Playing Shakespeare's Villains

by Louis Fantasia (Volume editor)
©2019 Monographs X, 132 Pages


The essays in Playing Shakespeare’s Villains trouble our assumptions of what—and who—constitutes "villainy" in Shakespeare’s works, through probing and provocative analyses of the murky moral logics at play in the Bard’s oeuvre. Shakespeare spreads before us a panoply of evil, villainy, and amorality—of characters doing bad things for good reasons, bad things for bad reasons, and bad things for no reason at all. How does Shakespeare handle culpability and consequence? How much does he justify his villains’ actions? How much do we enjoy watching people get away with murder and mayhem? What are we to make of the moral universe that Shakesperare presents: a universe in which some villains are punished and others seem to be rewarded; where mischief can quickly turn violent; and where an entire world can be brought down by someone’s willful insistence on having one’s way? Questions like these animate the discussions in this lively volume, the second in the Playing Shakespeare’s Characters series.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction: Playing Shakespeare’s Villains: Bloody, bawdy, remorseless, treacherous, lecherous! (Louis Fantasia)
  • 1. “Something wicked this way comes”: (Re)Locating the Supernatural World of Macbeth (Janna Segal)
  • 2. “A few drams of eale”: An Overview of Evil in Shakespeare’s Plays (Timothy Harris)
  • 3. “He that plays the King shall be welcome” (Armin Shimerman)
  • 4. Damned, Smiling Villains: The Pleasure of Not Caring (Brian Lohmann)
  • 5. Iachimo: “By villainy I got this ring” (Louis Scheeder)
  • 6. Behind Closed Doors: Sex, Lies and Servants (Edit Villllareal)
  • 7. “Tis a vile thing to die”: Teaching Villainy in the Public School Classroom (Charmaine Cordero)
  • 8. “Very fine people …” (Louis Fantasia)
  • 9. On the Nature of Evil (Clifffford Librach)
  • Contributors
  • Series Index

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Introduction: Playing Shakespeare’s Villains: Bloody, bawdy, remorseless, treacherous, lecherous!


On my wall hangs a Japanese carving,
The mask of an evil demon, decorated with gold lacquer.
Sympathetically I observe
The swollen veins of the forehead, indicating
What a strain it is to be evil.
“The Mask of Evil”,
Bertolt Brecht1

Unlike Brecht’s evil demon in the poem above, Shakespeare’s villains rarely strain to be evil. They are smooth, unctuous, without conscience, and surprisingly successful. Richard and Claudius become kings. Edmund almost does. In a zero-sum game, Iago wins and Othello loses. Don John escapes at the end of Much Ado, and the shipwrecked villains in The Tempest are forgiven in the end. Even mischievous Puck takes mortals to be gullible fools. Crime may not pay, but in Shakespeare’s world it doesn’t cost very much. This may be, perhaps, because Shakespeare does not see the world in a Manichean good/evil dichotomy. Rather, I believe, he situates evil on a continuum of human behavior.

We think we know who comes to mind when we speak of Shakespeare’s “villains”: the usual suspects such as Aaron the Moor, Edmund, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, etc. People who do bad things to nice people. But what about Caliban, Regan and Goneril? Are they evil or are they victims? What about Bolingbroke and Margaret and the other political opportunists, revolutionaries, and, yes, losers? History is written by the winners and the Tudors were lucky to have a Shakespeare. Is Cassius a villain? Leontes? Titus? ← 1 | 2 →

What makes a villain, as opposed to a monster, crook, or scoundrel? When does villainy extend, or better perhaps, descend into “evil”? Is vengeance evil? Is wicked intent enough? Does the body count matter? Is bad kingship (Richard II? Henry VI?) evil? Where do Shakespeare’s fathers such Capulet or Polonius fit on this spectrum? Ask their daughters.

It seems to me that Shakespeare has a sliding scale or “great chain of badness” (apologies to E.M. Tillyard) that goes from a kind of amoral expediency to villainy and finally, to evil. There are villains in Shakespeare who are not evil (Don John and Iachimo perhaps); characters who are amoral but not evil (mostly in the histories, but also Juliet’s Nurse, and, perhaps Claudius, if we are feeling sympathetic); and characters who become (and this may be the key) truly evil only in the course of their actions. These would include Richard III, Macbeth, Edmund, and possibly Angelo. They reach a point where their “badness” is irreversible and possibly irredeemable.

Shakespeare lays out for us a panoply of evil, villainy and amorality—of characters doing bad things for good reasons, bad things for bad reasons, and bad things for no reasons at all. What are we to make of this world view where some villains get their “come-uppance” and others seem to be rewarded; where mischievousness can quickly turn violent (think of the lads in Romeo and Juliet); and where an entire world can be brought down by someone’s willful insistence on having his or her own way (Iago? Shylock? Cordelia?).

How does Shakespeare handle culpability and consequence? How much does he justify his villains’ actions? How much sympathy can villains such as Macbeth or Aaron earn from us in the course of their plays? How much do we enjoy watching people get away with murder and mayhem? Certainly Edmund is one of Shakespeare’s most charismatic creations—until he goes too far. How much empathy can we have for Lear’s daughters, or Hamlet’s uncle Claudius?

The distinguished contributors to this collection dive in and explore many of these questions. Dr. Janna Segal situates Macbeth both within King James’ fascination with demonology and our own addiction to cult horror films. Poet and translator Timothy Harris gives us the broad sweep of evil and evil doers coursing through Shakespeare’s plays, while actor Armin Shimerman focuses in on Claudius, a role he has twice performed. Brian Lohmann looks at how an actor needs to find both empathy and distance when playing villains. Playwright Edit Villareal looks at a favorite pattern of Shakespeare’s (stretching from early works like Romeo and Juliet, to late plays such as Timon of Athens) that puts servants in the middle of villainous dynamics. Director Louis Scheeder looks closely at Imogen (who may not be as innocent as we assume) and Iachimo (who may not be quite the villain we make him out to ← 2 | 3 → be). Educator Charmaine Cordero, teaching in a public high school, writes of the challenges teaching about evil in an age of school shootings and lockdown drills. I try and bring a political frame to the discussion by dissecting some of the rhetoric of the Trump era. Finally, Rabbi Clifford Librach, in an extended coda to the volume, gives us a theological exegesis on the light and dark of good and evil. While more theological than dramaturgical, the rabbi does provide us with an excellent definition of the topic at hand: evil is “the intense psychological preoccupation of the self over against any interest or value outside or apart therefrom, causing the deliberate infliction of unjust suffering…”

A look at the panoply of villains on Shakespeare’s spectrum from Puck to Iachimo to Iago, etc., shows they hit all the notes of the definition: psychologically pre-occupied with themselves, lacking interest in external values, and willing to cause deliberate pain and suffering. The unanswered question is why? Why did Shakespeare choose to populate his worlds, from Ardenic forests to Italianate cities, seacoasts of Bohemia to Pomfret castles, with such villains. Was it because they made such great stage roles, or revealed the world as it is, or showed us as we truly are, and so forth? We will never know what attracted him to the dark side, just as we will never know how he found the depths of love and humanity that he also probed. But we are grateful he did.

Shakespeare left us not mustache-twirling caricatures, but “real” “flesh and blood” exemplars of cruelty and evil, I think, as warnings. The villainy in the world is not the work of the Devil or Queen Mab, but of other human beings just like us. We are capable of being both victim and torturer. The choice is up to us. As we watch a Richard or Claudius or Lady Macbeth, we see that nothing is inevitable. They make their own choices every inch of the way. And so do we. The examples are here. Nothing is written. The readiness is all.

The choice is ours.


1. Brecht, Bertolt. Poems 1913–1956, edited by John Willett and Ralph Manheim, with the cooperation of Erich Fried; London: Eyre Metheun. 1976. p. 383. ← 3 | 4 →


X, 132
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (May)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. X, 132 pp., 2 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Louis Fantasia (Volume editor)

Louis Fantasia is the director of the Los Angeles Shakespeare Institute, a joint project of the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles and the UCLA Clark Memorial Library. Formerly President of Deep Springs College, he was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany for his contributions to German culture and theatre.


Title: Playing Shakespeare's Villains
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144 pages