Villains, Part One : Best Villain

Over on Yahoo Answers there was a question about Edmund’s status as a villain. So I went looking through the archives to find one of our many “Best Villain” discussions…. and couldn’t find any.
Could it be possible that we’ve never had that discussion? Let’s remedy that.
Best Villain In Shakespeare. Make your case. Tell us who, and tell us why. Strictly *in context of the play* – not “because you really want to play him” or any meta-stuff. Fair enough? Keep everybody arguing the facts of the case.
Who’s it gonna be? Edmund? Iago? Richard III? Aaron?
(It dawns on me that it might be fun to do a post on *all* Shakespeare’s villains, like a Rogue’s Gallery focusing specifically on the evildoers in all of Shakespeare’s works. Hmmmm, yet another idea to put up on the shelf….)

12 thoughts on “Villains, Part One : Best Villain

  1. My problem with both Richard and Edmund is that they get boring once their plans have stopped hatching. Richard, especially, becomes almost tedious once his ambitions are met. Iago, however … Iago is fantastic right to the end, perhaps because there's so little of the play left once he's undone. Something about a Shakespeare villain saying, "From this time forth, I'll never speak a word." That's pretty darn attractive.

  2. I agree with Accordeonaire. Iago get's it, hands down. Most subtle, most brilliant, most tantalizing, and, definitely, the best last line.

  3. Has to be Iago…his deceit is so personal and so intimate he has so much hate for Othello and has no problem using anyone to achieve his goal. Poor Roderigo didn't know what hit him and Emilia got run over. Iago was heartless but what makes him worse was that he never showed to anyone but us. Truly evil that one is.

  4. I was going to go with the obvious too, but I see I've been anticipated: Iago by a mile. He doesn't try to justify himself, he just hates, and acts on that hate, and never stops. And he puts up a totally plausible front to all the other characters; only with us is he himself.

    And indeed there is no long-term character change, nor do I want one. Instead, he is many things to many people (the audience included), is believable in all his guises, and thus contains infinite variety.

  5. The Bear from Winter's Tale. It has no motive but to maul the closest living creature in sight, an unstoppable force that follows its own rules, and makes a powerful impact on the play without uttering a single line.

  6. Ok, then, if Iago's getting all the love let me ask my Iago question. Is it me or does Iago not really change much as a character? He's an evil manipulative bastard, yeah, but he's that in the first scene and pretty much every scene after. Do we really see much transformation of his character?

    How do you see his last scenes (where things begin to unravel) – as the desperation of a man who's not sure what to do next? Or the calm, cool action of a man who until now has had other people do his bidding, but now finds that he has to do it himself?

    Just for comparison's sake, I wouldn't call Macbeth one of the greatest villains, but I do enjoy the arc that his character takes. See what I'm trying to say?

  7. Anonymous says:

    I am surprised nobody has mentioned Aaron as the supreme nihilist and villain.

    There is nothing in the canon as this declaration of evil. Here are the evidences:

    An if it please thee! why, assure thee, Lucius, 'Twill vex thy soul to hear what I shall speak; For I must talk of murders, rapes and massacres, Acts of black night, abominable deeds, Complots of mischief, treason, villanies
    Ruthful to hear, yet piteously perform'd: And this shall all be buried by my death, Unless thou swear to me my child shall live.


    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. Oft have I digg'd up dead men from their graves,
    And set them upright at their dear friends' doors, Even when their sorrows almost were forgot; And on their skins, as on the bark of trees, Have with my knife carved in Roman letters, 'Let not your sorrow die, though I am dead.'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.

    (Titus Andronicus, V, i).

    Ricardo Mena

  8. Ed: It's funny you bring up Iachimo. You might even say that character is, as his name suggests, a "little Iago." He wants to be as dastardly and unrepentant as an Iago, but he isn't able to go through with anything especially heinous and ends up shameful and contrite at the end of the play. His goals are similar to Iago's, but his villainy ultimately falls short.

  9. I think Iago is the ne plus ultra of Shakespearean villains. The others in the pantheon — Richard, Aaron, Edmund, Claudius, Iachimo, even the Bear — are contained within him.

    No, he doesn't change, but, as Jon says, he shows a different aspect of his evil each time he appears in the play.

    PS: One less obvious possibility: the nasty, venal, shallow Venetian Christians in Merchant.

  10. I once made up a "Top Ten" list of Shakespeare villains, which I think is still sorta legit, here it is (less one, because I rewrote it once and conflated a bunch of villains so now there's only nine):

    9) Tullus Aufidius of Coriolanus
    – Bastard commits pretty heinous treachery against an *ally* in a form that is wildly unexpected, very unusual for a Shakespeare character to ever act like this.

    8) Angelo of Measure for Measure
    – Tries to rape a nun. Cripplingly hypocritical.

    7) Goneril/Regan of King Lear
    – Unfilial to the max

    6) Claudius of Hamlet
    – Great subtle villainy, courtly manners, suave. Poison, the weapon of kings.

    5) Macbeth/Lady M
    – Tag-team of ambition! Neither functions as a villain solo, either.

    4) Edmund of King Lear
    – Sooooo dark. Openly admits his own evil, outdoes and outwits everyone else in that play. Seeing him get taken down is a moment that I always get insane pleasure from watching.

    3) Tamora/Aaron of Titus Andronicus
    – I know that Aaron acts a little more evil but the two really do work together, and their sheer body count laid to their actions is staggering, but I guess that's not a shocker in a play where the *protagonist* kills two people before Act II even begins.

    2) Richard III of Richard III
    – Yeah, people have discussed him already.

    1) Iago from Othello
    – Motiveless malevolence, he's called, and his sheer lack of reasons for doing what he's doing is staggering.

  11. Alexi: Without a doubt, Iachimo is "Little Iago." He has some of the same chutzpah, self-confidence, and verbal dexterity, but lacks the ultimate malevolence of Iago. In some ways, it's almost disappointing to watch him repent and confess. It's like you were expecting so much more from this crafty, diabolical, insightful villain, but have to settle for a sleazy little wimp at the end.

  12. I've missed the boat on this one, but ah well. Great choice, Sharky! Iago is perhaps the most realistic villain because he is an enigma. It is true that he doesn't change; sociopaths don't usually change. He is an incredibly complex character. Iago is also one of the only ones who doesn't show a hint of humanity, and yet he is still believable.

    All the villains are fascinating, though. I love Richard III, including his fall from grace. Or is grace the right word? What is the diabolical equivalent of grace? He discovers that he is empty, lonely, and unsatisfied; he can only survive when overcoming obstacles and manipulating others. It's such a great twist. I always feel tricked at the end, realizing that I, along with others, have been charmed by this villain.

    I actually made a quiz about this a couple years ago:

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