Abigail Williams and Iago: Master Villains
Villains play a very important role in every literary work. Whether they exist as people, circumstances, or even nature, their purpose is to provide a problem to be solved by the “good guys”. Without villains, no piece of literature would be worth reading. Abigail Williams in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello are master villains. Both antagonists are fuelled by thoughts of revenge, and rely heavily on deception and manipulation to get what they want.
Both Abigail and Iago are deceptive characters, which clearly illustrates their villainous nature. Abigail begins to show this destructive quality very early in the story, when she and the other girls in the story have just been caught dancing in the woods. Betty, her young cousin, lies comatose, as she has since Reverend Parris had caught the girls. When Rev. Parris asks Abigail if anything that happened in the woods could possibly have hurt Betty, she is adamant about the fact that nothing they were doing was malicious. She tells him, “I would never hurt Betty, I love her dearly” (Miller 9). Later, when Betty begins to wake up and starts telling the truth about what happened in the woods, that Abigail had drunk blood in order to kill Elizabeth Proctor, Abigail tries to shut her up. She smashes her across the face, and yells, “Shut it! Now shut it!” (Miller 18). Another example of her lies to her uncle is again when he questions her about what happened that night in the forest. He is certain that he saw someone naked, but Abigail cannot let him believe that. If he thinks someone was naked in the forest, it will make him more certain that witchcraft was involved. Therefore, she quickly tells her uncle, “No one was naked! You mistake yourself uncle!” (Miller 11). She later tells her friend Mercy Lewis that her uncle saw her naked, which clearly shows that she lied to her uncle.
Furthermore, Abigail lies to Judge Danforth, who is brought to Salem to be the head of the court. Abigail is in love with John Proctor, who is married
to Elizabeth Proctor. Because she can’t marry John while Elizabeth is still alive, and he has decided to be faithful to her, Abigail decides she must either accuse Elizabeth of witchcraft or kill her. When she sees Mary Warren making a poppet, or a rag doll, and then stick the needle that she used into the doll so as not to lose it, she has an idea. Fully aware that Mary Warren works for the Proctors, she convinces Mary Warren to give the poppet to Elizabeth. Then, she proceeds to stab herself with a needle in the same place as she saw Mary Warren stick the needle in the doll. When she is confronted about this injury, she tells Danforth, “Goody Proctor has always kept poppets” (Miller 96). John Proctor proves her wrong by telling the entire court that Elizabeth had not kept poppets since she was a small girl, and Mary supports this claim. Abigail also lies to Danforth when John Proctor confesses to committing lechery with Abigail. She cannot allow this truth to be unearthed, and so she turns the attention on Danforth and away from herself. She claims, “I have been hurt, Mr. Danforth; I have seen my blood runnin’ out! I have been near murdered every day because I done my duty pointing out the devil’s people – and this is my reward? To be mistrusted, denied, questioned like a – “ (Miller 100). The reality is that none of her claims are based in truth, but outright lies. Similarly, Iago cunningly deceives Roderigo throughout the play. Roderigo is foolishly but madly in love with Desdemona, Othello’s wife. Iago uses this fact against Roderigo many times to force him to bend to his will. For one thing, Iago needs Roderigo to hate Cassio so that he will be willing to play a part in Cassio’s destruction, so he tells him, “First, I must tell thee this: Desdemona is directly/ in love with him” (Othello.2.1.211-212). This statement could not be further from the truth, as Desdemona is entirely in love with, and satisfied with, her husband Othello. Furthermore, throughout the play, Roderigo provides Iago with gifts of jewels and money, which Iago is supposed to be passing on to Desdemona. However, Iago instead keeps them, knowing that if he did give them to Desdemona, she would send them back to Roderigo. Iago cannot allow this to happen, as it would cause Roderigo to give up hope and cease to be useful in Cyprus. Iago also keeps the gifts because it is making him rich. However, Roderigo has an epiphany near the end of the play and decides that he will ask Desdemona for his jewels back. If she will not give them back, he will know that there truly is hope, but
if she does, he will give up his suit and go home to Venice. He also suspects Iago of pilfering the expensive gifts, and warns him of his suspicions. This intimidates Iago, and he says, “He calls me a restitution large/ Of gold and jewels that I bobb’d from him/ As gifts to Desdemona” (Othello.5.1.15-17). Iago is admitting that he did indeed steal from Roderigo and that the gifts never made it to Desdemona, and thus proving to the audience that he is, indeed, a liar.
In addition, Iago equally deceives Othello, who believes that ‘honest Iago’ is his friend. Othello’s first gift to his wife, Desdemona, was a beautifully embroidered handkerchief, which was supposedly given to his mother by an enchantress, who told his mother that as long as she kept that handkerchief, Othello’s father would remain faithful and loving. But as soon as she either lost it or gave it away, he would turn from her and regard her with loathing. Iago knows that this handkerchief is important to Othello, and so he tells his wife Emilia to steal it. When she finds it lying on the ground, she brings it to Iago, who puts it in Cassio’s lodging. Knowing that Cassio does indeed have the handkerchief in his possession, he tells Othello, “I know not that; but such a handkerchief-/ I am sure it was your wife’s- did I today/ See Cassio wipe his beard with” (Othello.3.3.438-440). Iago is well aware that Othello is naturally jealous, and so he preys on this flaw. But he does not stop there; while pretending to be Cassio’s friend, and so reluctant to say anything bad about him, he feigns loyalty to Othello. Reluctantly Iago tells Othello, “In sleep I heard him say, ‘Sweet Desdemona,/ Let us be wary, let us hide our loves.’/ And then, sir, he would gripe and wring my hand,/ Cry, ‘O sweet creature!’ and then kiss me hard, As if he pluck’d up kisses by the roots/ That grew upon my lips; then laid his leg/ Over my thigh, and sigh’d, and kiss’d, and then/ Cried, ‘Cursed fate that gave thee to the Moor’ “ (Othello.3.3.420-427). Iago is painting a vivid picture in Othello’s mind, ensuring that Othello’s jealous rage will be awakened against Cassio and Desdemona. Therefore, Abigail and Iago both unveil their villainous natures through their deceitfulness.
Another characteristic of villains that both Abigail and Iago exemplify is their manipulative nature. Abigail manipulates the people that are supposed
to be her friends freely and without remorse. For example, when Mary Warren is trying to prevent her from hurting anyone else, Abigail turns the tables completely around; “A wind, a cold wind has come” (Miller 101). As she says this, her eyes fall on Mary Warren, her accuser. Through this simple action, she communicates clearly to all the girls there that if any of them dare cross her, she will have them accused and hung as witches. At the same time, she is a good enough actress that the entire court believes her, and is convinced that Mary Warren has Abigail under her spell. When Mary does not back down right away, Abigail is forced to take the trick one step further, and so, appearing to be in a trance, she says, “But God made my face; you cannot want to tear my face. Envy is a deadly sin, Mary” (Miller 106). Now that her name has been said, the judges are ready to hang Mary if she does not confess. Abigail’s manipulation of Mary Warren is a perfect example of her villainous nature.
Not only does Abigail manipulate Mary Warren, she also manipulates Judge Danforth, and through him the entire court. She knows that he is self righteous, and has a tough time admitting he is wrong. Therefore, she encourages him to stick to his own ideas by subtly altering the information, and convincing him that it would be in his best interest to do so. One example of this discreet manipulation is when he is considering John Proctor’s claims that Abigail is not to be trusted and she completely turns the entire conversation simply by saying, “Let you beware, Mr. Danforth. Think you to be so mighty that the power of Hell may not turn your wits? Beware of it!” (Miller 100). She is telling him that if he does not continue to cooperate with her, she will turn on him, and he will be the next accused. However, she does not stop there: with her next words, she proceeds to make sure that he is fully convinced that he is fully convinced that she is an instrument of God by saying, “Oh, Heavenly Father, take away this shadow!” (Miller 101). This simple sentence sounds innocent, but in reality is a huge threat. This sentence is in fact a support for the first one, as she is making the connection that she has been sent by God to point out the ‘shadows’, or the witches.
In comparison, Iago manipulates Roderigo, who ends up being nothing more
then Iago’s fool. He consistently deceives and manipulates Roderigo, and Roderigo does nothing to prevent it. Iago says, “Thus do I ever make my fool my purse;/ For I mine own gain’d knowledge should profane/ If I would time expend with such a snipe/ But for my sport and profit” (Othello.1.3.374-377). Iago is saying that not only is Roderigo his puppet, available to be manipulated into any task, but he is also his financial source, and he would never waste time on someone like Roderigo unless he had something to gain from him. Once he knows he has Roderigo under his complete control, he tells him that Desdemona is in love with Cassio, and that one way to make her turn her attention from Cassio is to remove him from the place of Othello’s first lieutenant. The moment he is certain that Roderigo is ready to do whatever it takes, Iago tells him, “Sir, he’s rash and very sudden in choler, and haply with/ his truncheon may strike at you: provoke him that he/ may; for even out of that will I cause these of Cyprus to/ mutiny, whose qualification shall come into no true/ taste again but by the displanting of Cassio. So shall you/ have a shorter journey to your desires by the means I/ shall then have to prefer them” (Othello.2.1.262-268). Iago tells Roderigo that he will get Cassio drunk, and then Roderigo is to provoke Cassio into a fight. Othello will hear the fight, come down from his chambers, and fire Cassio, and then Roderigo will be closer to Desdemona’s affections. Of course, Iago knows that Desdemona will never love Roderigo, but he still has him convinced that she will in order to control his actions.
Iago is not happy with the manipulation of an easy fool like Roderigo, but he also targets Cassio. Iago wants to ruin Othello and Cassio, but he cannot do that by simply walking up to them and driving swords through their hearts. Thus, he turns to manipulation to make them fall into his trap. He outlines his plans when he says, “…yet that I put the Moor/At least into a jealousy so strong/That judgement cannot cure” (Othello 2.1.289-291). Iago is trying to awake Othello’s jealously by convincing him that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio. Later in the play, he outlines exactly what he is going to do by saying, “For whiles this honest fool/ Plies Desdemona to repair his fortunes,/And she for him pleads strongly to the Moor,/I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear:/That she repeals him for her body’s lust;/And
by how much she strives to do him good,/She shall undo her credit with the Moor./So will I turn her virtue into pitch,/And out of her own goodness make the net/That shall enmesh them all” (Othello.2.3.331-340). Iago plans to tell Cassio to talk to Desdemona about getting his job back. He is aware that Cassio and Desdemona are very good friends, and is thus certain that she will be ready and willing to help Cassio. While she pleads his case to Othello, Iago is going to subtly communicate to him that he should be worried about the friendliness between Cassio and Desdemona. This subtle manipulation becomes more and more obvious until Othello is ready to kill both Cassio and Desdemona. Therefore, as a result of the consequences of their manipulation both Abigail and Iago are considered villains.
Finally, both these antagonists seek revenge on other characters. Abigail has had an affair with John Proctor, who is married to Elizabeth Proctor. When Elizabeth discovers the liaison, she dismisses Abigail from their employment, and John chooses Elizabeth, his wife, over Abigail. This greatly angers Abigail, who is desperately in love with John. Her desperation drives her to accuse Elizabeth of being a witch. When John finds out what Abigail has done, he rushes to the court, and attempts to show the court that she has ulterior motives by telling them, “She means to dance with me on my wife’s grave!” (Miller 102). The court does not believe him, but sides with Abigail. However, the girls (Abigail’s ‘friends’) had already established that Abigail does in fact want Elizabeth dead. This is evident when Betty says, “You did, you did! You drank a charm to kill John Proctor’s wife! You drank a charm to kill Goody Proctor!” (Miller 18). This outlines Abigail’s plans, and exposes her for what she is; a vindictive, vengeful villain.
Furthermore, Abigail shows her vindictive nature through her treatment of Mary Warren. Abigail knows that Mary is a very quiet, shy person who does not have much of a ‘backbone’ when it comes to standing up for herself. This makes her a good target for much of Abigail’s abuse. Abigail loves to make Mary feel very small and insignificant, and often uses this tactic to force Mary to submit to her much stronger will. One very good example of this is when Abigail says, “Oh, you’re a great one for lookin’, aren’t you, Mary Warren? What a great peepin’ courage you have!” (Miller 18). The girls have
been caught dancing in the woods and have just been questioned by Rev. Parris. Mary Warren does not agree with some of the things that Abigail said, and tries to ask her about it. Abigail cannot allow the girls to have any doubts about who is in charge, and so she makes an example of Mary and destroys her already fragile resistance. Another example of Abigail’s fast and furious vengeance is when Mary has come with John Proctor to try and stop the unjust hangings of innocent people. She tries to convince the court of the truth, that witches had in fact tormented no one, and that Abigail had invented the whole thing. Abigail, of course, cannot allow the court to believe this claim. Therefore, she turns on Mary, knowing that whatever happens, it will be to her advantage if she does one specific thing; if she accuses Mary of being a witch. She says, “The wings! Her wings are spreading! Mary please don’t, don’t – ” (Miller 109). The court accepted spectral evidence, and so despite the fact that Abigail was the only one who could see the ‘wings’, that was enough to have Mary hung. Abigail is been fully aware that either Mary will indeed be hung as a witch if she will not confess, or will run back to her side, apologizing, and allow Abigail to act as the ever-forgiving saint. Both of those scenarios will be beneficial to Abigail, and so she coldly gambles the life of her ‘friend’. Thus, the way that Abigail treats Mary Warren is a perfect manifestation of her vengeful nature.
In the same way, Iago is vindictive and vengeful towards Othello. For unknown reasons, Iago believes that Emilia, his wife, was sexually intimate with Othello. Also, Othello made Cassio his first lieutenant in Iago’s place. This makes him extremely angry, which is evident when he says, “I hate the Moor,/And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets/He’s done my office. I know not if’t be true/Yet I, for mere suspicion of that kind,/Will do as if for surety” (Othello.1.3.377-381). Iago tells the audience that he is not sure that it is true that Othello and Emilia were intimate, but he is going to treat the statement as fact and act accordingly, just in case it is true. However, his vindictive nature is much more clearly portrayed when he states, “And nothing can or shall content my soul/ Till I am even’d with him, wife for wife” (Othello.2.2.287-288). Iago is declaring that he will not be happy until he has destroyed Othello emotionally as well as
physically, which is a perfect illustration of his vengeful nature.
Iago does not only seek revenge on Othello for making Cassio first lieutenant, but he also resents Cassio for taking the position. For this reason, he seeks to exact his revenge from Cassio as well, which is why Iago makes Othello believe that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio. His scheme is well portrayed when he says, “When devils will the blackest sins put on,/They do suggest at first with heavenly shows/As I do now. For whiles this honest fool/Plies Desdemona to repair his fortunes,/And she for him pleads strongly to the Moor,/I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear” (Othello.2.3.326-334). Iago is recounting to the audience exactly what he will be doing to exact his revenge from Cassio. After sharing the means to his end, he states his reason when he says, “If Cassio do remain,/He hath a daily beauty in his life/That makes me ugly; and besides, the Moor/May unfold me to him- there stand I in much peril. No, he must die” (Othello.5.1.18-22). Iago is talking about the position of first lieutenant. He knows that as long as Cassio lives, he himself cannot have the job, and so he must destroy Cassio to attain it. He also knows that if Cassio lives, Othello might confront him about Desdemona, at which point Iago would be in trouble. Thus, he seeks to kill Cassio in order to protect himself, as well as to exact his revenge. In short, both Abigail and Iago are seen as villains because of their vindictive natures.
In conclusion, both Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello and Abigail Williams in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible are master villains. They demonstrate this through their deception, manipulation, and vengeful attitudes towards those around them. Iago causes the deaths of Roderigo, Desdemona, Othello, and his wife Emilia through his villainy. In the same way, Abigail causes the deaths of many people; including the man she loved, in her attempt to kill a single woman. In my opinion, Abigail much more villainous then Iago because she is not at all concerned about those who die as collateral damage. Though Iago is much more calculating and efficient in his villainy, Abigail, through her lack of calculation, ruins the lives of many in her town, and takes the lives of many others. Villains like Abigail and Iago are extremely important in every kind of literary work. Whether they are represented as
circumstances, people, or even nature, they provide problems to be solved by the protagonists, or whomever they are fighting against. Without villains, literature would be extremely boring, would hold no lessons for the readers, and thus would not be popular in any circumstance.
1. Miller, Arthur. The Crucible. New York: Penguin Books Ltd., 1952 2. Shakespeare, William. Othello. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989