The Curse of Aaron

David Cole

If you ask a casual Shakespeare fan to name the Bard’s most villainous character, odds are the answer will be Richard III. And that’s not a bad response. Richard is indeed a murderous scoundrel. But the thing is, from the very first scene, Richard tells the audience exactly who he is, what he’s planning to do, and why.

There’s no mystery to Richard.

Now, Iago, on the other hand, presents a more complex puzzle. Why does Iago feel the need to destroy Othello? Well, throughout the course of the play, via his interactions with other characters and his soliloquies, Iago offers many possible reasons. Racial animus, professional envy, sexual jealousy. The audience is left with several possible motives to ponder.

But then we come to Aaron, the villainous Moor from Titus Andronicus. And just to save certain Twitter know-it-alls from wasting their time “filling me in” on what I already know, there’s a debate among scholars regarding possible coauthorship of several of Titus’ acts. That, however, is irrelevant to the present discussion.

Whereas Iago is a white guy who torments a black, Aaron is a black guy who torments, well, everyone. He’s the lover and consigliere of Tamora, the Goth queen who marries the Roman Emperor Saturninus. Aaron is firmly in the catbird seat; he has the ear and affection of the empress, who dominates the weak and ineffectual emperor. Aaron’s got power, riches, and babes. And yet…he’s unsatisfied. Material success is not what matters to him. He despises the whites, foes and allies alike, and he’s driven by a compulsion to destroy their society. He arranges brutal rapes, horrific mutilations, and sadistic murders (he even tricks Titus into cutting off his own hand). He foments the unrest that will eventually bring down his own house. Aaron is, in the words of Titus’ brother Marcus, the “chief architect and plotter of these woes.”

Unlike in the case of Richard III, in which the audience is given a clear motive for the character’s villainy, and unlike in the case of Iago, in which the audience is given a choice of possible motives, Shakespeare never offers a glimpse into what makes Aaron tick. No monologue or soliloquy about wrongs done to him in the past or evils perpetrated by whites that made him the monster he is. Aaron is very defensive about his race; he defiantly throws it in the face of other characters. But throughout the course of the play, no one oppresses him because of his race. Indeed, his race does not hinder his estimable success.

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