The Villain Protagonist, in Richard III and Beyond

Richard III is one of the most classic examples of a fictional work that features a villain as its main character.  In this guest blog entry, Smith Street Stage assistant Jeremy Harris explains the impact Shakespeare’s writing has had on modern villain protagonists like those in “House of Cards” or “Breaking Bad,” and takes a look at how artistic ideas change and grow over time.


Jeremy Harris as the Scrivener in Richard III. Photo by Chris Montgomery.

Shakespeare is not a deity; he is not a myth nor a conspiracy. He is human, and at one time a young, new, promising writer in the Elizabethan theater scene. I’d like to think that the reason Richard III, one of his early plays, has remained so popular over the centuries is because it was written by Shakespeare at a time when he was a younger, passionate, and promising writer. He wasn’t necessarily showing off, but trying to prove to his peers and his country, that he was a mature poet and playwright. In reality, Richard III’s legacy is in the storytelling frame that Shakespeare perfected: making the villain the protagonist.


Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood, the conniving president of “House of Cards.”

With television shows like “Breaking Bad” being considered one of the best series of this century and the popularity and return of “House of Cards” in its much-anticipated fifth season, it is clear that we all have a special place in our hearts for following the bad guy around. But why is this so? Well, I would argue that Richard III plays a large role in why this storytelling device is so beloved.

Breaking Bad (Season 5)

Bryan Cranston as Walter White, the lawbreaker we love to watch in “Breaking Bad.”

It is not just the concept of the villain protagonist itself in which Shakespeare’s influence is present in our current pop-cultural landscape, but in its execution. In “Breaking Bad” we follow the rise and fall of a major criminal and as a result see the full humanity of his journey. In “House of Cards,” the protagonist gives soliloquies to the audience which reveal his inner thoughts. Both of these are aspects of Shakespeare’s body of work, and two characters of whom we have come to know and love like our closest friends (Walter White and Frank Underwood) could not exist in the ways that they do without the approach Shakespeare took in writing Richard III.


Michael Hanson as Shakespeare’s classic villain Richard III in Smith Street Stage’s production. Photo by Chris Montgomery.

But then again, I’m sure Shakespeare did not invent these devices, but rather used his passions and influences as an artist to mold some of the greatest, unique, and experimental plays ever written. He expanded on all who came before him. So yes, without Shakespeare we wouldn’t have many stories we know and love today, but really Richard III is a testament to artistic progress and growth and that even Shakespeare was a young artist once, eager to use his influences to expand the capacity of theater. So when you watch a new play, movie, or television show that has an anti-hero or villain as the main character, think on Shakespeare, but also think on the beauty of artistic process.

— Jeremy Harris


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