‘All things may corrupt when minds are prone to evil’.1 Evil is an abstract notion, yet we are subconsciously aware of it everyday, seeking to avoid it at all costs. Evil, intrinsic yet detrimental to the morality of mankind, has been used by playwrights for centuries to engage and captivate audiences. Shakespeare perhaps best uses this notion in his tragedy, ‘Othello’. Critics today still applaud Shakespeare for his exploration of the human nature and the psychological complexity present throughout Othello. Ben Jonson, a contemporary of Shakespeare, also uses the notion of evil to great effect in his satire ‘Volpone’. I will explore and compare the presentation of this extremely broad concept in both plays.
“In no other play has Shakespeare concentrated evil in such a blatantly wicked character”2. Evil is presented in ‘Othello’ entirely through the character of Iago. He is conniving, ruthless, vain, harmful, deceitful, egotistical and obsessed. This Machiavellian character, who resembles a devil incarnate, encapsulates the notion of evil. It is through his actions, and his ability to deceive that evil spreads through ‘Othello’ like a malignant force, corrupting all in its way. If Iago is removed from the play, then Othello and Desdemona would have married and Emilia, Cassio and Roderigo may still be alive.
St Augustine described evil as the ‘privati boni’ (the absence of the good) and Iago philosophically represents evil in this way as he completely lacks good. However, when faced with such evil critic Coleridge stated, “‘Without the perception of truth, it is impossible to understand the character of Iago”. He also argued that 1 Ovid, Roman poet (43 BC - 17 AD),
2 Mark Mussari, Shakespeare Explained – Othello,
Shakespeare presented ‘A being next to the devil’. This early nineteenth century view shows the confusion around Iago but it was one of the play’s earliest critics, Thomas Rymer, who first stated that ‘Othello’ was “the most lamentable play that ever...
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