Evil Is

Far in the distant past I had the wonderful opportunity to play Iago, in a production of Shakespeare's “Othello.” I'm also an avid film lover and a filmmaker. What do these two things have in common? Well, there's a certain 'movement' in film over the last decade (and before anyone reminds me of other times this has occured I'm well aware but since it's happening 'again' now, I thought I'd use it as an example.) The movement is this idea of 're-imagining' villainous characters from other films/books/plays/fairytales/comics. Trying to empathize with them. To re-write them from a modern viewpoint. Not anything intrinsically wrong with that. But…

And you knew there was a but.

Let’s look at the evil queen in Snow White and the Huntsman. Or the evil quenn in Sleeping Beauty. Or Cruella Deville. In comics it's been going on even longer - somewhere in the late 80s, characters like Magneto, the Punisher, Kraven and others began to get 'back stories'. In science fiction it happened with the Borg in Star Trek. In fantasy literature (and Dungeons and Dragons mythos) it happened with the Drow. Star Wars has become notorious for this. If I'm not mistaken there's a whole cannon of books written by someone re-imagining the wicked witch of the west. Even Joacquin Phoenix’s Joker.

Some work, some don’t. Some try way too hard. Most tend to play it way too safe and really offer nothing new other that the titillation of ‘oh isn’t it fun to play the bad guy.’

But some you should just let be.

Why?

It all comes back to Iago. While working on the production I had legnthy discussions with the director and the dramaturg about the need to get the cast to 'buy' into the idea that he was 'honest' Iago (a term that almost everyone in the play calls him.) Because if they didn't the audience wouldn't. And this was a setup for the question that I struggled with the most: why did Iago do what he did? He mentions several things about his past through the course of the play but they’re all very contrary (much like Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker) and given that he is constantly lying and manipulating people, something the audience knows but no one else in the play knows (with the possible exception of Emilia) it's hard to treat him as a reliable narrator.

But it doesn't matter. Iago does what he does because he is evil. Today in modern psychology we want to have a reason. He had a broken home. She was beaten as a little girl. But in literature, and what makes great stories great (I'm pretty confident in saying Shakespeare knew what he was doing), is that sometimes evil just is. And I think Shakespeare did this purposefully with Iago. He's the only villainous character in Shakespeare's cannon who goes un-punished. Macbeth is beheaded. Richard III is killed in battle. Edgar is killed at the last. Even Malvolio is caught, humiliated and carted off to be banished. Only Aaron the Moor (who some consider a precursor to Iago) is alive with punishment forthcoming at the end, but even he begs for mercy and repents. At the end of Othello, Iago has been told to look on everything he's done and repent and tell them why he's done this.  Then he utters his last line "Demand me nothing: what you know, you know: From this time forth I never will speak word."

That's where his motive is laid out. We've all witnessed it. We know. There is nothing else to say.

So for my tastes, not all villains need to be diagnosed. Telling me the wicked witch of the west came from a broken home might make for an interesting story but it might also break something inherent about the nature of the very story it’s in. What of the wonder as a child? Dorothy, the Lion, the Scarecrow, the Tinman, and Toto the Wonder Dog battle the horrible, EVIL, wicked witch of the west. But now she's not just evil anymore. She has feelings. And her mommy was really mean to her and I'm supposed to feel bad for her now. Bad Toto. Bad Scarecrow.

Yes, of course, there’s an argument for believing that no one is ‘all’ bad. And the lesson we need to learn there. I get that. I think we all get that in real life as well as through many priceless and wonderful art forms throughout human existence.

I can watch movies that have moral dilemmas about who's right and who's more right any time I want. I get it. I enjoy them just as much as the next person. And yes, I know we think we know more about the human psyche now and we, supposedly, have better insight into a great number of things. I also understand that and in many ways agree.

But sometimes, lest we fall prey to them, we need a reminder that some people just want to watch the world burn.