Who is Shakespeare’s greatest villain? Richard III? Iago? Macbeth? They all have a claim to the title; however, the correct answer is Hamlet.
Hamlet not only behaves villainously throughout his eponymous play but has somehow persuaded generations of audiences and critics that he is actually its hero. That is what takes his villainy to the next level.
Look at the roll call of Hamlet’s crimes.
First, he kills Polonius – chief counsellor to the King and the father of Laertes and Ophelia. Hamlet skewers him when he discovers him eavesdropping from behind a tapestry. Polonius may be an “intruding fool,” as Hamlet dismissively calls him on discovering his body; but Hamlet is in no position to feel superior, having “intruded” on Claudius’s private meditations in just the previous scene. Double standards are, however, a hallmark of this play.
To make his treatment of Polonius worse, once dead, Hamlet drags his corpse through the court, hiding it from his loved ones and leaving it to decay and rot without a proper burial.
Such disrespect of Polonius in death, however, is no different from how the prince treated him in life. Using his rank, Hamlet continuously insults Polonius, ridiculing him for his age, calling him names and refusing to talk to him directly at times. Hamlet does so knowing Polonius can not answer back. Punching down is Hamlet’s usual style with social inferiors: Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Osric all experience similar treatment.
Mad, bad and dangerous to know?
The most egregious crime is the death of Ophelia, whom Hamlet drives to madness and suicide with a campaign of misogyny, gaslighting and open sexual harassment, one moment condemning her for the crime of being female, the next degrading her in public with obscene puns.
Then there is his casual proxy murder of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whose only crime is to obey the king’s order to find out what is troubling their friend and then to escort him to England. Although Hamlet has no evidence that his friends know the fatal contents of the letter they carry, commanding the prince’s execution, he goes out of his way to ensure that they are not only killed but damned for eternity by being denied confession. By his own account, he never gives them another thought.
Laertes, like Hamlet, has a murdered father, as well as a sister driven to suicide. When he takes a few lines to mourn at her graveside, Hamlet (whose self-absorbed soliloquies have already filled many pages) is outraged that the focus of attention should be on anyone else even for eight lines (“What is he whose grief/ Bears such an emphasis?”) and declares, on the basis of no evidence that we have seen, that he loved Ophelia 40,000 times more than her brother.
Despite this hyperbolic protestation, he never again mentions or alludes to Ophelia from that moment on, let alone expressing regret at her death.
The usual excuse made for Hamlet is that many of these deeds are committed when he is of unsound mind. Indeed, this is his explanation to Laertes for the death of Polonius (“Was’t Hamlet wrong’d Laertes? Never Hamlet”). That excuse would carry more weight had Hamlet not persuasively told his mother the opposite within moments of the killing:
My pulse, as yours, doth temperately keep time,
And makes as healthful music: it is not madness
That I have utter’d: bring me to the test,
And I the matter will re-word; which madness
Would gambol from.
By the end of the play, Hamlet has not only ruined his own life and those of his family and friends, but freely given away his country to a foreign power – the very thing his admired father had struggled so hard to prevent.
In short, Hamlet is a self-centred, entitled, manipulative, callous bully. However, he is also intensely charismatic, so much so that he has persuaded the world to share his Hamlet-centric view.
That is what makes him a villain of genius.
Catherine Butler is a Reader in English Literature at Cardiff University.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.