History may be written by the victors, but what happens when it’s rewritten hundreds of years later? Some of history’s most notable villains have been given the goody-two-shoes treatment by today’s writers and broadcasters. We decided to take a look at the best and worst offenders.
(1) Thomas Cromwell, normally considered the Machiavellian bureaucrat behind Henry VIII’s rule, was the surprisingly sympathetic subject of Hilary Mantel’s historical fictions Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. In Peter Kosminsky’s TV adaptation, Mark Rylance played Cromwell with the same whisperingly soft voice he brought to his role in the CBeebies series Bing, albeit with the sort of steely determination that most modern politicians would kill for. Wolf Hall cast Cromwell, the lowly blacksmith’s son who rose to power through his own skill and tenacity, as a brilliant idealist who was fiercely loyal to his king.
(2) Shakespeare’s seminal villain, the ‘poisonous bunch-back’d toad’ Richard III, was reinterred with great pomp after his remains were found in a car park in Leicester. Richard was accused of arranging the deaths of his two young nephews in order to manoeuvre his way to the throne, and was vilified by the Tudor government that succeeded him. But the outpouring of affection for him this March flowed onto the streets of Leicester, where the dean of the cathedral spoke of ‘trying to put some things right from the past’. Sometimes truth can be even stranger than fiction.
(3) A few weeks ago, Westminster Hall hosted a mock trial of the Magna Carta barons to see whether Bad King John (recently voted third worst monarch in history) could clear his name. As it turned out, he couldn’t – the judges ultimately decided that his poor kingship drove the barons to rebel – but the balance of historical judgement was redressed somewhat with witnesses for the defence suggesting that the barons should have treated John with more respect. One historical adviser called it ‘a close run thing’.
Now, we probably won’t see the likes of Jack the Ripper or Stalin being rehabilitated any time soon. But our culture has a fascination with antiheroes that far exceeds any interest in straight-up good guys: you only need look to the recent phenomena of Breaking Bad and House of Cards to see that. Devoted fans want nothing more than for Walter White and Frank Underwood to succeed, no matter how illegal or immoral their actions, and those who get in the way must be eliminated.
It probably hasn’t escaped notice that all the characters mentioned thus far, real or fictional, are male. In fact, the antihero is a peculiarly masculine phenomenon. Not so surprising, you may say, when we’re talking about people who died 500 years ago: it is difficult to find female villains in history because very few women had enough power to abuse it. More shocking is that we seem to have limited sympathy with a female protagonist of dubious morality. Countless commentators and casual viewers have said that they are able to will on Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood (House of Cards) to ever-darker deeds, and yet they can’t bear his beautiful, ambitious, duplicitous wife, Claire. It is yet another version of the old story in which female politicians are scorned for being ‘cold’, or ‘bossy’ – descriptors that are almost never attached to men.
Happily, in the absence of female antiheroes in screen culture, the press has seen fit to fabricate its own. Every good showbiz story features a love-to-hate villain, and none is quite so compelling as the pop diva. Sure, no one can touch Taylor Swift, but in the inimitable battles of Miley vs. Nicki, Madonna vs. Gaga, and Britney vs. Christina, there’s a villain for everyone. So, there you have it: kings of the realm vs. queens of the belt. Women are cracking the glass ceiling one high note at a time.