Shakespeare’s Villains

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Updated: May 13, 2021
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Shakespeare’s Villains essay

“In two of William Shakespeare’s plays: Hamlet and King Lear, the two characters who are considered villainous with great political ambitions are Claudius, King of Denmark and Edmund, the bastard son of Earl of Gloucester. These two men are resentful, manipulative, and want to ensure they obtain power; nevertheless, Shakespeare provides the audience with an understanding yet unsympathetic perception of their plot to pursue the title and land.

Even though these characters are a part of two different tragedies, Shakespeare provides a variety of very similar ambitions and motivations. In other words, Claudius and Edmund embody feelings of resentment and manipulative characteristics. In Act 3 of Hamlet, King Claudius actually admits to his manipulative scheme (which resulted from his resentment towards his brother) to get the throne. “Of those effects for which I did the murder, / My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen” (3.3.54-55). Because of his strong feelings of dissatisfaction with his brothers’ inheritance, by murdering his brother, Claudius manipulated his way into the title of King and his new relationship with Queen Gertrude. Similarly, it only takes Shakespeare until the second scene of King Lear to provide insight into Edmund’s feelings of resentment and desire to manipulate. Both of which can be seen in his soliloquy in Act 1. First, he expresses his resentment towards himself and his parents for being a bastard child. “As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us / With base? with baseness? Bastardy base? Base?” (1.2.9-10) Then the reader sees Edmund’s first thought of manipulation on the next page. “Well then, / Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land” (1.2.15-16). This soliloquy illustrates and provides an inclination that he will be plotting a scheme to inherit his father’s land as a result of his resentment toward Gloucester and Edgar’s thinking that they are above a bastard. As a way of soliloquies, Shakespeare had both of the villains express their motivation (resentment) and plans to manipulate their way into power.

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Opposingly, though their motives are similar, they carry out their strategy differently. Both Claudius and Edmund want to overtake the title from their brothers; nevertheless, their actions that get the deed done are different. Claudius lied to the people of Denmark about how he murdered his brother. Supposedly,

‘Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,

A serpent stung me. So the whole ear of Denmark…

The serpent that did sting thy father’s life

Now wears his crown (1.5.35-40).

Hamlet was also under this assumption until his father’s Ghost told him otherwise. Claudius actually killed his brother by pouring “juice of cursed hebona in a vial” (1.5.62) into his ear while he was sleeping. On the other hand, Edmund was less involved physically in his strategy. Simply, he was more conniving in his plan. He convinced his father that his brother wrote a letter planning a conspiracy to kill him. “I hope, for my brother’s justification, he wrote this but as an essay or taste of my virtue” (1.2.45-46). As Gloucester reads “If our father would sleep till I waked him, you should enjoy half his revenue forever, and live the beloved of your brother. Edgar” (1.2.53-55). His plot against his brother and father eventually came down to battle; however, the scheme plays out longer compared to an immediate murder by way of poison.

Throughout the portrayal of both characters and their schemes to retain power, Shakespeare was able to stimulate the audiences understanding and unsympathetic perception. When examining Hamlet, Shakespeare does not provide much room for sympathy. In other words, in Act 3 Claudius tries to beg for forgiveness, “My fault is past, but, O what form of prayer / Can serve my turn? “Forgive me my foul murder”?” (3.3.51-52). Although this seemed to be a heartfelt attempt, Hamlet immediately shuts him down. “And that his soul may be as damned and black / As hell, whereto it goes” (3.3.93-94). Claudius is begging for forgiveness and express his guilt so the audience can have a better understanding of his character; nevertheless, he directly switches to Hamlet to show the audience that Claudius is still just a villain that killed his father strictly for a powerful title and his mother. In King Lear, Shakespeare allows for a more sympathetic outlook since Edmund may be considered doomed from the beginning since he was born a bastard child. However, Shakespeare ensures the audience knows there is always a potential for evil when it comes to Edmund. For example, in Act 5 during Edmunds last moments, he revokes his order to have Cordelia hanged. “I pant for life. Some good I mean to do, / Despite of mine own nature. Quickly send –” (5.3.248-249). Even though this order is given too late, it still provokes thought within the audience. When Edmund retracts the order, one may think he is slightly becoming less evil, but one also has to understand he imprisoned and provided the order in the first place. In other words, there was a chance for a happy ending but because of Edmund’s evil qualities, Cordelia died. Shakespeare wants the audience to understand both sides of the schemes; however, in these two tragedies, there is no room for a sympathetic point of view.

Hamlet and King Lear, two of Shakespeare’s famous tragedies, both have plots revolving around the villainous characters schemes. In these plays, the villains are Claudius and Edmund. Both men use their resentment as fuel for a variety of manipulative acts resulting in uncompassionate reaction from the audience and readers.”

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Shakespeare’s villains. (2021, May 13). Retrieved from