Date of Graduation
Master of Arts in English (MA)
William A. Quinn
Second Committee Member
Joshua B. Smith
The characters of William Shakespeare have spawned countless words of critical interpretation inspired by the playwright's aptitude for fashioning intricate and conflicted figures. As a master character craftsman, Shakespeare is consistent in creating fascinatingly deep characters, and many of them have even gone so far as to generate entire literary archetypes. From the contemplative Prince Hamlet to the despicable yet charming John Falstaff, Shakespeare's characters remain eternal representatives of what any good character should be: interesting, provocative, and complicated.
However, among the playwright's most hypnotic figures are his villains, those characters whom audiences should by all counts detest but cannot help but find alluring. Some of these villains have attracted more critical attention than others. For instance, Iago, the scheming fiend of Othello, has forever mesmerized audiences and critics alike with his almost supernatural penchant for evil. Other villains, like the passionate firebrand of 1 Henry IV, Henry "Hotspur" Percy, are perhaps less discussed but still produce an equally ambivalent response from their audiences. This thesis specifically aims to answer two questions. First, what makes these villains attractive to their readers and viewers? Why do they produce such a strongly ambivalent response from their audiences--how do they manage to simultaneously repel and attract us? More importantly, however, the thesis speculates on Shakespeare's reasons for creating such captivating antagonists. In other words, what was the playwright trying to do by forging villains whom we have no choice but to admire?
The thesis is divided into four chapters, each of which will focus on a particular villain from Shakespeare's plays: Hotspur from 1 Henry IV, Iago from Othello, Richard from Richard III, and Macbeth from Macbeth. While these are by no means the only Shakespearean villains worthy of critical assessment, nor are they the playwright's only attractive villains, they do nonetheless serve as prime examples of how Shakespeare uses the archetype of the attractive villain to some dramatic end. Each chapter will first explore the ways in which that character is particularly alluring, and then it will move into a consideration of Shakespeare's intent in producing the uncannily attractive villain.
Additionally, each chapter will conclude by supposing the villain to be a figurehead for a hypothetical "class" of literary villains. For example, one villain could represent a class of villains who are attractive because of their ambition; another could represent villains who entice audiences through their mystery. To that end, the chapters will conclude by offering additional "members" of that class from other popular literary works, some from before Shakespeare, some from after Shakespeare, and some from his contemporary authors.
The goal of this thesis is to explore the archetype of the attractive villain and to offer reasons for Shakespeare's apparent fondness--and aptitude--for it. While the goal of any academic endeavor should always be discovery, it need not always find one satisfactory answer--rare is the academic pursuit that ends in certainty. However, by delving into the worlds of these villains, by playing a bit of devil's advocate in analyzing Shakespeare's elaborate characterization process, we can discover what makes them such effective and eternal members among the great personalities of literature.
Green, Jonathan Montgomery, "Playing Devil's Advocate: The Attractive Shakespearean Villain" (2012). Theses and Dissertations. 320.