Shakespeare Theatre Company salutes the Bard’s best villains

WTOP's Jason Fraley salutes Shakespeare's villains (Part 1)

We all know William Shakespeare’s most iconic heroes, from Romeo to Hamlet.

Now, it’s the bad guy’s turn.

Shakespeare Theatre salutes the Bard’s best baddies in “All the Devils Are Here: How Shakespeare Invented the Villain,” which is available to stream now through July 28.

“I had the idea that if you start at the beginning of Shakespeare’s career and travel chronologically … you might find out how his thinking on human evil developed,” writer and star Patrick Page told WTOP. “I put the pieces in order from 1590 to 1611 and found Shakespeare struggling with the question: Why do people do terrible things?”

Filmed in Sidney Harman Hall, Page performs the virtual event as a one-man show.

“I’m kind of a tour guide,” Page said. “I play each of the characters. I sometimes play characters in dialogue with each other. … Then in between the scenes that Shakespeare has written will be my observations and the connective tissue about how one play reflects to the next, leads to the next or looks back on the previous play.”

His chronological journey begins with the villains of “Henry VI” and “Richard III.”

“It starts with the ‘Henry VI’ plays with the character who becomes Richard III,” Page said. “Then he writes the character Aaron in ‘Titus Andronicus,’ who’s bad to the bone.”

After that, Page noticed that Shakespeare took a break from villains to write romance.

“He doesn’t write any new villains; he writes almost exclusively about love,” Page said. “It’s this unbelievable outpouring of poetry like nothing else in history: ‘Romeo & Juliet,’ ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ ‘Love’s Labor’s Loss,’ sonnets. He emerges from this period and seems to have changed. The villains deepen and become more human.”

His next play, “The Merchant of Venice,” was a rom com with a relatable villain.

“It has the character of Shylock, the money lender,” Page said. “He really starts to put himself in the villain’s shoes. We understand that if we were Shylock, if we were treated the same way as Shylock, we might behave exactly the way Shylock behaves.”

If audiences loved to hate Shylock, they had another thing coming in Falstaff.

“Falstaff in the ‘Henry IV’ plays is obviously written to be the antagonist,” Page said. “He’s called an old, white-bearded Satan. He’s the corruptor of Prince Hal. … He’s all the vices rolled into one: a glutton, a lecher, a liar, a thief, a womanizer, and yet he is this unbelievably witty, charming, eccentric and unbelievably intelligent character.”

Shakespeare then went the opposite direction for the villain of “Twelfth Night.”

“If Falstaff is the embodiment of a man who embraces everything about life — wine, women, song, food — Malvolio in ‘Twelfth Night’ is the opposite of that, a man who loves no plays or music, a man who seldom smiles,” Page said.

He reached a new level of complexity with the villain Claudius in “Hamlet.”

“At the very moment where everyone actually knows for sure … that Claudius is the murderer, he is the usurper, he is the person the audience wants to see Hamlet take his revenge on … at that moment he has Claudius go into the chapel and pray,” Page said. “He creates a fully three-dimensional human being with a conscience.”

Shakespeare wasn’t done yet. Next came the iconic Iago in “Othello.”

“He moves onto ‘Othello’ where he asked the question: Is it possible that someone could have no conscience whatsoever’ — which is what we call in our modern times the psychopath who has no conscience and no empathy — that’s Iago,” Page said.

He followed up with a villain of unspeakable name in “Macbeth.”

“Macbeth is not a psychopath, he’s the opposite of a psychopath,” Page said. “He has an unbelievable conscience, he has tremendous empathy, yet he chooses to do an unspeakable thing. That choice makes him go deeper and deeper toward that decision. Shakespeare continues to explore this in ‘King Lear’ with Edmund.”

It all builds to his final political drama in “The Tempest.”

“He comes back to the question of revenge,” Page said. “Prospero is a man bent on revenge who at the end of the play confronts his own thirst for revenge and eventually concludes, with the help of the spirit Ariel, that the greater virtue is in forgiveness and he forgives his enemies and he moves forward and he doesn’t take the vengeance.”

While Shakespeare certainly was a genius, he was building upon ancient traditions.

“Shakespeare has taken this tradition from Medieval morality plays called the ‘vice’ character, a kind of personified sin: greed, lust or envy,” Page said. “He got to speak directly to the audience, he was that chaos character, the Joker in Batman.”

Page would know, having played The Green Goblin on Broadway. He also played villains in “Saint Joan,” “Casa Valentina,” “Cyrano de Bergerac” and a Tony nod as Hades in “Hadestown” (2019). Thus, Playbill dubbed him “The Villain of Broadway.”

“I love that,” Page said. “It’s great as an actor to have a wheelhouse as long as you’re not a prisoner in the wheelhouse. It’s quite wonderful when a bad guy comes up that people think, ‘What about Patrick?’ … They know I’m going to bring some dimension.”

That dimension comes from mining the deepest, darkest parts of himself.

“I have to find each of these people within myself,” Page said. “I have to find Shylock’s thirst for revenge, Malvolio’s grandiosity, Claudius’ moral equivocation, Macbeth’s equivocation, all those things — and I have them. Carl Jung was brilliant when he observed it’s when we deny those things within ourselves that we get into trouble.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley salutes Shakespeare's villains (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up