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The 12 Most Evil Characters in Shakespeare’s Plays

16 October 2018 by John Staughton
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More than four centuries have passed since William Shakespeare slipped off this mortal coil, yet the impact of his genius continues to shape and inspire the world. His brilliant pen and keen insight into the human condition has allowed his legendary work to boldly stand the test of time, remaining relevant and accessible across the globe.

The Bard of Avon’s most memorable characters, however, were not all noble princes and star-crossed lovers. The evil characters populating the Shakespearean page and stage are just as compelling as the heroes, in addition to being sinister, powerful, tragic, intelligent, and brutal figures.

Perhaps it’s time to get acquainted with some of Shakespeare’s greatest villains.

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Claudius – “Hamlet”
When it comes to truly dastardly characters in the Bard’s work, Claudius, the uncle of Hamlet, ranks near the top. After poisoning his brother and seizing the crown, he marries Hamlet’s mother, but is haunted by his actions. He is a self-confessed villain, admitting his crimes to the audience and the Almighty, but believing that Hamlet suspects him of the old king’s murder, Claudius plots to poison Hamlet. The scheme backfires, leading to the bloody close of this epic drama.

Iago – “Othello”
One of the purest manifestations of evil in Shakespeare’s body of work is Iago, the conniving and deceitful second lieutenant to Othello, the tragic titular character. Displaying malice and jealousy without clear reason, Iago is a force of lies and chaos, double-crossing numerous characters, and ultimately manipulating Othello into murdering his wife, Desdemona.

Don John – “Much Ado About Nothing”
Evil can take many forms, and Don John in “Much Ado About Nothing” is one of the slowest-burning villains in the Bard’s work. The illegitimate brother of Don Pedro, Don John does little to hide his negative attitude, nor his envy of Claudio, his brother’s most trusted companion. He fabricates a lie about Claudio’s betrothed and her faithfulness, in an attempt to spread his own sadness and misery to others, but his plans ultimately fall to ruin.

Lady Macbeth – “Macbeth”
One of the most legendary villains of theatre is Lady Macbeth, the manipulative and sinister matriarch of “Macbeth.” Although many people see Macbeth as the prime villain of the play, Lady Macbeth is the one who sparks many of the most destructive and deadly events of the play. She subtly drives Macbeth to murder King Duncan, her husband, by challenging his manhood, while maintaining a facade of innocence and ignorance, rather than revealing her true role as the evil puppet master of The Scottish Play.

Caliban – “The Tempest
In the surreal setting of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” Caliban is the bastard child of the devil and the witch Sycorax. When Prospero, the exiled duke of Milan, lands on Caliban’s island, the magical creature sees the duke as a conquering invader. Caliban is similarly doomed to existence on the island, and plots to viciously murder Prospero. He is a complex villain, however, as his knowledge and behavior is largely mirrored from Prospero, making him a powerful symbolic figure in Shakespeare’s mythos.

Macbeth – “Macbeth”
Lady Macbeth may be pulling the strings that create the tragedy of “Macbeth,” but the titular character is the one who carries out the murderous deeds. Seen as one of the most controversial characters in Shakespeare’s canon, Macbeth is dangerously balanced between villain and victim, a young man who is hungry for power, but also unfairly manipulated by witches and his domineering mother.

Aaron the Moor / Tamora – “Titus Andronicus”
Another carrier of unchecked (and possibly unwarranted) chaos is Aaron the Moor, the villain of “Titus Andronicus.” Secret lover of Queen Tamora and her ally in the plot to destroy the House of Andronicus, Aaron is the “chief architect” of the tragedy that unfolds in this play. From framing innocent characters for murder to convincing the title character to sever his own hand, Aaron the Moor is an angry, violent, and unsettling figure in Shakesperean lore.

Edmund – King Lear
Jealousy is a common thread amongst Shakespeare’s great antagonists, and Edmund, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester in King Lear, is no exception. Envious of his brother’s legitimacy, Edmund schemes to murder his brother and father in order to seize his father’s title. He also manipulates King Lear’s daughters, Goneril and Regan, and finally, orders the death of King Lear and Cordelia, failing to retract the order before Cordelia is killed.

Richard III – “Richard III”
While some scholars place Richard III in the tragic hero category, this titular character is flawed to the core — flying into mad rages at any sign of insult, and holding deep resentment for anyone who has ever rejected, mocked, or spoken ill of him. While his physical deformity – a twisted spine and a withered arm – cast him as something of a sympathetic character, he is also a dangerously ambitious and savage figure who orders the deaths of nearly a dozen named characters in this historical play.

Shylock – “The Merchant of Venice”
As Shakespeare’s villains go, Shylock is more multi-faceted than most. A Jewish moneylender who has lost his wife and is about to lose his daughter to Christianity, Shylock is a bitter and vengeful character, demanding an actual pound of flesh from Antonio, who defaulted on a large loan. Set in the late 1600s, the play shows how the inequality between Christianity and Judaism helps drive Shylock’s evil intentions and desire for revenge, but that fails to redeem him in the eyes of most audiences.

Cassius – “Julius Caesar”
In “Julius Caesar,” Gaius Cassius Longinus is the brother-in-law of Brutus, the famous betrayer of the Roman emperor. In Shakespeare’s rendition, Cassius is crafted as the clear villain, the primary conspirator in Caesar’s eventual murder. He is manipulative, driven by jealousy, and unhampered by morality, making him a similar figure to “Othello’s” Iago. However, despite Cassius’s evil nature, his ultimate scheme of swaying opinion in the Senate after Caesar’s death fails, and his treachery is uncovered.

Tybalt – “Romeo and Juliet
Unlike the more sinister villains populating Shakespeare’s plays, Tybalt is simply a feuding fighter with something to prove, along with a deep hatred of the Capulets. As a character, Tybalt is not only Juliet’s cousin, but also the driving force of the violence between the Capulet and Montague families. He challenges Romeo to numerous fights, and eventually slays Mercutio, Romeo’s best friend. Romeo returns the favor and kills Tybalt, for which he is sentenced to exile on Verona. This directly leads to the tragic climax of this legendary love story, meaning that even in death, Tybalt’s lust for violence and tragedy affects the land of the living.