Does "Lamia" contain any villains?

Quick answer:

One could argue that there are no villains in "Lamia" because Keats makes all of his characters ambivalent, a mixture of good, bad, and indifferent. This approach fits in with Keats's idea of negative capability, by which he means the capacity of artists to let what is unclear or doubtful, which, in the case of "Lamia," means the true nature of the personalities involved, to remain just that.

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As a true Romantic, Keats wasn't concerned with producing works of art that were logically coherent or polished. On the contrary, he simply wanted to get at the truth. In practice, this involved what Keats would describe as "negative capability," a passive approach to art that allows what is strange and mysterious to remain just that.

In "Lamia," we can see Keats adopt this approach to his characters. Although some of the characters do unpleasant things, it seems somewhat overstated to describe them as villains, not least because they are so ambivalent and complex.

To see an illustration of this, we need look no further than the eponymous character. Trapped in the body of a snake and named after a mythical demon who ate all her children, it's would appear from the outset that Lamia is some kind of villain. At the very least, we need to be on our guard.

But as the poem develops, Keats adds complexity to Lamia's character. As well as describing her as "the cruel lady," which is precisely what we'd expect from her introduction, she's also "too sweet for earthly lyres," which is far from being the normal description of an out-and-out villain. On the contrary, this makes Lamia out to be some kind of victim.

A similar blurred line between two binary opposites—this time between hero and villain—can be found in the character of Apollonius. His actions disturb the happy little world that Lamia and Lycius have constructed for themselves. Indeed, by showing up at their wedding banquet and yelling "serpent" at Lamia, he makes her vanish, which in turn leads to Lycius's death.

In that sense, Apollonius can be described as a villain in that his actions have led to tragic consequences. At the same time, Apollonius genuinely believes that he's doing the right thing in saving Lycius from what he sees as the evil clutches of a snake woman. The consequences of his actions may make him out to be a villain, but his intentions do not.

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