Richard III and the Lost Art of Creating Truly Wicked Villains

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Where have all the good villains gone? It seems a strange question to ask in a week when the Old Vic’s new production of Richard III, starring Kevin Spacey, looks set to bring the play to life again. Every 20 or 30 years, we suddenly seem to realise that the most dastardly of Shakespeare’s works is also his most entertaining. For my generation, the definitive Richard was Antony Sher, scuttling crab-like across the stage; for a previous one, Olivier was irreplaceable. But the play and its wonderful anti-hero retain their bounding energy, reminding us of the power and fascination that a truly great villain can possess.

In a famous letter, Keats wrote to his friend Richard Woodhouse that "the poetical Character itself… lives in gusto, be it foul or fair… It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen." Shakespeare’s delight in creating a Richard III is unmistakable. Richard is ingenious in his evil, plotting several steps ahead. He is, oddly, rather sexy – the scenes with Anne have a touch of Benedick’s banter with Beatrice. He is, above all, extremely funny.

In short, Richard has charisma. The great villains of literature draw us in with their charm, their intelligence, their wit, and their sheer sexual magnetism. Who has not thought that Jane Austen’s Emma is really much less fun – less sexy, more strait-laced, more boring all round – than dear old Mrs Elton, slagging off all her neighbours? Which would be more fun – dinner with Saruman in his tower, served by orcs in white tie, or horrid warm beer and folk songs with those Bagginses in their burrow?

Blake, observing the magnetism, eloquence and charm of Milton’s Satan, said that Milton was a "true poet, and of the devil’s party without knowing it". The very best villains all share this quality of charm – even, alluringly, of comedy. I’ve seen a production of The Jew of Malta brought to a standstill by Barabas’s comment, after mass-poisoning a convent, "How sweet the bells ring, now the nuns are dead."

Villains who achieve their ends through the exertion of their charm hold a steady fascination – one could think of Orwell’s O’Brien, or Edmund in King Lear. It’s crucial that the reader sees through the villain’s charm, either from the beginning (Evelyn Waugh’s John Beaver) or, perhaps more powerfully, as the plot plays out (Dickens’s Steerforth).

The demands of film, on the other hand, are different. It very much likes the villain-aesthetes, such as Hannibal Lecter, with his talk of claret and harpsichord sonatas. Though the figure of the dandy-villain goes back to Wilkie Collins’s exquisitely dressed Count Fosco, it came into its own on screen – Walt Disney’s Captain Hook, Cruella de Vil, even Shere Khan.

At the other end of the scale are the schemers and climbers – not lying around enjoying Scarlatti, but plotting energetically, lying through their teeth to achieve their ends. Though they descend from Richard III, a large number are female – Proust’s appalling Madame Verdurin, Mrs Danvers in Rebecca, Austen’s Mrs Norris. Plotting for reasons of "motiveless malignancy", as Coleridge called it, is more of a male preserve – Iago, Dickens’s Quilp. Alternatively, the plotter may be working up a slightly grubby plan to take over the world, or just make a lot of money; there is a small but lovely group of criminal plutocrats in the novel, such as Dickens’s Merdle or Trollope’s Melmotte. What film added here was the millionaire in his luxury den: Professor Moriarty quickly turning into Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and then into the beyond-parody conspirators of The Da Vinci Code, their motivation never quite fully explained.

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