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Treatment of Villainy in Hamlet and Duchess of Malfi Essay

In the light of your critical reading of plays, “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare and “Duchess of Malfi” by John Webster, discuss the treatment of villainy in relation to the theme of revenge. Villainy was a genre introduced into plays during the period of Seneca. The Senacan period was popular for the uprising of plays with the elements of violence derived from the Senecan concept of ‘negative teachings’ ,and the abundance of villainous characters to further drive the plots in the plays. This was then later popularized by playwrights of the Jacobean/Elizabethan period.

The plays, “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare and “the Duchess of Malfi” by John Webster, are both revenge tragedies was written during the Elizabethan and Jacobean period respectively. Villainy in simple context is defined as the baseness of the mind that renders itself to treacherous and vicious acts. These plays do not fall short in providing typical villains that vary in their own unique ways. This theme of villainy comes alongside the predominate theme of these plays which is revenge. The villains and the revenge of this play differed highly from that of modern times.

The revenge was conducted cruelly and from a great manifestation of evil. In “Hamlet”, it was the villainous doings of the villains that opens up the way for other characters to seek their revenge. Namely Claudius, who’s treacherous deeds resulted in Hamlet’s need for revenge. However, in the “Duchess of Malfi” it was the villains of the play that were seeking their revenge. The Aragonian brothers used violent method to seek revenge towards their sister the Duchess because she married below her rank.

This difference in the villains’ relation to the revenge of the play allows for a topic of discussion. As revenge tragedies of blood of the Elizabethan/Jacobean era, both these plays share similar characteristics such as the use of sensationalism, pattern of intrigue et cetera. In this discussion I will be exploring how revenge is treated in relation the villains of the play. Villainy in the Elizabethan times was perceived in a different light than in the Jacobean period. During the Elizabethan period, the conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism was at a temporary halt.

There was an assumed peace between the Protestants and the Catholics. This caused people in the Elizabethan time to be highly religious as they accepted this assumed peace as God’s doing. This factored as a strong influence for Shakespeare work making religion a motif in his plays. This conflict also created a rift between the old traditions and the new beliefs. This conflict was reflected in Hamlet in a sense that the readers are clearly able to distinguish between the villains and the victims . The villains in Hamlet was clear in going against teaching of Christianity.

The king of Denmark, Hamlet’s father was mercilessly murdered by his brother, Claudius, depriving Hamlet of his rights to the throne. This can be seen as sacrilege, as it is considered during the time to go against the will of god to dispose a king of him position. As such, villainy is portrayed very clearly in accordance with the period of time. As for the “The Duchess of Malfi”, Niccolo Machievelli was a ruler during this period that strongly believed that it was better to be feared rather than liked.

He believed that it was Satan and not God who was the supreme power thus this belief was reflected in Webster’s writing of “The Duchess of Malfi”. The villains in this play were drastic in their actions, using over the top methods to carry out their revenge. For instance, the Cardinal and Ferdinand were hell bent on carrying out their revenge towards their sister, the Duchess just for the petty deed of falling in love and marrying Antonio, who was below her social caste. The brothers went on to hire Bosola, an assassin to avenge them.

It is interesting to note the difference between the two plays in this sense. The villains in the Duchess did not directly act violently in their pursue of revenge but were still identified as the villains. This is unlike the case in Hamlet, where we witness Claudius and Polonius directly conducting such deeds. One of the main questions that can arise from these plays is the distinction of the villains. How is it that despite the fact that some of the characters of these two plays have indulged in villainous acts, but they are still not regarded as a villain.

Hamlet can be taken as a clear example of this. He was relentless in his need for revenge, let alone the fact that he felt no remorse for all the bloodshed he caused. But somehow despite all this, the audience still did not relate to him as a possible villain of the play. This could be said because the audience related Hamlet’s act as a noble cause. The ghost of the late king came to Hamlet saying that his murder was, “murder most foul, as in the best it is; but this most foul, strange and unnatural. ” This showed that Hamlet had a moral justification for his actions, as he was merely avenge his father.

Emma Wart, a critic for Literature Weekly, stated that “while Hamlet did indulge in ungodly deeds, he somehow manage to steal the audience with his justification that he was only violent to seek revenge. ” While I have to agree that Hamlet’s motive for his violent behavior was seemingly justified by the audience, it cannot be seen as the only reasoning. It can also be said that Hamlet related to the audience of the Elizabethan times. The people during this time were generally more violent. They indulged in activities like cock fighting and so on.

So Hamlet’s use of violence as a way to carry out revenge was highly relatable and understandable. However it is interesting to note that the opposite applies for “The Duchess of Malfi”, during the Jacobean period, it was not uncommon for people to indulge in violent recreational activities. During this time, cage fighting was popular amongst the commoners. Despite this, when the Aragonian brothers were violent in their actions, they were still identified as the villains. Having violence and a way of life did not deter the audience in identifying the deeds of the brothers as villainous.

This could be because there is very little justification that can be made on the brothers need for revenge towards the Duchess. Besides, the sole reason Ferdinand wanted revenge was due to his incestuous feeling towards his sister, which was highly frowned upon in religion and thus by the audience as a whole. The Cardinal and Ferdinand used the position and power they possessed as a way to carry out their revenge towards their sister. This misuse of power further emphasizes their villainous ways. The brothers were paced in a position where they we supposedly highly regarded by the general.

This power that they had acts as a way for the audience to identify the brothers as the villains. They were not only cruel to the Duchess, they also betrayed the power they were given. The cardinal being a man of religion went on to claim a mistress, though this `was not uncommon during that time. It did little to help the image of the cardinal that was already painted to the audience. Besides the cardinals infidelity, Ferdinand’s frequent out lash of rage and tantrum aided in the portrayal of his character as a villain in the play. utward anger during the Jacobean/Elizabethan period was not openly accepted.

People, especially those of a higher caste were expected to be poised and at their best all the time, so with Ferdinand openly raging, it leaves a very obvious view of him as a villain. Shakespeare and Webster were probably two of the most acclaimed writes in literature. They have been known to use various methods to present these message and in this case, the treatment of villainy in relation to revenge. One of the methods that was commonly used by both the playwrights, was the use of language.

In “Hamlet”, Shakespeare distinguished the villains and the hero of the play by the words used when they spoke. For example, in act one, scene two, the audiences see Claudius talking to Polonius on his wish to make Hamlet seem mad. Allows the audiences to get a feel of Caudius’ cunning ways early on. Shakespeare also used stage directions to his advantage. In act four, scene 2, we see Claudius handing Polonius a bottle of poison in which they planned on killing Hamlet with, then a disheveled Hamlet strolls in carrying a book.

This is done to create contrast between the two characters. While Claudius possessed in his a hand a deathly ‘weapon’, Hamlet hand in his hand a book. This is done to emphasize to the audience who the villain in the play is. The same method was used in the second text by Webster. Villainous characters like the cardinal and Ferdinand was place in close proximity with innocent characters like the Duchess, Antonio, even Bosola. A major issue regarding villainy that arises from the second text is, Bosola’s innocence. Almost all the bloodshed in the play was executed personally by him.

But yet, audience throughout the ages do not identify him as a villain. CG Thayer, a literature critic in the Modern Times, published an article on his online website, titled, ‘The ambiguity of Bosola’. In the article, Thayer argued that, the audiences do initial take on Bosola as an impressive villain. However his change of heart towards the end of the play upon witnessing Antonio and the Duchess selfless, made him go on a quest to seek his own revenge towards the cardinal and Ferdinand. This made the audience change their mind towards Bosola.

Though I do agree with the latter part of Thayer’s description on the audience reception on this very complex character, I would argue that even from an earlier stand point, Bosola would not be seen as a villain. Bosola was merely acting in the commands of the cardinal and Ferdinand. He was, for lack of better words, a mere puppet of two greater villains. He did not act on his own accord. So going back on my early definition on a description of a villain, “baseless evil”, it cannot be said that Bosola was evil. Critics in different periods had a differing view on the reception of Hamlet in regards to the treatment of villainy.

During the renaissance period, Hamlet was not so widely accepted mainly due to the abundance of violence. John Bently, a very popular critic in the 16th century, published a review on Hamlet, in which he stated that “Hamlet” was a drama that violated the unity of time and place. He said this to mean that the characters in the play did not coincide with the situation they were in. For example, he found it distressing; that Hamlet would choose to consult his mother in her chambers. During the time of Bently, this may be seen as uncommon and even immoral. However when viewed for a wider perspective, Hamlet did not have a choice.

How else was he to warn his mother on the evil ways of Claudius except the only place he knew she would be alone. So this did not justify Hamlet being seen as a villain. Shakespeare and Webster have treated villainy in a way that portrays the clearest forms of evil to a modern audience. Being in a very fast paced world, where all people care about is the rat race, it is difficult to define and discover evil because it is hidden so well. So it was refreshing to see characters drawn out in a very obvious manner. Also, these plays allows for a glimpse into the life of the people of those times.


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