Today’s Witch Week guest post is by Sari Nichols, who tweets as Armchair Scholar and blogs at The View from Sari’s World and at The Groundling’s Guide to Shakespeare. Her expertise suggested her as an ideal guide to Shakspearean villains.
As Kipling wrote, “The female of the species is deadlier than the male,” and that may well prove to be the case in the Bard’s work as Sari explores some especially wicked wives, dastardly daughters, and murderous mothers.
My official introduction to Shakespeare happened during a high school English class reading. Our teacher must have been a frustrated actor because he didn’t just read the play, he entertained us students with a one-man production of Macbeth!
While I found his antics highly engaging, the play didn’t resonate with me; at 17 I could not connect with a murderous medieval king. It was not until our teacher began to talk about the madness and death of Lady Macbeth that I began to see value in the play (Act V).
Lady Macbeth: Out, damned spot! out, I say!—One: two: why,
then, ’tis time to do’t.—Hell is murky!—Fie, my
lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we
fear who knows it, when none can call our power to
Yet who would have thought the old man
to have had so much blood in him.
The thane of Fife had a wife: where is she now?—
What, will these hands ne’er be clean?—No more o’
that, my lord, no more o’ that: you mar all with
The queen cannot cope with her role in the death of King Duncan and the aftermath of this vile act. She sleepwalks, looking at her hands, sometimes attempting to wash them, all the while wondering if she will ever be the same; we learn the answer a few lines later, Lady Macbeth has killed herself.
The thought of doing something so damning as to stain one’s soul petrified me. I vowed right there and then that I would never do something that I would regret to the point that I would have to ask if my hands ne’er be clean. This bargain I made with myself led me to study and appreciate Shakespeare. It would make sense, as it was one of his plays that helped shape teen Sari into young adult Sari.
Lady Macbeth stayed on my mind during my early adult years. The thought of her nightly ritual of hand washing hung over my thoughts anytime I had to make a big choice. Not that I was ever in a position to chose between killing or leaving well enough alone, but anytime I struggled with something I though I might later regret. She became a sort of role model on what not to do. Now I know that she made an odd character to identify with but my young self saw her as a victim of circumstance, something at time I felt but always tried to rise above. Now I understand that she is one of Shakespeare’s many villains. In fact, Lady Macbeth is Shakespeare’s most famous of his female villains.
That Shakespeare had any female villains is a wonder. They must have shocked his audiences much more than their male counterparts. Shakespeare lived during a cultural and industrial renaissance but also socially and philosophically in the middle ages. During this time, women would have had little agency and were often viewed as possessions to be sold off or bought for money, titles, and land. This mind-set may be why the theater wasn’t known for depicting cruel or murderous women. Women were used as plot points, or something a male protagonist had to deal with.
Even today, the women of Shakespeare do not come to mind when we think of Shakespeare’s villains. When I conducted a poll for this blog Richard III, Iago, and Macbeth competed for the top honor. Not one woman’s name came up in the submissions. I find this odd because there are some evil and cruel women of Shakespeare.
I was humbled to be asked to contribute to Witch Week. I was asked to write about Shakespeare’s villains, and like everyone else, when I think of Shakespeare’s villains, I think of men. But because this is Witch Week, l decided we should look at three other villainous women of Shakespeare.
King Lear’s daughters: Regan and Goneril
These two sisters are evil personified. They are children of privilege who not only want more than they have, but are willing to do anything to get it. Their coldness to their father and younger sister are equally matched by the coldness to anyone who stands in their way. In the end, the two become bitter rivals over lust and power.
Goneril being the oldest, designs to remove her father from power so that she can sit on the throne. Lear is aging badly and Goneril sees his weakness as a way to the throne. She pretends to be a loving daughter who wants only what is best for the old man. Regan goes along with Goneril believing that this would put her second in line, and powerful in her own right.
Together they manipulate their father into dividing his land so that their younger sister has none. What strikes audiences is how the sisters talk to each other in the opening scenes. They seem to genuinely care about their father but as the play progresses it becomes clear they believe they have manipulated each other to action.
After receiving their inheritance and promising to take care of their father, they systematically abuse him and use his already fragile mind against him. He does not understand this disloyalty.
Lear: I gave you all!
Regan: And in good time you gave it.
It is during this exchange that the audience understands that the sisters have never cared about their father and everything that came before was just pretense.
In the ensuing play’s acts they demand that Gloucester, an ally of the king have his eyes plucked out, and plot to cheat on their perceived “weak” husbands. This is their collective undoing, as each sister unknowingly tries to cheat with the same man. Goneril poisons her sister, and much like Lady Macbeth cannot live with her actions, so kills herself.
Tamora, Queen of the Goths
Game of Thrones fans were shocked but satisfied when Arya Stark fed Walder Frey his own sons to him baked in a pie. But did you know this scene is from Shakespeare? This over-the top revenge comes from one of Shakespeare’s least liked and produced plays, Titus Andronicus. It is a messy and often blood soaked drama that Harold Bloom argues is a parody of Marlow’s plays. Parody or not, it contains some of Shakespeare’s worse writing and over the top violence. Even for modern standards this play is considered too violent to produce. It depicts rape, torture, and infanticide. All of this horror can be laid at the feet of the character of Tamora who seeks revenge against Titus. In my opinion it is Tamora, not Lady Macbeth who is the most evil of his female villains.
Captured in battle along with her sons by Titus, Tamora pleads for the life of her eldest but is rejected, so vows revenge on Titus. She plots her revenge in a cold calculating manner that by comparison makes Goneril and Regan look like sulking teens.
Tamora, an attractive older woman, draws the attention of the new and young Emperor of Rome, Saturninus, and convinces him to marry her. Deceitful and dangerous, she is able to lead Saturninus by the nose. He never questions the closeness of her relationship with Aaron the Moor, her secret lover.
Tamora chooses to take her revenge slowly, using Aaron and her sons to break Titus’s heart and mind. She commands that her sons rape and mutilate Titus’ daughter Lavinia. She convinces Aaron to forge a letter that accuses Titus’s sons Martius and Quintus of the murder of Saturninus’ brother. When she falls pregnant by Aaron, she orders him to kill the baby when it turns out to be black. Aaron rejects this idea, takes the baby, and rejoins the Goths.
Tamora, thinking she has finally driven Titus mad joins all of the remaining characters at a banquet. As they eat, Titus, who is only acting mad, informs the group that Tamora’s sons have been murdered and baked into a pie, the very pie that Tamora is eating! Titus then kills Tamora and in turn, is killed by Saturninus. Is there little wonder this play is given little respect by Shakespeare scholars?
I’d love to hear your take on Shakespeare’s female villains. Do you have a favorite, and why?
Happy Witch Week. Don’t forget to save room for some pie!
Who would have thought these women to have had so much villainy in them? Sari shows that regardless of gender some individuals are capable of the most wicked deeds