There are villains, and then there are Shakespeare’s villains. The Bard has penned some of the most murderous usurpers, power delirious betrayers and conniving villains in the history of literature, but that is not why they stand out. These villains are the absolute worst because they are ultimately human and are acting on human needs. Their evil needs motivate them, making them move the action of the plays forward. Right from Richard III to Lady Macbeth, we bring you some of Shakespeare’s villains who are just as compelling as his heroes, while also being disturbing and brutal figures.

King Claudius (Left) and Laertas (Right)




The Bard’s beloved hero Hamlet has a constant thorn in his side – his uncle King Claudius. First, Claudius murders his brother (who was also Hamlet’s father), the king of Scotland. Then, he marries Hamlet’s mother. Later, when Hamlet begins to suspect Claudius of murdering his father, he devises plan upon plan to kill his nephew. He is one of the few Shakespearean villains who is aware of his villainy and admits his wrongdoings to himself and God. Claudius’ guilt provides Hamlet with a much-needed direction to act upon, thus thickening the plot. Claudius’ many crimes include regicide, adultery, attempted murder, involuntary manslaughter, and murder, making him one of Shakespeare’s most notorious villains.

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Iago (Right) and Emilia (Left)




Othello’s second lieutenant, Iago, is considered to be one of the worst personifications of evil in the Bard’s famous tragedy. Iago sets out to exact revenge on Othello when the latter chooses to promote another officer instead of the former. More than sticks and stones, Iago uses the power of carefully selected words to poke at existing holes in Othello’s psyche, thereby convincing him of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness and Cassio’s disloyalty. Not only does Iago manage to cunningly push Othello into killing Desdemona, and then himself, he also kills off his accomplice to hide his scheming, as well as his own wife when she reveals the truth. Lies, deceit, murder, and manipulation – Iago’s crimes know no bound, and his evil plans are the reason for the story ending in a tragedy.

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Lady Macbeth


Lady Macbeth


What do you do when your husband isn’t ambitious enough? Taunt him about his manhood and persuade him to kill the king, of course! One of the most intriguing villains created by Shakespeare, Lady Macbeth is the brain behind Macbeth’s brawn. When she learns that some witches have foretold her husband’s destiny as a king, her desire for power drives her to coax her husband to commit regicide. She then cleans up the murder scene and plants the murder weapon on innocents. She shows no hesitation towards plotting murders, even telling her husband, ‘look like th’ innocent flower/ but be the serpent under’t’. Her manipulative nature is one of the prime forces behind the great tragedy befalling Macbeth, thus making her a pivotal character in the play.

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Tamora (Left) and Aaron (Right)



Titus Andronicus

The vengeful queen of the Goths-turned-Roman Empress Tamora’s evil schemes are second to none. To exact revenge for the death of her son, she conspires with her lover, Aaron, and her sons, to bring about the downfall of Titus Andronicus, the general of Rome. She marries Emperor Saturninus in order to use him as a political pawn, instructs her sons to rape and mutilate Titus’ daughter Lavinia, and kill the emperor. When Lavinia begs Tamora to kill and spare her, Tamora, in one of the most jaw-dropping scenes of the play, proclaims to her sons: ‘use her as you will: the worse to her the better loved of me’. Her plot to get revenge for her son makes this one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest plays.

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Titus Andronicus

Aaron, Tamora’s lover, is the other mastermind behind the destruction of Titus Andronicus and is her partner in all of her evil schemes. He is the one who convinces Tamora’s sons to rape Lavinia (Titus’ daughter), kill Lavinia’s lover, and frame Titus’ sons for the murder. He then convinces Titus that his sons will be returned if he cuts off his hand and gives it in exchange for his sons, but what Titus gets in return are his sons’ bodies, without their heads. Vicious in his cruelty, Aaron is this play’s criminal mastermind who stops at nothing to bring Tamora’s dream of revenge to reality.

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Cassius (Right) and Brutus (Left)



Julius Caesar

The brother-in-law of the infamous Brutus, Cassius was considered to be one of the key figures involved in Julius Caesar’s murder. Driven by jealousy, unimpeded by morality and willing to manipulate, Cassius convinces Brutus to join him in the plot to assassinate Caesar. He even plants false evidence to convince Brutus to act against Caesar. While Brutus truly believes that he is helping the people of Rome by killing Caesar, Cassius’ motives are entirely self-centred thus making him the main antagonist of the play.

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Ratcliff, Richard III, and Salisbury (Left to Right)


Richard III

Richard III

With a twisted spine and a withered arm, Richard III’s appearance gains him sympathy at first. This opinion changes quickly due to his unchecked ambition and blatant abuse of power. He holds the honour of being both the protagonist and antagonist of the play, rising to power through murder and deceit, killing everyone who he feels has wronged him or rejected him. His long list of crimes include – bribing a soothsayer to proclaim his brother as an assassin, seducing Anne Neville into marrying him, even though he was responsible for killing both her husband and father, and killing his two nephews to get the throne for himself.  His cruel schemes play an important part in his end – where he is driven mad by the ghosts of all he killed, and is, ultimately, slain in battle.

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Goneril And Regan (Right) and King Lear (Left)


Goneril And Regan

King Lear

It would be so nice if family got along nicely, right? Well, not according to Shakespeare. In King Lear, the eponymous king is all set to divide his kingdom between his three daughters – Goneril, Regan and Cordelia – and retire peacefully. But Goneril and Regan have different malicious plans. Selfish and hungry for power, they charm the king into giving them everything, and leaving poor Cordelia, who doesn’t want to butter up her father, penniless. Regan and her husband even torture her father’s supporter by plucking out his eyes. Their disposition towards betraying their father is what leads to King Lear’s madness, thus causing the collapse of a kingdom.

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Angelo (Left) and Isabella (Right)



Measure For Measure

Hypocrisy, thy name is Angelo. When the Duke of Vienna is away, Angelo is put in charge of the administration, and he immediately begins to lay out strict laws over the people. He states that anyone found engaging in sexual affairs outside marriage will be imprisoned and executed. When a nun, Isabella, begs mercy for her brother Claudio, who has impregnated his lover, Angelo’s behaviour takes a drastic turn. He blackmails her into having sex with him in exchange for her brother’s release. An atypical villain, Angelo’s evilness stems from his belief of righteousness that comes out in the form of his hypocrisy. His tyranny and crimes form a dominant part of the play, ending only when the Duke returns.

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Shylock, Bassanio, and Antonio (Left to Right)



The Merchant Of Venice

Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, is a Shakespearean character who has caused much debate. When the Christian Antonio is unable to repay the loan borrowed, Shylock demands a pound of flesh in lieu. To make matters more complicated, Shylock’s daughter is in love with Antonio’s Christian friend. Though Shakespeare highlights the differences between society’s response to Christianity and Judaism as being the basis of Shylock’s cruelty, he remains a constantly-debated character even today with students, readers and academics wondering if he truly was a villain or if his bigotry was a result of religious differentiation.

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Note: All images have been taken from Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive