Plenty of people like to write about the worst Shakespearian villains, but what people don’t realize is that a jerk does not necessarily a villain make, and vice versa. What follows are the top Shakesperian jerks, whether they are “heroes,” “villains,” or otherwise.
Perhaps it is best to start off with the working definition of the term “jerk” so that there are no mistakes. By “jerk” we don’t necessarily mean characters who are mean to other characters, or who do unkind or malicious things. We mean “jerk” in the true definition – “a contemptibly naïve, fatuous, foolish, or inconsequential person.” Since we have no time for the inconsequential characters of great literature, we’ll focus on the “naïve, fatuous, and foolish” of the bunch.
Romeo Montague, 15 or 16 years old as the “protagonist” of Romeo and Juliet, is totally a jerk. He starts off the play totally gaga for Rosaline, but Rosaline won’t give him the time of day. So, he goes to this party that’s being thrown by his family’s bitter rivals (because bitter family rival parties are a real picker-upper, apparently) and he glimpses the fair and lovely Juliet Capulet, daughter of said rival family. The “star-crossed lovers” court, marry in secret, then die tragically in each other’s arms.
Why he’s a jerk
Juliet’s cousin kills Romeo’s best buddy Mercutio, so Romeo kills the cousin (Tybalt). Stupid, if he ever hopes to get in good with ol’ Juliet’s family. THEN, instead of grabbing Juliet and making tracks when he got banished, he cooled his heels while Juliet and Friar Lawrence cooked up the cockamamie scheme where it would look like Juliet was dead, and when Romeo sees her lying there, he kills himself. She wakes up, sees him dead, and kills herself, for real this time. Come to think of it, Juliet is a pretty big jerk, too. So is Friar Lawrence. I mean, he was an ADULT. He should have known better than to play with poisons and teen hormones. It’s a play chock-full of jerks, actually.
Macbeth, loyal subject of King Duncan, war hero, and seemingly nice guy, hears from three witches that someday he’ll be king of Scotland. He tells his wife about this, and she decides that waiting is boring, so it would be better if King Duncan went ahead and kicked it so that Macbeth can be king, like, now. Lady Macbeth taunts her husband into doing the deed. His wife frames some guards for the murder, but then things REALLY go awry.
Why he’s a jerk
First of all, it’s pretty lame to get talked into regicide by your emasculating wife. Second of all, when she goes ahead and plants bloody daggers on some inconsequential guards (also jerks) to frame them for the murder, it’s a pretty boneheaded thing to kill those guards before everybody else can go after them with torches and pitchforks, or whatever. If you can’t figure out that Macduff is suspicious of you before that, you’re a jerk. So, once he found out Macduff WAS suspicious of him, he exiles him and then murders his whole family, which is a MEAN thing to do, as well as pretty jerky, because like nobody is going to notice that. Obviously, everything gets worse, and Macbeth is beheaded by Macduff. Who would have called him a jerk, if he hadn’t been so busy cutting his head off.
Supposedly, Claudio is the romantic hero of Much Ado About Nothing, but we prefer Benedick because he isn’t such a schmuck. Claudio, back from the wars, falls in love with Hero. Don John, jealous of pretty much everybody, gets his boy Borachio to hook up with Hero’s maid Margaret, and brings Claudio by Hero’s open window, where Margaret and Borachio are getting it on, and Borachio calls out “Hero.” Claudio rejects Hero at the altar and the Friar suggests that they pretend Hero is dead to make Claudio feel super bad about the way he treated Hero. What is WITH religious dudes and their obsession with faking death in Shakespeare, anyway? The scheme works, Dogberry uncovers the treachery, and everybody lives happily ever after.
Why He’s a Jerk
Even if it hadn’t been common to ask upfront questions in order to clear up confusion (because what fun is THAT?) wouldn’t it have been better for Claudio to, I don’t know, tattle on Hero to her father or something? Her father could have said, “Heck no, my daughter would never do that,” he could have asked Hero about it, and they could have cleared everything up. Instead, Claudio is a totally gullible jerk willing to believe the worst about the woman he supposedly loves, and throws her over at the altar. Jerk.
Speaking of guys who believe anything about their women, we submit to you Othello. Othello, the Moor of Venice, has a lovely wife named Desdemona. Othello has this Ensign, Iago, who he trusts, but who is secretly not really Othello’s friend because Othello promoted Cassio above him. Iago decides to wreak havoc, and convinces Othello that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio. Othello kills Desdemona, finds out he’s been duped, and kills himself.
Why He’s A Jerk
The whole way Iago managed to convince Othello that Desdemona was cheating on him was this. Othello is in possession of a handkerchief that he gave Desdemona when they first started seeing each other. It has great sentimental value. Iago gets his wife to steal it, because OTHELLO DROPS IT. Iago plants the handkerchief in Cassio’s chamber, and that’s enough evidence to make Othello go ahead and smother poor Desdemona. Hello? Did he not think, for one second, WHO HAD THE DAMN THING LAST? Jerk.