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Almost every tragedy has a villain, to provide the conflict which catapults the plot into its bitter end. William Shakespeare was a master at providing an audience with a keen insight into the human psyche through the actions and words of his heroes, and even more so, his villains. Perhaps the two most infamous villains in all of Shakespearian literature are the characters of Iago in Othello and Claudius in Hamlet. Both major characters in their respective plays, Claudius and Iago are driven by immoral ambitions. However, unlike many “evil villains” in literature, these two characters are far more complex than may be seen at first, and Shakespeare manages to give us a unique three-dimensional view into their wicked minds.
First of all, when reading Hamlet and Othello, Iago and Claudius are both portrayed as clever and conniving when speaking a soliloquy or otherwise thinking to themselves, but give off an amicable impression to the other characters around them. For example, in Othello, after convincing Roderigo that everything will work out and promising to help him win over Desdemona, Iago delivers his first soliloquy saying
Thus do I ever make my fool my purse;
For I mine own gained knowledge should profane
If I would time expend with such snipe
But for my sport and profit. I hate the Moor…
The main difference between Claudius and Iago, which makes Iago far more evil than Claudius, is simply Claudius’s guilt. Both men are able to perform terrible acts, such as Claudius’s murder and adultery and Iago’s manipulation of everyone surrounding him. They are also both able to present an outward show of poise and grace but Claudius feels guilty for the wrongdoings he has carried out while Iago does not feel the slightest bit of remorse for his actions. In fact, he constantly tries to convince the audience that he is righteous and is merely seeking revenge against the ones who wronged him – Cassio for being promoted above him and Othello for promoting Cassio. His bitter jealousy is first brought to light when Iago describes Othello’s promotion of Cassio to Roderigo,
“For Certes,” says he,
“I have already chose my officer.” And what was
Forsooth, a great arithmetician,
One Michael Cassio, a Florentine,
(A fellow almost damned in a fair wife)
That never set a squadron in the field,
Nor the division of a battle knows
More than a spinster…
Knowing that his argument is quite weak, considering the damage he does, Iago also adds that he suspects Othello of sleeping with his wife, Emilia, which is obviously untrue. A character far more complex than seems at first, there is more to Iago than meets the eye – making him a man who is not merely pure evil but rather a true villain in every respect of the word. One of the most fascinating qualities of Iago’s character is that although he is driven by his motivation for revenge, the rationalization he uses to validate the damage he causes is utterly unconvincing, and the way he deceives those that perceive him as a friend is hypocritical.
Similarly hypocritical is Claudius. He has established a very cheerful court of admirers and as Phyllis Rackin observes
Hamlet’s black clothing, no less than his bitter grief, associates him with the cold night of the opening scene in opposition to the spurious brightness and warmth of Claudius’s court.
Outwardly, he is friendly and praises Hamlet openly, but inside he is scheming of ways to rid his kingdom of the prince. He demonstrates these ideas in his brief chat with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,
I like him not, nor stands it safe with us
To let his madness range. Therefore prepare you.
I your commission will forthwith dispatch,
And he to England shall along with you.
He is clever in the way he presents his evil, through verbal trickery, to the courtiers and everyone around him in such a way that he seems good and generous. As Charles Norton Coe says in Demi-Devils: The Characters of Shakespeare’s Villians,
It is the measure of his uncle’s success that Hamlet, the only person to react normally to an abnormal situation, is himself made to seem abnormal.
Villains are self-serving characters that set out to achieve their goals at the expense of everyone around them, perpetuating the main theme which is the blur between that which is real and that which appears to be real. A scoundrel of this sort is usually driven by objectives of self-fulfillment. By manipulating those around them both villains are able to present an external impression of integrity and honor. One such example is when Iago describes Cassio’s fight with Roderigo to his commander, Othello. Although he intends to hurt Cassio, he gives off the impression that he is merely doing the right thing by saying,
I had rather have this tongue cut from my mouth
Than it should do offense to Michael Cassio.
Yet I persuade myself to speak the truth
Shall nothing wrong him.
By proceeding to describe Cassio’s actions negatively to Othello, Iago is able to make Cassio look bad in his commander’s eyes while, at the same time, present himself as a respectable man doing what he feels is proper in a situation like this.
Iago is looking to avenge the wrong that he believes has been done to him by Cassio and Othello and is out to hurt both just for the sake of damaging their lives. In contrast, Claudius, who is also driven by a need for self-fulfillment, is not out to specifically harm anybody. As literary critic Morris White notes,
His government works smoothly. He shows great tact to his courtiers, a genuine concern for his wife, and even kindness, at least at the beginning, to Hamlet…
and therefore can not be considered completely evil. He simply has a goal in mind, which is to be King, and will stop at nothing until he achieves it. In this way he is seen as a less malevolent character than Iago. Unlike Iago, Claudius has integrity and acts in a somewhat rational manner when it comes to dealing with his own actions.
Furthermore, both men appear to have intricately planned their course of action in detail, but the truth is that they only planned the beginnings of their campaigns and acted opportunistically throughout the rest of the play. They managed to maneuver the course of action of the other characters to make sure they act in a manner advantageous to the themselves.
Claudius is set on taking over his brother’s throne and devises a plan to murder the old king by pouring poison in his ear while he is asleep. Once he completes this act of murder, he takes over his brother’s throne and in a highly tactical move, marries Gertrude in order to secure his rights to the throne. He does not expect Hamlet to be such a complication to his plan and his idea so have him sent to England and later killed are spur of the moment decisions. Claudius continues to conceal his foul deed cleverly and it is this discrepancy between the honorable man the other character sees versus the hideous villain the audience sees that helps turn Claudius into the hated scoundrel that he was. As stated by D.A. Traversi,
Beneath Claudius’ impressive ability to assume, on the surface and in the public eye, the appropriately judicious and authoritative mask, which has even led some students of the play to minimize the full extent of his malignity, lie the obsessive realities of insecurity, ruthlessness, and hunger for power.
Another common aspect of Iago’s and Claudius’s villainous character is their use of women to further their own goals. It is unclear how much Claudius is driven by lust for Gertrude, but marrying her was definitely a strategic move, and part of his master plan to keep the thrown away from Hamlet. By doing this, he is using Gertrude to advance his scheme, convincing her that her son is insane and must be sent away. Iago, a character who does not seem to plan out his every move, also makes women mere pawns in his game. The woman whose innocence and naivety he exploits the most is Desdemona. Claiming to be driven by lust, as perhaps was Claudius, Iago says he lusts after Desdemona to get revenge for Othello’s infidelity with Emilia. As he says, it is “wife for wife.” This is not the main reason he harms Desdemona, although he enjoys the pain he causes to all those around him. Rather, he uses Desdemona’s sweetness to convince Othello that she is cheating on him with Cassio, whom Iago sent to speak to her. This meticulous orchestration of events proves that he is clearly aware of his villainous behavior and feels no regret for any of the losses suffered by the other characters under his influence.
By using the trust of those who loved them, whether it is as a husband or a friend, Iago and Claudius are able to mold opinions to their benefit. Implanting the suspicion of Desdemona’s infidelity into Othello’s mind is especially easy, considering the fact that Othello and Desdemona were newlyweds and Othello had already begun to have doubts as to how she could love an uncultured Moor as himself. Iago uses Othello’s insecurities as well as his trust and confidence in Iago to turn Othello into a pawn in his reputation damaging game. He manages to do so without making any direct accusations, as when he says
No, Sure, I cannot think it
That he would steal away so guilty-like
Seeing your coming…
in reference to the sight of Desdemona speaking to Cassio in private. By clever handling of the occasions that arise, Iago is able to shape Othello’s perception of Desdemona and Cassio, therefore allowing him to advance his destruction of Othello’s life faster and with more ease than he had originally expected.
Similarly, Claudius is able to use manipulation and deception to alter others’ views to his own. For example, he is able to convince Gertrude, who is Hamlet’s mother before becoming Claudius’s wife that her son has gone insane and must be sent away. Two other characters turned into Claudius’s puppets through his clever manipulations are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. His clever dialogue convinces them not only to spy on Hamlet and report back all they’ve learned but to also accompany him to England later in the play.
Close readings of Othello and Hamlet provide the reader with many more examples supporting the argument that Iago and Claudius, although driven by different ambitions, are both villains in the sense that they have a specific target in mind and will stop at nothing until that aim is reached. Satisfying their personal desires comes first and foremost and reigns, above anything else with no regard for the feelings and safety of anybody but themselves.
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