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

Originally, a low-born base-minded rustic; a man of ignoble ideas or instincts; in later use, an unprincipled or depraved scoundrel; a man naturally disposed to base or criminal actions, or deeply involved in the commission of disgraceful crimes
  • “villain, n.; 1a”
    OED Online.
    Oxford University Press,
    June 2014.
    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

The character in a play, novel, etc., whose evil motives or actions form an important element in the plot.
  • “villain, n.; 1d”
    OED Online.

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.

2 Replies to “Villain”

  1. Interesting that in a play known for its strong female protagonist, the use of “villain” is only spoken by male characters.

    What does the acronym “OED” stand for?

    I am looking forward to reading these critical analysis pieces most days. It happens that I am out of sync with you in my own study of the Complete Works, but I’m hoping I may directly cross paths during some of the tragedies, especially with your new pace of one play every two months rather than every month (I’m probably even a little slower than that, making it thru 4-5 plays a year). Have you thought of collecting your critical analysis pieces and publishing them as a collection once you finish going thru all the plays?

    I’m also really enjoying the “This Week in Shakespeare” podcasts, even if I don’t see many opportunities in my near future to get to many live performances (got an 18 month old at home and another one on the way). I do enjoy when you review performances you have seen in person especially, and also on film.

    Anyhow, keep up the good work on the project- it is on my list of daily sites that I check out!

    1. Nice catch on the gender of the speakers, Casey… that hadn’t even occurred to me. It does, however, tie into something I’ve been thinking about for a later post…

      Ah, the OED… the Oxford English Dictionary. An invaluable research tool. It not only defines words, but it shows when those definitions were used. I have the “compact” version from my college days; it shrinks four pages down into each page, arrives in two very large and thick volumes, and comes with a magnifying glass (no lie). When I started the project, I purchased the OED on CD-ROM and that tool was AWESOME. Alas, since then, I’ve upgraded my computer and the CD-ROM will not load onto a Windows 8 box. The only alternative is the online subscription, but that’s over $250 a year. Luckily, I found a library that has the online access (thank goodness for the Los Angeles Public Library!), and I’ve now got access again!

      Congrats on the toddler! My boys are 20 and 14 now, and I remember those years not being able to go out and see plays… don’t worry, those days will be back!

      Thanks for the kind words, and keep reading and commenting!

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