The Plays of Shakespeare: A Thematic Guide

By Victor L. Cahn | Go to book overview
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Villains are often the most intriguing characters in a dramatic or literary work, for it is their lust for money, power, love, or some more amorphous goal that propels the plot. Moreover, they almost always conceive the plan that they hope will fulfill their desire, and it is this plan to which the heroes or heroines react. Villains therefore furnish the intellectual and emotional energy that carries the narrative and commands our attention.

Shakespeare created a gallery of memorable villains, most of whom may be classified as “Machiavels.” The name is taken from Niccolo Machiavelli (1469–1527), the Italian statesman whose book Il Principe (The Prince, 1513) contributed profoundly to the Renaissance view of political realism. Machiavelli’s pragmatic advice on the administration of effective government became to the Elizabethans and many subsequent generations synonymous with diabolic conspiracy and unscrupulous manipulation. What gives Machiavels their unique flavor is that they carry out their schemes with glee; they relish their own ruthlessness. In addition, their wit, in combination with their intellect and freedom from moral restraint, creates an allure that may be at moments horrifying, but which is theatrically gripping.

One early example from Shakespeare’s tragedies is Aaron the Moor from Titus Andronicus. As he explains:

I will be bright, and shine in pearl and gold,

To wait upon this new-made empress.

(II, i, 19–20)

He plans to marry Tamora, the Queen of the Goths who has been recently engaged to Saturninus, the Emperor of Rome, the city that has conquered her people. The reasons for his cruelties otherwise remain cloudy. He comments to Tamora:


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The Plays of Shakespeare: A Thematic Guide


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