An Analysis of the Shakespearean Villain in 'Othello' and 'Much Ado About Nothing'

Term Paper, 2010

15 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Tragedy, Comedy and the Elizabethan Villain
2.1. Tragedy
2.2. Comedy
2.3. The Elizabethan Villain

3. Comparison Between the two Different Villains
3.1. The Tragic Villain: Iago
3.2. The Comic Villain: Don John

4. Conclusion

5 Bibliography

1. Introduction

“He was not of an age, but for all time.”[1] This quotation by Ben Jonson, a friend and rival playwright of Shakespeare describes William Shakespeare’s status and the character of his works in an accurate way. With his collection of 154 sonnets, four narrative poems and the 39 plays we know, Shakespeare still has an enriching impact on literature, theatres and our education. He has been the most famous and successful playwright of the Elizabethan Age and even today his plays are still worth watching as well as reading. Especially the comedies and tragedies have been of great importance for the audience then but even this very day their topics are still relevant. That is why Shakespearean plays have already been performed for four centuries. Due to Shakespeare’s creation of lifelike characters his comedies are nearly as witty and delightful today as they have been during his lifetime and also his tragedies are as shocking and painful as then. Regarding Shakespearean characters, the villain is one of the most significant elements of drama. This special kind of character is the antagonist of a play, that person who creates suspense by intruiging and thus keeps the story going on. Shakespearean works in particular have many different types of villains. Some of these dominate the actions, others are scarcely developed. But is there any connection between the complexity of a villain’s character and the genre in which this type occurs?

In this term paper my focus will be on the differences between the tragic villain and the comic one. On the basis of the two Shakespearean villains Iago of the tragedy Othello and Don John, the villain of the comedy Much Ado about Nothing it would be of vital interest to analyse their character-traits, their motives for being evil and their stratagem to badmouth other characters in the play. But first of all it is necessary to distinguish the two branches of drama, comedy and tragedy, from each other and to explicate the concept of the Elizabethan villain.

2. Tragedy, Comedy and the Elizabethan Villain

In order to point out the striking differences between the villain in comedy and tragedy it is indispensable to illuminate these two terms of drama. Thus the first section of the main part, which is divided into three chapters, focuses on the literary terms tragedy and comedy as well as on several of the histrionic conventions of the Elizabethan villain in general. As a start it would be advisable to outline both terms. Subsequently emphasis will be on the conventions of the Elizabethan villain whose analysis lies at the core of this term paper.

2.1. Tragedy

First of all it is important to mention that defining a complex term like tragedy is very difficult. There are still highly critical debates concerning exclusive and open definitions. However, although tragedy is commonly associated with any kind of catastrophe, disaster or other horrible events it denotes a literary genre. According to the field of literature tragedy pictures a very serious kind of drama. Hence Aristotle’s definition of tragedy might be a good starting-point.

In his Poetics Aristotle defines tragedy as “an imitation of an action that is serious, complete and of a certain magnitude”.[2] Through this mimesis of a coherent action the tragic hero manages to arouse terror and subsequently pity and fear. The audience sympathises with him, who suffers a terrible downfall, which provokes the so-called catharsis (purification).[3]

For Aristotle’s theory it is important that the tragic hero is noble and of high social status because only a noble character can fall deeply. A very important characteristic of the tragic hero who is mainly defined by admirable qualities is the so-called tragic flaw. Because of a personal error like credulity the painful struggle of the hero and his failure are initiated.[4] It is a struggle against the unchangeable, e.g. fate or social forces beyond man’s control. Finally the conflict between the isolated hero and his in any case invincible enemy grows more acute and ends with the tragic hero’s death or at least defeat. So the plot which usually starts with a happy event offers a bad ending.

2.2. Comedy

Comedy is a type of drama which is opposed to tragedy. There is no Aristotelian theory about comedy hence my emphasis will only be on the most significant basic criteria that are important to assign a play to this kind of genre.

Different from the emotional response a tragedy causes a classical comedy raises an intellectual response. “Comedy often stages ordinary people of the middle or lower classes as flat types with stereotyped forms of behaviour that may hold the mirror up to society for its pleasure or education.”[5] This is also why the audience scorns or approves the protagonists but does not identify with them. Regarding the personal flaw of a comic character the consequences of his weaknesses or mistakes are not as disastrous as in tragedy. Consequently comic problems are resolved in a harmonious way[6], sometimes even by accident. Therefore comic struggles are mere entertainment than a serious fight.

Whereas there is a happy or at least neutral exposition in tragedy comedy provides at this point a trivial obstacle the main protagonists, e.g. the stereotypical lovers have to overcome. Labelled by confusing actions and dramatic elements like illusion the plot becomes less coherent and serious. At the end of a comedy the spectators get their expected happy ending. Usually marriage serves as an offerer of “comic closure”.[7] This fact also stresses the difference of the two genres: On the one hand we see the isolated tragic hero who dies all alone in a broken world. On the other hand there is not less than a married couple that celebrates their life in a society they belong to. Marriage which “[...] is the paradigm for a well-ordered and healthy society”[8] and the renewal of society are the most important aspects that apply to comedy.


[1] Ben Jonson, “To the Memory of my Beloved, the Author Mr. William Shakespeare and what he hath left us,” First Folio (1623), 8 February 2010 <>.

[2] Cf. Aristotle, Poetics (Whitefish: Kessinger, 2004) 6.

[3] Cf. Michael Meyer, English and American Literatures (Tübingen: Francke, 2008) 106-107.

[4] Cf. Meyer 107.

[5] Meyer 108.

[6] Cf. Bernhard Fabian, Ein anglistischer Grundkurs: Einführung in die Literaturwissenschaft (Berlin: Schmidt, 2004) 105.

[7] Lisa Hopkins, Shakespeare’s Comedies, ed. Emma Smith (Malden: Blackwell, 2003) 37.

[8] James Edward Siemon, “The Canker Within: Some Observations on the Role of the Villain in Three Shakespearean Comedies,” Shakespeare Quarterly 23.4 (1972): 435-443, at 440.

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An Analysis of the Shakespearean Villain in 'Othello' and 'Much Ado About Nothing'
University of Münster  (Englisches Seminar)
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Shakespeare, Comedy, tragedy, Villain, Aristoteles, Komödie
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Nadine Stuke (Author), 2010, An Analysis of the Shakespearean Villain in 'Othello' and 'Much Ado About Nothing', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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