WE’RE ON A QUEST TO DISCOVER THE ULTIMATE SHAKESPEAREAN VILLAINS. THE MOST DOWNRIGHT DEVIOUS, NEFARIOUS NASTIES IN ALL OF SHAKESPEARE’S PLAYS.
HERE, WE REVEAL NUMBERS SEVEN, SIX AND FIVE.
7. PRINCE HAL aka HENRY V (Henry IV, Henry V)
Yes, yes we know. Prince Hal is a hero. One of Shakespeare’s most inspiring, in fact. A gallant fighter, and a brilliant orator. A man who conquers every battlefield he steps onto.
So why is he on our list of villains?
Well for starters: He’s disloyal. Before he becomes king, Hal is happy to party with Falstaff and Bardolph in the den of inequity that is the Boar’s Head Tavern. But the moment he becomes king, Hal publicly turns his back on Falstaff. Later still, he shows no hesitation in sentencing Bardolph to be hanged for theft.
So far, so bad. But that’s nothing compared to what else Hal is capable of. As John Bell points out in On Shakespeare, as soon as Hal is crowned Henry V, he embarks upon a patriotic war that “will deflect rebellion, unite the country and make the new king a national hero.” The inevitable casualties are but a trifling detail.
“The new king bullies and blackmails the Church into sanctioning his cause,” says Bell. Then Henry V undertakes a war of invasion, executes anyone who stands in his way and, during the Battle of Agincourt, commands his soldiers to commit the ultimate war crime: slaughtering thousands of prisoners.
If you’re still in any doubt about Henry V’s villainous credentials, just read the bloodthirsty threat he issues to the besieged inhabitants of Harfleur.
6. RICHARD III (Richard III)
When it came to history, Shakespeare never let the facts get in the way of a good story. There are those who believe King Richard III was, in real life, a good and progressive monarch but there’s no trace of those qualities in the character that Shakespeare creates. In the play, Richard III cons his way to the English crown, and clings to it, thanks to a relentless campaign of conniving, executions and warmongering.
“Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard III is still controversial today, with armies of ‘Ricardians’ angrily protesting that it’s Tudor propaganda,” says Pat Reid, editor of Shakespeare Magazine. “Personally, I wonder if Shakespeare makes Richard so monumentally grotesque as a way of hinting that it shouldn’t be taken too seriously.”
Reid nominates the famously hunchbacked villain as his favourite: “He’s so gleefully malevolent that he almost becomes a kind of devil in human form, but he’s also laugh-out-loud funny.”
Reid adds: “He resembles a modern-day serial killer in that we know he’s going to keep on killing until he’s stopped. The whole issue of Richard’s physical deformity adds another dimension. I thought Benedict Cumberbatch played Richard superbly in The Hollow Crown2 – he’s an arch-manipulator, but at times he seems horror-stricken to be possessed by forces beyond his control.”
Bell Shakespeare’s new production of Richard 3 will hit stages in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne from February to May 2017.
5. MACBETH (Macbeth)
Shakespeare obviously had a bit of a thing for villainous kings – and Macbeth is possibly the most treacherous of all. With his mind poisoned by prophecies from three witches, Macbeth murders the King of Scotland in his sleep and takes the crown for himself. But once on the throne, paranoia overcomes him. He spends his brief reign ordering the deaths of any potential enemies (and even his best friend Banquo) before the whole thing comes crashing down in a bloody battle at Dunsinane Castle.
Macbeth is a villain so heinous and despicable that actors are actually afraid to say his name out loud. “The curse of Macbeth” is infamous in theatre circles where (according to legend) if you speak his name, disaster will befall whatever play you’re working on.
Sounds like a tall story, right?
Maybe. But the last time Bell Shakespeare staged Macbeth at the Sydney Opera House, in 2012, half the cast were struck down with food poisoning – and opening night had to be postponed. Now, we’re not saying there’s any truth in the superstition but, then again, we’re still not saying “Macbeth” out loud either…