Shakespeare’s Surprising Villains

Since Richard III follows Othello in our reading, it is difficult to tell if similarities present themselves because of that fact, or if we would have noticed them regardless; but, as did several of my fellow-bloggers, I also immediately noticed similarities between Richard III and Othello. One of the ways that this comparison sets up from the beginning is the fact that Richard III opens with Richard’s heavy, melancholy monologue about his “evil plan.” In Othello, this revelation of ill-will and malicious intent takes the form of a discussion between Iago and Roderigo, and it is not until the end of the first act ( 1.3.365-386) that we are given Iago’s private exposition on the matter (which is also comparatively shorter than Richard’s). In light of those differences, some might wonder why the openings of these two plays seem similar to me, but the villain’s declaration of purpose as the first thing a reader/audience encounters is bold in both, and strikingly distinct from the two comedies we have read. I do not know if this form of opening is a facet of the genre, or if it was Shakespeare’s personal decision, but regardless of the differences between the styles of presentation, both Iago’s and Richard’s malice are clearly and even chillingly stated by both, right from the start.

 

I also noticed similarities between Richard III and Othello in Richard’s persuasive speech abilities. At the beginning of Act I, Scene II, Lady Anne blatantly displays her hatred of Richard, bestowing such epithets upon him as “dreadful minister of hell” (1.2.46) and declaring, “thou canst make/No excuse current but to hang thyself” (1.2.83-84). However, just a short while later, she agrees to take his ring, and happily grants his plea that she meet him at Crosby House. How could such a change occur? At first glance, it appears that Richard has inherited the same silver tongue as Iago—but upon closer examination, perhaps Iago is not the Othellian character to whom Richard is most similar. As I read back over Richard’s speech in 1.2.154.1—154.12, I found myself reminded more of Othello’s storytelling capabilities. At the conclusion of the speech, when Richard says, “I never sued to friend nor enemy;/ My tongue could never learn sweet smoothing word;/ But now thy beauty is my proposed fee,/ My proud heart sues and prompts my tongue to speak” (1.2.155-158), we can almost hear the echo of Othello’s words to the Venetian senate “Rude am I in my speech,/ And little blessed in the soft phrase of peace,/…And little of this great world can I speak/…Yet, by your gracious patience,/I will a round, unvarnished tale deliver/ Of my whole course of love” (Othello 1.3.81-91). Rather than taking Iago’s approach of dropping hints and phrases and letting the subject join them together, both Richard and Othello attempt to persuade others by their blunt forthrightness and arousal of sympathy.

 

As I pursued this idea further, I was shocked to discover that the similarities I found between the two plays lay more in the possibility of Richard as a twisted Othello than as another Iago. Richard’s lament in his opening speech “I that am rudely stamped and want love’s majesty/…I that am curtailed of this fair proportion,/Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,/Deformed, unfinished…” (1.1.16-20) is almost a shadow of what Othello’s more optimistic but still doubtful “Haply for I am black,/ And have not those soft parts of conversation/ That chamberers have; or for I am declined/ Into the vale of years—yet that’s not much—”(Othello 3.3.267—270) could eventually become. Richard does bear some similarities to Iago, but I find the ones he shares with Othello to be more troubling and thought-provoking—which seems to be an example of just what Shakespeare does best.

 

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4 thoughts on “Shakespeare’s Surprising Villains

  1. Alexander Hall-Hognason

    I am glad you pointed out the similarities between Othello and Richard III – I had not reflected on any parallels, but when I read your post, I began to think more about them. I searched and searched, but I could not find the line: however, if memory serves, Othello expressed his surprise to Iago, early-to-midway-through the play, that Desdemona even took interest in him. Similarly, as Richard III establishes right at the start of the play, he considers himself rather ugly. In fact my favorite line so far is, “Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass.” Yet when he manages to woo Anne, he says “Upon my life, she finds, although I cannot,/ Myself to be a marv’lous proper man./ I’ll be at charges for a looking glass”. Now, Othello never expressed concern that he was ugly, but they share in common a surprise at their own ability to court women.

    Because you entitled your piece “Surprising Villains”, I feel compelled to mention the two Murderers – one of whom has a conscience, who struggles between a King’s command and a God’s. I loved their back and forth patter, especially The Second Murderer when he discusses all the shortcomings of having a conscience (my second favorite passage).

    There are so many great lines in this first act. I think half the reason I read on wasn’t even the plot, but to get to more of those literary gems.

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  2. Lex

    I really appreciate your comparison of Othello and Richard. While I did see similarities between Richard and Iago I do agree that there are many more shared traits between Othello and Richard. This brings me back to our discussion of Othello being the other of the play. In a sense, Richard is very much the other in this play. Not only is he deformed and homely, Richard is also the fourth son. As we said in class, being the fourth son was pretty much the equivalent of being at the bottom of the barrel. Richard has no real title, no real source of income, and has little claim to the throne. He is socially isolated, or turned into “the other,” by both physical and social status. Just in that fact alone I would align Othello and Richard as similar characters more readily than Iago and Richard.

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  3. coleenhiggins

    I also noticed how Shakespeare’s central characters are often manipulators of language. Othello is able to woo Desdemona with his storytelling, and Richard is remarkably able to woo the grieving Anne. But, like Othello, will Richard also be susceptible to the use of persuasive speech from another character? Iago caused Othello’s downfall with his clever use of words. Will a similar conflict arise with Richard?

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  4. alexatirapelli

    I agree! I also saw the parallel between Iago’s and Richard’s evil declarations. It was interesting how Richard automatically reveals his evil intent, whereas it takes a little longer with Iago. It was cool in class how we talked about Richard being the protagonist and therefore making the reader/audience want to side with him and understand him. In comparison, Iago was the antagonist and though his methods were very strategic and impressive (for a psychopath), we were less sympathetic with him. It’s definitely fun to read a text wherein we try siding with the bad guy for once. And this might tie into your thought about Richard being a more twisted Othello rather than Iago. I liked that idea a lot!

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