Seeking out Shakespeare’s villains

Ian McKellen as Richard III

The series of blogs about Shakespeare’s villains posted by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust at Blogging Shakespeare and Finding Shakespeare, has raised interesting questions about what that word “villain”means. The dictionary definition is a “person guilty or capable of great wickedness, scoundrel”, and this definition of Shakespearean villains is on Yahoo answers:

 I don’t believe Shakespeare has any villains per say [sic] but more like misguided characters  …the “bad guys” … are not really bad deep down but broken out by the cruel hand of fate. The villains in Shakespeare’s plays are not horrible people with no sense of humanity…but complex characters, usually more complex and deeper than his protagonists.

 Most of this could be summarized by the saying “to understand all is to forgive all”, but the last sentence makes an interesting point. Does Shakespeare find his own villains attractive, and is that why we find ourselves liking them? Would Shakespeare have agreed that nobody is completely bad, but the victim of upbringing or circumstance?

 In any list of Shakespeare villains, Iago and Richard III always come at the top. Coleridge coined the phrase “motiveless malignity” for Iago, and Shakespeare obviously enjoyed writing their scenes, giving them the best and most persuasive speeches. Conflict’s an essential part of the entertainments Shakespeare wrote, and his arguments between characters are rarely so neatly divided into good and evil.

 Macbeth embodies both sides of the argument within himself. He’s tempted by the ultimate reward, power, egged on by the person who has most influence on him, his wife. Watching this fundamentally good man waver before succumbing to temptation Shakespeare reminds us that we’re all “capable of great wickedness”, and potential villains.

 Internal conflicts can be used to comic effect. In The Merchant of Venice, Lancelot Gobbo carries on a debate to decide whether to leave his master, making himself a battleground between conscience and the devil.

 “Budge” says the fiend. “Budge not, says my conscience…To be ruled by my conscience, I should stay with the Jew my master…and to run away from the Jew, I should be ruled by the fiend…The fiend gives the more friendly counsel.


Roger Allam as Falstaff, Globe Theatre, London, 2010

Shakespeare’s villains have usually already decided against “the steep and thorny way to heaven” and have succumbed to the easier path offered by the devil.  But what about those characters, “more complex and deeper”, who aren’t normally thought of as villains? He doesn’t feature on any of the lists of Shakespeare’s villains, but should Falstaff be among them?

 Falstaff is a major character in the two parts of Henry IV. In terms of plot, he brings to life the story that the heir to the throne, Prince Henry, got into bad company in his youth. Falstaff is the bad company he got into. Enormously popular, Queen Elizabeth was said to be such a fan that she asked Shakespeare to write a new play as a vehicle for him, and Leonard Digges wrote:

               let but Falstaff come,
Hall, Poines, the rest you scarce shall have a roome
All is so pester’d

 Can a character so popular also be a villain? Other people call him a villain, and when he promises to reform he says “[if] I do not, I am a villain” (he doesn’t, of course). He’s wonderfully witty, but he’s also a coward, a liar and a thief. Although spoken partly in jest, the prince is Falstaff’s main accuser describing him as “That villainous abominable misleader of youth, Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan”. The early commentator Maurice Morgann, writing in 1777, excused him by suggesting that he should be judged by the impression he left on the audience rather than his actions. Nowadays it’s more difficult for audiences to forgive Falstaff’s taking of bribes when recruiting soldiers, callously describing them as “food for powder” who will “fill a pit as well as better”.

 It’s a difficult job for an actor to encompass all the aspects of the part successfully but Roger Allam made the part his own at the Globe in 2010, combining Falstaff’s zest for life, wit and attractiveness with more than a little sophisticated wily cruelty. In doing so he related the character more closely than you would expect to that undisputed Shakespearean villain, Richard III.

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6 Responses to Seeking out Shakespeare’s villains

  1. Andrew Cowie says:

    I’m not sure I agree with the Yahoo answers contributor. The problem I’ve always had as an actor and as an audience member is the lack of psychological depth of characters like Iago, Richard III and Macbeth who owe more to the Vice character of a mediaeval morality play than a modern, motivated dramatic character. I suspect the lack of motivation in the text might drive actors and directors to be more thoughtful and creative in our contemporary post-Freud, post-Stanislavski naturalistic theatre tradition and create complexity and ambivalence in performance which I’m not sure Shakespeare wrote in the plays.

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      I agree Shakespeare doesn’t waste much time explaining how villains got to be the way they are, though Richard III’s an exception because of the back story in the Henry VI plays. I imagine Shakespeare’s audience were happier to accept characters as they were presented (especially if they fitted a stereotype like the Vice), whereas we’re all brought up with psychological analysis. At the same time, Shakespeare’s interest in psychology is much more acute than his contemporaries. Do you agree that Shakespeare’s opinion is that any of us could be Macbeth if the circumstances were right? Perhaps then we can all fill in our own gaps? (I went to see Macbeth at RST last night and found it quite disturbing)

      • Andrew Cowie says:

        Any of us could be Macbeth? I don’t see it, I’m afraid. I see Banquo as the everyman, audience-on-stage character who reacts to the witches the way the rest of us would; intrigued, sceptical perhaps flattered and excited but certainly not about to act on anything he’s been told. Macbeth seems to be one of those characters like Lear dividing his kingdom or Richard II banishing Bolingbroke who has the audience wanting to stand up and shout ‘No, don’t do it!’

  2. Lucy Beveridge says:

    Interesting; but I would not say that Iago’s villainy is ‘motiveless’. The objective is clearly to deprive others of the happiness that he feels himself unable to enjoy- pointless perhaps, motiveless no. In short, his actions are the result of frustrated ambition- so there is a cause as well as a motive.

  3. Carla says:

    I would not consider any of those characters to be without depth. Richard III and Iago are considered by experts on abnormal psychology to be the perfect case studies of sociopathy. Even Iago, who I consider to be the colder of the two, goes through a kind of spiral. At first, he simply wants Othello punished for what he perceives as a slight to himself when he is not properly promoted, but as he realizes his capacity to manipulate people, he becomes enthralled with his power. He is a highly intelligent person, greatly sensitive to slights to himself, lacking in empathy for others or guilt, and perceptive about human behavior in the extreme even while unable to feel the phenomena he observes. Textbook sociopath.
    Richard’s sociopathic tendencies seem more easily attributable to upbringing. He was considered a monster from birth and never treated humanely, and thus was never taught to be human. He exhibits many of the characteristics as Iago, but there is a tragic element, the ghost of the humanity he might have had if his life had been different. When he succeeds in the wooing of Anne, he says
    I do mistake my person all this while:
    Upon my life, she finds, although I cannot,
    Myself to be a marvellous proper man.
    I’ll be at charges for a looking-glass,
    And entertain some score or two of tailors,
    To study fashions to adorn my body:
    While some see this as him simply joking, I think it can be read as genuine amazement that he could have succeeded in wooing such a woman. He wonders, perhaps, if he can if fact “court an amorous looking glass,” that perhaps he might be made for some “sportive tricks” and “the pleasing of a lute” after all. In short, that something in him might be worthy of all that is gentle and beautiful. It’s only for a moment, but really, it’s pretty sad. Then of course, there is act V scene iii, where Richard faces himself and finds himself wanting:
    O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!
    The lights burn blue. It is now dead midnight.
    Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.
    What do I fear? myself? there’s none else by:
    Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
    Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am:
    Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why:
    Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?
    Alack. I love myself. Wherefore? for any good
    That I myself have done unto myself?
    O, no! alas, I rather hate myself
    For hateful deeds committed by myself!
    I am a villain: yet I lie. I am not.
    Fool, of thyself speak well: fool, do not flatter.
    My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
    And every tongue brings in a several tale,
    And every tale condemns me for a villain.
    Perjury, perjury, in the high’st degree
    Murder, stem murder, in the direst degree;
    All several sins, all used in each degree,
    Throng to the bar, crying all, Guilty! guilty!
    I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;
    And if I die, no soul shall pity me:
    Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself
    Find in myself no pity to myself?
    It is a supremely human moment, one of the warring conscience and guilt, with that of ambition and self preservation. Where Iago never had feelings, Richard was never given the chance to experience them in good faith and he feels the wrong keenly. He laments his loneliness, he laments his entire identity, he laments his behavior to others, and that of the world to himself. And you mean to tell me that this is a villain without depth? For the reasons stated, I must beg to differ. What we see here is a supremely human struggle.
    Speaking of human struggles, let’s talk for a moment about Macbeth, who is an entirely different species from these other two men. If we examine the text closely, it is clear that Macbeth’s marriage is struggling because they cannot have a child, and that they recently had an infant son who died. Lady Macbeth speaks of the “babe that milks me” and Macbeth is haunted by a bloody baby in one of the witches’ spells. In fact, the continuance of blood lines and death of children is an obsession with him, that escalates to him murdering the children of his enemies. But, let’s go back.
    Macbeth does not want to kill Duncan. He super emphatically does not want to, not just because he could get in trouble, but because it’s wrong. He goes through all the reasons it’s wrong in his monologue at the beginning of act I scene vii.
    Yes he has ambition, and this is part of what starts this whole thing. But the fact is, he would not have done it if his wife had not convinced him to. Macbeth is not a weak man. He is a seasoned warrior and a capable lord in his own right. He does not succumb to Lady Macbeth’s arguments because he has trouble wearing the pants in his relationship. He succumbs because they are both dealing with loss, because he feels that he owes her something, because she throws the death of their child in his face, and because in the world he lives in, if your bloodline does not go on you have nothing. Both Macbeth’s are haunted by the killing of Duncan. The Lady falls into a state of madness over it. He falls further into violence and blood, because to do otherwise is to face the fact that he has done the unspeakable.
    To say that killing people is not something normal people do is to ignore all of history and current events. People kill all the time, not just psychopaths and sociopaths, but people who feel and love and regret. Macbeth is a terrifying play because they are NOT unusual people. If you met a real Lady Macbeth, you would probably think she was charming (she’s a great hostess.) Real Macbeth’s kill in war all the time, because they feel they have no choice, because someone makes them believe they are nothing if they don’t kill, because it is all they know, because they are frightened, because they want something and have been trained to view their enemy as not human, because of all kinds of reasons. We kill by not allowing ourselves to see our victims as people like ourselves. This, essentially, is what Lady Macbeth does for Macbeth. And once the person you are hurting doesn’t matter, why wouldn’t you take what you want?
    That’s why the play is scary. That’s why the characters are human. Shakespeare did not write two-dimensional villains. He wrote many of the fullest, most complicated villains human storytelling has ever seen.

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