Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Top 5 Shakespearean Villains

Shakespeare certainly knew how to write a great villain. Packing them full of contradictions and the most human of flaws, he ensured that audiences can relate to characters that might also be viewed as monsters.

One of the reasons Shakespeare’s plays remain so popular and are, in many ways, timeless is because the Bard of Avon was a master of creating fascinating, rounded characters. Among his most intriguing and enduring creations are his villains.

While many of them display some inhuman actions, they are motivated by the most human of emotions: jealousy, revenge, heartache and ambition, to name just a few. The following is a list of just some of my top five Shakespearean villains.

László Mednyánszky's 'Shylock' (c1900)

5. Shylock

The Merchant of Venice is classed as one of Shakespeare’s problem plays and Shylock’s categorisation as a villain is in itself problematic.

Sometimes seen as an evil moneylender, who is blindly intent on collecting his “pound of flesh”, Shylock can also be viewed as sympathetic character, who is the victim of anti-Semitism and is merely giving as good as he gets, “The villainy you teach me/I will execute; and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”(III.i)

4. Lady Macbeth

Another character who doesn’t quite fit the villain category comfortably, although I’m sure many would disagree with that analysis. I would argue that Lady Macbeth is misunderstood. It also seems unjust that the murder of Duncan is so often laid squarely at her door (or battlements).
Kate Fleetwood as Lady Macbeth and Patrick Stewart
as her husband, Macbeth (2010)

What can’t be disputed is that her ambition for her husband led her to encourage his murderous thoughts and strengthen his resolve when it wavered.

Her tough line in questioning Macbeth’s manhood, and her grisly description of bashing her baby’s head in, are just two of the facets of her character that lead many to view her as the ultimate female Shakespearean villain.

If you want to read more about my thoughts on her, take a look here.

3. Edmund

Edmund convincing Edgar that he needs to
avoid their father.
Further female villainy can be found in King Lear. However, it is the manipulative, scheming and almost entirely remorseless Edmund who is arguably the real villain of the piece.

His intelligence and talents for smooth-talking allow him to wreak havoc.

He lies to his father and suggests that his half-brother Edgar is plotting against him.

Later, he shows little care when his father is blinded by Regan’s husband, Cornwall.

If that weren’t enough, he engages in an affair with Goneril and Regan (both of whom are married), driving Goneril to murderous jealousy.

2. Richard III

Alas, Richard never did find that horse
Shakespeare's infamous king is perhaps best known for his, “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech and for being prepared to give everything he owned in exchange for a horse.

His villainy is predominantly caused by bitterness; he is hunchbacked and ugly, and promises that if he, “…cannot prove a lover, To entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”(I.i)

And prove himself a villain he does; he has his brother killed, locks his nephews in the Tower of London (later having them knocked off, too), and beheads anyone who disagrees with him or gets in his way.

Incidentally, he does actually prove a lover as well, with the inexplicable wooing of Anne, widow of Lancastrian Prince of Wales, Edward, who was also killed by Richard. “Was ever woman in this humour wooed?/Was ever woman in this humour won?”(I.ii) Indeed!

1. Iago

Is Iago the very best Shakespearean villain?
In terms of physical violence, Iago’s hands are relatively clean, certainly much cleaner than Richard’s. However, in terms of manipulation, scheming and Machiavellian ambition, Iago has got to rank as Shakespeare’s best villain.

It is his talent for garnering trust, especially the trust of Othello, which makes him such an effective villain.

When the man you’re plotting to destroy refers to you as, “honest Iago,” you can be fairly certain you’ve got him right where you want him.

An audience is lead to believe that Iago is motivated by jealousy - he certainly considers himself worthy of far loftier heights than he’s been offered. However, when it comes to explaining his villainy, he is not terribly forthcoming, “…what you know, you know.” (V.ii) And this makes him all the more intriguing.

Do you agree with my top five? Is one of your favourite Shakespearean villains missing from the list? Let me know in the comments below.

If you'd like to learn more about Shakespeare and his plays, be sure to check out What's It All About, Shakespeare? An Intorudction to The Bard of Avon.

The contents of this post were originally published by the author on

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Clever Portia and The Quality of Mercy

Portia might seem only interested in getting
hitched, but she shows a much
smarter side in the courtroom scene
The Merchant of Venice contains a number of Shakespeare's best known speeches, including Portia's famous oratory on the ‘quality of mercy’.

Until this point in the play, Portia has appeared to be little more than a wealthy heiress courted by undesirable suitors. However, the “quality of mercy” speech and the courtroom scene as a whole, offers a view of a much more complex and intelligent character.

Why is it Portia Who Delivers the Speech?

Shakespeare could have used any number of characters to deliver this speech, including the Duke, so why does it fall to Portia, who has, until this juncture, had nothing to do with the ‘Shylock’ strand of the plot?

Perhaps the most fundamental (and uninteresting) reason is this is how Shakespeare’s source material told the story.

However, there are dramatic reasons, too. For example, if one of the Christian merchants had spoken the speech, it would have reduced Shylock’s validity as a worthy antagonist. His great weapon against the Christians is his power with words. Subsequently, although Shylock has only 360 lines in the play, they are undoubtedly some of the best.

And then there’s the duke. But if the Duke had delivered the speech, the play would have been resolved by a deux et machina, which is a valid theatrical device (used by Shakespeare on numerous occasions). However, it wouldn’t build dramatic tension throughout the scene, because an audience would know exactly how the play is going to be resolved. With Portia, things look a little more dicey.

Of course, the use of Portia also allows for cross-dressing, which is a firm favourite with Shakespeare, and the possibility for comedy, because, at the beginning of the scene, an audience is likely to think that Portia’s attempt to be a doctor of law (the term lawyer was not used at the time) will be a complete cock-up.

The Quality of Mercy is not Strain’d

The quality of mercy speech is one of Shakespeare's
 most famous
So, we've looked at why Portia gives the speech. Now, let's take a look at the speech itself. What is she trying to do with it?

'The quality of mercy', like several of Shakespeare’s speeches, including 'To be or not to be' and 'Now is the winter of our discontent', is very well known, but most people could not quote beyond the first line or two.

The speech demonstrates Portia’s intelligence and boldness, but it perhaps also smacks of naiveté. Her seemingly innocent view of the world is, of course, another reason for using Portia to deliver the speech; the men of the play speak of commerce, spurning their enemies and revenge (all very unmerciful concepts).

Portia begins by using the metaphor of ‘gentle rain’ to describe mercy, and points out that mercy benefits the merciful and those who receive mercy, “It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

It is important to bear in mind that Portia already knows the Venetian law cannot prevent Shylock from taking the pound of flesh, so she has to make the concept of mercy as appealing as possible. She does this by describing it as a most becoming quality in the powerful, “Tis mightiest in the mightiest…”

The religious section of the speech is interesting, because Shylock’s response to this can, and is often, played in two different ways. On one hand, as a religious man, Shylock could recognise the human quest for salvation and mercy. Therefore he may be affected by the speech and waver a little in his pursuit of justice. 

It might not have had the effect she
wanted, but the quality of mercy speech
gives us an insight into Portia's character
Alternatively, as the Jewish faith places a high value on justice, Shylock could be entirely unaffected by Portia’s words. Shylock’s reaction is, of course, down to the choices of actors and directors.

Either way, like an Elizabethan Perry Mason, Portia delivers a very clever piece of courtroom oratory, which transcends the question of the legality of the bond and looks at a higher state of right and wrong.

By the time Portia reaches her closing, “I have said thus much/To mitigate the justice of thy plea…” incredibly, she has managed to deliver a persuasive argument for the immorality of justice. 

It might not have worked on Shylock, but it certainly gives the rest of us pause for thought.

If you'd like to learn more about the character of Portia throughout the course of the play, click here.

A version of this article was originally published, by the author, on