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Bard to the Bone – Shakespeare’s Best Villains
William Shakespeare wrote only 37 plays, many of them comedies and histories. When I set out to compile a list of his greatest villains, I thought I’d probably struggle to make it into the Top 10, how wrong can you be? I soon found that it was impossible to limit the list to 10, and even with a Top 20 there are other characters that seem just as deserving that just didn’t make it.
What is a villain? — You could probably write an entire thesis on that. I’ll adopt a fairly loose working definition – villains are people who do bad things. Surely some people will be surprised and offended when they find Hamlet and Caliban on the list. I don’t apologize, they do bad things – they are for it.
Villainy is presented here in many guises, from the immature callousness of Richard II to the calculated machinations of Iago and Edmund. There are would-be seducers intent on preying on virtuous young maidens, tyrannical monarchs, and more than one evil queen. Families seem to bring out the worst in people, and there are malicious sisters, brothers, half-brothers, step-fathers and step-mothers all vying for a position on this Shakespearean “most wanted” list.
So here, and in order of increasing nastiness, are Shakespeare’s bad boys (and girls)…
20. Don John (Much ado about nothing) — “The Bastard Prince”, Don Pedro’s brother. Don John is one of the few examples of a true villain in Shakespeare’s comedies. A sour man, he tries to prevent the wedding of Hero and Claudio out of a spirit of pure perversion. Evil quote: “I cannot be said to be a flattering honest man, that must not be denied, but I am a common villain.”
19. Richard II (Richard II) – King of England from 1377 to 1399. Shakespeare portrays a rash young man, self-centered and self-confident. He orders executions, banishes those who disagree with him, and imposes unjust fines and taxes. Richard’s bad behavior is the result of too much power in the hands of an immature child, not the result of malicious calculation. Evil quote: (Richard on his God-given right to rule) “Not all the water in a rough rough sea can wash away the balm from the anointed king.”
18. Angelo (Measure for measure) — left in charge of Vienna, Angelo enforces archaic laws, including one requiring the death penalty for women who become pregnant outside of marriage. He appears pious and self-righteous, but soon proves to be a complete hypocrite when he tries to bribe a young upstart, Isabella, to sleep with him in exchange for her brother’s life. Evil Quote: (Isabella, on Angel’s abuse of his newfound power) “Oh! it is great to have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannical to use it as a giant.”
17. Caliban (The Tempest) — Son of the witch Sycorax, half-human monster and slave of Prospero. Another one likely to cause some trouble, Caliban is portrayed more often as a victim than a villain. However, don’t forget that he tried to rape Miranda and is willingly plotting Prospero’s death with Stefano and Trincula (who should probably also be on the emergency list if space allowed). Evil quote: (cursing Miranda and Prospero) “As the wicked dew my mother brushed with a raven’s feather from the unwholesome moor, fall upon you both! strike the southwest upon you, and break you all!”
16. Hamlet (Hamlet) – Prince of Denmark. Although Hamlet is ostensibly the tragic hero of the play, let’s not forget that he does some pretty dastardly things that qualify him for inclusion on this list: he sends his friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to almost certain death, kills Polonius, and spends a lot of drama plotting to kill Claudius. Evil quote: (about stabbing Polonius) “How now! A rat? Dead, for a ducat, dead!”
15. Ichimo (Cymbeline) — a dishonest and lewd scumbag. Ichimo makes a pact to prove that Imogen can be seduced. When he fails in his attempt at seduction, he resorts to theft and fraud to dishonor the lady. Along with Angelo, one of Shakespeare’s great lizards who would be potential seducers. Interestingly, at the end of the play, Ichimo goes unpunished. Evil quote: “If you buy a woman’s flesh for a million drams, you cannot keep it from being defiled.”
14. Claudius (Hamlet) – Hamlet’s stepfather, responsible for killing Hamlet’s father. He tries to send Hamlet to almost certain death, but when that fails, he convinces Laertes to poison the hamlet with a poisoned sword. Evil quote: “What if this accursed hand is thicker than itself with brother’s blood—Is there not enough rain in the sweet heavens to wash it white as snow?”
13. Cassius (Julius Caesar) — the leader of the conspirators against Julius Caesar who persuades Brutus to join the conspiracy. Cassius appears to be motivated by a combination of ambition and political ideology. He eventually meets his end on the battlefield by committing suicide after witnessing the death of his best friend Titini. Wicked quote: (Julius Caesar describing Cassius) “Ion Cassius has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much. People like that are dangerous.”
12. Shylock (Merchant of Venice) — a Jewish moneylender in Venice. Opinions are divided as to the extent to which Shylock is a villain or a victim. He’s certainly received some pretty shabby treatment from the Christians, but his insistence on wanting a pound of Antony’s flesh makes it hard to see him in an entirely sympathetic light. Although Shylock seems to dominate this play, he only appears in four scenes. Evil quote: “The crime you teach me I will do, and it will be hard, but I will improve the instructions.”
11. Lady Macbeth (Macbeth) – Macbeth’s wife. Lady M’s ambitions for her husband result in her convincing him to stab not only Duncan but his pages as well. Haunted by the murders, she ends up killing herself (offstage). Evil quote: “Look like an innocent flower, but be a snake underneath.”
10. Macbeth (Macbeth) — begins the play as Thane of Glamis, but quickly kills his way to the top and becomes King of Scotland. However, his reign was short-lived and Macduff soon beheaded him in battle. Critics argue over who is more evil, Macbeth who commits the bloody deeds or his wife who persuades him. Evil quote: “Stars, hide your fires! Let no light see my dark and deep desires.”
9. Cornwall (King Lear) — Reagan’s husband and a completely nasty job. Cornwall is a small role and is often overshadowed by some of the show’s more spectacular villains. But don’t ignore him, he’s a merciless torturer and deserves his place on the list. He eventually dies from a wound inflicted by one of his servants during the torture of Gloucester. Wicked quote: (about gouging out Gloucester’s eyes) ”Out, you vile jelly! Where is your shine now?”
8. Richard III (Richard III ) — King of England for two years from 1483 until his death at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. Shakespeare’s prototype villain who begins the play with a long monologue explaining his nefarious motives to the audience. Richard will stop at nothing in his quest for the throne and revels in the chaos and carnage he causes along the way. Richard III is the second longest play in the entire Shakespeare canon, only Hamlet is longer. Wicked Quote: (On Courting Lady Anne) “Was ever a woman in this humor charmed? Was ever a woman in this humor vanquished? I will have her;—but I will not keep her long.”
7. Tamora (Titus Andronicus) — Queen of the Goths, whom Titus brought to Rome as a prisoner. While it’s kind of tempting to see Tamora as the archetypal evil queen, you have to remember that the Romans treated her pretty harshly. In one of Shakespeare’s most bizarre scenes, she eats her two sons that Titus baked in a pie before he then stabs her. Evil quote: “I will find a day to massacre them all and destroy their faction and their family.”
6. Reagan (King Lear) – Lear’s middle daughter and definitely suffers from middle child syndrome. Regan is the more openly sadistic of the two sisters, positively enjoying her husband blinding Gloucester. Widowed after her husband Cornwall dies of a wound inflicted by a servant, she seeks the affections of her sister’s lover, Edmund. She ends up being poisoned by her sister. she ends up dying from poison given to her by her sister. Evil Quote: (after helping to blind the Duke of Gloucester) “Go, turn him out at the gates and let him smell his way to Dover.”
5. Goneril (King Lear) — Lear’s eldest daughter, she receives a third of his kingdom, but can’t handle her father and his rowdy retinue. Married to a weak husband, she flaunts her affair with Edmund in public. She ends up stabbing herself (off-scene) after confessing to poisoning her sister. Evil quote: (Albany, talking about his wife) “O Goneril! You are not worth the dust That rough wind carries to your face. I fear your disposition: That nature, that scorns its origin, Can’t in itself be bounded.”
4. The Queen (Cymbeline) — Cymbeline’s wife and Imogen’s stepmother. Here is a good prototype for the evil stepmother, she unsuccessfully tries to poison both Imogen and Cymbeline. Although she is never given a name, the queen is a significant negative role. Evil Quote: (Dr. Cornelius, asked by the queen to prepare the deadly poisons who says she only wants to poison animals to see what happens!) “I don’t like her. She doesn’t think she has strange poisons. I know her spirit, and I won’t trust any of her malice with a drug of such a cursed nature.”
3. Edmund (King Lear) — Gloucester’s illegitimate son. He plots to banish his half-brother and has affairs with two of Lear’s daughters, playing them off against each other for his own ends. Edmund is not without his redeeming qualities and at the end of the play, after being mortally wounded, he repents of his evil deeds – however, everything is in vain, no one’s life is saved by the revelations and many directors today cut his speech of repentance completely. Evil quote: “Now, god, stand up for the bastards!”
2. Aaron (Titus Andronicus) — Tamora’s Moorish lover whom Titus brought as a prisoner to Rome. One of Shakespeare’s darkest villains who is responsible for many of the crimes and murders in this gory play. When he is finally captured, he gloats over his evil deeds. Shakespeare gives Aaron only one redeeming quality, his devotion to his young son. Evil quote: “I have done a thousand terrible things as willingly as to kill a fly; And nothing grieves me from my heart, except that I cannot do ten thousand more.”
1. Iago (Othello) – Othello’s lieutenant and the man who engineered his downfall by convincing Othello that his wife was having an affair. Iago is the master manipulator who is directly or indirectly responsible for all the deaths in the play. Interestingly, Iago is one of the few major villains who does not die at the end of the play. Evil quote: “But I’ll wear my heart on my sleeve for the vipers to peck at. I’m not who I am.”
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