The Demonic Nature of Evil in Shakespeare's Plays

An Approach

Pre-University Paper, 2011

20 Pages, Grade: 1- (13 Punkte)


Table of Contents

Evil – a Word so Difficult to Define

1 Shakespeare’s Source of Inspiration

2 Appearance of Evil in Shakespeare’s Plays
2.1 Incest
2.1.1 “Hamlet”: Claudius and Gertrude
2.1.2 “Pericles”: Antiochus and His Daughter
2.1.3 Summary
2.2 Pessimism
2.2.1 “Hamlet”: The Prince Himself
2.2.2 Summary
2.3 Murder
2.3.1 “Hamlet”: Claudius
2.3.2 “Macbeth”: Macbeth and His Lady
2.3.3 Summary

3 Conclusion

Not even Shakespeare Knew more about It


Advanced Bibliography

Evil – a Word so Difficult to Define

Evil, what is the definition of evil?

There are certain things which everyone immediately associates with the term of 'evil' and for sure some of them will come to everyone's mind as soon as we hear the word 'evil'. We think of persons like Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin or Osama Bin Laden and deeds like killing, stealing or destroying other persons' property.

But although there are certain patterns of evil which seem plausible to any reasonable per­son in this world, we cannot apply them to each and any of us, as everyone has got his/her own perception of what is evil and what is not. Even if the majority of mankind on the first hand would say it is wrong to kill a person, there still might be some cases in which we think differently. It might well be possible to say killing a person is right if the concerned person wishes so for any reasons he/she believes to be enough to be longing for death (health reasons, family problems, ), but is not able to end his/her life for him-/herself for whatever reason (unable to move, ). Another thing which in some persons’ opinion justi­fies killing a person is death penalty. They say a person who has killed someone else deserves death. Yet another thing which must be mentioned is arbitrary law. There are per­sons who say acting in revenge exculpates certain deeds, even killing.

So, if we cannot define the word 'evil' by any persons or actions which are to be considered as evil, is there any other possibility of reaching a conclusion about this word so difficult to determine? We could try and have a closer look on the religious view of the topic, where being evil means breaking God-given rules.

If we just take the Catholic religion as an example we will see that – considering the Ten Commandments – the God-given rules also condemn murder and robbery, which partly fits the image of evil which many people have. We could say that the deeds to be condemned by mankind (i.e. doing something illegal) are a summary of the things which every single of us considers as evil. It therefore is evil to break the law. But where does this law come from? As we have already seen, it is kind of convention containing the majority's opinion about what is evil and what is not, which in its term originally comes from moral conven­tions (such as God-given rules like the Ten Commandments).

As a conclusion we might say evil is what God forbids, but is this really a satisfying result? At this point we might refer to one of the greatest and best-known playwrights ever, who has dealt a lot with the topic of evil in every aspect, William Shakespeare.

This might lead us to a better understanding of the term ‘evil’ in all its facets, or at least the perception of evil which people had in Shakespeare's times.

1 Shakespeare’s Source of Inspiration

In order to get an idea what Shakespeare’s opinion about evil was, me must have many things in mind, and it certainly is not an easy task to find out what his idea of malignity was, as we do not know much about Shakespeare himself, but have to draw a conclusion about his idea of evil from the content of his plays.

Having a look at the plays in order to distinguish what Shakespeare thought of evil, in turn we have a problem. Shakespeare was not a playwright, whose own ideas can be clearly seen in his plays, as he also incorporated certain things just in order to characterize the persons in his plays and to push the plot on.

So, how can we distinguish which parts of his plays are his own body of thought and which are pure fiction?

This question is quite difficult to answer, and in order to find an appropriate response to it, it is necessary to have a look at Shakespeare’s vita. Doing so, we will learn that Shakespeare was a strictly religious, more precisely Protestant, man, which can be seen in many things such as his last will.[1] All the allusions to the Bible or even quotes from it to be found in his plays permit the conclusion that Shakespeare had a vast knowledge of the Bible. But this broad acquaintance with the Holy Book not only shows Shakespeare’s Christianity, but also his Protestantism, as the Catholic Church in those days combated the circulation of the Bible among laymen.[2]

His religion obviously has influenced the way in which Shakespeare wrote and as we just mentioned there are many allusions to the Bible, although Shakespeare’s plays certainly are not purely religious, just as they do not exclusively reflect his ideas.

Even if we do not have any more helpful information about Shakespeare himself for our task to find out what Shakespeare’s idea of evil was, there is one more hint for Shakespeare’s own ideas to be found: If Shakespeare repeatedly used certain patterns of evil and always characterized them as being bad deeds, it shows a tendency of what Shakespeare wanted to seem evil and what not.

2 Appearance of Evil in Shakespeare’s Plays

Having in mind the findings from chapter 1, we now might try to analyse Shakespeare’s evil characters and certain images of evil which repeatedly appear in the plays.

In order to do so, I would like to pick out some of Shakespeare’s plays and characters who seem to be evil and classify them by the sort of bad deed committed, in order to be able to analyse them one after another to finally reach a conclusion about recurring patterns – and Shakespeare’s own idea – of evil.

2.1 Incest

Locutusque est Dominus ad Mosen dicens[...].
facietis iudicia mea et praecepta servabitis et ambulabitis in eis.
omnis homo ad proximam sanguinis sui non accedet ut revelet turpitudinem eius
ego Dominus Deus vester.

(Accentuation by writer)

And the LORD spake [sic] unto Moses, saying,
Ye shall do my judgments
[sic] , and keep mine ordinances, to walk therein [...]
None of you shall approach to any that is near of kin to him, to uncover their nakedness.
I am the Lord.

(Accentuation by writer)

By saying these words, God prohibited Moses and his entire people to have sex with any relatives, so to say, to inbreed.

As we know that Shakespeare was a very religious man himself, we can assume he dis­agreed with incestuous relationships, which can also be proved by having a look at two of his plays where incest plays a rather big role.

2.1.1 “Hamlet”: Claudius and Gertrude

“[...]father and mother is man and wife;
and wife is one flesh [...] .[5]

This is a quote from one of the greatest and best-known Shakespearean plays, “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark”.

This play deals with the topic of the young Prince of Denmark, whose father Old Hamlet has just passed away. After Old Hamlet’s death, his brother Claudius almost immediately marries Gertrude, Old Hamlet’s widow, supposedly to keep the Danish Empire strong against attacks from foreign countries, particularly the Norwegian forces under Fortinbras. However, during the play, Young Hamlet discovers that his father did not die a natural death, but has been killed scrupulously by Claudius, who wanted to seize power in the empire. Later on Young Hamlet decides to take revenge on his father’s murderer, but has to face many more displeasures until he succeeds.

Roughly knowing the plot of the play, at first glance, one would not say this is a play about incest, and it certainly is true that it was not Shakespeare’s intention to write a play about incest, but there are some scenes in which incest appears and is strongly criticised within the play.

The very quote I elected for introducing this play deals with incest, which anyway cannot be recognized easily without going deeper into the topic. Even if nowadays no one would consider it as incest, in fact the Bible, which is to say God, prohibits a relationship between a man and his brother’s wife:

Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy brother’s wife: it is thy brother’s nakedness.[6]

Consequentially, in Shakespeare’s time it must have been considered as incestuous and a bad deed to marry one’s brother-/sister-in-law, as people in those days were quite religious, just as Shakespeare himself.

Aforementioned quote refers to that very topic. It originates from a dialogue between Hamlet and Claudius and what Hamlet wants to express by saying these words to Claudius is that, by marrying Gertrude, he has sort of married his sister, as Gertrude was his brother’s wife and “[...] man and wife is one flesh [...]”.[7]


[1] Cf. Eckhardt, section

[2] Cf. Eckhardt, sections 9f

[3] Fischer, Biblia Sacra: Leviticus 18: 1, 4,

[4] Project Gutenberg, King James Bible: Leviticus 18: 1, 4,

[5] Markus, Hamlet: Act IV Scene 3, l. 58f

[6] Project Gutenberg, King James Bible: Leviticus 18:

[7] Markus, Hamlet: Act IV Scene 3, l.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


The Demonic Nature of Evil in Shakespeare's Plays
An Approach
1- (13 Punkte)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
595 KB
Shakespeare, Evil, Hamlet, Macbeth, Pericles
Quote paper
Marco Schönberger (Author), 2011, The Demonic Nature of Evil in Shakespeare's Plays, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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