Top 5 Female Villains in Shakespeare Plays

In many of Shakespeare's plays, the female villain, or femme fatale, is instrumental in moving the plot forward. These characters are manipulative and clever, but they almost always meet a grisly end as a payback for their evil deeds.

Let's take a look at the top 5 female villains in Shakespeare’s plays:

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Lady Macbeth from Macbeth

Artist rendition of lady macbeth
De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images

Probably the most famous femme fatale of all, Lady Macbeth is ambitious and manipulative and convinces her husband to kill King Duncan in order to usurp the throne. 

Lady Macbeth wishes that she could be a man in order to carry out the deed herself:

“Come you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe top full of direst cruelty.” (Act 1, Scene 5)

She attacks her husband’s masculinity as he shows a conscience about killing the king and urges him on to commit regicide. This leads to Macbeth’s own downfall and eventually racked with guilt, Lady Macbeth takes her own life in a fit of madness. 

“Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand” (Act 5, Scene 1)
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Tamora From Titus Andronicus

Tamora, the Queen of the Goths, rode into Rome as Titus Andronicus' prisoner. As an act of revenge for events that took place during the war, Andronicus sacrifices one of her sons. Her lover Aaron then plots an act of revenge for her son’s death and comes up with the idea of raping and mutilating Lavinia Titus’s daughter. 

When Tamora is informed that Titus is losing his mind, she appears to him dressed as ‘revenge,’ her entourage comes as ‘murder’ and ‘rape.’ For her crimes, she is fed her dead sons in a pie and then killed and fed to the wild beasts. 

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Goneril From King Lear

Greedy and ambitious Goneril flatters her father in order to inherit half of his land and disinherit her more deserving sister Cordelia. She does not intervene when Lear is forced to wander the land homeless, disempowered and elderly, instead she plots his murder. 

Goneril first comes up with the idea to blind Gloucester; “Pluck out his eyes” (Act 3, Scene 7). Goneril and Regan both fall for the evil Edmond and Goneril poisons her sister in order to have him for herself. Edmond is slain. Goneril remains unrepentant to the end as she takes her own life rather than face the consequences of her actions.

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Regan From King Lear

Regan appears to be more caring than her sister Goneril and initially is seen to be outraged by Edgar’s betrayal. However, it becomes clear that she is as villainous as her sister despite some examples of compassion; i.e., when Cornwall is wounded. 

Regan is complicit in Gloucester’s torture and pulls on his beard demonstrating her lack of respect for his age and rank. She suggests that Gloucester should be hanged; “Hang him instantly” (Act 3 Scene 7, Line 3).

She also has adulterous designs on Edmond. She is poisoned by her sister who wants Edmond to herself.

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Sycorax From The Tempest

Sycorax is actually dead before the play begins but acts as a foil to Prospero. She is an evil witch who has enslaved Ariel and taught her illegitimate son Caliban to worship the demon god Sebetos. Caliban believes the island is his due to her colonization of it from Algiers.

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Jamieson, Lee. "Top 5 Female Villains in Shakespeare Plays." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Jamieson, Lee. (2020, August 26). Top 5 Female Villains in Shakespeare Plays. Retrieved from Jamieson, Lee. "Top 5 Female Villains in Shakespeare Plays." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).