The Vice – I, too, think of Iago, whose destruction of Othello always drove my students to seek psychological motivation (recall Randall's story about Don John having an unhappy childhood). And he is certainly never a laugh riot. But I primarily think of Falstaff as "the Vice." He fits Ernst's description of "comic character," and we can look forward to exploring our affection, amusement, even admiration for him.
Robert Torrance has a book entitled The Comic Hero (a contradiction of terms) which features Falstaff. However, Germaine Greer, in Shakespeare, says "Because he is entertaining, scholars persist in finding excuses for Falstaff, forgetting perhaps that the Vice was always an ingratiating, lively, and amusing fellow. Falstaff's ancestor is the Morality figure of Good Fellowship, who always lets people down and cannot bring the protagonist one step on his way to heaven" (71). Greer also addresses Iago. "In Shakespearean tragedy there is always an element of psychomachia, or the struggle within the soul. One of the simplest, that Shakespeare would have taken over from the morality plays, is to show evil working on the protagonist in the person of a Vice. The Vice may be a lineal descendant of the intriguing servant of classical comedy or he may be a less self-conscious, more homegrown product. It is futile to demand motivation from the Vice, or reasons for his actions, for the point about evil is that it is absurd, unmotivated, and inconsistent" (45).
Could we offer Jack Cade (2 Henry VI) as the Vice? He is a buffoon, especially in the production Randall and I saw, comic yet with deadly outcomes, such as executing the guildsman after Cade has declared he should only be addressed as "Mortimer." As with Falstaff, he charges through the civil state as the Lord of Misrule. However, as John commented, the Henry VI plays seldom find either a narrative structure within the history, nor does Shakespeare rely on the conventions of drama, certainly not genre, but neither, I think, any temptation to import the established figures from medieval drama. So, I don't find The Vice here nor "evil." What we see in Richard is the emergence of a complex character imposed on history, devoted to ambition, to exploiting, overwhelming weakness where he encounters it, and to political individualism. Richard is already "modern" as he sees into the instability of the medieval world. When Randall says "evil is the negative consequence of what we do, not who we are," he expands Mike's introduction of 3 Henry VI as "an early map for existential isolation."
I have a big (long) argument about the evolution of words, something I think of as "the Jacobean Moment," which Randall worked through, but I think I will save it for a more substantial play. But welcome, John, for what I hope to learn from you about this subject.
I'm just a little burned out on Henry VI, yet it is tempting to dwell just a little longer on Edward's seduction of Lady Gray. (Isn't there a punch line: "we've established what you are, so now we're just negotiating about the price"?) What a curious little bit of Restoration hanky-panky. Does it strike anyone else as not fitting into this play, just as I tried to argue that the father-who-kills-son, etc. seemed out of place?
P.S. Greer's book has been rereleased with a new title, Shakespeare: A Very Short Introduction. Same book, but with pictures.
Book Note: Year of the King
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