In the Shakespearian tragedy Hamlet, prince Hamlet repeatedly calls Claudius a "villain". Here is a quote from Act 2 Scene 2 :

Bloody, bawdy villain!Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous,kindless villain!

Is the word "villain" used in the modern sense to refer to a person with malevolent motives or was it meant to carry connotations of lowly birth as well?


The word "villain" is derived from the 14th-century word "villein" which means:

a free common villager or village peasant of any of the feudal classes lower in rank than the thane.

So originally, it would certainly have carried the connotation of low birth. I found this question on English Language & Usage about the process of how the word changed meaning which you may find interesting.

The question thus becomes when did the meaning change. As it so happens the Oxford English Dictionary provides various examples of its usage down the ages. And from this, we can see that the transformation of meaning into "scoundrel" happened before Shakespeare's time.

By far the most pertinent example is:

The greateste vyllany in a villayne is to be gyuen in largesse of lyes.
- Ld. Berners tr. A. de Guevara Golden Bk. M. Aurelius (1546)

There are various interpretations of this sentence which cannot be unpicked without context for the passage, which I cannot find. In all of them, however "vyllany" (i.e. villainy) has to be understood as a synonym for wicked behaviour. That, in turn, strongly suggests that "villayne" (i.e. villain) was, by 1546, understood as a synonym for one who was wicked.

Its actual meaning in the passage is unclear, and it could possibly still mean "serf". So while not definitive as regards Shakespeare's meaning, we can conclude that by his time, the modern meaning of "villain" was widely understood.

As regards this specific usage, then, it is worth noting that Claudius is not a serf but the opposite. He is a noble: the King's brother and, later, the King himself. There is nothing in the play to suggest we are to think this claim to nobility is invalid. Indeed, if it was, you might imagine Hamlet might have pursued it as a means to oust Claudius from the throne.

Finally, we can look at some other quotes in which Shakespeare uses the word villain, including another from Hamlet:

One may smile, and smile, and be a villain!

  • Hamlet

An evil soul producing holy witness Is like a villain with a smiling cheek.

  • The Merchant of Venice

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune (often the surfeits of our own behaviour) we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars: as if we were villains on necessity;

  • King Lear

And every tongue brings in a several tale, and every tale condemns me for a villain

  • Richard III

In each of these cases, the context indicates we should read "villain" in the modern sense rather than to mean someone of low birth.

  • 1
    To me it makes more sense in your final example if 'villain' is understood as 'serf'. It says that the greatest villany of serfs is their readiness to lie, not their readiness to be steal, mutiny, assault, default on debt or even kill, but to lie. Which in the scale of potential villanies, is surely at the lower end? – Spagirl May 21 at 11:12
  • @Spagirl Possibly. But what swung it for me is the use of the word "villainy". It may be my modern interpretation but it seems very odd if, here, it means "serf-y". In which case the passage means "the most serf-like thing serfs do is to lie", making it something of a tautology. – Matt Thrower May 21 at 11:17
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    Are we at cross purposes? I agree that he uses 'vyllany' as we use 'villainy'. But I think 'villayne' means 'serf' not 'liar'. He is certainly saying that as a class they tend to be untruthful but not I think that that defines them. To my reading he is punning, which he couldn't do if 'villayne' was synonymous with liar. If it was, he would be saying that 'the greatest villainy of liars is that they lie'. He may have meant that, similarly to Al Franken's 'Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them' but it's difficult to be sure ether way from one out of context quote. – Spagirl May 21 at 11:30
  • @Spagirl No, your argument makes sense. I'm just putting a lot of weight on the use of "villainy". If that is, as we agree, used in the modern sense then it seems a reasonable extension to me that "villain" must also have been understood in its modern sense. I do agree that "villayne" here is ambiguous as you describe but I would argue that its being prefixed by "vyllany" suggests the author treats the meanings as related: i.e "the greatest sin of a sinner is lying". It is impossible to be sure without context. Unfortunately, I can't find any of the wider text in which to set the quote – Matt Thrower May 21 at 11:46
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    I don't have time right now to sift through this at the mo, the source is here. books.google.co.uk/… it seems from a quick skim that its about Romans and Senators, so possible that the less powerful villeins can't commit such heinous crimes, but also that it wasn't about the people with the status of villeins in England. I have only dipped in and I don't know how wide ranging the the book is – Spagirl May 21 at 13:24

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