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Playing Shakespeare's Villains


Edited By Louis Fantasia

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.

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3. “He that plays the King shall be welcome” (Armin Shimerman)


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3.  “He that plays the King shall be welcome”


It is common knowledge among actors that when playing a villain of any sort, you cannot simply play evil. Rather, you must empathize with your character and find out what drives him/her and makes her/him do what they do. You must look for motivating needs that compel an Iago or a Don John to jeopardize their eternal souls in order to reap revenge or gain a crown or murder an innocent. Doing otherwise is to give a rather flat performance with no insights into the human psyche. You must love your character despite his faults as much as you love yourself.

This was my objective when I twice played Claudius in Hamlet. Killing the reigning monarch is a crime most foul, compounded by the oldest sin in the bible, fratricide. What causes this man to commit the worst of Elizabethan crimes, that of regicide, and conspiracy to murder the old king’s son? Notice I do not say “rightful heir.” It is usually surprising to moderns to learn that Denmark did not follow the rules of primogeniture and that Hamlet is not the “rightful” next king. He himself cites the explanation in the text, “Why, what a King is this! / He that hath…/ Popp’d in between th’election and my hopes” (5.2. 70–75). Thus, Claudius did not steal the Danish throne from prince Hamlet. Did he...

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