How to be a Villain
This story begins with a confession: I didn’t know how to be a villain – and never got over it. When I was eleven years old, my Hebrew school was bringing out a magazine, and needed contributions. I somehow volunteered to write on a topic someone had suggested – “How to Be a Villain.”
No doubt, it was supposed to be a humorous piece. But the ghastly fact is that I didn’t even know what a villain was. I couldn’t think of anything to say, and was deeply troubled. I actually lost sleep over it. My mother could see how unhappy I was, and she tried to help me, making light of my predicament. She suggested that I could start with something about taking candy from a baby – but I was too young to savor such villainy.
Ironically, the media to which I was then mostly exposed – the movies, radio, and especially comic books – were full of villains. One, who was featured battling my favorite hero, “Captain Marvel,” was called “Mr. Mind.” He was an evil genius, threatening to control the entire world. But readers never actually saw him – only “heard” his malignant voice – until the final episode, in which he turned out to be an intelligent worm, with a little microphone hanging around his neck!
Incidentally, Captain Marvel soon disappeared. He was almost literally killed by Superman, whose publishers successfully sued, claiming the characters were too much alike. This made Superman a villain in my eyes.
But I must sadly reveal that the writing assignment I’d been given was never fulfilled. I don’t know what excuse I used, but somehow, I backed out of the commitment. In my memory, that entire incident is tinged with shame.
Of course, I eventually learned the meaning of villainy – though I’m glad to say that in my personal life, I’ve never known anyone I’d call villainous. But I’m naturally familiar with the classic villains of our culture, from Nero and Lady Macbeth to Iago and Guy Fawkes. The failure of the latter to blow up Parliament, in 1605, is still celebrated annually in Britain with fireworks and garish rituals involving the burning of stuffed dummies known as “Guys.”
Being (by origin) both British and Jewish, I feel qualified to tell you not only about Guy Fawkes, but also about a villain commemorated in Judaic culture on the annual feast of Purim, which derives from the Biblical story of Esther. In this case, the setting is ancient Persia, and the villain – a high official named Haman – has a plot to destroy all the Jews in the Empire. He’s defeated by one of those very Jews, a young woman named Esther, who happens to have become Queen. And Haman is hanged on the very gallows he had prepared for Esther’s foster-father Mordecai.
Jews celebrate Purim by recounting this story in synagogues all over the world, in a narrative called the “Megillah” (which has given us a word for any lengthy screed). And whenever the name of Haman occurs, loud noises are made, especially by the children, who’ve been waiting impatiently, with special rattles, for that name to come up. And you can eat Haman, in the form of a pastry, called Haman’s Hat.
But our culture also has Jewish villains, of whom perhaps the most notorious is Shakespeare’s Shylock, forever abhorred for his insistence on receiving his “pound of flesh” – since then, an enduring metaphor for something one may be legally entitled to, but which it would be cruel to exact. Then, later, came Dickens’ nasty Fagin, who in Oliver Twist runs a school for young thieves.
But conscience obliges me to conclude this piece with an even more painful admission than began it. I professed then to have little knowledge of villainy. But the sad truth is that there has been one person in whose life I myself often played the role of a villain. That person was my wife Dorothy. Although we were together for 51 years, our values were in many ways so different that, in her eyes, my behavior was sometimes unforgiveable. In particular, she disliked controversy – and my very public campaigns, as against smoking and leaf-blowers, could, to her, be acutely embarrassing. But also, she was a hoarder, and, more than once, our conflicting ideas about order at home brought us to the brink of separation. Happily, in her later years, as she became more dependent on me, I became less evil.