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What are the characteristics of evil in Shakespeare's plays?

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Shakespeare is perhaps the most famous playwright of his time for the relevant themes of his plays, as well as his many memorable characters—who are remembered and alluded to hundreds of years after his death. Shakespeare's characters are undeniably magnificent, but for many different reasons.

In terms of evil, and because this posting is listed under Shakespeare, this response looks to the Bard himself to answer the question for us. We recognize that the definition of evil includes descriptions such as:

  • morally wrong or bad; immoral; wicked
  • harmful; injurious
  • characterized or accompanied by misfortune or suffering disastrous
  • marked by anger, irritability, irascibility, etc.

Macbeth is evil—immoral, wicked, harmful; wherever he goes, misfortune and suffering follow. He is also a man of anger and ill-temper. Macbeth turns to evil in order to become King and be powerful—to benefit himself.

When the witches appeal to his desire to become king, Macbeth turns his back on every good thing he has done, on every admirable quality he has. He murders Duncan: king, cousin and friend. Macbeth commits himself to his purpose: with no turning back—hiding his evil intent.

I am settled, and bend up

Each corporal agent to this terrible feat.

Away, and mock the time with fairest show:

False face must hide what the false heart doth know. (I.vi.90-93)

Lady Macbeth also is a villain—so evil, she is unnatural. She is motivated to be evil so she can be Queen, and have all that comes with that. Wicked and immoral, she promises Macbeth she will arrange the details of the murder. She drugs the guards, and smears the dead King's blood all over them to implicate them in the death. But worst, when Macbeth hesitates, Lady Macbeth states she would murder her own child if she had said she would:

I have given suck, and know

How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:

I would, while it was smiling in my face,

Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums,

And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn as you

Have done to this. (60-65)

In Hamlet, Claudius is the evil character that brings about suffering and death. So that he can be King and enjoy power, he murders his brother, marries his sister-in-law, and ultimately tries to have Hamlet killed, too. In the end, his plot against Hamlet takes the lives of four members of the court within minutes of each other. Poison intended for Hamlet kills Gertrude:

KING:

Gertrude, do not drink.

QUEEN:

I will, my lord; I pray you pardon me.

KING:

It is the poison'd cup; it is too late….(294-295)

QUEEN:

No, no! the drink, the drink!—O my dear Hamlet!—

The drink, the drink! I am poison'd. (317-318)

Laertes stabs Hamlet with a poisoned sword—orchestrated by Claudius; Hamlet returns "the favor". Hamlet uses the poisoned drink and weapon to kill Claudius after Gertrude dies.

Othello's Iago is probably the most evil of all Shakespeare's villains. Jealous because he didn't get a promotion, he pledges to destroy Othello—but to pretend to serve him so he can do so. 

IAGO:

O, sir, content you.

I follow him to serve my turn upon him (I.i.42-43)

So he convinces Othello that Desdemona is cheating with Cassio; he has false evidence planted in Cassio's possession, tries to have him murdered, drives Othello to murder his wife, and kills his own wife for accusing him. Due to a job, Iago causes four deaths.

Evil is characterized by actions that benefit the villain, and harm those who they practice their evil against.

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How would you define evil and its characteristics and how it starts in Shakespeare's plays?

Shakespeare’s plays, both his tragedies and his histories, have been examined with reference to the Seven Deadly Sins—jealousy (Othello) being the play most often cited because so obvious. Not exactly the same as a “tragic flaw” but comparable, they enter into the otherwise idealized world of the characters in the form of “imperfections of character," bringing unwanted circumstances to the plot.  Take, for example, Falstaff’s gluttony in Henry IV; while he is not the title character, his indulgences certainly taint Henry’s youth, and threaten to ruin his ascent to the throne until Henry (no longer Hal) disowns him—“I know thee not, old man.”

Greed is ubiquitous in the canon—Lear’s daughters, for example.  So one answer to how evil inserts itself into Shakespeare’s plays is via human nature’s imperfections.  It’s true that Shakespeare occasionally depicts an absolutely evil character (for example, perhaps Lady Macbeth, or Caliban), but they are few.  The reason is that Shakespeare, more than any other playwright, made use of the innovative device of “character”—that is, real human beings depicting all the psychological traits of real people.  It is hard to realize that they didn’t exist to any degree in literature before the Renaissance, but Humanism (14th-15th centuries) was the intellectual movement turning art from religious subjects to the legitimate study of Man.  When Shakespeare introduced the concept of “characters” on stage, “the evil that man do” came with them.

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