PCS Blog

Ten Great Literary Villains We Love to Hate

Posted by Kinsley Suer | 11 March 2011

 

 


In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Nurse Ratched is the head nurse at the Oregon State Hospital, where she exercises almost complete and unbridled control over her patients. A cold, relentless and passive-aggressive tyrant, she rules over the ward with a stern and iron fist. Rules, she believes, must always be followed - without exception. She's McMurphy's antagonist; in short, the villain of the story that we all love to hate.
 
This got us thinking.
 
What other novels throughout history have given us such strong, despicable and diabolical villains to despise? So here it is: the best of the worst. The vilest of the vile. The wickedest of the wicked. Ten of the most hated characters in literary history.

 


 
 
Bill Sikes
Bill Sikes is one of Dickens’s most vicious characters. Robber, child abuser, beater of dogs and murderer of a poor-but-good-hearted prostitute, Sikes is a violent, barbaric, all-around rotter. The murder of his girlfriend Nancy is widely considered to be one of the most frightening, graphic scenes that Dickens ever wrote. Plus, the guy beats his own dog! Sikes has absolutely no moral scruples of any kind – a true villain.
 
 
 
 
 
Professor Moriarty
A criminal mastermind referred to as "the Napoleon of crime," Moriarty is the archenemy of Sherlock Holmes - and the rule of the London underworld. Although he is featured in only two of Doyle's more than 60 Sherlock Holmes stories, Moriarty is famous for playing a pivotal role in Homes' death. In "The Final Problem," both Holmes and Moriarty apparently fall to their deaths while engaged in combat atop Reichenbach Falls.
 
 
 
King Claudius
Shrewd, conniving and corrupt, Hamlet’s evil uncle obtained the throne of Denmark by murdering his own brother with poison and then marrying the late king’s widow, Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. And if Shakespeare hasn’t already made it obvious to the reader who the evil villain is, Hamlet soon makes it clear: "Bloody, bawdy villain!" Hamlet exclaims. And, just to remove any doubt: "Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!" Yes, it's Claudius. 
 
 
Shere Khan
Okay, he’s an animal – but an animal too villainous to exclude! A fierce, vicious and cruel tiger with sharp claws and a taste for death, Shere Khan became an instant villain when he preyed on baby Mowgli, who innocently wandered into the jungle. Losing Mowgli to the wolves who protect, then adopt him, Shere Khan vows that the cub will one day be his by scheming to overthrow the wolf pack and kill Mowgli. This is one kitty you do not want to mess with.
 
 
 
Big Brother
Big Brother is the all-seeing, all-hearing, all-powerful authoritarian dictator of Oceania, a fictional totalitarian state.  What makes him all the more frightening is that we never actually see him. Nonetheless, Big Brother rules with an iron fist and enjoys total manipulation and domination of his citizens. He even convinces his citizens to spy on each other, so that no act goes unseen; if you dare oppose him, even in thought, you suffer terrifying consequences. What could be more villainous? This unseen villain's reputation for evil and the sense of horror he creates is so strong that the term "Big Brother" lives on in as a descriptive term for an oppressive government that exerts total control over its citizens’ lives.
 
 
 
 
 
Captain Hook
One of literature’s most familiar pirates, Captain Hook is obsessed with two things: “good form” and making Peter Pan and his Lost Boys “walk the plank.” With a menacing hook replacing the hand that Peter Pan cut off and fed to a crocodile, Captain Hook takes extreme pleasure in terrorizing the inhabitants of Neverland.
 
 
 
 
Iago
The Bard has given us many great bad guys, but Iago is the worst kind of villain – the one who disguises himself as your loyal and devoted friend. Iago is an insidious, deceitful scoundrel who worms his way into friendship with Othello, then wages a ruthless war of mind games with Othello - with the sole intent of bringing him down.  He is the driving force of the play, maliciously pushing Othello and all of the other characters toward their tragic end.
 
 
 
Dolores Umbridge
Don't let the pink fool you! Although Voldemort would be the obvious choice of villain from the Harry Potter series (and, yes, he’s as villainous as they come), Dolores Umbridge is in a category all her own. With her frog-like visage and questionable (at best) ethics, Umbrdige actually shares many similarities with Nurse Ratched. Manipulative and cold, Umbridge uses her power to tyrannize over Hogwarts. When students defy her, she makes them write lines with a special quill that draws blood
from the writer’s own hand. Her wickedness truly knows no bounds.
 


 
Queen of Hearts 
The Queen of Hearts is a mean, short-tempered tyrant who rules Wonderland with an iron fist, often while belting out her favorite four-word catchphrase. As evil catchphrases go, "Off with his head!" has admirable practicality and style, and it perfectly encapsulates the horribly joyful wickedness of Wonderland's tyrannical queen. Most literary villains resort to elaborate plotting and trickery, or hide abuses of power behind a smiling façade, but the Queen of Hearts has no time for such subtleties. Although her orders are rarely carried out, she is feared by all who reside in Wonderland. And who could forget her evil courtroom decree that sentences should come before verdicts?
 
Hannibal Lector
As for the most horrifying of villains, Hannibal Lector easily takes the cake. Lector is an extremely intelligent yet psychopathic killer. Oh - not to mention the fact that the man eats people. His most famous line? "'A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti." If that's not horrifying, I don't know what is. Villains get all the best lines.
 
 
Who's your favorite literary villain?
 
 
Comments (12)

Madame Bovary

  • nappysquid
  • pasadeba
  • 02 Apr 11 04:53

I have to agree, as bad as Bill Sikes, Voldemort, or even Hannibal Lector may be, no one does villains like The Bard. Iago sure, Richard III undoubtedly, Claudius, a bad guy on anyone’s list, but Lady Macbeth bears the bell away.
For a less obvious, more complex bit of villainy, at times sympathetic, try Shylock.

  • PDXCulture
  • 13 Mar 11 03:39

Voldemort? Ripley (the talented Mr)?

  • Cate Garrison
  • 12 Mar 11 01:46

Reginald Van Dough Jr.

  • TnT
  • Pdx
  • 12 Mar 11 12:45

Meg,

No one does villains like the Bard! Richard III is an evil fellow as well, and just as deserving of being on this list. Alas, Shakespeare simply gave us too many villains to choose from!

  • Kinsley Suer
  • 11 Mar 11 10:59

Very cool to see that TWO Shakespearean characters made the list. I, personally, would’ve picked Richard III over Iago, because he’s so awesomely spidery and manipulative. But that’s just me.

  • Meg
  • Oregon
  • 11 Mar 11 09:50

Great additions Trisha! But I always felt bad for the dorky principal from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. (Full Disclosure: This is coming from someone who never cut a day of school in her life…) The poor guy was just doing his job - making sure kids were in school! Granted, he did take to this responsibility to the extremes. As much as I love Bueller, you have to admit he was a bit of a teenage brat : )

  • Kinsley Suer
  • 11 Mar 11 09:33

I’d add Fanny Ferrars Dashwood, the horribly greedy sister-in-law in “Sense & Sensibility.” (Harriet Walters portrayed her so wonderfully in the Emma Thompson adaptation.)

  • grantsgoddess
  • 11 Mar 11 09:35

Oh, good one Annie! While his villainous actions are inexcusable, I always pitied him and his love for Cathy. Unfortunately, his love made him into the tyrant he was!

  • Kinsley Suer
  • 11 Mar 11 09:50

How about Mommie Dearest?

And showing my age here… all the Heathers from Heathers? And the fantastic dorky evil principal from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?

Last but not least, THE WHITE WHALE! THAR SHE BLOWS! MOBY DICK!

  • Trisha Mead
  • Portland
  • 11 Mar 11 09:15

I have to say, in a sad way Heathcliffe from Wuthering Heights, through his zealous passion for Cathy.

  • Annie Blakey
  • Edinburgh Scotland
  • 11 Mar 11 08:16

Showing my age here, but I must add: Eddie Haskell.

  • Cynthia Fuhrman
  • 11 Mar 11 08:12

Join the conversation!

Portland Center Stage welcomes your comments and criticism.

We invite you to share your comments with us on our Facebook page.

Ticketing

For current and upcoming shows, please see our Season Calendar.


Sign up for the PCS email list.

Season Sponsors

Accessibility