Bookends of Villiany
Lisa Wolpe as Shylock
By Kathryn Neves
From Puck to Prospero, Cordelia to Cleopatra, Shakespeare’s heroes light up pages and stages across the world. And as for the villains, Shakespeare’s close look into their motives and their actions reveal complicated, realistic characters such as the world has never seen. Truthfully, the villains can be more compelling than their heroic counterparts. And nowhere is that more true than this season at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. This year, two of Shakespeare’s most infamous villains take the stage— the bitter Jewish moneylender Shylock, and the jealous, manipulative ensign Iago. By creating villains that stand practically opposite each other, Shakespeare explores the spectrum of evil with all its complexities and contradictions.
The difference between Iago and Shylock can be stated very simply; it’s the nature/nurture debate. Is evil born, or does it arise out of circumstances? Well, according to Shakespeare, both. Iago, with very little motivation or reason, takes pleasure in destroying the lives of the people around him. His evil seems to be born; there’s really no reason for him act as nefariously as he does. Iago hates Othello; without any real provocation, he destroys Othello’s life.
Shylock, on the other hand, is trapped in a terrible circumstance, surrounded by bigotry, hatred, and prejudice, he has no choice but to grow bitter and hardened as a way to protect himself. He has so much justification in his evil actions that often, audiences sympathize with him more than they do Antonio. His villainous actions are a response to the years and years of cruelty that he has received at the hands of the Venetian Christians. After seeing him downtrodden, spit upon, and mocked consistently, we can understand and sympathize with Shylock, even in his villainy. Not so with Iago.
Often, people claim that Iago is a psychopath. One of the primary signs of psychopathy is a lack of empathy. This certainly holds true for Iago. He shows no remorse, no kindness, and no understanding to any of the victims that he pursues. While he may act innocent and honest in front of the other characters, it is clear that Iago can’t or won’t make connections with the people around him.
Shylock, however, is the complete opposite. One of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches comes in act 3, scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice. “Hath not a Jew eyes?” Shylock asks. “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?” Shylock shows clear signs of empathy and understanding, to the point that he pleads with others to empathize with him and all members of his race. Continuing on, we see that Shylock genuinely cares for his loved ones. When Jessica runs away with Lorenzo, he is distraught; when he sees that his wife’s ring has been stolen, he is heartbroken. His relationships with his loved ones matter to him, while we can see that Iago cares nothing for anyone around him—not the trusting Othello or even his own wife Emilia.
Perhaps even more telling is the way that they carry out their evil plots. Shylock is direct: he has one goal, and that is to go after Antonio. He doesn’t hurt anyone else in the process: only the person who has wronged him. Not only that, but he goes after Antonio with blunt honesty—he doesn’t hide any of his emotions or his intentions from the merchant. Iago, too, has one victim in mind, Othello; but unlike Shylock, Iago doesn’t care who gets in his way. He doesn’t care who else he hurts, so long as he can get his revenge on Othello. Iago destroys Roderigo, Cassio, Desdemona, and Emilia in his plot to bring down his nemesis. Not only that, but rather than going about it honestly, Iago tricks the people around him into hurting each other. Iago’s villainy is a web of deceit, manipulation, and sadism.
It’s no wonder, then, that audiences in every time and place have found sympathy with Shylock’s plight and nothing but disgust and hatred for Iago. It’s clear that Shakespeare wanted us to understand Shylock—he even wanted us to like him, to some extent. Shylock’s lines and language are direct, honest, and heartfelt, while Iago’s lines are full of lies, arrogance, and disgustingly explicit language. Iago was crafted as the archetypal villain—pure evil—while Shylock is a villain who is startlingly real.
Looking at these two characters, it’s clear that evil is complicated. You might say that some are born evil, some achieve evil, and some have evil thrust upon them. Evil can be both psychopathic and sympathetic. That’s why Shylock and Iago have endured the test of time as some of Shakespeare’s strongest characters: they show us the different extremes of evil. By watching them, we can come to understand just how complicated and human the quality of evil really is.