Villains, Part Two : Little Villains

Ok, we did “best villain” and, no surprise, Iago killed it. I’m actually surprised that it was such a runaway, I thought Aaron would make a stronger showing.
So, what’s the villain landscape look like when we rule out all the big names? I’m curious about the Don John’s of Shakespeare’s canon. Who is your favorite “villain who’s not really much of a villain”? Every time I see Much Ado I can’t help but imagine Don John as this sort of Snidely Whiplash character with the big black cape twirling his handlebar mustache. “A wedding??! I must wreck it! Bwahahahaha!”
I suppose Shylock might fall into this category, but it’s hard to really see him as the villain, given our modern understanding of his situation. Is Petruchio a villain? Which plays don’t have a villain at all? Is there a villain in Midsummer?

8 thoughts on “Villains, Part Two : Little Villains

  1. I think a lot of the comedies don't really have a strong villain — and they don't need one, because the plot is around circumstance and mistakes and accidents, not a focused, diabolical plot. Comedies exist in a chaotic universe; tragedies in a more structured one. A single person can do more damage in the latter than in the former, and so the power of a villain is greater there.

    So, yeah, in Midsummer you have, what… Egeus? I guess? Two Gents has… Thurio? The Duke? Even in Twelfth Night, Malvolio doesn't really count, he's just a jerk, and he spends so much time as the butt of the joke that you can't really call him a "villain". He's never a threat. As You Like It may come closer with Duke Frederick, but then he has his miraculous conversion. I guess I would say comedies generally don't have villains so much as they have characters who are obstacles.

  2. I'll endorse everything Cass said. Much Ado does have Don John, but he's kind of thin — and whereas motiveless malignity works like gangbusters with Iago, it really doesn't (for me) in this context.

    Shylock doesn't fit (again, for me) — not really because of present-day sensibilities but because he is defeated by legal means, with lots of the play left to go. He's a threat that gets dealt with. (To take a moment for my overall feelings about Merchant, I don't see the character Shylock himself as a problem — he's drawn in the round, and we all know that a persecuted person with just grievances can nevertheless be a nasty piece of work. The problem is all those nasty bigoted Venetians mentioned in the other "villain" thread's comments. These folks — the "good guys" in the comedy — behave abominably, and never get their comeuppance. So it's hard to experience the play as a comedy. So most present-day productions don't try to make the concluding scene pleasant or happy, but let us see the ugliness, and the damage the "good guys" have done. Which makes the whole thing a nightmare of mixed genres, a comedy that goes to hell. Which works in M4M, but not here.)

    Iachimo/Giacomo is another villainous character who then kind of fizzles away to no purpose.

  3. Antiochus is pretty heavyweight villain for a non-tragedy. With one scene, he is set up as an utterly immoral man whose actions motivate the protagonist's journey for the first several acts. Other villains eventually appear in the same play (Dionyza, the Pirates, Pander and Bawd) but Antiochus is the most sinister of them all.

    I wonder what people think of the Roman plays (excluding Titus). Do any of them have villains? Do we count Aufidius as a villain? Octavius Caesar in A+C? Any of the four leads (Caesar, Antony, Cassius, and Brutus) could be regarded as villains in Julius Caesar, but are any of them truly villainous? Or is each doing what he believes is best for Rome?

  4. Alexi, that's a really good question, and one I hadn't thought about before. I'll have to mull it over….

  5. I do realize that comedies don't have "villains" in the same sense as an Iago or an Edmund. I was referring more toward what Cass called "obstacles".

    As my kids were growing up they'd always ask at the start of a movie, "Does this have bad guys in it?" I'd inevitably tell them, "There's always a bad guy of some sort – the good guy needs someone to triumph over." We did find the occasional movie that had no bad guy (though specific names are not coming to mind), but as a general rule it's reasonable.

  6. Leontes is a pretty scary guy when he's in prime nasty mode in TWT.

    Like so many other "bad guys," though, he undergoes a conversion that renders him at least somewhat sympathetic, even to the harshest of judges.

    Depending on the director and actor's take, Toby Belch can come across as a mean-spirited, bilious drunk who takes the persecution of Malvolio just a bit too far.

    And no one who has even a smidgen of love for Falstaff can watch the final scenes of HIV 2 without seeing Hal as a Machiavellian supreme. He can be tough to like.

  7. I think the whole point of Julius Caesar is that it has no villains. Otherwise we could not sympathize at all with Brutus' self-torment–we would just think of him as a dupe. No, there may be some politics going on, but I don't think it quite equals villainy.

    Now, as for Titus, we must allow for villains there. The play is only tolerable if we consider the barbarians almost en masse to be villains. That they are almost considered subhuman is essential to allow for Titus' treatment of them. The play takes on more meaning in this context, I think, showing the depths to which people's hatred can make them stoop when dealing with people they consider beneath them. When I read the play I think of My Lai and Abu Garaib–and I shudder.

    But there IS a villain in the comedies to consider, too, namely Angelo in Measure for Measure. The only thing that saves him from being nearly as villainous as Iago is the intercession of the Duke and his final repentance, wrung from him only after his guilt was made utterly obvious.


  8. In my mind, villains don't have to be unrepentant, merely interesting. There are too many "minor" villains to choose from. Shylock is a fascinating antagonist/victim, and Angelo… he is perhaps my least favorite, maybe the most repulsive, villainest villain in my eyes (in a comedy).

    Since I was late to the other Shakespeare villain party, I'll post this quiz, Which Shakespearean villain are you? again:

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