The villain is always the most complex and interesting character in Gothic fiction.
Punter’s comment should not be confined to Gothic fiction; it is the case in many genres that the villain is more complex and interesting. From Shakespeare’s Othello, in which Iago is by far a more compelling watch, to Disney, wherein Ursula is more complicated than Ariel. Throughout literature the villain has intrigues the audience more than the hero. This could be due to the fact that the villain so often has some redeemable feature or an obvious hamartia that betrays a weak and human attraction for the reader. In many cases, the hero of the piece is completely virtuous and good, with no room for character expansion. Also, one may argue that the villain is easier to relate to, as the hero is so unattainably good.
Gothic fiction has been termed by The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory as encompassing “tales of mystery and horror intended to chill the spine and curdle the blood”. Radcliffe terms The Italian as a novel of “terror” rather than “horror”, which she distinguishes from the former by saying “that the first expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life: the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them”.
To focus on the late eighteenth century perception of the despotic and malevolent nobleman as a villain, one can see that Radcliffe’s Schedoni fits the profile. He certainly awakens a reader’s faculties for intrigue and investigation into his past. I shall discuss the complex and interesting traits of Schedoni as a Gothic villain in certain passages of Radcliffe’s novel.
However, it is worth noting the prologue and the fascination with the villain in that section that transcends any interest of character or reader for the more decent aspects of the scene. The party of English tourists views “whatever had been judged worthy of observation” (page 2), note that little information is given of this, and then encourage their guide to tell them of the mysterious man they have seen. When they find out he is an assassin he becomes the sole topic of conversation for the remainder of the section, thus proving that the villain is the most interesting aspect of the narrative, and in this way proves a prelude to the focus of interest in the body of Radcliffe’s work.
The name Schedoni, according to Hester Thrale Piozzi, is likely to have been borrowed from the Neapolitan painter BartolomeoSchedoni . Although this is esoteric knowledge it stands to reason that those who do recognize the reference will be further intrigued to know why Radcliffe would link her villain with a painter probably from the vicinity of the setting of her novel.
To concentrate on his first description it can be noted that Schedoni fits the archetypal Gothic villain with his almost “super-human” (page 35) air. Radcliffe describes him as “wrap in the black garments of his order”, which is a reference to the fact he is a monk, but one may read something darker into this. Black is generally accepted as a color that represents evil, an obviously villainous choice of wardrobe.
However, Schedoni is a monk, a man of Christ in Italy, a devoutly Catholic country. Surely such a man should a trust worthy pillar of society, beyond corruption. This is what makes Radcliffe’s villain so fascinating and readable, the juxtaposition of social expectation and reality of personality reminds the reader that stereotypes cannot always be applied. This “physiognomy” that defies definition, the striking figure and “melancholy eye”, has something almost Frankenstein-like about it, one could almost think that “large and uncouth limbs” could have been made up from different bodies just like the fiend of the other gothic work.
This analogy aside, it cannot be denied that Schedoni’s appearance is monstrous and the stuff of horror. The reader gets the feeling that a man with such an arrestingly severe aspect could never be capable of good, and is therefore left in no doubt as to his role in the novel. His “piercing” gaze is positively chilling; Radcliffe puts her reader in a state of dread, and his effect on Vivaldi as they pass in the corridor, causing him to recoil “with involuntary emotion”, only heightens this. Radcliffe takes care to construct a vivid picture of Schedoni’s fearful expression, one that almost seems as though it could not be altered, as the passions have “fixed the features they no longer animated”. But then both explains and exemplifies the “astonishing facility” with which he is able to transform his habitual expression to suit the needs of his ambition, he does this, in this instance, by assuming “a meek and holy countenance”.
Simply from this first brief description Radcliffe conjures an apparition that positively chills the reader yet intrigues him, one finds oneself wanting to know what drives this man, why one so evil would become a monk. In his Introduction to Gothic Readings Rictor Norton cites that “a villain could embrace any number of “unnatural” practices and ideas – indeed, the more outrageous the villain was, the better for the plot as a whole”. This could explain why Radcliffe employs a monk to fulfill the role of villain.
Of course, Schedoni’s complexity and power to interest the reader must be compared to Radcliffe’s other characters in order to determine whether he is in fact the most interesting of characters in The Italian. The hero, Vivaldi, could be described as a stereotypical hero, sick with love for a beautiful woman he should not seek to align himself with. One may say he is representative of the social class he comes from. The only son of “a nobleman of one of the most ancient families of the kingdom of Naples” (page 7), this statement sets expectations for the reader, he is not allowed to know Schedoni’s background until Volume II Chapter IX. Thus is Schedoni more intriguing than Vivaldi. With regards to Ellena, she is interesting as we are unsure of her background even more than we are of Schedoni’s, so one may argue she is more interesting in that respect, however, she can be described as a stereotypical chaste Italian virgin and although she is to the Vivaldi family “inferior in rank, she is their equal in pride” (page 24).This does not seem to be a very original character and her motives are laid plain for the reader to understand, while she loves Vivaldi she will not enter a family that would look down on her.
Schedoni may also be compared to the other villain of the piece, the Marchesa. Although equal in malicious intent, the latter is another stereotype of a well-bred family with “inexorable pride, and courtly influence” who does not want their regal blood polluted. She is by no means as interesting or complex as Schedoni. This history of Schedoni’s adds another dimension to his already multifaceted character. Radcliffe does not allow the reader insight until halfway through the narrative and no other character has quite such a colorful background. To be of the same metal as the Marchesa and yet be subservient and obsequious seems against the grain of the self-serving character we have already witnessed. A man of independent fortune that “his prudence had failed to keep” (page 226), then having learned his motives for concealing his identity the reader is left wondering what transpires in the period of time of which “nothing was generally known”.
Radcliffe reveals much but hides more, thus maintaining the reader’s interest in the villain. She then highlights the “assumed name” and “much altered appearance” that Schedoni takes on so the reader is again made aware that he has not always been as he is now. This pertains to the idea I raised in my introduction, that the reader is attracted to the redeemable qualities of a villain. Intrigue is heightened when he is recognized; the reader wonders how Schedoni will react.
Radcliffe tells us that “he was never more seen or heard of at Naples”, perhaps this is a feat of an active imagination but one might take this to mean that the discoverer was fatally disposed of by Schedoni, but Radcliffe does not say this out right so the reader is kept interested by the power of his speculation. Then his role in the brotherhood is one of outward admiration for his “self-denial and severe discipline” but Radcliffe makes it clear that with “panegyrics their friendship for Schedoni concluded…they both feared and hated [him]”.
The reader may begin to empathize or pity Schedoni as a man with no close friends or family. He turned his back on his peers, “unwilling to submit his altered circumstances to their observation”; he is essentially alone and so more accessible to the reader’s emotions than other characters in The Italian. One should also note Radcliffe’s choice of epigraph for this chapter, “I am settled, and bend up/Each corporeal agent to this terrible feat”, by citing the words of Macbeth just before he must kill Duncan she lends her villain more gravity, attempting to make him the stuff of legend as Shakespeare’s protagonist is, and increases the reader’s interest in him. It also calls to mind Macbeth’s constant juxtaposition of resolution between what he must do to succeed and what is morally right. This is of course the same dilemma that faces Schedoni, which is heightened further on in the chapter.
The chapter is permeated with events parallel to those in Shakespeare’s tragedy. Spalatro sees a hand with “blood-stained finger” (page 232), instead of a dagger floating before him and Schedoni hesitates before the act in the same manner as Macbeth, “Do I not feel the necessity of this act!” (page 234). Also, just as the Scottish fiend is aware of his hubristic flaw so the Monk recognizes his self-termed “dastardly weakness” when “the terrific Schedoni, in this moment of meditative guilt, feared even the feeble Ellena” (page 231), that is to say his irresolution or perhaps his conscience that persists in trying to make the Confessor act morally rather than selfishly. Whereas Shakespeare leaves the act of Macbeth killing Duncan to the audience’s imagination Radcliffe chooses to narrate it in close detail.
One may even imagine that Macbeth’s scene played out much as Schedoni’s begins to. It is at this point that the similarity between Shakespeare’s immortalized Scottish king and Radcliffe’s malevolent monk ends and the plot thickens! The scene of Schedoni preparing to kill Ellena has been ascribed with sexual connotations with him “drawing aside the lawn from her bosom” and his physical state wherein “His respiration was short and laborious, chilly drops stood on his forehead, and all his faculties of mind seemed suspended”. Following this sexual charged motion Schedoni discovers, or so he thinks, that he is Ellena’s father, and raises thoughts of Freud’s ‘Oedipus complex’ in any well-informed reader’s mind.
One can most certainly not deny that Radcliffe’s villain is exceedingly complex and interesting as Punter suggests. Rictor also says that “Radcliffe’s villains do not merely thrill, they seduce – and they bear an uncanny resemblance to the real Marquis de Sade in their displayed evil and debauchery”. I feel this is a fair assessment with regards to Schedoni and whole-heartedly agree that the villain is the most complex and interesting character in The Italian.
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About The Author
I am a Shakespeare fanatic with six years` classroom experience. I enjoy reading a wide range of fiction and non-fiction and became a teacher to share my passion for language. Now that I have a young family, I have decided to indulge my love of teaching outside the classroom to fit arou.... Read More