Now, I'm currently in a Shakespeare class. Thus far we've read Romeo & Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice, and Othello. I've read all except A Midsummer Night's Dream before, but I'm getting so much more out of the other three this time around--especially The Merchant of Venice and Othello. One thing the two have in common is their fantastic villains. The two villains--Shylock and Iago--are very different, both in their backgrounds and in their methods of villainy. But, the two have one important aspect in common: their charisma.
In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock holds a grudge against Antonio and plots to inevitably kill him by taking a pound of flesh after he cannot pay back a debt. The crutch is that Shylock is a Jew and Antonio is a Christian in sixteenth century Venice. Since the play was written for an Elizabethan England audience, the people had a predisposition to dislike Jewish people. The characters and the audience would have both already disliked Shylock for his religion, then he is trying to kill a Christian. But Shakespeare works hard--and very effectively--against his audience's prejudice by making Shylock compelling, charismatic, and pitiable. By the end of the play, the audience--especially a modern one--will have complete sympathy for him and almost root for him. Even if one doesn't root for him, you absolutely cannot be content with his fate. (I won't spoil it for you if you want to read/see the play!)
Like Shylock, Iago is out to get the protagonist of his play, Othello. Othello has worked hard to reach his enviable position and Iago has no problem with killing, conniving, and lying to take him down. He hates Othello because he believes the Moor slept with his wife and Othello played favorites by promoting another ahead of him. Again, the audience would respect Othello and be predisposed to side with him. But there's just something about Iago and his utter determination that makes you want to believe he's right. One doesn't sympathize with him like Shylock, but he's compelling and easily the most interesting character in the play. One could even argue that Iago is the protagonist and Othello is the antagonist. Othello is standing in the way of Iago's ambition.
With this realization of how much I like these villains, I seem to have lost my tolerance for anything less. In scrolling through the books I've read in the past year or so, I'm hard pressed to find many books with compelling villains, villains that attempt to pull me in another direction. But there are a few exceptions!
In Shadow and Bone, Leigh Bardugo gives us the Darkling. He is mysterious and brooding and, ooh, we just want to see more and more of him, even when he does bad things. Even our protagonist, Alina, doesn't know how to react to him.
In the Lumatere Chronciles (Finnikin of the Rock, Froi of the Exiles, and Quintana of Charyn) Melina Marchetta begins by making the villain an entire country and its impostor king. Through the series, the reader is pushed back and forth, torn in two directions by love of so many different characters, many of whom are supposed to be the bad guy according to another character.
In The Lost Girl by Sangu Mandanna, we don't necessarily have a villain, but the forces working against Eva are specific and very different. In a way, she's working against herself and for those she's supposed to learn to love. The reader is torn between respecting wishes of the deceased and her family and concern for a character they've learned to love.
So I'm sorry for this essay-length post! I got a little bit excited about the subject and had lots to say. :) I'd love to hear what you guys think, and how you like your villains! Do you agree with my YA picks for compelling villains?