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8 crime writers pick their favourite Shakespearean villains

This month marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare – the playwright and poet widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language.

It goes without saying that Shakespeare’s influence on the world we live in today is absolutely immense. From language and literature to philosophy and culture, it’s impossible to measure the impact his work has had, and is still having today. Within his plays, he produced fascinating studies of human nature and penned some absolutely unforgettable characters – and of course, as connoisseurs of crime, the ones we love the most are the evil villains. Whether they were consumed by greed, hungry for revenge or driven to murder, Shakespeare was truly an expert when it came to creating bad guys.

With this in mind, we asked eight brilliant crime authors to tell us about their favourite Shakespearean villains. Who would you choose?

8 crime writers pick their favourite Shakespearean villains

Shakespearean villainsFiona Barton, author of The Widow:

I like my villains clever, deep and driven by pure evil. Iago, Othello’s nemesis, engineers the downfall of almost everyone in play with his wicked asides and a masterful line in manipulation. There is no pantomime – no twirled moustaches, no rubbing of greedy hands – just a devil in human guise with a beautiful turn of phrase. What’s not to like…

Shakespearean villainsJames Oswald, author of The Damage Done:

I’m tempted to choose Hamlet as my villain purely because I was forced to study the play at O level, A level and again in my first year at university. I got so fed up of his incessant moaning, I abandoned English Literature entirely and fell in with the psychologists. My favourite Shakespeare villain would have to be Cassius though, if only because he is the subject of my favourite quote from any of the plays: “Let me have men about me that are fat; Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o’ nights. Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.”

Shakespearean villainsEmma Kavanagh, author of The Missing Hours:

My favourite villain would probably be Hamlet, who isn’t really a villain at all. But it fascinates me the way in which his own mind turns against him, creating a tragedy from all he touches. A true lesson in how the world can change, for good or evil, with the power of thought.
Shakespearean villainsJoanne Harris, author of Different Class:

My favourite Shakespeare villain? Tamora, Queen of the Goths, from Titus Andronicus. Vengeful, clever, complex, ruthless and positively dripping with sexuality – she’d give Black Widow and Harley Quinn a run for their money any day…

Shakespearean villainsHelen Callaghan, author of Dear Amy:

My favourite (well, not so much “favourite” as “scariest”) Shakespeare villain has got to be Iago, the architect of Othello’s downfall. He’s someone whose first instinct is always malice, and he has learned to justify his hatred and envy of everyone around him almost on the fly. He’s fantastically manipulative – he knows exactly how to keep up the appearances of loyalty and candour while destroying his perceived rivals. He’s the sort of polished sociopath that would be as successful in today’s society as he was in the play.

Shakespearean villainsAva Marsh, author of Untouchable:

Hmm… *casts mind back to English degree* I’m going to go with Lady Macbeth, because she’s a prime example of the importance of regular hand-washing in personal hygiene. Not that it did her much good.


Shakespearean villainsJane Corry, author of My Husband’s Wife:

I know King Lear himself isn’t meant to be a villain. But frankly, he should be! What kind of man forces his daughters to prove their love? If Lear hadn’t been so vain or self-obsessed, he wouldn’t have caused so much trouble, either to himself or other people. Even Kent accuses him of being insane. Mind you, I also think Cordelia added her pennyworth. Couldn’t she just have been a bit more effusive in her affections? Maybe she was as cross with him as I am.

Still, as I write this, I find a sneaking sympathy creeping in. My own father isn’t young. My sister and I constantly try to make his life more comfortable in our own different ways. I like to think there isn’t any competition between us but Shakespeare clearly felt differently about sisters. That aside, Lear is a brilliant villain because he isn’t an out and out baddie like his two horrid daughters, Reagan and Goneril. He’s far more believable because he is a mixture of black and white plus a large dollop of pure self-indulgence. And perhaps that’s the master’s point.

Shakespearean villainsOscar de Muriel, author of A Fever of the Blood:

Who could not love Lady Macbeth? She is the archetypical she-wolf: scheming, cunning and ruthless, even more so than Macbeth himself. She casually plots regicide, covers up evidence and accuses her husband of not being man enough.

I like to think of her as a fourth witch, injecting more and more poison into her husband’s mind, until her plotting goes out of control and destroys them both. And I love the irony of her line “just a little water clears us from this deed” as she washes King Duncan’s blood from her hands, which is ultimately followed by her famous “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!”

1 Comment

    Macbeth. Because he is charming, charismatic, passionate, ruthless – so much so that you cannot help but route for him and then he is all alone in victory. That moment is so profound; when he knows his own demise is on the horizon and then all the impossible predictions start coming true and the extraordinary visuals conjured by Burnham wood coming to Duncinane – the marching trees bringing with them his downfall. And he knows he is done for. You cannot kill children and get away with it. But you can associate with his ambitions to rule over everyone and take over the kingdom. I think, hope that Shakespeare had a profound effect on our psyche. The play has a powerful moral compass and I hoped that we heeded the lessons. Didn’t we?

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