Get to know Shakespeare villains from his most famous plays

Actor Patrick Page will embody multiple of the Bard's bad guys in his new one-man Off-Broadway show — get to know the cast of characters you might expect to see.

By John Staughton

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 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. Shakespeare's villains of the page and stage are just as compelling as the heroes, in addition to being sinister, powerful, tragic, intelligent, and brutal.

Tony Award nominee Patrick Page (Hadestown) takes up this point in his new solo show, All The Devils Are Here: How Shakespeare Invented The Villain. As he plays multiple characters in quick succession, he explores how Shakespeare invented the modern idea of the villain and how villains' evilness — and more — speaks to the complexity of human nature.

Ahead of the show's Off-Broadway premiere on September 29, perhaps it’s time to get acquainted with some of the most famous villains of Shakespeare.

Check back for information on All The Devils Are Here: How Shakespeare Invented The Villain tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Claudius in 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 his fear overrides his guilt. Believing 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 in Othello

One of the purest manifestations of evil in Shakespeare's body of work is Iago, the conniving and deceitful second lieutenant to the tragic title 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 in 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 misery to others, but his plans ultimately fall to ruin.

Lady Macbeth and Macbeth in 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 the most destructive and deadly events. She subtly drives her husband to murder King Duncan by challenging Macbeth's manhood. She maintains a facade of innocence and ignorance rather than revealing her true role as the sinister puppet master of The Scottish Play.

That said, the title character is the one who carries out the play's murderous deeds. Seen as one of the most controversial characters in Shakespeare's canon, Macbeth is dangerously balanced between villain and victim. He is a man who is hungry for power, but he's also heavily manipulated by witches and his domineering wife.

Caliban in 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 largely mirror Prospero's, making him a powerful symbolic figure in Shakespeare's mythos.

Aaron the Moor and Tamora in Titus Andronicus

Another carrier of unchecked (and possibly unwarranted) chaos is Aaron the Moor, the villain of Titus Andronicus. The 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 carries out many vicious deeds that make him an angry, violent, and unsettling figure in Shakesperean lore.

Edmund in King Lear

Jealousy is a common thread among 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 two of King Lear's daughters, Goneril and Regan, and finally orders the death of Lear and his third daughter, Cordelia, failing to retract the order before Cordelia is killed.

Richard III in Richard III

While some scholars place Richard III in the tragic hero category, this titule 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 deformities – 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 in The Merchant of Venice

Among Shakespeare's villains, Shylock is one of the most multifaceted. 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 defaults on a large loan. Set in the late 1600s, The Merchant of Venice shows how the inequality between Christianity and Judaism drives Shylock's evil intentions and desire for revenge, but that fails to redeem him in the eyes of some audiences.

Cassius in Julius Caesar

In Julius Caesar, Gaius Cassius Longinus is the brother-in-law of Brutus, the famous betrayer of the Roman emperor. Shakespeare crafts Cassius 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, his ultimate scheme of swaying opinion in the Senate after Caesar's death fails, and his treachery is uncovered.

Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet

Unlike the more sinister villains populating Shakespeare's plays, Tybalt is simply a feuding fighter with something to prove — plus 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 from Verona.

These events directly lead 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. One could argue, though, that his deadly hatred is a byproduct of both families', casting almost everyone in Romeo and Juliet as a villain.

Photo credit: Patrick Page in promotion for All The Devils Are Here. (Photo courtesy of production)

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