Paul Harding on Shakespeare

Paul Harding on Shakespeare’s villains: ‘I want my characters to wrestle with their best and worst impulses’

We asked the authors on the Booker Prize 2023 shortlist to tell us about their inspirations. Here, Paul Harding, author of This Other Eden, explains how the moral complexity of Shakespeare’s villains helped him create Matthew Diamond

Paul Harding

Written by Paul Harding

Publication date and time: Published

Matthew Diamond is a character in This Other Eden who comes to the racially integrated community on the fictional Apple Island as a kind of informal, self-appointed educator and missionary. His good intentions for the islanders prove to be the mechanism that begins and hastens the tragic fate of the community, which is both appallingly unjust and an appallingly familiar kind of episode from history.  

From the start, perhaps my main concern with Matthew Diamond was finding a way to preserve his agency in all the awful events that befall the islanders and his explicitly racist sentiments, but without thereby flattening him into a paper-doll, cutout villain. That is, the challenge with him was to make him human – complicated, contradictory, a character with a repertoire of better and worse impulses – so that the humanity of the other main characters in the book could be most fully brought into relief against the events he sets into action.  

If he were merely ‘the Villain’ there would be the danger of the other characters being similarly flattened by virtue of their relationship with an abstract, rhetorical idea – a stock, cliched role – and not with another actual person, whose efforts precipitate catastrophe. The islanders would be in peril of being reduced to ‘the Victims’ or some other comparably reductive and ultimately degrading, dehumanising cartoon that would precisely contradict the spirit in which the novel was undertaken.  

This Other Eden by Paul Harding

I found the terms for solving this difficulty through numerous readings and teachings of the late tragedies of Shakespeare, and by chance in a would-be offhand comment in an otherwise perfectly obscure letter written by the 20th century Reformed Protestant theologian Karl Barth.   

One of the qualities of Shakespeare’s characters – in this case, his villains – I most admire is that they are intelligent. Shakespeare gives them brains and, more important, he lets them use their brains. This corresponds to the fact that not only do they know what they are doing and why, but that what they are doing is in fact malevolent or evil. Some of the characters have no conscience whatsoever, bad or otherwise. But some – the most interesting and complex and irreducible, I’d say – do have consciences and Shakespeare gives generous amounts of time and space in his plays to allow those characters to wrestle with them.  

Macbeth knows what the consequences of murdering the king, Duncan, will eventually lead to from the instant he begins plotting to do so. Much of the play depicts Macbeth’s descent into blood-steeped insanity through his efforts to suppress his clear and rational knowledge of those consequences, abetted by Lady Macbeth whose continual cajoling amounts to telling him to stop all his reasoning, in effect, to stop thinking. Claudius, in Hamlet, has a remarkable soliloquy in which he lucidly and with great eloquence parses the reasons why his prayers to be pardoned for murdering his own brother will not be granted, as he still enjoys the wicked fruits of the act, namely the crown and his brother’s widow.   

Macbeth, Claudius, and many other characters in Shakespeare dramatise something that, if anything can be reasonably called so, is a universal human experience – knowing what’s right yet acting wrongly anyway. Knowing better than how one acts or feels is observable at every scale of human experience, from knowing you should not have that second piece of chocolate cake but eating it anyway, to knowing cigarettes are lethal to your health but having a smoke anyway, to knowing you should not leave your battered neighbour to perish in a roadside ditch but hurrying past them nevertheless. I knew from early on in the process of writing This Other Eden that, whatever I discovered about Matthew Diamond and his relationship to the characters on Apple Island, I had to allow him to know all of it as well, no matter how mixed or undiluted his sentiments and motives, and I had to allow him the time and space in the story to wrestle with his best and worst impulses.   

Lady Macbeth seizes the dagger

I hope not to explain away any of a character’s complexities for the reader, but to present, to describe that human complexity as fully as possible

In addition to his magnum opus of Protestant theology, the unfinished Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth was also known for his involvement in the Confessing Church, one of the few German institutions to openly defy Hitler during the Third Reich. Although he later scolded the church itself for not having done more, the church was one of the few if not very effective sources of aid to Jews during the Holocaust. After spending years working through the Dogmatics and developing the deepest intellectual and spiritual respect for Barth (while not a member of a church or religious denomination, I am thoroughly interested in cosmology and metaphysics and in sacred and wisdom literatures), I happened incidentally to come across a letter in a volume of his correspondence in which he confesses that, ‘…in personal encounters with living Jews… I have always, so long as I can remember, had to suppress a totally irrational aversion.’ He continues by writing ‘Pfui! is all I can say to this in some sense allergic reaction of mine…. A good thing that this reprehensible instinct is totally alien to my sons and other better people than myself….’  

Especially grotesque is the detail of his aversion to ‘living’ Jews. Part of the complexity and difficulty coming upon these lines after years of studying his thought is that he did compose one of the most magnificent theological visions of the last century – or more – and that he was one of the few people who did something to help European Jews during the Holocaust, and he was anti-Semitic personally (but not ‘publicly’).  

Those facts cancel one another out. Or do they? It’s debatable. It is complicated. If someone does something noble or generous or decent, is the nobility of that act somehow cancelled if the same person later does something shameful or wicked? Or does each act retain its own integrity and simply exist alongside the other? It is a characteristically human predicament to have done and thought good and bad things, and it is characteristically human to struggle with what to make of the relationship between those contradictory, apparently irreconcilable experiences.   

In any case, the outlines of the issue provided me with material to help make Matthew Diamond a little less of a stock bad guy and a little more recognisable as a human being wrestling with his own flaws and imperfections, even as he acted according to the worst of them. In a letter to an old friend asking him to host one of the young islanders, who is a talented painter and who also presents as white, in a botched and at best ambivalent attempt somehow to ‘save’ the boy from the worst of the upcoming eviction from his island home, Diamond also confesses to a ‘visceral and involuntary repulsion whenever I am in the presence of a living Negro’ despite all his ‘spiritual & intellectual convictions’. Even as Diamond comes to see and regret more and more clearly the devastating consequences of his actions, he still presents the ugliest symptoms of white guilt, of white saviour complex.  

Paul Harding Booker shortlist 2023

Like Shakespeare (I hope), I tried to give Matthew Diamond knowledge of his own prejudices and disgust at them without making them somehow magically or sentimentally ‘solvable’. He persists in and at being… himself, I’d say, even as he knows better. Like Shakespeare and other artists whom I most admire, I hope not to explain away any of a character’s complexities for the reader, but to present, to describe that human complexity as fully as possible, then to trust that the reader will appreciate being allowed to ponder that complexity for herself, and hopefully discover something recognisably, authentically, honestly presented of human experience.  

I think (I hope!) that doing so makes for at least the best conditions for the best kind of fiction. Matthew Diamond is a person among other persons within the world of the novel, and not merely an authorial conceit or cypher wreaking havoc throughout. I hope that by resisting making him into a mere ‘monster’ or ‘idea’ that a reader might be tempted to easily disavow the novel instead invites the reader to consider that evil comes into the world through and as human acts, acts which are of the same exact nature of our very own, no matter how tempted or pleased we may be to pretend otherwise.   

William Shakespeare