You Gotta Know These Shakespearean Villains

  • Richard, Duke of Gloucester, from Richard III. The quintessential antihero, Richard describes how his hunchbacked appearance has made him “determined to prove a villain” in a monologue that begins “now is the winter of our discontent / made glorious summer by this son of York.” In the aftermath of a Yorkist victory in the Wars of the Roses, Richard plots against his brothers King Edward IV and George, Duke of Clarence, and causes Edward to imprison Clarence in the Tower of London. Assassins sent by Richard later kill Clarence, who is drowned in a “malmsey-butt,” or cask of wine. Richard also marries and kills the Lady Anne, and orders the deaths of Edward’s children (the “princes in the tower”). Although Richard becomes king, he soon faces a rebellion led by Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond. On the eve of a battle at Bosworth Field, Richard is haunted by the ghosts of those he wronged. The battle turns against Richard (who cries “a horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!”), and Richmond is crowned as King Henry VII of England.
  • Lady Macbeth, from Macbeth. Though Macbeth is the play’s protagonist, his pursuit of the Scottish throne is largely driven by his wife’s ambition. After three witches predict that Macbeth will be king, Lady Macbeth fears that her husband is “too full ’o the milk of human kindness” to commit murder, and bids “spirits” to “unsex” her and imbue her with willpower. She insults Macbeth’s masculinity, and urges him to “screw [his] courage to the sticking-place” and kill King Duncan. When Macbeth is unable to frame two grooms for the murder, Lady Macbeth does so in his place. Later, Lady Macbeth is wracked with guilt for her actions. While sleepwalking, she tries to wash imaginary blood from her hands, and cries “out, damned spot!” In the final act, the news of her death prompts Macbeth to deliver the “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy.
  • Iago, from The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. Iago is the “ancient,” or standard-bearer, of the general Othello, and is passed over for a promotion to lieutenant in favor of the less-experienced Michael Cassio. In addition, Iago believes that his wife, Emilia, may have cheated on him with Othello. Consequently, Iago vows revenge. At the start of the play, Iago and his associate Roderigo alert the Venetian senator Brabantio that Brabantio’s daughter, Desdemona, has eloped with Othello. After Desdemona testifies that she married Othello willingly, the Duke of Venice places Othello in charge of defending Cyprus. On the island, Iago ingratiates himself with Othello, and deceitfully warns the general against the “green-eyed monster” of jealousy. Iago then places Desdemona’s handkerchief in Cassio’s room, causing Othello to believe that Desdemona and Cassio are having an affair. Once Othello has murdered Desdemona, Emilia exposes Iago’s plot. Before killing himself, Othello stabs Iago, who survives to be arrested by Cassio.
  • Tybalt, from Romeo and Juliet. Tybalt is a hot-headed member of the Capulet family who is the beloved cousin of Juliet. During the public brawl that begins the play, Tybalt provokes the peaceful Benvolio. At a ball given by the Capulets, Tybalt recognizes the disguised Romeo and calls for a sword, but is prevented from fighting by Lord Capulet. Tybalt then demands a duel with Romeo, who does not wish to fight one of Juliet’s kinsmen. Romeo’s friend Mercutio is shocked by this “vile submission,” and calls Tybalt “king of cats” while challenging him to a duel. (Tybalt shares his name with a feline character from medieval fables about Reynard the Fox.) Romeo tries to intervene in the duel, which allows Tybalt to kill Mercutio. Romeo then kills Tybalt, and is banished from Verona.
  • King Claudius, from The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Before the start of the play, Claudius became the ruler of Denmark by pouring poison into the ear of his sleeping brother, King Hamlet. Claudius then married Gertrude, King Hamlet’s widow. In the play’s first act, Prince Hamlet learns of his uncle’s treachery by speaking to King Hamlet’s ghost. Hamlet then arranges for a troupe of actors to perform a play titled The Murder of Gonzago, which Hamlet revises to increase the similarities to his father’s death. Claudius is disturbed by the performance, and storms out during the murder scene. Later, Claudius prays for forgiveness, causing Hamlet to delay killing him out of fear that Claudius’s soul would go to heaven. As Hamlet feigns madness, Claudius sends him to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who unknowingly carry a letter calling for Hamlet’s execution. After Hamlet escapes and returns to Denmark, Claudius arranges for Hamlet to fight a duel with Laertes, who seeks revenge for the death of his father, Polonius, and sister, Ophelia. Laertes uses a poison-tipped sword, and Claudius prepares a poisoned drink as a back-up. When Laertes falls in combat he reveals the plot, prompting Hamlet to stab Claudius with the poisoned sword, and make Claudius drink from the poisoned cup.
  • Regan and the Duke of Cornwall, and Goneril and the Duke of Albany, from King Lear. Regan and Goneril are the elderly King Lear’s two evil daughters. After Lear bequeaths his kingdom to them, they conspire to undermine Lear’s remaining power and defeat Cordelia, Lear’s sole loyal daughter. Angered by the treatment that he has received from his heirs, Lear leaves Regan’s home in the middle of a thunderstorm. Gloucester, who desires Lear’s reinstatement, aids Cordelia’s invading army; he is exposed, and Regan and Cornwall gouge Gloucester’s eyes out. While Albany and Cornwall arrange their armies to fight Cordelia, Regan and Goneril both romantically pursue the villainous Edmund. This love triangle results in Goneril killing Regan with poison. Goneril also tries to have Albany killed, but commits suicide when the plot is exposed. Cordelia is captured and executed, and Lear dies of grief soon afterward, leaving the redeemed Albany and Edmund’s half-brother Edgar to take charge of the realm.
  • Caliban, from The Tempest. Caliban is the son of the Algerian witch Sycorax, who once ruled the island where Caliban was born. After Sycorax died the island fell under the control of the magician Prospero, an exiled duke of Milan. Prospero taught the young Caliban language, and showed kindness to him, until Caliban tried to rape Prospero’s daughter Miranda. In response, Prospero enslaved Caliban, and began treating him as a subhuman creature. (Caliban’s exact nature is unknown, but he seems to be physically distinct from the other characters in the play. At various points, Caliban is called a “monster,” a “demi-devil,” a “strange fish,” a “thing of darkness,” a “moon-calf,” and a “freckled whelp” who lacks a “human shape.”) When the play begins, Caliban longs to overthrow Prospero but still fears Prospero’s magic, which is stronger than that of Caliban’s god, Setebos. Trinculo and Stephano, two drunkards who are shipwrecked and separated from the rest of their crew, give Caliban liquor; Caliban then conspires with them to kill Prospero. When the group hears music played by the spirit Ariel, Caliban delivers a speech beginning “Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises” that demonstrates sensitivity and loss. The plot to unseat Prospero quickly fails, and Caliban vows to be “wise hereafter.” Unlike Ariel, Caliban is not freed at the end of the play.
  • Duke Frederick, from As You Like It. Before the opening of the play, Frederick overthrew his brother, Duke Senior, and seized control of the court. There, Frederick harbors his brother’s daughter Rosalind as a companion to his own daughter, Celia. When Frederick banishes Rosalind out of fear that she is plotting against him, Celia volunteers to go with her beloved cousin, and suggests that they reunite with Duke Senior in the Forest of Arden. At the same time, a young nobleman named Orlando flees to the Forest of Arden to escape his brother Oliver’s mistreatment. Frederick suspects that Orlando is in the company of Celia and Rosalind, and seizes Oliver’s lands until Orlando can be produced. After Oliver departs to search for his brother, Duke Frederick is not heard of again until the end of the play, when Oliver and Orlando’s brother Jaques reports that Frederick suddenly repented of his crimes after meeting “an old religious man.” Frederick relinquishes the crown to Duke Senior, and restores the property of Duke Senior’s supporters.
  • Proteus, from The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Proteus begins the play as an innocent lover, but develops into the primary antagonist after he visits his friend Valentine in Milan, and becomes infatuated with Valentine’s love, Silvia. Although Proteus has sworn that he will be faithful to a woman in Verona named Julia, he breaks his promise and tries to win Silvia for himself. To this end, Proteus betrays Valentine by telling Silvia’s father, the duke, that Valentine and Silvia plan to elope. After the duke exiles Valentine, Silvia rejects Proteus because of his treachery towards his friend, and his unfaithfulness to Julia. When Silvia escapes to the woods to find Valentine, Proteus follows her and rescues her from outlaws. Silvia continues to reject Proteus, who threatens to rape her (“I’ll force thee yield to my desire”) before Valentine intervenes. Proteus repents, and Julia, who has been disguised as Proteus’s male page, reveals herself. Proteus then reunites with Julia and resumes his friendship with Valentine, whom the duke permits to marry Silvia.
  • Angelo, from Measure for Measure. Angelo is entrusted with the rule of Vienna by Duke Vicentio, who pretends to leave the city but actually remains present, disguised as “Friar Lodowick.” Angelo enforces antiquated laws against fornication, resulting in Claudio’s arrest and imminent execution. Claudio’s sister, the novice nun Isabella, pleads for Claudio to be pardoned; Angelo agrees, but only if Isabella will have sex with him. After debate, Duke Vincentio proposes a “bed trick.” Isabella pretends that she is willing to have sex with Angelo in absolute darkness and silence, which allows Mariana, a woman who was once betrothed to Angelo, to take Isabella’s place. Although the plan works, and Angelo believes that he had sex with Isabella, he goes back on his word and orders Claudio’s execution. This forces the duke to arrange a “head trick,” in which the head of the pirate Ragozine is presented to Angelo, and Claudio’s life is saved. Once the duke “returns” to Vienna, Isabella and Mariana petition him to right their wrongs. Angelo initially denies the charges brought against him, but confesses once he learns that the duke and Friar Lodowick are the same person. Angelo’s life is spared for Mariana’s sake, and the duke proposes marriage to Isabella.

This article was contributed by NAQT writer Danny Vopava.

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