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Bard to the Bone – Shakespeare’s Best Villains
William Shakespeare wrote only 37 plays, many of which are comedies and histories. When I set out to compile a list of his greatest villains I thought I would probably struggle to make the Top 10, how wrong are you? I soon discovered that it was impossible to limit the list to 10, and even in the Top 20 there were other characters who seemed just as deserving that just didn’t make the cut.
What makes 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.
Villainy is presented here in many forms from the immature callousness of Richard II to the calculated scheming 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 malicious sisters, brothers, half-brothers, step-fathers and step-mothers all vie for a place on this Shakespearean “most wanted” list.
So here, in order of increasing nastiness, are Shakespeare’s bad boys (and girls)…
20. Don Ivan (Much ado about nothing) — “Bastard Prince”, Don Pedro’s brother. Don John is one of the rare 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. Villain 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 timid young man, self-confident 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. Mean quote: (Richard on his God-given right to rule) “Not all the water in a rough rough sea can wash away the salve from the anointed king.”
18. Angel (Measure for measure) — left in charge of Vienna, Angelo enforces archaic laws including one requiring the death penalty if a woman becomes pregnant out of wedlock. He comes across as pious and smug, but soon proves to be a complete hypocrite when he tries to bribe a young recruit, 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 excellent to have the strength of a giant; but it is tyrannical to use it as a giant.”
17. Caliban (storm) — Son of the witch Sycorax, half-human monster and slave of Prospero. Another one that’s likely to get on some people’s nerves, 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 kill list if space permits). Vile quote: (cursing Miranda and Prospero) “Like the wicked dew that my mother brushed with a raven’s feather from an unwholesome ass, it falls on you both! The south-wester blows on you and pierces 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 much of the play plotting to kill Claudius. Vile quote: (about the stabbing of Polonius) “How now! A rat? Dead, for a ducat, dead!”
15. Iachimo (Cymbeline) — dishonest and lewd sleaze. Iachimo 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 diurnal lizards of potential seducers. Interestingly, at the end of the play, Iachimo remains unpunished. Villain quote: “If you’re buying a woman’s flesh for a million drams, you can’t keep it from getting dirty.”
14. Claudius (Hamlet) – Hamlet’s stepfather, responsible for the murder of Hamlet’s father. He tries to send Hamlet to almost certain death, and when that fails, he conspires with Laertes to poison Hamlet with a poisoned sword. Villain quote: “What if this accursed hand Is thicker than its brother’s blood — Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens To wash them 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 met his end on the battlefield by committing suicide after witnessing the death of his best friend Titini. Villain quote: (Julius Caesar describing Cassius) “Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much. People like that are dangerous.”
12. Shylock (Venetian merchant) — a Jewish moneylender in Venice. Opinions are divided as to how much Shylock is a villain or a victim. He certainly gets some pretty shabby treatment from the Christians, but his insistence on wanting a pound of Antonio’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. Villain quote: “I will carry out the evil that you teach me, it will be difficult, but I will improve the teaching.”
11. Lady Macbeth (Macbeth) – Macbeth’s wife. Lady M’s ambitions for her husband result in her persuading him to stab not only Duncan but his pages as well. Pursued by the murders, she ends up killing herself (offstage). Villain quote: “Look like an innocent flower, but be a snake underneath.”
10. Macbeth (Macbeth) — begins the play as the Thane of Glamis, but quickly rises to the top with assassinations and becomes King of Scotland. However, his reign was short-lived and Macduff soon beheaded him in battle. Critics argue over who is the greatest villain, Macbeth who commits the bloody deeds or his wife who persuades him. Villain quote: “Stars, hide your fires! Let the light not see my dark and deep desires.”
9. Cornwall (King Lear) — Reagan’s husband and an extremely nasty deed. Cornwall is a small role and is often overshadowed by some of the show’s more swaggering villains. But don’t ignore him, he is 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. A mean quote: (about gouging out Gloucester’s eyes) “Out, vile jelly! Where is your brilliance 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 criminal 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. A mean quote: (on Lady Anne’s courtship) “Was ever woman wooed in this humor? Was ever woman won in this humor? 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 got pretty rough treatment. In one of Shakespeare’s most bizarre scenes, she eats her two sons that Titus baked in a pie before he subsequently stabs her. Villain quote: “I will find a day to massacre them all and destroy their faction and 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’s blinding of Gloucester. Widowed after her husband Cornwall dies of a wound inflicted by a servant, she pursues her sister’s lover, Edmund. In the end, her sister poisons her. she eventually dies from poison given to her by her sister. Evil Quote: (after helping to blind the Duke of Gloucester) “Go throw him out the door and let him sniff his way to Dover.”
5. Goneril (King Lear) — Lear’s eldest daughter, receives a third of his kingdom, but cannot cope with her father and his rude retinue. Married to a weak husband, she publicly flaunts her affair with Edmund. They end up stabbing each other (offstage) after she admits to poisoning her sister. Villain Quote: (Albany, talking about his wife) “O Goneril! You are not worth the dust That the rough wind carries to your face. I fear your mood: That nature, that despises her origin, Can’t be sure of herself.”
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 villainous role. Evil Quote: (Dr. Cornelius, asked to prepare deadly poisons by the queen, who says she just wants to poison animals to see what happens!) “I don’t like her. She really thinks she has strange ling’ring poisons. I know her spirit, and I will not 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, turning them 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, it is all in vain, no one’s life is saved by the revelations and many directors today cut his speech of repentance completely. Villain quote: “Now, gods, 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 very bloody play. When he is finally caught, he gloats over his criminal deeds. Shakespeare gives Aaron only one redeeming quality, his devotion to his young son. Villain quote: “I have done a thousand terrible things with a will as one would kill a fly; and nothing truly grieves me from the heart but that I cannot do ten thousand more.”
1. Jago (Othello) – Othello’s lieutenant and the man who engineered his downfall by convincing Othello that his wife had a lover. Iago is the arch 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. Villain quote: “But I’ll wear my heart on my sleeve so I can peck at it. I’m not who I am.”
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