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


  1. no. i'm completely satisfied

  2. I would argue that Aaron the moore (Titus Andronicus), due to his pure evil nature and shear wake of distruction.

  3. Aaron--

    Ay, that I had not done a thousand more.
    Even now I curse the day--and yet, I think,
    Few come within the compass of my curse,--
    Wherein I did not some notorious ill,
    As kill a man, or else devise his death,
    Ravish a maid, or plot the way to do it.
    Accuse some innocent and forswear myself,
    Set deadly enmity between two friends,
    Make poor men's cattle break their necks;
    Set fire on barns and hay-stacks in the night,
    And bid the owners quench them with their tears.
    Oft have I digg'd up dead men from their graves,
    And set them upright at their dear friends' doors,
    Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things
    As willingly as one would kill a fly,
    And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
    But that I cannot do ten thousand more. (5.1.10)

    1. Hello there,

      Thanks for chipping in with your thoughts. You're quite right Aaron is another one of Shakespeare's great villains.

      And, of course, he's got an incredibly interesting facet to his character, which we just got the merest hint of towards the end: a tender, fiercely protective, loving side that's brought out when he becomes a father. It puts everything we think we know about him into a different light, and makes him much more than just a two-dimensional baddie.

      Thanks again.

  4. this helped me with homework its brilliant

    1. Pleased to hear it. Thanks for taking the time to let me know.

    2. same it also helped me a lot with my homework too :D

  5. WOW thank you this helped me a lot with my homework and thank you very much

    1. Thank you for taking the time to drop me a line. I'm really pleased it was useful for your homework, and I wish you every success with the rest of your Shakespeare studies.