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Analysis of the Villains in Shakespeare's Plays

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3601 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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 The role of the villain is seen to have a huge impact in Shakespeare’s plays. Three villains I will be discussing are Malvolio (Twelfth Night), Shylock (Merchant of Venice) and Iago (Othello). While reading Shakespeare’s plays, I noticed that the villains are driven by revenge. Shylock wants revenge on Antonio for requesting special treatment on his loan as well as inappropriate racial slurs. Iago wants revenge on Othello for stealing a job that he doesn’t deserve. Malvolio wanted people to pay for all the torture they put him through. In Shakespeare’s plays, all of the villains share something in common. The villains are depicted as people who are largely disadvantaged because they are misunderstood or mistreated by society (Donkor, 1). In this paper, I will describe the reasons why Malvolio, Skylock and Iago are disadvantaged due to the portrayal of their character in the plays of Shakespeare.

Malvolio in Twelfth Night

Malvolio is largely depicted as a domineering villain who is overly serious and self-righteous (Hays, 1). Shakespeare largely utilized this character to prove that villains are built by the society (Donkor, 1). Their negative actions may be justified as either efforts to adapt or revenge against the treatment received from others in the course of the play (Bauer, 1). From the early stages of Twelfth Night, Malvolio is treated with hate, suspicion and resentment. In Act I Scene V Verse 77, Olivia indicates that Malvolio is an individual who has been made sick by self-love. He loves himself to an extent that he has been disconnected from the rest of the society (Bauer, 1). At the same time, Maria states that he is a good person. In Act 2 Scene III Verse 25, Maria indicates that Malvolio can sometimes be a puritan. He is also depicted as a normal person; with both good and bad sides that can be accommodated. According to Michael Hays, he states, “Bad enough to have a name like Malvolio–literally, ill-will” (Hays, 1).  This can be a reason why he likes revenge in his last torment.

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Malvolio endured a lot of negative experiences at the hands of his family (Hays, 1). His fellow household members started a prank in Act 2; which hurt his wellbeing more than a normal prank would. By the end of Act 4, the prank had been turned into abuse. The family members forged a letter that made Malvolio feel that he had already gotten the attention and acceptance from his dream girl. When he played along, they regarded him as insane and went ahead to lock him in a dark room. On Act 4 Scene 2 Verses 80 and 81, he indicates that he is sane and that he was being abused by people who were close to him. In this incident, Maria is the little villain because she colludes with Sir Toby to derive happiness from the suffering of the main villain. By writing a letter to deceive Malvolio and push him into perceived insanity, the two are brought out as villains whose actions play a role in developing an even more serious villain. His behavior was normal, but the two chose to lock him up despite his pleads that he is not mad.

Throughout the play, people are falling in love and making great sacrifices to ensure that that they please their lovers (Bauer, 1). However, it is only Malvolio whose love expeditions are treated as abnormal and insane. The rest of the characters are using both valid and invalid reasons to justify their love and actions that they undertake to prove it to their potential lovers and spouses. On Act 2 Scene 5 Verse 30, Malvolio creates the idea of “Count Malvolio,” which is very similar with that of Orsino of the perfect woman. However, it is only Malvolio who is punished and ridiculed for his ideas. He is continually treated as an outsider who does not have a place in his family and the entire society. As he strives to gain his stature and recognition, the people continue undermining and demeaning him. He is not offered any apology in regard to the manner in which he is treated. At the exit, he indicates that he will take his revenge. In Act 5 Chapter 1 Verse 365, Malvolio states that the people should consider themselves “revenged on the whole pack of you.” Although Shakespeare brings him out as a villain, he tries to defy the negativity around him and continue living with his dignity. He only gives in when the negative factors grow too strong and irresistible.

Malvolio slowly develops into an aggressive character; who rains on every other person’s parade. He tattles the people around him; with some of his actions aimed at getting revenge for himself and the women he feels affectionate to. He imprisons the sea captain who holds Viola’s maiden weeds; which are literally translated to mean a dress. Shakespeare brings out the fact that villains have access to information and their activities stretch far beyond simple actions of revenge. Malvolio is determined to spoil Viola’s happiness; especially when she changes her clothes and Orsino develops more interest in her. The costume glitch turns out as a minor problem; which may come out as a relief to the reader. But Malvolio is consistent in his disturbances and manages to stay around for longer than the audience can ever anticipate. He is initially determined to prove his feelings to the people. At the end of the play, when he runs off stage, he is still determined to fit into the society. He was working as a servant which was deemed the lowest class. The society doesn’t view him as the other people in the higher classes. He is angered by the prank and determined to get his revenge. Efforts by the society to push the villain away from itself makes him develop greater interest in understanding his future victims. Villains have long, continuous missions where they have to take time to understand the people around them in order to take advantage of the relevant weaknesses and opportunities.

Shylock in the Merchant of Venice

Shakespeare uses Shylock in the Merchant of Venice to demonstrate that people are not lured into evil by others, but by their own minds. As in the case of Iago above, information is key in Shylock’s revenge against other people. He uses his deep familiarity with Antonio to attain his revenge mission. The revenge activities are built on the bond created between Shylock and Antonio. At the initial stages of the play, Shakespeare demonstrates that although their friendship looks sincere, it is strengthened by Shylock’s expectations. Shylock knew that Antonio lends money without interest; and that he would sooner or later have a need where Antonio will be expected to come in and bail him out. “He lends out money gratis and brings down /The rate of usance here with us in Venice.” (MV 1.3.44-45) Shakespeare demonstrates that the friendship between the two is not genuine. All his relations are built on his love for money. Shylock appreciates the fact that Antonio is desperate and keeps coming to him for help.

Shylock is depicted as a self-centered and opportunistic individual who is largely interested in financial gains; rather than genuine social relations with other people. Shylock understands that Antonio has a certain level of desperation for him. He understands that default to pay the money lent to Antonio will entitle Shylock to cutting off Antonio’s flesh in proportion to the amount of money defaulted. Initially, Antonio seems to believe that Shylock is a genuine friend who is ready to work towards their mutual benefit. However, (MV 1.3.155-163) Shylock indicates that he was willing to take Antonio’s flesh as repayment for defaulted loans. Shakespeare demonstrates that the heart of a villain is loaded with anger and the desire for vengeance. However, they are able to disguise these feelings and intentions. They interact freely and are able to win the faith and trust of the rest of the people by pretending that they care. Despite Shylock being hateful and vengeful towards Othello, he is able to disguise his intentions as a yearning for a genuine friendship (Safer, 1).  He capitalizes on the desperation within Antonio to get closer to him. By the time Shylock reveals his intentions, Antonio has been trapped and can hardly work towards reversing the situation. At the end, Shylock can no longer hide his anger and explodes, “I’ll have my bond. Speak not against my bond.

I have sworn an oath that I will have my bond.” (MV 3.3.5-6) Unlike Iago in Othello, Shylock discloses his intentions before carrying out his mission to completion. Shylock pursues actions that he cannot justify. When Antonio defaults on the money lent to him, Shylock demands that he wants Antonio’s flesh without any justifiable reason. He indicates that he wants to feed his revenge and nothing else. However, Shylock is not fully a villain. Some parts of the play portray him as a victim. Shakespeare brings out this victimization as a justification for Shylock’s bad intentions and negative actions towards other people. He is subjected to abuse by Christians and other people within the town. This is due to him being of Jewish descent. He loses his wife to death; his daughter abandons his home and jewels are constantly stolen from him. This victimization increases the quest for revenge from him. In Act II Scene VIII, Salanio makes a report about Shylock’s cries about what he had lost, “My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!”. Christians within Venice are willing to borrow money from him. However, he has not been fully accepted into the local society as one of them. The anti-Semitism tendencies of the town’s people compare the Shylock to devil.

Shakespeare seems to deliberately use Shylock’s interactions with the people to prove that villains are partly created by the society. The people of Vernice work towards excluding Shylock from their society; only taking what can help him while excluding the rest of his aspects of life. The mistreatment that he receives is returned through his negative actions towards other members of the society. There are hardly any incidents that can approve or disapprove the fact that the shylock is sympathetic. He does not get an opportunity to fully expose his character and personality. The fact that Shylock is not Christian makes him seem a lesser human being than the rest of the Venetians. This must have been the factors that turned him into a villain. In Act I Scene III, Shylock is mentioned as a villain: “The devil can cite scripture for his purpose! / An evil soul producing holy witness/ Is like a villain with a smiling cheek” (MV 1.3.107-109). Antonio himself believes that Shylock is the antithesis of good by giving him the name ‘devil.’ This is based on the mere fact that Shylock is Jewish. Therefore, it is valid to conclude that the Venetians turned Shylock into the villain that they had always equated him to.

Iago in Othello

People put different levels of effort towards achieving their goals. Normally, the expectations are that a person’s success will be proportional to the efforts that they have put towards achieving their goals. Individuals who work more are likely to develop envy when those who have worked less end up achieving greater exploits. In the play Othello, Iago was enrolled in the military with the hope of rising up the ranks to become a lieutenant. When his targets fail, he becomes angry; especially at Othello, his boss, for Cassio’s promotion. Cassio is an officer of junior ranks with lesser experience who gets to Iago’s target position with much ease. Iago ends up taking out his anger for several reasons; with lack of promotion being the main trigger. The intentions of the villain are completely oblivious of the people who are likely to be affected by the anger in the course of the process. Through the play, Shakespeare utilizes Iago to bring out the traditional literary manifestation of a villain.

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Shakespeare brings out the concept of selfishness, ruthlessness and insatiability. Villains do not stop their advances until their aims are achieved. They are oblivious of the effects that their efforts have on other people and even on themselves in the long-run. Iago obliterates his way throughout the play; without giving a thought to the implications of his actions. Shakespeare uses him to demonstrate that the determination applied by villains in their ruthlessness is often at the same level as the effort that they put towards succeeding in life. The determination that Iago puts towards climbing up the ranks in the military is carried into taking his aggression to his boss. Therefore, there is consistency in the effort that the villain puts towards achieving his goals. In the play, Shakespeare shows that Iago is a logical person who follows through his vengeance mission because of reasons that he explains to the audience. Shakespeare uses Iago to demonstrate that villains have reasons for their actions and could have been better people if certain conditions are met. Iago is succinct in explaining why he needs to take his vengeance on Othello. According to Sam Wood, “the question of his motivation has been either ignored or deliberately avoided. Such an approach risks stripping Iago of his humanity and presents him as an improviser who ‘revels in his ability to manipulate his victims’ for no discernable reason” (Wood, 1).

 In (Othello 1.3), Iago states the reasons why he must take his anger to Othello, his boss. He says that he is deeply hurt by the fact that Othello overlooked his efforts and chose to promote Cassio to the rank of lieutenant. The reason why he was so jealous was due to the fact that Othello was black, and it was believed that black people had no authority over the whites. He also states that, ‘it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets, he has done my office.’ This statement shows that Iago believes that Othello is having an affair with Emilia, his wife. Iago justifies his hate for Othello; by blaming him for most of the misfortunes that have befallen him in the play. He indicates that his revenge against Othello also includes satisfying his desire for Desdemona. He believes that the best way to carry out revenge is returning the same bad action on the doer.

Iago believes that by luring Desdemona, he would have achieved his revenge in an action he calls ‘wife for wife’ (Wood, 1). Desdemona is Othello’s wife who Iago is attracted to. Shakespeare does not indicate whether this attraction existed before Iago’s thought that Othello was having an affair with his wife.  In (Othello 2.2), Iago tries to convince himself why he must go after Othello’s wife. Throughout the play, Shakespeare brings out Iago as the perfect personification of immoral behavior at the time. To himself, Iago feels that his behavior against other people is justified; creating the scenario that most villains have a justification for their actions. Iago successfully lures both Othello and Cassio into acting as he wishes and manages to convince Othello that Cassio is having an affair with his wife. He understands the weaknesses and opportunities that he can use to interfere with Cassio’s perceptions and take revenge against his boss.

At the beginning of the play, Shakespeare demonstrates that Iago enjoys doing evil for the sake of it. His deception is exhibited in the entire cast; especially through his manipulative and hypocritical tendencies. Shakespeare demonstrates that evil doers are successful in their plans because they take time to study and understand the environment. In the course of his revenge he is able to recruit other people by offering them gains in his evil quests. For instance, he plots to use Roderigo to take away Othello’s wife. This was a departure from the initial parts of the play where he had confessed attraction to Desdemona and promised to lure her in revenge. If Iago was indeed in love with her, he would have worked to gain her attention and full loyalty. However, he offers Roderigo the ultimate price of the entire mission; taking Desdemona after Othello is gone. Iago also manipulates Emilia, his wife, into convincing Othello that Desdemona had re-gifted a handkerchief from her husband to Cassio. However, Roderigo is killed in a fight started with Cassio; which had been started by Iago. Iago partially succeeds by having Othello to commit suicide. However, the power is taken by Cassio. Iago has no hate towards Cassio, although he envies him because of his ability to climb through the ranks. Iago is an antagonist who understands how to manipulate people. He finds justifications form most of his evil plans. Shakespeare uses his character to bring out the fact that villains of the time would participate in all forms of evil actions while maintaining their reputation as honest and dedicated individuals.   


In the three plays, Villains are depicted as people who are largely disadvantaged because they are misunderstood or mistreated by the rest of the society. All of the villains had the same goal for revenge on one of the main characters. In Othello, Iago is a strong villain; who mainly reacts to the fact that the society does not reward him as he anticipates. He dedicates vast energy towards his job in the hope that his boss will see it and reward him. However, his efforts largely go unnoticed. The values of the three villains above are modelled by the cultural, religious and social values of the societies within which they live. I believe Shylock is the most vindictive and villainous since in the very first acts he was hated and his intentions where always to kill Antonio no matter the expense, even if it cost his own money. Shylock is a victim of anti-Semitism. He lives in a society where every person is only interested in taking what benefits them while still excluding him from the society. Despite regularly borrowing from Shylock, the rest of the people mistreat him and continue treating him as an outsider. He uses their links and dependency to plot revenge. Villains are created by the society around them. The people misunderstand them and use the little links that they establish to mistreat these individuals. Villains are patient enough to wait until they earn the trust of their victims or develop a certain link that will help them advance the victimization.

Works Cited

  • Bauer, Matthias. “Count Malvolio, Machevill and Vice.” Connotations, vol. 1, no.3, 1991, p.244. Academic OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A322903010/AONE?u=nysl_li_stjsphc&sid=AONE&xid=c913084.
  • Donkor, Michael. “Misunderstanding in Othello.” British Library.    https://www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/misunderstanding-in-othello
  • Hays, Michael. “Roles, wrongs, and revenge: Malvolio in Twelfth Night.” Shakespeare Newsletter, Winter 2009, p. 101+. Academic OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A236334535/AONE?u=nysl_li_stjsphc&sid=AONE&xid=20edca05.
  • Merchant of Vernice. Act 1. Scene III. Lines 139-146.
  • Merchant of Vernice. Act I. Scene III.
  • Merchant of Vernice. Act II. Scene VIII. 
  • Merchant of Vernice. Act III. Scene III. Verses 12-13.
  • Othello. Act I. Scene III. lines 369-370.
  • Othello. Act II. Scene II. lines 286.
  • Othello. Act III. Scene III.
  • Othello. Act III. Scene III. Lines 108.
  • Twelfth Night. Act 2. Scene III. Verse 25.
  • Twelfth Night. Act 4. Scene 2. Verses 80 and 81.
  • Twelfth Night. Act 5. Chapter 1. Verse 365
  • Twelfth Night. Act I. Scene V. Verse 77.
  • Safer, Elaine. “Operation Shylock: The Double, the Comic, and the Quest for Identity.” Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Jeffrey W. Hunter, vol. 336, Gale, 2013. Literature Resource Center, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/H1100113993/GLS?u=nysl_li_stjsphc&sid=GLS&xid=96deb1b6. Accessed 6 May 2019. Originally published in Playful and Serious: Philip Roth as a Comic Writer, edited by Ben Siegel and Jay L. Halio, University of Delaware Press, 2010, pp. 152-180.
  • Wood, Sam. “Where Iago Lies: Home, honesty and the Turk in Othello.” Early Modern Literary Studies, vol. 14, no. 3, 2009. Academic OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A212261030/AONE?u=nysl_li_stjsphc&sid=AONE&xid=e0d8852f.


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