How to Be a Villain 101, Courtesy of Shakespeare

By: Elizabeth DiEmanuele and Emily Groleau

Most have read or at least heard of  William Shakespeare. As we whisper his name, we can hear the groans of the thousands of adolescents, begging to be freed from the wrath of his work. But, despite what popular culture wants us to believe, Shakespeare actually has a lot to offer behind all that 16th century prose. If he were here right now, he’d be that beloved teacher we’ve all had who begs us to think deeper and more creatively. In fact, what better way to learn than to start off with one of his most important lessons: when life gives you lemons, make spiked lemonade. This brilliance is best seen through his most clever and vindictive characters—the villains.

  1. Aaron, Titus Andronicus

Demetrius: Villain, what hast thou done?

Aaron: That which thou canst not undo.

Chiron: Thou hast undone our mother.

Aaron: Villain, I have done thy mother (4.2).

Lucius: Art thou not sorry for these heinous deeds?

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.

Woah, what? Is it possible that Shakespeare was the first inventor of a “your mama” joke? Don’t quote us on this—we really can’t be certain—but he certainly is the first one to make it burn. As Aaron cites a list of accomplishments, we can definitely agree that this is one over-achieving villain. When Aaron isn’t seducing powerful women or bragging about his ‘accomplishments’, he is the “chief architect” behind the violently systematic downfall of the House of Andronicus. He cleverly plants his own ideas into more susceptible ears, making others carry out terrible crimes, the worst being the rape of Lavinia. Moreover, Aaron carries out these plots under the facade of ‘ignorance’, which is unfortunately assumed due to his visible minority status. As a vice character, like the others on this list, Aaron is a caricature of evil. He over-indulges in his ‘vices’, making him a true villain who enjoys brewing his own lemonade.

  1. Iago, Othello

And nothing can, nor shall content my soul,

Til I am even with him, wife for wife (2.1).

She did deceive her father, marrying you,

And when seemed to shake, and fear your looks,

She loved most (3.3).

Oh beware, my lord, of jealousy:

It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock

The meat it feeds on (3.3).

Bitter about not getting that promotion at work? Could he not prove his point more effectively by making up better Excel spreadsheets for the boss or something? We think Iago takes ‘colleague-rivalry’ to a whole new level. In Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago has two reasons behind his hatred for Othello: the first is being rejected for a promotion to Othello’s lieutenant in favour of Michael Cassio, the other is the belief that Othello is having an affair with his wife, Emilia. Iago’s revenge is, thus, a double take-down. Through intricate manipulations, ‘slips of the tongue’ and careful placement of a most beloved handkerchief, “honest Iago” has Othello believe that his obedient wife, Desdemona, is having an affair with Cassio. Iago’s cunningness, his ability to imply Desdemona’s guilt, the ‘blood-brothers’ oath of loyalty between Iago and Othello, where Iago ‘replaces’ Desdemona’s place as wife… these are all crimes of jealousy mixed with intelligence. In this way, Iago proves himself to be an incredibly gifted villain. We can’t help but wonder how someone so dedicated failed to get that promotion in the first place.

  1. Edmund, King Lear

Philip Winchester as Edmund in King Lear (2008)

Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund

As to th’ legitimate. Fine word- ‘legitimate’!

Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,

And my invention thrive, Edmund the base

Shall top th’ legitimate. I grow; I prosper.

Now, gods, stand up for bastards! (1.2)

I do serve you in this business.

[exit Edgar.]

A credulous father! and a brother noble,

Whose nature is so far from doing harms

That he suspects none; on whose foolish honesty

My practices ride easy! I see the business.

Let me, if not by birth, have lands by wit;

All with me’s meet that I can fashion fit (1.2).

Despite the severity of his choices, Edmund is a villain that evokes audience sympathy. He suffers from a terrible case of what we’ll call, chronic sibling rivalry. Edmund’s quite aware of this, as he admits to the audience his intentions to achieve more than his legitimate brother. It doesn’t help that Edgar more or less wins the Son of the Year Award. Seriously? Anonymously helping out your blind father even after your brother has convinced him you plotted his death and he ran you out of town? It can be argued that not telling your father your identity isn’t the most sensitive of moves, but at then again, Edgar wasn’t the brother responsible for allowing the cruel blinding to occur in the first place. While we’re not sure which of the two Eds deserves more props for all-around dedication to organizing manipulative family get-togethers, it looks like Edmund’s bitter lemonade stand may just have some “legitimate” competition after all….

  1. Richard, Richard III 

The readiest way to make the wench amends,

Is to become her husband and her father,

The which will I, not all so much for love

As for another secret close intent (1.1).

And therefore, since I 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 (1.1).

Was ever woman in this humour woo’d?

Was ever woman in this humour won?

I’ll have her; but I will not keep her long.

What! I, that kill’d her husband and his father,

To take her in her heart’s extremest hate,

With curses in her mouth, tears in her eyes,

The bleeding witness of her hatred by;

Having God, her conscience, and these bars

against me,

And I nothing to back my suit at all,

But the plain devil and dissembling looks,

And yet to win her, all the world to nothing! (1.2.)

How does one achieve ultimate villainy? Kill the king and seduce his wife—and do it well. It’s the best way to achieve your aspirations when the Queen isn’t handing you a royal flush. Richard III has the ambition of Aaron, the intelligence of Iago and Edmund’s ruthlessness mixed with audience sympathy. As Richard boldly arranges the murders of powerful people to achieve the crown (all in the name of villainy), we can’t help but admire this ruthless character. He convinces Lady Anne, at the corpse of her husband, to be his fiance. He kills all those in line to the throne, even his own brother, Clarence. He takes the throne through careful manipulations and revels in his hubris to the audience. In this way, Richard has the charisma of Milton’s Satan—we’re supposed to hate him, but we can’t help but be compelled by his abilities. We know he is supposed to fail. He embodies evil. But he is the wit and intelligence behind the play. It’s a shame that such talent is destroyed by the ghosts of all his victims. Although Richard III is taken down at the end by the rightful heir, it is quite arguable that it is his own madness that destroys him.

  1. The Macbeths

The raven himself is hoarse

That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan

Under my battlements. Come, you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,

And fill me from the crown to the toe topful

Of direst cruelty! (1.5, Lady Macbeth)

Macbeth: If we should fail?

Lady Macbeth: We fail?

But screw your courage to the sticking place,

And we’ll not fail (1.7).

How cute. Couple’s villainy. After a brutal line up of adulterous villainy, we were starting to get a little cynical about the staying power of love. The truth is, while these two may be a unit, it is Lady Macbeth that keeps things interesting. As she demands (“unsex me here”), this is a female go-getter who knows how it’s done. Of course, if you aren’t a fan of walking alone at night and unable to get “out” an imaginary “damned spot” of blood off your hands, it may be best to keep the couple’s murder date outings to a bare minimum for your own sanity. However, we can’t help but feel slightly bad for the Macbeths…What’s that saying about what goes around comes around? Needless to say, in classic Shakespearean tragedy form, the play promises to be the expected bloodbath rife with a severe case of ‘musical crown,’ as the throne is abdicated from the murdered Duncan, to Macbeth, to—well, you’ll see. And while the actual crown may be on Macbeth’s head (it’s a patriarchy thing), let it never be said that the credit for scheming up a good political coup can’t be in a woman’s hands.

All in all, we can say that there is a lot to learn from these vice characters. They really know how to take life’s lemons and make something more than just your basic lemonade. Our final take on Shakespeare’s most cunning characters:

  1. Don’t make REAL your mama jokes… people will hate you for it.

  2. Invest your hard work into getting promoted, not your epic revenge.

  3. Chronic sibling rivalry should come with a warning sign.

  4. Charisma goes a long way.

  5. Some couples don’t lose their dreams, they aim higher.

4 thoughts on “How to Be a Villain 101, Courtesy of Shakespeare

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