Arts Entertainments

Bard to the Bone – Shakespeare’s Greatest Villains

William Shakespeare alone wrote 37 plays, many of them comedies and stories. When I set out to compile a list of his biggest villains, I thought he’d probably be struggling to make a Top 10, how wrong could you be? It soon became impossible for me to limit the list to 10 and even with a Top 20 there are other characters that seem to work just as well but just didn’t make it.

What constitutes a villain? — You could probably write a whole thesis on that. I’m going to adopt a pretty loose working definition: villains are people who do bad things. Certainly some people will be surprised and offended to find Hamlet and Caliban on the list. I do not apologize, they do bad things, they are inside.

Villainy is represented here in many forms, from the callous immaturity of Richard II to the calculated machinations of Iago and Edmund. There are would-be seducers trying to attack virtuous young maidens, tyrannical monarchs, and more than one evil queen. Families seem to bring out the worst in people and there are malevolent sisters, brothers, step-brothers, step-fathers and step-mothers all vying for a spot on this Shakespeare’s “Most Wanted” list.

So here, and in order of increasing evil, are Shakespeare’s bad boys (and girls)…

20. Don Juan (Much ado About Nothing) — The “Bastard Prince”, brother of Don Pedro. Don John is one of the few examples of a true villain in Shakespeare’s comedies. A bitter man, he attempts to thwart Hero and Claudio’s wedding out of a spirit of sheer wickedness. villain quote: “It cannot be said that I am an honest and flattering man, it must not be denied, but I am a villain who deals frankly.”

19. Richard II (Richard II) – King of England from 1377 to 1399. Shakespeare paints a picture of a brash, self-centered, and headstrong young man. He orders executions, banishes those who disagree with him, and imposes unjust fines and taxes. Richard’s misbehavior is the result of too much power in the hands of an immature child rather than the result of malevolent calculation. Villainous Quote: (Richard on his divine right to rule) “Not all the water in the raging, raging sea can wash away the balm of an anointed king.”

18. Angel (measure for measure) — left in charge of Vienna, Angelo enforces archaic laws, including one that calls for the death penalty for impregnating a woman out of wedlock. He appears pious and self-righteous, but soon proves to be a total hypocrite when he tries to bribe a young novice, Isabella, to sleep with him in exchange for her brother’s life. Villainous Quote: (Isabella, on Angelo’s abuse of his newfound power) “Oh! It is excellent to have the strength of a giant, but it is tyrannical to use it like a giant.”

17. Caliban (The Tempest) — Son of the witch Sycorax, a half-human monster and slave of Prospero. Another one that will likely make some people angry, Caliban is more often portrayed as a victim than a villain. However, don’t forget that he tried to rape Miranda and willingly plots Prospero’s death with Stefano and Trinculo (who probably should also be blacklisted if space allowed). Villainous Quote: (cursing Miranda and Prospero) “As evil dew as my mother brushed with raven feathers from unhealthy swamps, fall on both of you! A blow from the southwest on you, and scorch you wide!”

16. Village (Village) – Prince of Denmark. Although Hamlet is ostensibly the play’s tragic hero, 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 from the play conspiring to kill Claudio. Villainous Quote: (on stabbing Polonius) “How now! A rat? Dead, for a dukedom, dead!”

15. Iachimo (Cymbeline) — a dishonest and lustful sleaze. Iachimo makes a pact to prove that he can seduce Imogen. When he fails to seduce her, he resorts to theft and deceit to disgrace the lady. Along with Angelo, one of Shakespeare’s great would-be parlor lizard seducers. Interestingly, at the end of the play Iachimo goes unpunished. He quotes villainess: “If you buy women’s flesh at a million a dram, you can’t help it get dirty.”

14. Claudius (Village) – Hamlet’s stepfather, responsible for killing Hamlet’s father. He tries to send Hamlet to almost certain death, when that fails he conspires with Laertes to poison Hamlet with a poisoned sword. He quotes villainess: “What if this cursed hand were thicker than itself with brother’s blood? Isn’t there enough rain in the sweet skies to wash it white as snow?”

13. Casio (Julius Caesar) — leader of the conspirators against Julius Caesar who persuades Brutus to join the plot. Cassius appears to be motivated by a combination of ambition and political ideology. He eventually meets the end of him on the battlefield by committing suicide after witnessing the death of his best friend Titinius. Villainous Quote: (Julius Caesar describing Cassius) “Yon Cassius has a thin, hungry look. He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.”

12. Shylock (The merchant of Venice) — a Jewish moneylender in Venice. Opinion is divided on the extent to which Shylock is a villain or a victim. He certainly gets pretty shabby treatment at the hands of Christians, but his insistence on wanting a pound of Antonio’s flesh makes it hard to see him in a fully sympathetic light. Although Shylock seems to dominate this play, he only appears in four scenes. villain quote: “The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it will be difficult but I will improve the instruction.”

11. Lady Macbeth (macbeth) – Macbeth’s wife. Lady M’s ambitions for her husband cause her to convince him to stab not only Duncan but his pages as well. Haunted by the murders, she eventually kills herself (offstage). villain quote: “Look like the innocent flower, but be the snake under it.”

10. Macbeth (macbeth) — begins the play as Thane of Glamis, but quickly murders his way to the top and becomes King of Scotland. However, his reign is short-lived and Macduff soon beheads him in battle. Critics argue over who is the more villainous, Macbeth, who commits the bloody deeds, or his wife, who deifies him. villain quote: “Stars, hide your fires! Do not let the light see my deep black desires.”

9. Cornwall (King Lear) — Regan’s husband and a completely disgusting job. Cornwall is a small role and is often overshadowed by some of the play’s more flashy villains. But don’t overlook it, he is a ruthless torturer and deserves his place on the list. He eventually dies from a wound inflicted by one of his own servants during Gloucester’s torture. Villainous Quote: (on gouging out Gloucester’s eyes) Away, vile jelly! Where is your chandelier 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 prototypical villain who begins the play with a long monologue explaining his evil motivations to the audience. Richard will stop at nothing in his quest for the throne and enjoys 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. Villainous Quote: (on courting Lady Anne) Have you ever courted a woman in this mood? Have you ever won over a woman in this mood? I’ll have it, but I won’t keep it long.

7. Tamara (Titus Andronicus) — Queen of the Goths, brought to Rome as a captive by Titus. While it’s somewhat tempting to see Tamora as the archetypal Evil Queen, you have to remember that she’s had some pretty rough treatment at the hands of the Romans. In one of Shakespeare’s weirdest scenes, she eats her two children baked into a cake by Titus before he stabs her. villain quote: “I will find a day to slaughter them all and lay waste to their faction and family.”

6. Regan (King Lear) – Lear’s middle child and definitely suffers from middle child syndrome. Regan is the more openly sadistic of the two sisters, and takes positive advantage of her husband’s blinding of Gloucester. Widowed after her Cornwall husband died from a wound inflicted by a servant, she seeks the affection of her sister’s lover, Edmund. She is finally poisoned by her sister. she eventually dies from the poison administered by her sister. She quotes villainess: (after helping to blind the Duke of Gloucester) “Go throw him in the gates and let him smell his way to Dover.”

5. Goneril (King Lear) — Lear’s eldest daughter, receives a third of his kingdom but can’t stand up to her father and his noisy entourage. Married to a weak husband, she publicly flaunts her affair with Edmund. She eventually stabs herself (offstage) after confessing to poisoning her sister. She quotes villain: (Albany, talking about his wife) “O Goneril! You are not worth the dust that the harsh wind blows in your face. I fear your disposition: that nature, which despises its origin, cannot be skirted with truth in itself.”

4. The Queen (Cymbeline) — Wife of Cymbeline and stepmother of Imogen. Here is a good prototype for an evil stepmother, she tries unsuccessfully to poison both Imogen and Cymbeline. Although she is never given a name, the Queen is a major villain role. She quotes villainess: (Dr. Cornelius, who was asked by the queen to prepare deadly poisons and says that she only wants to poison animals to see what happens!) I do not like it. He thinks he has strange lingering poisons. I know his spirit and I wouldn’t trust someone as wicked as he is with a drug of such a cursed nature.

3. Edmund (King Lear) — The illegitimate sound of Gloucester. He concocts a plot to banish his half-brother and has affairs with two of Lear’s daughters, pitting them against each other for his own ends. Edmund is not without his redeeming qualities and at the end of the play, having been mortally wounded, he repents of his misdeeds; however, it’s all in vain, the revelations don’t save anyone’s life and many directors nowadays cut their regret speech altogether. villain quote: “Now, gods, defend the bastards!”

2. Aaron (Titus Andronicus) — Tamora’s Moorish lover brought by Titus as a captive to Rome. One of Shakespeare’s darkest villains, responsible for many of the atrocities and murders in this bloody play. When he is finally captured, he gloats over his misdeeds. Shakespeare only gives Aaron one redeeming quality, his devotion to his baby. villain quote: “I have done a thousand terrible things as voluntarily as one who would kill a fly; and nothing pains me in my heart, in truth, that I cannot do ten thousand more.”

1. Iago (othello) – Othello’s lieutenant and the man who plots his downfall by persuading Othello that his wife is having an affair. Iago is an arch manipulator who is directly or indirectly responsible for all deaths in the play. Interestingly, Iago is one of the few major villains not to die at the end of the play. villain quote: But I’ll wear my heart on my sleeve for them to peck at. I am not what I am.

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