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Iago and Lady Macbeth: The nature of their evil

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  1. Introduction
  2. In the story of the Macbeths
  3. The thirst for power
  4. Shakespeare's most significant explorations of villainy
  5. The ambitious Macbeths
  6. Iago's motiveless, remorseless evil
  7. Lady Macbeth's crisis of conscience
  8. Conclusion

The conflict between good and evil is one of the oldest and most consistently fascinating sources of literary drama. It is a primary motor of countless movies and books, just as it has always been one of the most important issues for philosophers and religious scholars. Shakespeare explored the topic in great depth. His are some of the most villainous antagonists ever conceived. But a character can't simply be evil and have nothing else to him. That makes him unbelievable, as anyone who has ever seen a bad Hollywood movie can attest to. In Othello and Macbeth Shakespeare presents us with two very different representations of evil. To understand the respective villainies of the Macbeths and Iago we must try to understand the ultimate goals of the villains' plots, and we must try to understand how they are able to live with their amorality:

[...] There is certainly logic to the belief of some Shakespeare critics that Iago is a personification of the devil himself. I think I could say with confidence that there has never been a living person as evil as him. Even Lady Macbeth's evil pales in comparison. One could compare Iago and Lady Macbeth's respective resolution for a final statement on their characters. Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking episode in front of the Gentlewoman and the Doctor of Physic is her own unmasking, when her crimes are made public. [...]

[...] She proves to be less evil than she would have us believe: she was able to conceive of the murder, to think it up and convince her husband to carry it out, but in action it ended up affecting her far more profoundly than she expected. Her conscience has returned, and, as she soon dies from the mysterious illness, it ends up killing her. Of course, Iago has no such problem. One could imagine him looking at Lady Macbeth's crisis of conscience with the same disdain with which he regards Othello's honesty. [...]

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