God’s Blessings on January 15, 2017

God’s blessing to you on this the fifteenth day of January in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

John C. Wright posted recently about the villains in Ayn Rand’s novels, giving them more praise than I’ve generally seen, but for a somewhat plausible reason. And in fairness I’ve seen an interesting argument that Ayn Rand is a sci-fi author. Certainly her plot seems to involve technologies far beyond what we have at present. At the very least rearden metal is closer to Star Trek’s duranium than it is to anything we have at present.

Anyway, I do have to concur that my favorite villains are true villains, who have made bad decisions, and not merely misunderstood good guys. This takes skill to write, since reasonably successful people who have made bad decisions tend to generally make good decisions and to have their bad decisions somewhat constrained in scope. That is to say, realistic characters aren’t easy to write. Big surprise.

I think that the most successful of these was Shakespeare’s Iago, the main villain from Othello. Iago is a soldier under Othello’s command, and has taken a hatred to Othello for promoting someone else over him. So he is out to ruin the other fellow and Othello, and has chosen to do this by convincing Othello that his wife is cheating on him with the fellow he promoted. But the real cunning of the plan is that he gets Othello to force him to plant this idea in his head. Having given Othello the idea that he (Iago) has some suspicion, he then becomes coy and refuses to divulge it, and Othello is asking for it. Then Iago says:

Good my lord, pardon me,
Though I am bound to every act of duty
I am not bound to that all slaves are free to.
Utter my thoughts? Why, say they are vile and false,
As where’s that palace whereinto foul things
Sometimes intrude not? Who has that breast so pure
Wherein uncleanly apprehensions
Keep leets and law-days and in sessions sit
With meditations lawful?
I don’t know that it can get better than the line, “I am not bound to that all slaves are free to.” And then when Othello pushes Iago further, Iago says:
I do beseech you,
Though I perchance am vicious in my guess,
As, I confess, it is my nature’s plague
To spy into abuses, and oft my jealousy
Shapes faults that are not, that your wisdom,
From one that so imperfectly conceits,
Would take no notice, nor build yourself a trouble
Out of his scattering and unsure observance.
It were not for your quiet nor your good,
Nor for my manhood, honesty, and wisdom
To let you know my thoughts.
And when Othello asks why, Iago explains:
Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash. ‘Tis something, nothing:
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands.
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.
And with more prodding, Iago cautions Othello:
Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger,
But, oh, what damnèd minutes tells he o’er
Who dotes, yet doubts— suspects, yet soundly loves!
Poor and content is rich, and rich enough,
But riches fineless is as poor as winter
To him that ever fears he shall be poor.
Good heaven, the souls of all my tribe defend
From jealousy!
And the thing is, this is excellent analysis and sound advice. Here and elsewhere Iago explains with exacting precision exactly why what he’s doing is wrong. He even explains clearly that he’s not benefiting in any way. “he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him and makes be poor indeed” is an exact description of what Iago is doing. And what makes this play so great is that Iago is a very believable villain.
This is, in a sense, the counterpoint to my contention that a protagonist does not need flaws to be interesting because it is the virtues and not the flaws which are the interesting thing in a character. This is also where the interest comes even in a villain, but the villain does need to be flawed in order to be a villain. I was going to say it’s strange that the modern world has just about reversed this, with heroes that are misunderstood bad guys and villains who are misunderstood good guys. But with a nod to Captain Renault, well… maybe not so strange.
Glory to God in the highest.

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