Now that I once again have access to a version of the OED that doesn’t force me to break-out the bigger than 1940’s screen Sherlock Holmes magnifying glass, I can now delve into meanings of words again (like Sweeney Todd, my reading arm is complete again).
The term is used in all its forms eight times in As You Like It, three times (one villain, two villainous) by Oliver, three (all villain, all in negation or denial) by Orlando, and twice (one villains, one villain) by Frederick.
From as early as 1303, the word has had a meaning of
- “villain, n.; 1a”
Oxford University Press,
Web. 15 July 2014.
Oliver accuses Orlando of being a villain after the younger brother seizes the older in an attempt to stop his pummeling (I.i.51, stage direction following). Given what we’ve heard from Orlando to begin the play–and what follows tends to support this claim–Oliver seems to treat his brother as something less than a brother so the “low-born” portion of the definition seems to apply here.
Orlando, in his response, uses the word three times (I.i,53,54, and 54), all in denial of this accusation; from the rest of the play, none of the definitions seems at all to apply to the youngest de Boys son.
Later in the same scene, when Oliver is trying to convince Charles the wrestler to kill Orlando, he uses “villainous” twice to describe his younger brother–”a secret and villainous contriver” (I.i.135) and “one so young and so villainous” (I.i.145). Methinks the older brother doth protest too much…
When Frederick learns that Celia and Rosalind have fled the court, he assumes that “some villains of (his) court” (II.ii.2) have helped them escape, and here any of the meanings could apply: it could have been just one of the low-borns, or maybe someone not noble (or of nobility), or perhaps a man disposed to crime (as any action against the duke might be considered).
Finally, when Oliver tells Frederick that he never loved Orlando, the duke responds with, “More villain thou” (III.i.15). Frederick knows that Oliver is no rustic, nor is hating of a brother a crime. It is, however, even in a usurping brother’s mind, an ignoble idea, unprincipled and depraved.
And while it might be nice to use the word as we do today
- “villain, n.; 1d”
and as we might in the case of the character of Oliver, Shakespeare didn’t mean it that way… or at least it wasn’t used that way in common usage until over two hundred years later.