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Classic Shakespeare Villains

By Magali Prel, Megan Powell, Mia Walby and Natasha Smith


Although Shakespeare Week 2024 has ended, the bard is worthy of a continued celebration. One of English literature’s most prolific and prominent playwrights, William Shakespeare has created some of the most remarkable characters to grace paper. Within this realm, we have heroes, royalty, fantastical creations, and not to be neglected in consideration are villains. Notable for intriguing plot twists and masters of deceit, the villains found in Shakespeare’s plays are subject to critical evaluation. Although plentiful, here are some returning favourites deserving of a highlight.  


Malvolio in Twelfth Night


Twelfth Night is a romantic comedy written by William Shakespeare around 1601-1602. It follows the story of Viola and Sebastian, twins separated in a shipwreck. In the play, Malvolio is Olivia’s steward. Malvolio is not considered a traditional villain but is often perceived as the antagonist due to some characteristics that contribute to him being seen as a villainous character. 


Malvolio is portrayed as a strict, puritanical character obsessed with decorum and order. He further displays a sense of superiority and condescension towards those of inferior social class to himself. He often scolds Sir Toby Belch and Maria for their behaviour and sees himself as socially superior to them. Furthermore, Malvolio deeply desires power and status. When Maria forges a letter, supposedly from Olivia, Malvolio falls for the ruse, believing he can elevate his social status by courting Olivia. Lastly, Malvolio treats Feste, the fool, with disdain and dismisses him as a mere jester despite Feste’s clever wit. This attitude towards Feste contributes to a negative perception of Malvolio. 


Edmund in King Lear 


King Lear is one of Shakespeare's famous tragedies. It explores themes of familial love, greed and justice. The play begins with King Lear separating his kingdom between his three daughters based on their magnitude of love for him. Therefore, the audience is already immersed in the rapacity that follows. Edmund is the play's main antagonist, yet honourable mentions are given to Goneril and Regan, two of Lear's daughters. Edmund is the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester. Therefore, his actions are fuelled by his intense desire for recognition, land and power, leading him to scheme and manipulate his way through life. He is juxtaposed to Edgar, Gloucester's older, legitimate son, where Edmund forms a union with the two sisters, plotting to betray both Edgar and Gloucester for his own gain. Throughout the play, it is evident that despite his villainy, there remain undertones of sadness to his situation, given he is merely a son, desperate for acceptance and love, thus evoking empathy at the end when he finally repents.


Shylock in The Merchant of Venice


So understandable in his motivations and so discriminated against by many of the characters of the play, it feels unfair to prescribe Shylock with the label of “villain.” In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, gives Antonio a loan on the condition that, should Antonio fail to repay it, Shylock will cut off a pound of his flesh as collateral. While this seems extreme, it reflects Shylock’s deep-rooted resentment towards Antonio and the Christian community of Vienna, who have cruelly mistreated him. Often considered an anti-semitic play, at its close, Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity after being connived against in court. Yet Shylock is incredibly sympathetic and is humanised most poignantly in his famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech, in which he bemoans the prejudice he unfairly incurs from the Christian community. Even as his desire for revenge may have exceeded the limits of what is lawful, the audience is left disturbed by the punishment Shylock suffers at the end and by the prejudice levied at him throughout.


Iago in Othello


In Othello, the antagonist who completes Shakespeare’s villain checklist is Iago. He is introduced in the play as Othello’s most trusted advisor, having fought by his side as a faithful and brave soldier. However, Othello fails to promote Iago up the ranks and instead promotes Cassio to lieutenant. Motivated by Othello’s promotional neglect, Iago seeks revenge. He hatches a conniving and manipulative plan to destroy both Othello and Cassio. In a duplicitous turn of events, Iago cleverly weaves his plan into action. As a character of pure evil and the antithesis in morality plays, Iago tricks characters into siding with him to fulfil his plan. His desire for revenge is found in convincing Othello that his wife, Desdemona, is having an affair with Cassio, damaging Cassio’s reputation and trust while also fuelling his hatred for Othello. Unlike the unhappy contexts and societies generally found in Shakespeare’s plays, Othello is



rather peaceful, with Othello and Desdemona having a happy marriage. Throughout the plot, Shakespeare makes it clear to the audience that Iago is not a character who can be trusted and allows the audience to follow the emotional discourse that ensues in exposing the treacherous Iago. 


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