Thursday, May 05, 2005

Termagant III: Revenge of the Stereotype

I love the English language: it's both my favorite tool and my favorite toy. One of the especially wonderful things about it is the way that a single word can sometimes express centuries of history in tightly encoded form.

For example, the other day I ran across the word "termagant," and not being precisely sure of its meaning, I looked it up. My little pocket dictionary defined it as, "an overbearing or shrewish woman," but that didn't seem to fit the context, so I turned to the Mother of All Dictionaries (Webster's 2nd) and found an earlier definition: "An imaginary being supposed by Christians to be a Mohammedan deity. He is represented in ancient moralities, farces, and puppet shows, as vociferous and tumultuous."

Ah, now *this* was getting interesting. The hunt was on!

"Termagant," it seems, was a stock villain in Medieval morality plays. Supposedly the heathen god of the Saracens, he was typically clean-shaven, dressed in a turban and colorful robes, and spent most of his stage time explaining his evil plots, berating his minions for their incompetence, and threatening them with dire consequences if they failed to get it right next time. Because of the robes audiences often assumed the character was supposed to be female (hence the modern definition), and because the character was so commonly and outrageously overacted, Hamlet found it necessary to give this advice to his players in Act III, Scene II:
O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb-shows and noise: I would have such a fellow whipped for o'erdoing Termagant; it out-Herod's Herod: pray you, avoid it.

So there's today's advice for you: when you are writing your villain, remember, Termagant's been done already, and he was old four centuries ago. Pray you, avoid it.

And who's your favorite fictional Termagant?