I have an enduring weakness for swashbucklers, which I think is due to watching Errol Flynn at an impressionable age.
So of course I have been watching the BBC series The Musketeers, which ended a few weeks ago. I was very put-out that [SPOILER ALERT] Marc Warren’s dastardly Comte de Rochefort died in the final episode. There wasn’t really any other option for his character, but Marc Warren always creates great baddies and I was sad to see him go (also he looked awesome– I think eyepatches should come back as a thing):
I thought I’d console myself by looking this week at literary villains. There are so many great ones to choose from, and villains are often so much more compelling than the heroes. Of course some of them are just downright despicable:
But generally the story is a sorrier place when they’re not in it (and therefore usually ends at that point).
Firstly, for obsessive, depraved stab-happy villains, you need never look further than Jacobean tragedy. I’ve chosen Ferdinand from The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster (1612). Ferdinand is the twin brother of the titular character and he is barking mad (quite literally, as he thinks he is a werewolf and goes round digging up graves after dark). He doesn’t want the sister he characterises as a ‘lusty widow’ remarrying. To this end he employs melancholic henchman Bosola:
‘Your inclination to shed blood rides post
Before my occasion to use you. I give you that
To live i’ the court here, and observe the duchess;
To note all the particulars of her haviour,
What suitors do solicit her for marriage,
And whom she best affects. She’s a young widow:
I would not have her marry again.’
The poor Duchess, being female, is entirely disempowered against Ferdinand and her other brother, a corrupt Cardinal. She only wants love:
“Why should only I,
Of all the other princes of the world,
Be cas’d up, like a holy relic? I have youth
And a little beauty.”
She finds affection with the pretty steward Antonio, but normal family life never stands a chance in the depraved court where your own brother is sexually obsessed with you “my imagination will carry me/ To see her in the shameful act of sin” and spends his time, when he’s not pretending to be a wolf, imagining you in flagrante:
Happily with some strong-thighed bargeman;
Or one o’th’woodyard that can quoit the sledge
Or toss the bar; or else some lovely squire
That carries coals up to her privy lodgings.
Yep, Ferdinand is insane. Yet he’s part and parcel of a society that is utterly degraded and false. In the hands of a good actor, he isn’t cartoony evil, twirling his moustache, but almost as much as a victim as the Duchess. There have been two productions in London in recent years which have seen excellent performances by Harry Lloyd (Old Vic, 2012) and David Dawson (Globe, 2014) as Ferdinand, both of which captured his cruel depravity, and his tragedy.
This being a Jacobean tragedy, I don’t think it’s a SPOILER to say that everyone dies, yet Webster gives Ferdinand a moment of clarity, and some of the most beautiful lines in drama, as his dying words:
Whether we fall by ambition, blood or lust,
Like diamonds we are cut with our own dust.
Amazing. Those final lines make Ferdinand complex and insightful, and a truly great villain.
Secondly, another sure-fire source of colourful villains: Charles Dickens. I’m not the biggest Dickens fan, but actually the things I don’t like about him (clearly delineated binaries like good/bad and one-dimensional stereotypes instead of fully realised characters) do make for opportunities to enjoy all-out villainy. You can usually tell the villains in Dickens because he helpfully signposts them through names like Ezekiel Slime or similar. In this instance, I’m going to look at David Copperfield’s (1849) Uriah Heep (see what I mean?) the obsequious clerk to David’s landlord Mr Wickfield. I chose him over a more obvious villain like Bill Sykes from Oliver Twist, because he’s more insidious (although Bill Sykes outdoes every villain in the millinery stakes):
Bill Sykes never tries to present himself as anything other than downright terrifying, whereas Uriah Heep is always trying to convince everyone of his humility:
“”I got to know what umbleness did, and I took to it. I ate umble pie with an appetite. I stopped at the umble point of my learning […] I am very umble to the present moment, Master Copperfield, but I’ve got a little power!'”
Of course, he is far from humble. Instead his fawning manner disguises a vicious class jealousy and powerful ambition to take over the Wickfield business through blackmail, before marrying the virtuous Agnes (as someone who can’t stand Dickens’ pious virgins I think it’s not a bad match, but I realise I may be alone in this). With Victorian beliefs that appearance demonstrated character, it seems improbable that anyone would ever trust the unattractive Heep:
“a youth of fifteen …whose hair was cropped as close as the closest stubble; who had hardly any eyebrows, and no eyelashes, and eyes of a red-brown, so unsheltered and unshaded, that I remember wondering how he went to sleep. He was high-shouldered and bony; dressed in decent black, with a white wisp of a neckcloth buttoned up to the throat; and had a long, lank, skeleton hand…”
Yet he still manages to ingratiate himself quite successfully and defraud the Wickfields amongst others. Of course, this being Dickens, the good end happily and the bad unhappily, so his comeuppance is inevitable. Heep is a highly effective villain, wholly unlikeable and so oily he just seeps across the page. Uriah Heep : a villain so villainous they named a rock band after him (really).
To end, probably the most single-minded, seductive villain of all time (George Sanders’ voice is a joy):