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Comparing Heroes and Villains in Measure for Measure, Othello, and Hamlet

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Comparing Heroes and Villains in Measure for Measure, Othello, and Hamlet


According to John Steinbeck, "Heroes are innocent; villains are cunning." This statement likely regards the internal aspects of characters, such as intellect, reasoning/motivation, and morality/responsibility, as indicated by consistency in action and/or articulation, as in direct speech or soliloquy. An examination of the heroes and villains in Measure for Measure, Othello, and Hamlet can determine whether Steinbeck's generalization is applicable.

Although Measure for Measure is not a tragedy by standard conventions, Angelo can be considered a tragic hero since he falls because of his hamartia, hubris. While he fits into Steinbeck's generalization of "innocent" as a victim of the circumstances created by the Duke, Angelo is responsible for his own fate. When asked "Whether you had not sometime in your life/Err'd in this point which now you censure [Claudio]," (14-15, II.i) Angelo affirms he has never felt love or passion, nor had sex. Thus, being a man of virtue, Angelo believes he has the right to impose morality upon the city: he unquestioningly enforces the law forbidding fornication. Since he is righteous, Angelo's motivation is not wrong or immoral; however, once he begins to manipulate sexual morality in his favor, his innocence decreases. Angelo offers to spare Claudio's life should Isabella engage in sexual relations with him; he claims to be tempted by Isabella's virtue, and does not recognize his own hypocrisy in proposing there is charity in sinning to save Claudio. The reduction of Angelo's virtue and righteousness continues as he sends Claudio's death warrant after he has had sex with Mariana, who he believed to be Isabella. In additio...


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...le to comedies, when considering A Midsummer's Night Dream, As You Like It, and Measure for Measure, in which the heroes are mostly virtuous ("innocent"), and the villains are devious ("cunning"); however, since the Duke and Iago are both cunning villains, Steinbeck's notion of villains is also appropriate for tragedy. More importantly, though, as previously noted, these “heroes” are directly responsible for their fall, and therefore challenge readers to consider the roles of heroes and villains in tragedy less traditionally; Othello is not cunning, nor is he innocent, and so Steinbeck's parameters exclude him. Thus, a more encompassing generalization would be that tragic heroes are responsible, and "villains are cunning" (Steinbeck).

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Ed. Alfred Harbage. 1969. Baltimore: Penguin, 1994.


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