The Psychopathology of Shakespeare’s Most Evil Villains

"By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes." — MacBeth

Posted Aug 13, 2017

Since I write about the dark side of human behavior, it will come as no surprise that I’m more interested in observing and studying people who behave badly than people who are nice and normal.  Well-behaved people are the ones I want to associate with.  But bad actors pique my professional interest.

Shakespeare’s villains also interest me.  The bard imbues them with understandable motives and with personalities that are internally consistent and vividly portrayed.  Drawing upon current psychological theory, it is therefore possible to make some inferences about their psychopathology as if they were living persons.

 There are many contenders for the designation of chief Shakespearean scoundrel  — Lady Macbeth or King Claudius, for example.   I have chosen three Shakespearean villains that I consider to be the worst of the worst.   This website provides a long list of the bard's villains and allows you to vote them up or down, Reddit style. 

Below I have ranked my three villains as “most evil,” “second most evil,” and “third most evil” using Dr. Michael Stone’s scale of evil to categorize them.  Each is then analyzed based on motives and behavior, using the character’s own words to support the diagnosis.


Most Evil: Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus

Dr. Michael Stone’s scale of evil assigns a number from 1 (least evil) to 22 (most evil).  Aaron scores a solid 22.  He is a sadistic, psychopathic mass murderer and torturer whose only motive is the pleasure he derives from causing others to suffer:

Few come within the compass of my curse,--
Wherein I did not some notorious ill,
As kill a man, or else devise his death,
Ravish a maid, or plot the way to do it.
Accuse some innocent and forswear myself,
Set deadly enmity between two friends,
Make poor men's cattle break their necks;
Set fire on barns and hay-stacks in the night,
And bid the owners quench them with their tears.
Oft have I digg'd up dead men from their graves,
And set them upright at their dear friends' doors,

Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly,
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
But that I cannot do ten thousand more.

Second Most Evil :  Iago in Othello

Iago hates Othello but pretends to be his loyal friend and confidant.   Othello ironically refers to him as “honest Iago."  But Iago is a Machavellian (i.e., a master manipulator or High Mach) with psychopathic features.  Othello murders his wife, Desdemona, after Iago tricks him him into believing that Desdemona has been unfaithful. 

We never learn why Iago hates Othello.  At the end of the play, when Iago is exposed as a fiend and the lifeless Desdemona is revealed to have been a faithful wife, Iago refuses to disclose his motive:

Demand me nothing  What you know you know.
From this time forth I will never speak word.

One might construe a motive from the following facts:  Othello is a moor (i.e., black man) serving in the army of Venice.  Although a Christian convert, Othello was once as Muslim.  He is an officer of high rank and Iago’s superior.  Iago is a native Venetian and white.  Desdemona, Othello’s wife, is also white. 

Dr Stone’s scale of evil has no ranking for spiteful, hate-filled schemers who manipulate others to commit murder.  The closest is level 8, “non-psychopathic persons with smoldering rage,  who kill when the rage is ignited.”  While Iago, has psychopathic features, he is not a full-blown psychopath.  He is primarily a High Mach. 

Third Most Evil:  Richard of Gloucester in Richard III

Iago and Richard III are two of Shakespeare’s best-known villains.   Many people would name Iago as worst of the worst, because he induced a good friend and great man to commit murder for no reason other than spite.  Others would cite Richard III as the supreme villain, because he gleefully slaughtered his kinfolks (including children) in order to attain the throne.   

But consider this:  Iago never murdered anyone himself (although he tried to when he stabbed Cassio in the back).  He is responsible for only one death, and only  by indirect influence.  Richard orchestrated or ordered the deaths of many , but only because they were in his way.  Compare these two to Aaron the Moor, who personally killed, tortured, and raped many.  He bragged about his wickedness and regretted only that he could not have done more evil to more people.  That’s why Aaron, a lesser-known character, ranks as more evil than the better-known Iago and Richard.

Having ascended to a blood-tainted throne, Richard muses:

I must be married to my brother's daughter,
Or else my kingdom stands on brittle glass: —
Murder her brothers, and then marry her!
Uncertain way of gain! But I am in
So far in blood, that sin will pluck on sin.
Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye.  

Richard comes in at level 11 on Dr. Stone’s scale — “psychopathic killers of people ‘in the way,’ such as close friends or even family members.”  Throughout the play we see that he is without remorse and resolute in his mission to kill anyone in his way.  However, his murder spree is entirely instrumental.  Maybe he enjoys killing a bit too much, but unlike Aaron the Moor, he isn’t a thrill killer.  For Richard, murder is just a means to an end.  He is a psychopath with narcissistic and paranoid features. 


“One may smile and smile and be a villain” says Shakespeare in Julius Caesar — and that’s Machiavellianism in a nutshell.