The Best Villains in Classic Literature

5 min read

What does ‘best’ mean when it comes to villains? It could mean how powerful, terrible or compelling they are or perhaps how well they are written. It really depends on the villain and what motivates them to do wrong.

Not all villains are motivated by evil however. Some are driven by the desire to right a wrong and others are simply misjudged. It is possible for readers to feel sympathy towards villains and even favour them over a ‘perfect’ protagonist.

Villains are complex characters and can appear in a variety of forms: human or animal, powerful or deceptive, evil or simply imperfect. From Count Dracula and Captain Hook to Shere Khan and Mrs Danvers, villains aren’t always what readers expect. While this list is not exhaustive, it discusses some of the most villainous antagonists in literary history.

  1. Captain Hook

    Captain Hook from Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie

    Captain Hook is a literary legend and the main antagonist in J. M. Barrie’s famous novel, Peter Pan. He is the pirate captain of the Jolly Roger, vengeful, bloodthirsty and a true terror. His desire to enact revenge on his arch nemesis Peter Pan for cutting off his left hand motivates him in his villainy. While Hook occasionally accrues some sympathy for himself, his cruel ways ultimately condemn him.

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  2. Uriah Heep

    Uriah Heep from David Copperfield, Charles Dickens

    Embittered by his own troublesome upbringing, Uriah Heep is a corrupt and vengeful character. At times, he seems almost demonic, likened to a snake with red eyes and hair. He is entirely motivated by greed, seeking to gain control of the Wickfield fortune through blackmail, fraud and treachery. He also attempts to steal away David Copperfield’s love interest Agnes simply out of hatred for him. He is a villain and trickster to the core and not even imprisonment can save him from his own dire greed.

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  3. Professor Moriarty

    Professor Moriarty from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle

    Moriarty is a formidable criminal mastermind and the arch-nemesis of Sherlock Holmes. Though he only appears in two Sherlock Holmes stories, he has taken his seat in the literary villains hall of fame. Moriarty is one of the few characters created by Doyle whose intelligence rivals that of Holmes himself. He is ruthless in his methods but remains unseen, providing criminals with crime strategies with which to undo his opponents. Moriarty is a cunning character and highly adept at executing his plans without incriminating himself.

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  4. Shere Khan

    Shere Khan from The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling

    Shere Khan doesn’t always appear on lists of literary villains. He is however a cunning and intimidating beast who actions are driven by disdain for his victims. His name professes him to be ‘chief among tigers’ though he seeks a greater power than this. Shere schemes to kill the man-child Mowgli who lives in the jungle with the wolves and hunts down his prey with cruel intent. Though he is, in some ways, a protector of the jungle, his cruel intentions turn him into a villain and antagonist.

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  5. Mrs Danvers

    Mrs Danvers from Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

    There is some debate amongst readers as to whether Mrs Danvers is truly a villain. Her despise for the new Mrs de Winter, following the death of the previous mistress of the same name, drives her to commit terrible actions. She attempts to create friction between Mrs de Winter and her husband and even tries to convince the young mistress to commit suicide. Rebecca’s devilish voice seems to speak through her, turning her into a villainous monster. However, her love for Rebecca is plain and some think she acts out of grief rather than malice. Danvers becomes both frightening and pathetic, a monster and yet still human.

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  6. Iago

    Iago from Othello, William Shakespeare

    Compelling, sophisticated and highly manipulative, Iago is arguably one of Shakespeare’s most sinister villains. As Othello’s trusted advisor and a solider, he does not give rise to suspicion. He is however a masterful manipulator and his detest for Othello leads him to stir up terrible rumours of an affair between Othello’s wife and his Lieutenant. This rumour is the catalyst for many terrible happenings, including the death of Othello’s wife and eventually himself. Iago is a villain and a trickster and his sophisticated act of dissembling brings about Othello’s fall.

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  7. Lady Macbeth

    Lady Macbeth from Macbeth, William Shakespeare

    Shakespeare’s plays are filled with villains and in the case of Macbeth, a cold-hearted villainess. Lady Macbeth is a cruel and ambitious woman. She manipulates her husband constantly, persuading him to commit the heinous crime of regicide. Where her husband is weak, she is strong, using insults and deception to carry out her plan. Though her tragic end does create some sympathy for her, her actions cannot be forgotten. Her motivations are selfish and her actions cruel, rendering her as one of the most famous literary villainesses.

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  8. Long John Silver

    Long John Silver from Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson

    Long John Silver has similar traits to other villains on this list. He is deceptive, manipulative and generally untrustworthy. Hired as a cook on the Hispaniola, he is later exposed as a pirate and villain looking to steal Captain Flint’s treasure. He works to gain the trust of the protagonist, Jim Hawkins, only to cast aside this bond in favour of mutiny. Despite this, he has some compensating virtues, showing a fondness for Jim and a more charismatic side to his character. He is clever and fearful and his missing leg and parrot make him a popular literary villain.

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Literary Villains at Country House Library - There is evil in everyone

Throughout literary history, villainous characters have captivated readers. Their ability to drive a plot towards its climax is, at times, remarkable. The characters on this list share certain qualities but remain unique in their antagonisms. They are true villains, driven by greed, ambition, malice, spite, and revenge.

If this list isn’t diabolical enough to satisfy our good reader's criminous cravings, then here are some more characters that certainly deserve a place amongst these renowned literary villains.


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