After our recent poll we felt it was time we put together a list of best Shakespeare characters. The Bard created some of the most interesting and unique characters in all of Western literature, and so we thought we would throw them all together in one simple list. A number of Shakespeare’s great villains appear on the list as well as some of his larger than life comic characters.
Updated Sep 27, 2022
Much Ado About Nothing
The Merchant of Venice
Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Now, don’t forget: this list is entirely the thoughts and feelings of the StageMilk crew. Do you feel as though we’ve gotten it completely wrong, or made some glaring omission? Let us know in the comments below!
For now, let’s break down some of these choices…
#1 Iago (from Othello)
“Though I do hate him as I do hell pains,
Yet, for necessity of present life,
I must show out a flag and sign of love—
Which is indeed but sign.”
It may come as no surprise that Iago topped our list of Best Shakespeare Villains, but number one character overall? Hear us out. Iago is the shrewd villain of Othello, offering false friendship to the titular general in an attempt to gaslight him and bring about his downfall. As his revenge plot crashes down around him he incites injury, betrayal and death: the murder of Desdemona by her husband Othello, Othello’s subsequent suicide in anguish—he even murders his own wife in a botched escape attempt!
So what makes Iago Shakespeare’s best character? The complexity of a being so driven by revenge, so duplicitous. Iago is beloved by those around him; he is recognised as a wise and trusted advisor in all matters of human relation—from friends, to colleagues, to those who share a marriage bed. And yet, in a series of excellent soliloquies (that are too often cut for time in stage productions) he outlines the hatred and insecurity he feels about the Moor, and all the ways in which he thinks he might bring him down. It’s as though he can’t help himself but to hate. And what’s more, he’s aware of how all-consuming these actions may be. Iago is a character so richly layered, so frighteningly real that he rivals all creations in theatre that have come before and after.
For a glimpse inside Iago’s mind: Iago Monologue (Act 2, Scene 1)
#2 Lady Macbeth (from Macbeth)
“Look like th’innocent flower,
But be the serpent under’t.”
Much like Iago, Lady Macbeth sits at the top of our list of Best Shakespeare Villains as well. Her ruthless manipulation, scheming and power grab-bery more than earn her the spot! After hearing that her husband, Macbeth, has learned of a prophecy that tells of his ascent to the throne, she urges him to murder the King so that they might take power and rule Scotland. However, Macbeth needs convincing and motivation to carry out the deed; so much so, that Lady Macbeth even steps in after the murder to frame the King’s servants with a pair of bloody daggers.
Honestly, Macbeth would be a great play if it ended there—power wrenched from good and noble folk and in the hands of our antihero couple. But Shakespeare uses Macbeth to examine the psychological effects of guilt that come after a heinous act. Lady Macbeth, who is slowly driven mad by paranoia and fear of persecution and damnation, enjoys one of the most thrilling character arcs in all of Shakespeare’s plays. She is not only compelling, but completely self-aware as her mind begins to crumble. Her famous “Out, damned spot!” monologue is actually taken from a scene in which she sleepwalks around the castle, almost begging her servants (and the audience) to hear her confession. Chilling, brilliant characterisation.
Take a look at an excellent example of Lady Macbeth in full, witchy villain mode: Lady Macbeth Monologue (Act 1, Scene 5)
#3 Beatrice (from Much Ado About Nothing)
“I thank god and my cold blood I am of your humour for that. I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.”
After two great villains, it is only fitting that our third place topped our list of Best Shakespeare Comedy Roles. Beatrice—full of passion, wit and intelligence—is a tremendously entertaining and compelling character, especially as she flaunts the contemporary expectations in Shakespeare’s time of what a female character should be. Beatrice’s love/hate/kill-your-best-friend relationship with soldier Benedick forms much of the play’s onstage action; their shared affinity for independence and disdain for marriage draw them closer and closer together.
Beatrice is often labelled as a ‘proto-feminist’ figure in Shakespeare’s work. This is not only because she exhibits character traits unfamiliar to female roles at the time, but in the way she challenges the toxic masculinity of honour and chivalry. When Benedick’s friend Claudio wrongs Beatrice’s friend Hero and humiliates her, she asks of Benedick one favour: “Kill Claudio.” While this has been criticised by some as an extremely callous, cruel request (especially given that Claudio was misinformed in his information about Hero), it has been read by others as Beatrice’s attempt to highlight the inherent flaws in the chivalric system and how men, real men, are nothing of the sort when actually tested.
For a snippet of Beatrice’s quick wit and disdain for love: Beatrice Monologue: Much Ado About Nothing Act 3 Scene 1
#4 Viola (from Twelfth Night)
“O time, thou must untangle this, not I.”
Twelfth Night is a play full of farce and mistaken identity—characters deceiving and one-upping each other in order to come out (if only slightly) ahead. In the centre of this mix is Viola, who dons a disguise and poses as a man named Cesario to find work with the local Duke Orsino. Viola falls for the Duke, who is already in love with Countess Olivia. But when he sends Viola to the Countess to convey his feelings, the countess instead falls in love with “Cesario”, just to make the love triangle truly complete.
Shakespeare had a great gift for writing contrived, situational comedy. What stands Twelfth Night apart from its contemporaries is its strong roster of characters, Viola at the head of them. She is quick-witted and intelligent, and her motion through the play is not simply guided by love (although this is still a strong motivator). When her presumed-dead twin Sebastian arrives on the scene, the mistaken identity hijinks escalate until the climax of the play. And all the while, Viola is an excellent anchoring figure. She grounds a play that might otherwise have dithered and been forgotten.
For a snippet of Viola’s schemes catching up with her: Viola Monologue (Act 2, Scene 2)
#5 Shylock (from The Merchant of Venice)
“The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. An evil soul producing holy witness Is like a villain with a smiling cheek, A goodly apple rotten at the heart. Oh, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!”
Shylock is a Jewish moneylender living in the city-state of Venice. He lends Venetian noble Bassanio a large sum of money but, when the young man defaults on the loan, Shylock insists the debt be paid as a “pound of flesh”. The validity of this clause is argued out in the climax of The Merchant of Venice, in one of literature’s first courtroom dramas.
We speak about Shylock at length on our Best Shakespeare Villains page (where he came in at a respectable #6); we also talk about how strange it feels to include him on the list. Shylock is yet another example of Shakespeare bringing unparalleled humanistic and sympathetic qualities to an antagonist; this very point is argued by the man himself during the trial: “If you prick us do we no bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?” This isn’t to say that Shylock is divisive—it is easy to read his characterisation as an ugly, anti-Semitic stereotype—but he is certainly a character ripe for reinterpretation and discussion, some four hundred years on…
For a great example of Shylock’s wit and anger (and some Shakespearean blank verse): Shylock Monologue (Act 3 Scene 1)
#6 King Lear (from King Lear)
“Who is it that can tell me who I am?”
King Lear is the very embodiment of hubris. Getting on in age, he decides to divide his kingdom into three equal parts among his daughters, so that he can ride between them and live a life free of responsibility. His eldest two, Goneril and Regan, waste no time in sucking up to the old man to get their share. However, when his youngest, Cordelia, refuses to play into his ego trip, he cuts her off … and unwittingly brings about his own ruin.
Lear is an enduring figure in the landscape of Shakespeare’s characters because he is such a spectacular fool. And rather than have his downfall played off-stage as a footnote to the other bubbling political strife in the plot, Shakespeare lets the old man slowly unravel in front of our eyes as he comes to terms with what he has wrought upon himself. Does the play end well? Not for Lear. But he does manage to find some self-awareness and remorse for his actions—it’s a thrilling arc we see repeated often in the eternal canon of Problematic White Male Leads.
Take a look at Lear, at peak madness and riding out a terrible storm: King Lear (Act 3 Scene 2)
#7 Sir John Falstaff (from Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, The Merry Wives of Windsor)
“Hal, if I tell thee a lie, spit in my face, call me a horse.”
Sir John Falstaff: Shakespeare’s eminent hot mess, drinker, life-of-the-party, occasional criminal, occasional war hero, failed lover, icon. Falstaff spends most of Henry IV Part One drinking with the young Prince Hal, offering scattered wisdom and sketchy schemes to his adoring cohort of undesirables. In Part Two, he watches the prince assume responsibility of the crown after his father’s death, in a sombre turn of events that sees his former protégé turn him away. Henry V contains a beautiful eulogy for the character, illustrating the enchantment he still held over the new, young king.
Few Shakespearean characters inspire such joy as Falstaff. In fact, when Queen Elizabeth I saw Henry IV Part One, she asked Shakespeare to write her a play in which Falstaff falls in love. The result is The Merry Wives of Windsor, which is perhaps one of the finest examples of fan service ever put to paper. Falstaff is crude, cowardly and selfish, and yet never without his singular brand of charm. Discover him, know him, love him.
#8 Prospero (from The Tempest)
“My high charms work, And these, mine enemies, are all knit up
In their distractions. They now are in my power.”
Even by the standards of The Tempest, Prospero is a strange and fascinating character. Something of an antihero, he is the rightful Duke of Milan who was usurped by his brother Antonio and exiled on a remote island. There, he dedicated his life to sorcery and uses his magics to protect his daughter Miranda and bend the elements to his will. When a ship carrying his brother navigates too close to the island, Prospero conjures the titular storm and shipwrecks the other characters in the play, who find themselves charmed and controlled by the vengeful wizard.
Prospero is a complex figure; he begs sympathy for the wrongs done to him, and yet is, at times, cruel to the other inhabitants of the island. For this reason, he has long been studied and debated amongst scholars—there is even a reading where Prospero stands in for Shakespeare himself as the omnipotent storyteller. Prospero is a character best judged directly by yourself, so crack on The Tempest (arguably one of Shakespeare’s last significant works) and see what you think.
For some classic tempestuous monologue action, check out: The Tempest Monologues.
#9 Hamlet (from Hamlet)
“This above all: to thine own self be true.”
He had to be on this list somewhere, right? Hamlet, the Dane, the prince of Denmark, is visited by his father’s ghost. The ghost claims to have been murdered by his brother (Hamlet’s uncle Claudio), who stole the crown as well as Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. Hamlet’s subsequent actions have been performed and pondered for centuries: he feigns madness, contemplates suicide, destroys his relationship, puts on a show, says a lot but does very little, all in an elaborate plan to enact revenge. It costs him literally everything he has, and yet nothing succeeds in slowing him down.
Hamlet is an odd play, as it seems to contain a protagonist that doesn’t want to strive for their goals. It flies in the face of everything we learn as actors: you have an objective, and you do all you can to achieve it! How do you tackle this concept when the main damn character keeps stalling and staying their hand? Such is the timeless pull of the character of Hamlet: year after year, actors and audiences alike gather to see how the Prince will pull it off this time, if he’ll weather the storm and find peace at the end of so much sorrow and bloodshed.
For more of the moody Dane, check out: Hamlet Monologues.
#10 Titania (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
“What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?”
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Titania is the queen of the fairies—and spouse of the conniving Oberon. After fighting with her husband over a changeling baby, Titania is enchanted by Oberon’s henchman Puck to fall asleep in the forest … and fall in love with the first vile thing she sees when she wakes. As luck would have it, she is awoken by weaver and amateur actor Nick Bottom—transformed by other magicks into an ass. And so their strange love affair begins.
Titania is a terrific character to play because of the range she offers to actors: she can be tyrannical and imposing one moment, and then silly and lovestruck the next. As far as Shakespeare’s characters go, Titania is a figure whose situation garners her a lot more sympathy and understanding in a contemporary reading—Oberon’s love spell is on shaky consensual ground at best. Therefore she is perfect for reclamation as a feminist figure of power: a go-getter boss bitch unafraid to bend others to her will!