Hero, villain. White-hat, black-hat. Goodie, baddie. When it comes to the creation of compelling protagonists and antagonists, nobody did it quite like William Shakespeare. Shakespeare understood that a story is only as good as its characters can clash—his vast and memorable collection of evil, greedy, violent and manipulative villains is testament to the fact that conflict is the very essence of all drama.
The best Shakespeare villains are evil, manipulative, cruel, power-hungry and ruthless. They are also complex and sympathetic characters—driven by motives that any audience member could understand, if not identify with. This article contains a list of the best Shakespeare villains, as voted by the StageMilk team. We cover our top ten choices, and why they made this most infamous cut!
Now, before we get into the list itself, a clarification: “best” does not always mean “most evil”. In fact, as we started to delve into the Bard’s works and trawl for bastardry, we were shocked at how many of his finest villains are complex, sympathetic beings. So few act totally out of malice; more than a few have some genuine axes to grind with the so-called “hero” of the play (I mean, you’d be a villain too if you had to put up with a moody Hamlet for a step-son, right?) It’s a fine reminder that Shakespeare was a writer of terrific nuance, and why actors will always serve themselves well and enrich their craft to know his work inside and out.
#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.”
Iago is an easy first place on a list of best Shakespeare villains—in fact, he topped our list of best Shakespeare characters as well! Iago is the conniving lieutenant to the titular Othello, who plots against the general after being passed up for promotion. Rather than do Othello harm directly, he gaslights his superior with gossip and lies until the enraged general murders his wife Desdemona at the play’s terrible climax.
Iago is one of the truly evil characters on this list: Shakespeare grants him no remorse for his actions as the tragedy wears on, only compounding anger and hate. (For the record, he proves himself quite capable of murder when slaying his own wife in a botched escape.) However, this is not to say he isn’t a complex character. He is a brilliant manipulator, an honourable soldier and a good friend and confidante to all (to a point…) His lengthy soliloquies throughout the play suggest a rich inner life of the character: full of torment, self-doubt and delusion. You could spend a lifetime picking apart Iago’s words and motives on the page and never truly know him.
For more Iago being a ruthless bastard: Iago Monologue Act 2 Scene 1
#2 Lady Macbeth (from Macbeth)
“Look like th’innocent flower,
But be the serpent under’t.”
After her husband, Macbeth, hears a prophecy that he will ascend to the throne, Lady Macbeth conspires with him to murder the King so that he might take power and rule Scotland. However, Macbeth needs more than a push to get it done; after the murder, it is Lady Macbeth who plants the bloody daggers on the bodies of the King’s servants—allowing them to get away with their awful plot.
Lady Macbeth almost beat Iago to our #1 spot on this list, but she comes in at second place because of her extraordinary character arc as somebody who begins to show genuine upset and remorse for her actions. Her famous “Out, damned spot!” monologue is actually performed as she sleepwalks—driven to madness by guilt and fear of persecution. In fact, Macbeth is a less a play about taking power than it is the psychological effects of those confronted by their villainy. Lady Macbeth dies by her own hand, leaving her husband to face the music on his own at the end. It’s a small fault in an otherwise masterful play, simply because Lady Macbeth is so wonderfully compelling.
For more Lady Macbeth at her height of villainy: Lady Macbeth Monologue
#3 Richard III (from Richard III)
“And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”
Nobody villains like King Richard III. Sure, some may be better at it; others may be more “evil”. But nobody delights in villainy like he does. Richard III, one of Shakespeare’s loosest history plays, details the rise and fall of Richard III of England—who plots and murders his way through friend and family and foe alike. From the very first monologue, he states his intentions to swim against the tide, setting up a play that deals brilliantly with the notion of fate, and what happens when the bad guy ‘wins’.
Of course, the real King Richard was quite different to the “rudely stamp’d” monster Shakespeare paints him to be (his body was famously found beneath a car park in 2013). The character’s numerous physical disabilities in the text were actually a result of scoliosis; and the Bard did not stop there with his embellishments in creating a cruel tyrant. For this reason, contemporary readings of the text are often more sympathetic towards a character who rivals Lady Macbeth and Iago for complexity—on and off the page.
For more of this awful Dick, check out: Five Formidable Richard III Monologues
#4 Claudius (from Hamlet)
“Oh, my offence is rank. It smells to Heaven.
It hath the primal eldest curse upon ’t,
A brother’s murder.”
Claudius is portrayed as a mild-mannered and reasonable individual. However, this fails to reflect his past crimes, which include the murder of his brother and marriage to his sister-in law. His adopted son, Hamlet, is understandably upset. What distinguishes Claudius as a villain is his seeming lack of villainy: initially, he seems only to desire reconciliation with the young prince—only resorting to harsher tactics after Hamlet goes mad and murders his friend Polonius.
What makes Claudius such a compelling villain is the way he is framed, for the audience, through the lens of protagonist Hamlet. Killing your brother to take your throne and marry his wife is, objectively, awful. But is he as bad as Hamlet makes him out to be? Claudius is, quite clearly, guilty … but there’s a lot of regret and fear in the man (see the below monologue as an example). Hamlet gives actor and audience alike plenty of room to interpret the play and pass their own judgements.
For a glimpse at the flawed humanity of Claudius: Claudius Monologue Act 3 Scene 3
#5 Tamora (from Titus Andronicus)
“And make them know what ’tis to let a queen
Kneel in the streets and beg for grace in vain.”
Tamora, queen of the recently-conquered Goths, arrives in Rome at the start of Titus Andronicus in chains—a spoil of war to be leered at by the conquerors. Her eldest son is sacrificed to the Roman gods, and she is offered to the emperor’s son, Saturninus, as a slave. However, in an extreme reversal of fortune, Saturninus marries her; when he becomes emperor, she uses her new status to torture the titular general and punish him for his past cruelties
Tamora is a monstrous opponent to Titus Andronicus: she sics her lover Aaron, and her sons Chiron and Demetrius, onto Titus’ daughter Lavinia. Their subsequent crimes are some of the most brutal and bloodthirsty in all of Shakespeare’s works. But Tamora’s anger and lust for vengeance is, arguably, justified. Far more justified than her punishment of being fed her sons cooked into a pie…
For more of Tamora’s incitement to violence and gore, take a look at: Tamora Monologue Act 2 Scene 3
#6 Shylock (from The Merchant Of Venice)
“If you prick us do we not 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?”
Shylock, a Jewish moneylender and the titular merchant of Venice, lends young noble Bassanio a vast sum of money. When the young Venetian defaults on the loan, Shylock demands the debt be paid as “a pound of flesh”—the meaning and validity of which are argued in the climactic legal showdown between Shylock and protagonist Portia.
Shylock is, arguably, one of Shakespeare’s most famous creations—villain or otherwise. In fact, it almost feels strange to include him on a list of villains, as his actions and motives have been so keenly explored and understood: both in the play itself, and by actors and historians for hundreds of years. Shylock is a divisive character: seen s both an ugly, anti-Semitic stereotype as well as an example of Shakespeare’s willingness to write and stage perspectives other than his own. We are sure never to see the end of our fascination with the merchant of Venice.
For more of Shylock’s justifiable anger: Shylock Monologue Act 3 Scene 1
#7 Edmund (from King Lear)
“Now, gods, stand up for bastards.”
Edmund is the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester. He lives in the shadow of his ‘legitimate’ brother Edgar, and vies to better his station in life and gain some personal recognition. King Lear is better known for its plot involving the titular king and his three daughters; however, the political machinations of the characters (including Edmund) make up the overwhelming majority of the play. Edmund is caught up with like-minded power grabbers, which leads to his brief elevation and inevitable end.
Edmund is a ruthless operator and a fine warrior on the battlefield. What elevates him from any mid-tier henchman is his personal quest to prove himself and rise above the circumstances of his birth. During his death scene, he actually repents for some of his more hideous actions and tries to save Lear and Cordelia.
For more of the bastard you can’t help but love: Edmund Monologue Act 1 Scene 2
#8 Tybalt (from Romeo and Juliet)
“The love I bear thee can afford
No better term than this: thou art a villain.”
Tybalt is the cousin of Juliet, and a fierce defender of the Capulet family honour on the streets of fair Verona. He serves as the primary antagonist of the play until his death in Scene 3. His death, at Romeo’s hand, is also a dramatic turning point for the play, as it sets in motion the events one could truly call tragic: Romeo’s banishment, Juliet’s plot and the young lovers’ eventual demise. With Tybalt’s death, the action of Romeo and Juliet ‘grows up’.
He is portrayed as a violent, headstrong individual, as well as the instigator of tensions between the Montagues and Capulets. However, Tybalt has a deep affection for his cousin. He is also, in turn, adored by his larger family and respectful of their wishes for peace at the party at which Romeo and Juliet meet. This suggests a rich complexity in the character that grants any actor portraying him plenty of room for interpretation and characterisation.
#9 Goneril and Regan (from King Lear)
“Out, vile jelly!”
Aging Lear seeks to divide his kingdom into three and live amongst the lands of his three daughters: Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. Goneril and Regan don’t hesitate to stroke the ego of their father—unlike Cordelia, who bristles at the exercise and is punished for it. Of course, when the King calls on them and their new-found fortunes, they react coldly to the old fool and cast him out of their homes.
Goneril and Regan are not without their moments of unabashed villainy. Goneril lusts after #7 on this very list, and Regan blinds the Earl of Gloucester with the disgusting utterance above these paragraphs. But it’s important to remember that the true villain of King Lear is the Lear’s own foolishness and hubris: he expects his daughters to drop everything and accommodate him, adding strings to his seemingly unattached gifts. Goneril and Regan are ripe for re-examination by contemporary actors, keen to explore their justified anger at being played against one another as pawns in an old white dude’s ego trip.
#10 “Hotspur” (from Henry IV Part One)
“Harry to Harry shall, hot horse to horse,
Meet and ne’er shall part till one drop down a corse.”
Sir Henry Percy, known by his nickname “Hotspur”, is the foil of protagonist Prince Henry—”Hal”, to his drinking friends. They spend much of the play apart, meeting to fight on the battlefield where their fates and legacies are decided.
Hotspur isn’t an evil figure—even if he fights with the rebels that oppose the crown. But what makes him such a great villain is the way in which he embodies so much of what Hal is expected to be: noble, confident, a great leader and formidable warrior. We hate Hotspur because the protagonist does (even if, if we’re honest, he seems like an all-right guy). It’s the perfect example of Shakespeare’s excellent characterisation, and how he shied away from the simple of binaries of good and evil.