To Prove a Villain - The Elizebethan Villain as Revenger

Revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more man's nature
runs to, the more ought law to weed it out; for as for the first
wrong, it doth but offend the law, but the revenge of that
wrong putteth the law out of office.
(Bacon, Sir Francis. An Anthology of English Classics. New York: Rinehart & Company, 1935.)

A villain is a person who, for a selfish end, willfully and deliberately violates the standards of morality sanctioned by the audience or reader. From the start, the Elizabethan villain had been entirely self-conscious, and entirely black, a complete embodiment of evil. With the growing consciousness that revenge was evil, revengefulness--particularly for injuries less than blood--became almost exclusively a villainous characteristic. Revenge is not a Christian attribute. Christian virtue, with its great emphasis on forgiveness, is a higher mode of behavior than pagan revenge. As Prospero observes in William Shakespeare's The Tempest, forgiveness is a nobler action than vengeance.

For the Elizabethan's the villain could have many motives that would be cause for revenge: anger, jealousy, and envy. Anger is most often the motive with hatred a close second. Hatred, in the eyes of another, was defined as natural wrath which had endured too long and had turned to unnatural malice. Anger (or choler) comes from personal wrongs, it is felt for particular men as opposed to hatred which is felt for all humanity. Anger can be cured by patience, but hatred is everlasting. Anger wants the victim to recognize the revenger, whereas hatred only desires to watch the destruction of the victim without recognition. Jealousy is another prime motive of revenge, it stems from the belief that an adversary or rival is an obstacle, that this adversary may hinder or cross the design and purpose of the revenger. Envy was considered the greatest Elizabethan vice, and it may be one of the most powerful of the passions inducing revenge. Envy's passion was so great that, in contrast to anger, no wrongs were necessary for a person to become the recipient of its malice; indeed, it was often directed against the most virtuous and peaceful of men.

The Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare, remains as compelling today as it was four centuries ago, because it comments so eloquently on a universal theme, the drive for revenge. The Merchant of Venice is exceptional among Shakespeare's plays because it may have been inspired, at least indirectly, by a contemporary scandal. In 1594 the Queen's personal physician Roderigo Lopez, a Portuguese Jew, was tried and executed for treason. The Lopez case inspired a wave of anti-Jewish feeling, and was probably responsible for the appearance of several dramas dealing with Jewish characters, including a revival of The Jew of Malta. If the Lopez affair did serve as Shakespeare's inspiration, only a few hints of this remain in the text of The Merchant of Venice, (One of these is that the hero of the play may be named for Don Antonio, the pretender to the Portuguese throne, who was associated with Dr. Lopez). In Shakespeare's hands, the Jewish villain became a complex character whose drive for revenge many playgoers can understand and even sympathize with. The elements of treachery and suspense are balanced with light hearted romance to create a drama which many audiences find more satisfying than Shakespeare's farcical early comedies.

The English of the late sixteenth century believed that Christianity was the only true religion, and that the social order was ordained by God. The individual who set himself against the establishment could only be a source of disruption or, at worst, evil. Since Jews did not believe in Christianity, they were a threat to the social order. The character of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice was no doubt drawn from literature, not real life. The Jewish villain was a stock character in medieval literature. Medieval passion plays, reenactments of the story of the crucifixion of Jesus, invariably portrayed the disloyal disciple Judas, as a stereotypical Jew. (Of course, historically, Jesus and all of his disciples were Jewish, but this was ignored.) The part of Judas was usually played for comedy, by an actor wearing an outrageous red wig and a large false nose. Subsequent authors, when they portrayed Jewish characters, always cast them as villains. In all probability, Shakespeare was not even interested in Shylock's Jewishness. He used the prevailing anti-Semitic stereotypes as a handy way to characterize his play's villain. Barabas, The Jew of Malta, must have been the prototype for Shylock. What mattered to Shakespeare was that Shylock was an outsider set apart from society because of his religion, his profession of lending money for interest, and his hatred for Antonio and the other Christian characters of the play. Surely Shylock wouldn't take the pound of flesh even if Antonio did fail to pay his loan, Salerio says: "What's that good for?" "If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge." Shylock answers.(3.1.47-49) Shylock has no interest in money, he wants revenge for the way he had been abused--and if the loss of a pound of flesh costs Antonio his life, so much the better.

Villains were equipped with motives other than just pure revengefullness. Covetness, misanthropy, and especially ambition, often hold the stage almost unchallenged. The ambitious villain has a love of conquest and a thirst for power. Sometimes the ambitious villain can be thought of as a revengeful villain. In Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, Barabas was by nature ambitious, but most of his actions were the result of a desire for revenge. Barabas, describes his character to the audience thus:

Now will I show myself to have more of the serpent than
the dove; that is, more knave than fool.
(The Jew of Malta, 2.3.36-37)

His enemies blocked his ambition, so he turned to retaliation.

In Marlowe's play, which was first performed in 1591, Barabas is a very wealthy Jewish merchant who lives on the Mediterranean island of Malta. Like Shylock, Barabas has an only daughter who is in love with a Christian. Barabas also has a rational motive for hating Christian society. In the play, he is angered by the passage of a law requiring all Jews to either convert to Christianity or give up one half of their wealth. Nevertheless, Barabas is a thoroughly evil character. Barabas possesses great wealth and uses it in such a manner as to make him more powerful than kings. He commits crimes for revenge, because he hates Christians as such, and hates especially the men who have taken his gold. He resorts to murder and treason to gain his revenge and enjoys watching the pain and suffering he has caused.

Richard III is based of the villainy of revenge. At the very beginning of the play Richard expounds upon his defority and then proclaims his intention for revenge.

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain.
(Richard III, 1.1.32)

In Richard III Shakespeare pictured the dominating sins in the play as perjury and murder--sins against the moral order. He portrayed and analyzed the passion of ambition that caused Richard to sin and the passion of fear that at the same time punished him for his sins and forced him to wade still further in blood. He inserted non-historical scenes developing the Elizabethan philosophy of revenge. He used the supernatural to enhance the horror of the play, and to contribute to the impression of a divine vengeance giving punishment for sin. He showed God's revenge exacted through the agency of the evil Richard, who was nevertheless to be held to account for his evil-doing.

The Elizabethan attitude toward nature, a holdover from medieval times, was as structured and formal as an organizational flow-chart is today. It was the Elizabethan concept of order which the villain threatened. Nature consisted of a universe in which there was an established hierarchy. One of the most fundamental views of order in the medieval consciousness was the concept of the Chain of Being. It held that the universe was a hierarchy in which certain aspects of creation held preeminence over others. For example, the sun was the greatest among stars, the king was the greatest among men, and gold the greatest among metals. The chain extended from God at the top, down to the lowest of elements, and all of creation had some position on the chain. When the natural order was upset, the bottom moved toward the top. As a result, chaos set in.

In Elizabethan literature the villain performed the function of setting in motion the awesome and terrifying forces of chaos that threaten the existence of social order. With delighted candor Richard III takes the audience into his confidence, gleefully explaining his plan with which he, like Milton's Satan, intends to walk with us "hand in hand to hell" (Richard III, 5.3.312). His opening soliloquy provides us the clues to the motivation for his wickedness, as well as the revelation by the villain that he intends to upset the established order, or status quo. In Richard III the status quo is a well-defined system for the accession to the throne.

Amidst a fragile and precariously balanced order, the villain begins his efforts to unloose the demon chaos and disassemble, link by link, the entire Chain of Being. His ability to do so springs largely from to facets of his character. First is his total alienation from God, Community and man, which convinces him that he acts as a free agent, unaccountable to any of these. Second is his indomitable and unyielding will, which closely parallels that of Milton's Satan.

Estrangement from God, man, and community enables the villain to view his own acts as if performed in a moral vacuum. Consequently, there is no limit to the amount of suffering and devastation he can inflict before the prick of conscience awakens him from his demonic trance. The reason the villain can achieve such startling power is due in large part to the ceaseless flow of energy that is characteristic of the villains will.

As the villain rises in power, there is an undercurrent of fear that ripples through the plays and effects the characters of every class. We must remember that, while the government of Queen Elizabeth was one of strength and stability, there was no heir apparent to Elizabeth's throne. Thus, fears of an illegitimate or weak successor loomed over England. As John Palmer states, in The Political Characters of Shakespeare:

All that the Englishman held most dear had found a satisfying
symbol in the Tudor monarch, ruling by divine right, holding a
sacred office, to question whose authority was treason, to trouble whose peace was an
impiety. But the Tudor monarch was about
to die childless. Was England to fall back into the old disorder,
horror, fear and mutiny which had followed the usurpation of Bolingbroke?
(Palmer, John. The Political Characters of Shakespeare. London: Macmillan, 1961, p. 119.)
The memories of Bolingbroke, the Wars of the Roses, and the Tudor Myth were not fleeting ones.

Unlike many presentations of historical subjects on stage, Shakespeare's plays explored a number of concerns that reflected current interests. Foremost among these was the fear of a return to the civil disorder of the 15th century that had preceded the accession to the throne of the Tudor monarchs. Many members of the great 15th century families were still prominent in Elizabeth's court. As a member of an acting company that frequently performed at court, and enjoyed the financial support of the nobility, Shakespeare had direct contact with these family descendants. Could their ambitions and lust for power and revenge rise up again? Would the fragile peace between domestic factions as well as foreign enemies remain secure after the death of Elizabeth? These were questions he had to confront when writing the drama of Richard III's rise to power and rapid downfall.

Many of Shakespeare's characters express the feeling that the villain's successes will open the way to imminent doom. In Richard III, just after Clarence has been killed by agents of Richard, it has been revealed that King Edward has died, and the throne is a mere stone's throw away from Richard. Three citizens assembled on the street reveal the fears and insecurities of the populace:

SECOND CITIZEN:Hear you the news abroad?
FIRST CITIZEN:Yes, that the King is dead.
SECOND CITIZEN:Ill news, by'r lady; seldom comes the better.
I fear, I fear 'twill prove a giddy world.
THIRD CITIZEN:Neighbours, God speed!
FIRST CITIZEN: Give you good morrow, sir.
THIRD CITIZEN: Doth the news hold of good King Edward's death?
SECOND CITIZEN:Ay, sir, it is too true; God help the while!
THIRD CITIZEN:Then, masters, look to see a troublous world.
(Richard III, 2.3.2-9)

The disintegration of social order is further marked by a succession of "unnatural occurrences, such as "untimely storms" (2.3.35), an eclipse, "sudden floods" (4.4.510), and hooting owls.

It is the fear that, if the villain ultimately prevails (or goes unpunished for his deeds), chaos and disorder will reign forever; life thereafter will be rendered meaningless, and mankind will be doomed to an existence void of hope and purpose. It is this chaos, expressed by way of prophecy, soliloquy, and imagery of nature gone awry, which captures the fears of the Elizabethan audience.

by Craig Harris ©1994