Saturday, 31 December 2011

The Recipe for a Great Shakespearean Villain

Edmund Keen as Richard III
Have you ever wondered how Shakespeare made his villains? Want to create your own Shakespearean villain? Well, you need wonder no more. Here is an easy-to-follow recipe for the perfect Shakespearean baddie.

Although, in actual fact, this recipe is universal, because the ingredients that go into a good Shakespearean "wrong 'un" are exactly the same ones that make any good literary, theatrical or film villain.

  • First, you will need an ‘outsider’. A character can be made an outsider by a number of factors, including his, or her, appearance. For example, the deformed Richard III or Aaron in Titus Andronicus, who is made an outsider by the colour of his skin. Alternatively, a character’s status may push him, or her, to the fringes of polite society, as is the case for the illegitimate Edmund in King Lear.

It’s important to mention that, at this point, if the character is not correctly handled, he may not turn to villainy. There are cases, such as Othello, in which the outsider is, in fact, the hero.
  • Next, the outsider must be ‘wronged’ or, at the very least, feel that he, or she, has been slighted in some way. For instance, in Othello, Iago is passed over for the lieutenancy and feels that the role of ensign is entirely beneath him. Another good example is the Queen of the Goths, Tamora, from Titus Andronicus, whose pleas to spare the lives of her sons fall on deaf ears.

  • Stir in some fabulous dialogue. All great villains must have a set piece monologue or soliloquy (usually a soliloquy). The master of villainous soliloquies being Iago, of course, although Richard III runs him a close second.

Edwin Booth as Iago

  • Then, add a dash of unpleasantness, purely for the sake of unpleasantness. The really great Shakespearean villains have a hint of unmotivated evil about them. This can be seen in Edmund’s seduction of both Regan and Goneril in King Lear. Another example of over-the-top malice is Don John’s plot to ruin Hero’s reputation in Much Ado About Nothing.
  • Finally, it is essential that a great villain is not ‘over-eviled’. Possibly the best example of this is Aaron from Titus Andronicus, who seems thoroughly loathsome and beyond redemption...until he becomes a father and something almost tender emerges in him.

Ira Aldrige as Aaron
Shakespeare always manages to give his character’s flaws, desires and ambitions. In the case of the villains, these flaws, desires and ambitions are all too human, which means they are much more than just pantomime figures.

Their evil deeds are, usually, bred from a place of pain, frustration or, in most cases, bitter resentment. And that’s something that most of us can relate to.

Disclaimer: Results may vary depending on the quality of ingredients and equipment used. All aspects of this recipe will not always apply to every villain; there are those pesky exceptions that prove the rule. However, the above method can be applied to the vast majority of Shakespearean villains.


  1. What about Hamlet? He might make a great villain...

    1. Hello Taylor,

      That's a good point. Hamlet would make a marvellous villain. Of course, depending on how you look at it (from the point of view of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Polonius and Ophelia), he certainly could be described as a villain.

  2. Oh definitely. What if all of his hesitation before acting was really him trying to justify his actions? He was the only one who heard the ghost speak; it could have been a figment of his imagination. And maybe Claudius had a panic attack during the play due to the stresses of oncoming war? Shakespeare's works are so timeless because his characters are so easily reinterpreted.

    1. That's a very interesting way to look at the play. And, of course, you're absolutely right, one of the beauties of Shakespeare's work is the endless number of ways it can be interpreted like that. Love it!

    2. I'm doing some research on Shakespeare's villains. My main focus is that modern villains like The Joker draw heavily from the pattern that Shakespeare set up. Do you have any idea where I could find some research on that?

    3. Hello Ian,

      Thanks for stopping by.

      I'd argue that the 'blueprint' for literary villainy goes back much further, dating thousands (nevermind hundreds) of years ago. But what Shakespeare does give us (he wasn't the first, but is still one of the best) is three-dimensional baddies.

      And I'm guessing that's the link you're making - all Shakespearean villains have a motive. Even those, like Iago, who are not particularly vocal about what that is. We know, somewhere in his twisted mind, he believes he has cause to destroy Othello. So, rather than just evil for evil's sake, we have 'real' characters; damaged, distorted people, with a big ol' beef against the world.

      Unfortunately, I can't point you in the direction of any literature on the subject. But if you're focusing on The Joker, I'd be inclined to make specific comparison with Richard III.

      Many thanks, and good luck with the project!

    4. Thank you so much for your response! I see what you are saying. I think one of the greatest draws of a Villain like Iago is simply the question regarding his motives. I've noticed that in the text he often negates his own claims. He cites the suspicion that Othello and his wife are having a relationship, doubts its authenticity, and then decides to act as if it is true. Do you think that Iago was simply looking for a reason to do what he did?

    5. Hello, Ian.

      My pleasure! You're absolutely right, Iago is such a timelessly fascinating character precisely because we can never really know why he hates Othello so much - but the speculation is great fun. "...what you know, you know..." Well, we know next to nothing.

      The Emilia business is really interesting, because it is a sort of 'by the by' type of comment that he just tosses in there, indicating he either doesn't care or that he's fairly sure it's not true. Either way, I think you're right, he finds it useful for his purposes. It gives a tangible reason for something that otherwise makes very little sense.

      In my view, his motive is simple career jealousy. But any other reason he stumbles upon to reinforce the hatred is a bonus - suspicions over Emilia, Othello's race, etc.

      We all have a tendency to do that, cling to something, even if it has no basis in proof, to reinforce what we already believe (or want to believe). Politics is always a good case in point, but it applies to many other facets of life.

      Iago hates someone who is ostensibly a good guy. So, to bolster his case, he'll grab anything that paints Othello in a less than perfect light - even if, deep down, he knows it's not true.

      That's my take on him, anyway.

      Thanks for your reply!