, in good time, must his lieutenant be” (Act 1, Scene 1). This shows a somewhat childish aspect to Iago, as he is overcome with the feeling of having lost to Othello, which causes this to become a driving force behind his tragedy. Iago later also claims that Othello slept with his wife, Emilia, an accusation that is backed by no evidence, proving his unreasonable behavior. “Twixt my sheets / He has done my office” (Act 1, Scene 3). In response to his suspicions, Iago then claims to be lusting after Othello’s wife, Desdemona, as a “wife for wife” (Act 2, Scene 1) style of revenge. Through manipulations of his wife, Iago convinced her to steal Desdemona’s precious handkerchief to frame her to cause harm to Othello. Due to Othello’s trust in his friend, Iago is able to orchestrate his plot through the lethality of Othello’s faith in him. “I follow him to serve mine own turn” (Act 1 Scene 1). Yet Iago acts not only out against Othello, but has shown to act in anger against any provocation from the surrounding people. Iago murdered his wife Emilia after she revealed to Othello her role in Desdemona’s murder, therefore outing Iago’s scheme. Taking this as a betrayal, Iago stabbed his wife in the final act. Iago’s murder of his wife is also theorized to be an act of hatred against women. We can see this in Iago’s domineering behavior and his contempt for her intelligence and feminist attitudes. Iago’s general disgust for people around him led to his manipulations of others to create himself as a powerful figure and to execute his plans.

In some varying analysis, Iago is considered to carry some psychopathic traits, due to his lack of concern for the lives of the people he affects and his exploitation of weaknesses. Iago is also capable of having others believe him to be a decent man, which leads to the other character’s asking Iago to assist them when matters go wrong. In secret, Iago would belittle those who placed their trust in him and others. “The Moor is of a free and open nature, That thinks men honest that but seem to be so, And will as tenderly be led by th' nose. As asses are” (Act 1, Scene 3).

Despite being a complex character regarding his motives, an obvious motivator is Iago’s drive towards revenge against Othello along with Cassio. As noted earlier, this likely stems from the Moor having chosen Othello for lieutenant over him. “And what’s he that says I play the villain, When this advice is free I give and honest, Probal to thinking, and to the course. To win the Moor again?” (Act 2, Scene 3)

Iago’s function in the play is majorly to do with the villain in disguise, through his exploitation of the other characters and his plots. By the end of the play, he has been directly responsible for multiple deaths in pursuing his revenge against Othello.

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Shakespeare presents an unusual dynamic between Othello and Iago regarding their peculiar friendship. What appears to be initially a typical friendship, is soon to be revealed to be one founded on lies through Iago’s manipulative nature. Shakespeare shows the viewers how Othello is blinded by his trust for his friend, despite Iago faking his loyalty to Othello for his own gain. Despite this negative character trait, Shakespeare still presents Iago in a complex light, by almost inviting the audience to like Iago through the characters wit and cleverness. The role of Othello is essentially the main motivation behind all of Iago’s plans, despite having done him doing very little to antagonize or offend Iago. The relationship between these two characters set up the main structure for the story, to create further tragedy at the hands of the two men fighting against one another.

Such a dynamic between villains and heroes, is not always so tangible, or at least obvious through their own personal relations to one another. Comparatively, John Webster’s play ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ features a character known as Bosola, who is in some ways disconnected to the protagonist. Bosola follows a similar theme of complexity as seen in Shakespeare’s Iago. Yet in an unusual twist of roles, Bosola comes to play both the villain and hero, as he fights to avenge the duchess he destroyed.

Bosola is a spy sent by Ferdinand to watch the Duchess as her Provisor of Horse. He is later assigned to murder the Duchess for Ferdinand and the Cardinal. Though in a somewhat redeemable quality, Bosola is aware of the evil and corruption he is in the middle of. As opposed to Iago, who is the orchestrator, Bosola is the one doing the dirty work.

There is a strange mixture of compassion and selfishness that also enables him to feel pity for the Duchess, resulting in him attempting to revive her but to no avail. “She stirs; here's life: -Return, fair soul, from darkness, and lead mine. Out of this sensible hell: - she's warm, she breathes” (Act 4, Scene 2). Though he only took action regarding revenge for the Duchess when Ferdinand refused to pay him, proving he is still ultimately blinded by self-interest.

The audience knows of Bosola’s capabilities to murder and that he is inherently not a good person. Despite this, Antonia states “he’s very valiant” (Act 1, Scene 1), proving in the beginning of the play he holds some good traits, yet his role in spying on the Duchess will “poison all his goodness” (Act 1, Scene 1).

Bosola holds several functions that play out in a strategic style presented through Webster’s writing. Bosola creates a response that contrasts his words which are portrayed as attractive, as opposed to his actions which are unattractive and perceived as negative. Throughout the play, this causes the audience confusion, as to Bosola’s true character and whether he is truly a villain, or if he is simply caught up with the wrong crowd. This is when Webster uses a strategy known as coup-de-theatre, wherein there is a sudden twist, seen through Bosola changing sides. “Revenge for the Duchess of Malfi, murder’d by the Arragonian brethren; for Antonio, Slain by this hand; for lustful Julia, Poison'd by this man; and lastly for myself” (Act 5, Scene 5). As a result, this causes Bosola to now be seen as a sympathetic villain and is therefore loved despite his faults.

Webster goes beyond the timeframe his play is set in and expands his characters story by giving them a tangible past. For example, we discover in the beginning of the play that Bosola was in prison due to the Cardinal, “I fell into the gallies in your service” (Act 1, Scene 1). As a result, Webster solidifies Bosola’s character and gives him a sense of realism that wasn’t always prevalent in plays. Bosola is also one of the few characters of the play who presents a deeper insight into his true intentions which contrast with the lies he tells other characters. This also makes Bosola a more convincing character, by showing the complex workings of his actions. Some argue Webster created the play as social satire, of which can be seen in Bosola’s role in political manipulation.

Both characters are in similar contexts responsible for their own downfall. Through Iago’s determination in creating chaos even when it seemed unwarranted, led to his wife betraying him after he manipulated her and caused her to go against her close friend and the wife of Othello. Bosola, despite appearing more compassionate in comparison to Iago, was still aware of his wrongdoings but continued doing so anyway, to improve his own life and for self-gain.

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Villains in Williams Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ and John Webster’s ‘The Duchess of Malfi’. (2022, December 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 20, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/villains-in-williams-shakespeares-othello-and-john-websters-the-duchess-of-malfi/
“Villains in Williams Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ and John Webster’s ‘The Duchess of Malfi’.” Edubirdie, 15 Dec. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/villains-in-williams-shakespeares-othello-and-john-websters-the-duchess-of-malfi/
Villains in Williams Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ and John Webster’s ‘The Duchess of Malfi’. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/villains-in-williams-shakespeares-othello-and-john-websters-the-duchess-of-malfi/> [Accessed 20 Apr. 2024].
Villains in Williams Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ and John Webster’s ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Dec 15 [cited 2024 Apr 20]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/villains-in-williams-shakespeares-othello-and-john-websters-the-duchess-of-malfi/
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