Are there really heroes and villains in Shakespeare’s plays? Those concepts suggest that someone can be all good, noble and well intentioned on the one hand, or all bad, ill-intentioned and downright evil on the other. What makes Shakespeare’s characters so interesting is that they are human beings, motivated by the things that motivate human beings: they react to their circumstances and to people in different ways.
Some of Shakespeare’s characters act in cruel and unpleasant ways. Some of them kill, deceive and otherwise take advantage of their fellow men and women but they are all only human beings. This list of villains catalogues ten of the most badly behaved of those human beings in Shakespeare’s plays:
The Queen, Cymbeline
The Queen in Cymbeline is a character Shakespeare doesn’t even name, but she is without a doubt one of his top villains. Cymbeline is her second husband and she has a son, Cloten, whom she is determined to marry off to Cymbeline’s daughter, Imogen. She pursues this ambition with ruthless energy and will stop at nothing, including murder.
Robin Goodrin Nordli shines as the wicked Queen; part Lady Macbeth, part Snow White’s evil stepmother
Angelo, Measure for Measure
Angelo in Measure for Measure is a particular kind of villain who is hated by women. Left in charge of administering Vienna while the Duke is away, he adopts a strict approach. Determined to stamp out fornication he imprisons and executes people who conduct sexual affairs outside of marriage. When Claudio falls victim his sister Isabella, a beautiful young nun, goes to him to beg for mercy. He agrees not to execute Claudio if she agrees to sex with him. In spite of her pleading he sticks to that line right to the end. His villainy consists mainly of his incredible hypocrisy. As time goes on he appears increasingly villainous as a result of the development of society’s attitude to women.
Jay Whittaker as Angelo in the Goodman Theatre’s Measure for Measure production
Lady Macbeth, Macbeth
Lady Macbeth has always been seen as the most villainous of Shakespeare’s women, and portrayed in paintings as a sharp-featured, black haired woman with a hard expression. Like all of Shakespeare’s ‘villains’ she is just a character confronted with the choices that are offered her. In her case, her husband has written to tell her about the three witches who have predicted that he will be king. At that very moment a messenger arrives to tell her that the king is coming to their castle to spend the night with them. To her, to advance her and her husband’s ambitions, the logical thing is to kill the king while he is there. She urges Macbeth to kill him, using several tactics, including questioning his manhood, his love for her, his intentions about becoming king and after a lot of soul searching and hesitation, he goes ahead with it. Afterwards, she gives him moral support in the actions he takes to maintain his position as king. She eventually cracks up and commits suicide.
Erika Sunnegårdh gets crazy as Lady Macbeth at Glyndebourne
Regan, King Lear
Regan in King Lear is Lear’s second daughter. After having been given a half of all Lear’s lands and wealth after his decision to retire she turns on him and behaves cruelly towards him. She ties Lear’s old friend, Gloucester, to a chair, accusing him of supportimng her father, and she pulls his eyes out onstage.