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Historical Villain Upgrade / Theatre

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Historical Villain Upgrades in theatre.

Examples with real people


  • William Shakespeare was a major purveyor of this trope out of necessity, writing histories to support the royal family's prejudices (not that he might not have agreed with them-but who knows?).
    • The Real Life Macbeth was one of Scotland's better early kings, and was especially known for his charity toward the poor. He defeated Duncan, a young tyrant invader, in a fair fight in battle, reigning successfully for 17 years before being defeated and killed in battle himself; he was succeeded first by his stepson, then by Malcolm III, the thane who had defeated him. Shakespeare's Macbeth is nothing like the original, partly because his source got a lot of things wrong, but also because Shakespeare was writing the play to appeal to King James I, who was descended from Duncan; portraying an ancestor of King James as weak, ineffective, and/or tyrannical (even if he really was) may have been tantamount to treason, and portraying his ancestor's enemy as a monster would certainly earn James' favor. The play echoes James's belief that kings were chosen by God and that God's will, no matter how thwarted in the short term by tyrants, could not fail in the end. Lady Macbeth's characterization is pure fabrication, as almost nothing is known about her beyond her name, Gruoch (?!).
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    • Richard III in the eponymous play is written as having his two nephews murdered, for which there's little evidence (they simply disappeared, their fate unknown to this day). And while he likely committed some atrocities and heinous crimes, it can certainly be argued that he wasn't any more or less ruthless than kings who had preceded or followed him. But Shakespeare was writing in the time of Elizabeth I, whose grandfather Henry VII overthrew Richard at the end of the War of the Roses. Thus, the official party line was that Richard was a monster and not a legitimate king of England.
    • Unsurprisingly, Joan of Arc is portrayed as a whore and a witch in Henry VI Part 1, which was very much popular opinion at the time among her sworn enemies, the English. This is an especially ridiculous example when you consider the fact that what we known from her trial suggests Joan of Arc was a Badass Pacifist, and that it was proven she remained a virgin all her life. She was also not only accused of witchcraft, but also of heresy, by a Kangaroo Court put on by the English and their allies, the Burgundians. The Pope later reviewed the case and exonerated her entirely.
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    • There are actually a number of historians who believe that Shakespeare's later tragedies were set in more esoteric times so he could criticize the mores of his own time under the radar (at least occasionally; his play Richard II, about the overthrow of a childless king, was set late in the reign of Elizabeth I when the succession was much in doubt). In particular, Macbeth nowadays isn't seen as a political story (rightful king is overthrown by usurper; son restores rightful line), but rather a personal story (Macbeth and his wife's ambition overrides their own sense of right and wrong to the point that they are haunted by it).

Specific works:

  • 1776:
    • John Dickinson gets something of an historical villain upgrade. While opposed to the Declaration of Independence, it was more a case of he thought it should not be done at that time, because the structure of government was too uncertain and the Americans had no European allies at that point. Rather than being John Adams' antagonist, he avoided attending the Continental Congress, while independence was being debated and voted upon. He went on to fight the British, in the militia-as a private and a brigadier general, on different occasions. He had a moderately successful political career afterward, including being a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. A little of this is hinted at in the film in the character's last speech, but up to then, the musical presents him as a nascent Benedict Arnold.
      • He also co-wrote "The Necessity of Taking Up Arms" with Thomas Jefferson and wrote the line the play attributes to Jefferson.
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    • Edward Rutledge, one of the delegates from South Carolina, is portrayed as a blowhard racist who gets Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin to remove the anti-slavery clause from the Declaration using blackmail and a seriously hammy Villain Song. While Jefferson did write that the South Carolina delegation, along with Georgia's, was the main proponent of removing the clause, he did not name Rutledge or anyone else as the leader of the effort. Who it really was, if it was indeed just one person, will likely never be known.
  • Amadeus by Peter Shaffer plays fast and loose with Antonio Salieri's reputation. Contrary to what the play suggests, he and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were not bitter enemies, nor did Salieri murder his more famous colleague. History records that he was Mozart's (and Ludwig van Beethoven's) friend and collaborator, and also a mentor to Mozart's youngest son Franz. The basis for viewing Mozart and Salieri as enemies comes from a few letters by Wolfgang and his father that gripe about Salieri receiving a desirable commission, though this is only natural for professionals competing for the same business. Further, while Salieri might not have been quite as gifted as Mozart by most reckoning, he was still a very good composer.
  • Boris Godunov, in reality, was a somewhat opportunistic but generally fair and even generous regent and tsar of Russia, but the play of his name by Alexander Pushkin, made into an opera by Modest Mussorgsky, depicts him as an Evil Chancellor consumed by a lust for power.
  • The Crucible:
    • A famous example is Abigail Williams, the first accuser in the Salem Witch Trials and main villain of Arthur Miller's play. In Real Life she was more or less an Unwitting Instigator of Doom, an attention-seeking teen who acted out, was accused of witchcraft, and accused someone else to take the heat off herself (then that person accused someone else, etc.). Miller turns her into a twenty-something Alpha Bitch whose goal in starting the witch hysteria was getting her ex's wife bumped off. Admitted by Miller in the prologue, as he needed the accuser to be actively malicious to complete the allegory to the Red Scare. Ironically, the actual Red Scare was more like the historical Salem witch trials than in his play: suspected Communists accusing others to save themselves, with a domino effect. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the House Un-American Activities Committee recognized the allegory, was not amused, and questioned Miller, who refused to name others and was held in contempt of Congress (his conviction was reversed on appeal). The Red Scare was critically different, in that there were no actual witches in Salem. On the other hand, every single one of the Hollywood Ten was a Communist or fellow traveler.
      • Miller pointed out there were people in Salem who did practice witchcraft.
      • Also, although the Hollywood Ten were indeed members of the Communist Party or other affiliated parties, there is NO evidence any of them were Soviet spies or in any way worked for the Soviet Union: which is what they were actually being accused of in the trial. Their communist affiliations were well known before the trial began, and indeed were the basis of the accusations against them. They were being accused of espionage against the United States, not of merely being communists (which is not a crime).
    • Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth, the other major villain, also gets a Villain Upgrade as well as an Importance Upgrade thanks to being a Composite Character of several real people. While Danforth was indeed one of the judges at the Trials, he was not the tyrannical, fundamentalist head of the court that the play portrays him as, that was actually William Stoughton. The real Danforth disliked Stoughton and felt he went too far. The scene where Danforth crosses the Moral Event Horizon by ordering the accused witches executed despite being able to say the Lord's Prayer correctly (impossible for a witch, according to the beliefs of the time) also never happened; it was really Cotton Mather, one of the consulting ministers, who did that.
  • Cyrano de Bergerac defies this trope with a popular villain: Cardinal Richelieu offers his help to the protagonist instead of opposing him. In fact, it's Cyrano who coldly rejects his patronage. Edmond Rostand gives Dumas a metaphorical "What the hell, dude?" by including a scene where Richelieu can be observed patronizing a play written by Dumas that depicts him as a villain (in spite of dying 150 years before Dumas was born).
  • Pope Pius XII got this treatment in Rolf Hochhuth's highly tendentious play The Deputy, a Christian tragedy (German: Der Stellvertreter. Ein christliches Trauerspiel) (1963), which was produced to undermine the influence of the Catholic Church, perhaps particularly in the Soviet bloc. Some revisionist modern historians, ignoring the testimony of former Soviet spies like the Romanian Ion Mihai Pacepa who say that the play was a deliberate (and successful) attempt to cast Pius and the Church in the worst possible light, ran with it and produced the idea of "Hitler's Pope". Pius' actions regarding the Holocaust remain a source of controversy, but most likely it was a case of, if anything, not doing enough to help Jews (and it was not as if he did nothing, or even wanted to do nothing, as the Vatican had made its opposition to anti-Semitism more than plain). On the other hand, it is also true that the German, Spanish and Irish branches of the Church actively supported the Nazis: the Spaniards were even trafficking weapons for Franco. The Church could have more actively curtailed the activities of certain archbishops, and incidentally also stopped taking Hitler's money: since he paid tithe throughout his life, often from the money earned off selling the possessions of murdered Jews. But it should be noted that ardent Catholics were also among the most vocal opponents of the Nazis, and many branches of the church actively condemned them as well as condemning anti-semitism in general (this is, by the way, the reason that the KKK are anti-Catholic). It's easy to point fingers at the Vatican (they've also been accused in pretty much every other atrocity ever committed in Europe with or without good evidence), but all this really does is absolve the real criminals of guilt: the corrupt and greedy priests who traded weapons for money made off the backs of slaves. Even communist songs from the 1930s don't actually point fingers at the Vatican: they only accuse churchmen of being in the pay of big business (an accusation that was sometimes true, other times not).
  • Hamilton:
    • The play certainly makes Aaron Burr a sympathetic character, but the same can't necessarily be said about Hamilton's other rival, Thomas Jefferson, who's shown as a generally arrogant, annoying, and obstinate know-it-all hypocrite. In real life, Jefferson was very egalitarian person (for the time), who supported the poor and championed religious freedom. Likewise, while the real Jefferson can be seen as hypocritical for preaching liberty while owning slaves, he did end the slave trade and genuinely wanted to free his slaves only to be prevented by legal constraints, none of which were mentioned in the show. Possibly justified, seeing as he's pretty much portrayed as a comic relief and the relatively recent revelation that the real Jefferson's fathered many children with his slave Sally Hemmings, who in turn ended up being enslaved.
    • Even Burr, who is given more character development here than in most portrayals, gets this, being portrayed as a typical lazy jealous co-worker who wants Hamilton's power and influence without having to work as hard—as well as being apparently against the Revolutionary War, and being somewhat obsessed with Hamilton's status as an immigrant. Note that the real Aaron Burr was a very hard worker and every bit as smart as Hamilton, and there is no historical evidence that he cared about Hamilton being an immigrant. In fact, Hamilton himself was, ironically, more anti-immigrants than Burr.
    • Burr is also here shown as an apparent backstabber who betrays both Hamilton and Jefferson, as well as openly trying to destroy Hamilton's career. In real life, Hamilton and Burr were never on friendly terms in the first place, and there is a lot of evidence that Jefferson abused (or at least exploited) him, meaning his betrayal of Jefferson could be justified. Not to mention, Hamilton actually did very nearly destroy Burr's career, repeatedly and for very vague reasons, by spreading completely false rumors about him (including allegedly claiming that Burr had raped his own daughter).
    • James Madison isn't outright vilified, but he does come off as Jefferson's bootlicking butler, with his own accomplishments either glossed over (writing 29 of the Federalist Papers and the Bill of Rights) or not mentioned at all (being the main formulator of the plan that eventually became the majority of the Constitution - note that Hamilton's plan, which was resoundingly rejected and may in fact have been a deliberate Zero-Approval Gambit planned with Madison, is mentioned).
    • John Adams, despite never appearing on stage, is the biggest Butt-Monkey in the show and uses racist insults against Alexander. While there was plenty of blame on both sides of the Hamilton-Adams feud in real life, the show generally portrays him as the worse party.
    • Exaggerated with King George III, who is portrayed as an over-the-top cross between a mustache-twirling pantomime villain and a creepy ex-boyfriend.
    • The show's largest Villain Upgrade, however, goes not to any of the leads but to memorable minor character George Eacker, the man who killed Hamilton's son Philip in a duel. The fictional Eacker is depicted as a reprehensible coward who kills Philip by shooting him In the Back on "seven," but in real life, neither fired for over a minute after "ten," at which point Philip raised his gun (presumably to aim at the sky as his father suggested) and Eacker outdrew him, assuming quite understandably that his life was at stake.
  • Keating! The Musical does this to every Liberal politician with a part. That's to be expected, of course, and its primary audience pretty much agrees. Less expected is the Historical Villain Upgrade of Labor PM Bob Hawke even if It Makes Sense in Context.
  • In Knickerbocker Holiday, Peter Stuyvesant seizes power in New Amsterdam and becomes a corrupt, warmongering dictator with obvious fascist leanings. This glaring historical inaccuracy is lampshaded in the final scene where Washington Irving steps in to prevent Stuyvesant from killing everyone else, saying that's not how posterity would want to remember him.
  • Lizzie portrays Lizzie Borden's father as an abusive parent who's raping Lizzie, and possibly her older sister, too. While the real Mr. Borden was reportedly quite unpleasant to be around (by all accounts, he was a notorious skinflint), there's no evidence he was that bad.
  • In works featuring Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I gets this treatment. If the film is about Elizabeth, Mary, Queen of Scots, Mary Tudor, and/or Philip II of Spain will be treated this way. This trend is Older Than They Think; the former issue stretches back to the play Mary Stuart (1800) by Friedrich Schiller and perhaps even earlier.
  • Alexander Pushkin's Mozart and Salieri was the first work to portray Antonio Salieri as a villain, written less than 50 years after Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's death. The film Amadeus is based on Peter Shaffer's play of the same name, which is a spiritual descendant of Pushkin's play. In Real Life, their relationship was at worst a respectful rivalry, and some sources claim they were even friends.
  • Antonio Vivaldi's opera Scanderbeg:
    • It takes huge liberties with historical fact, but the most glaring case of it is probably the handling of Count Vrana's character. Although little is known about him, what is known is that he was one of Scanderbeg's closest allies and refused to surrender Kruja, despite promises of enormous rewards from Sultan Murad. In the opera, he is ready to open the gates of Kruja and kill Scanderbeg in exchange for being allowed to marry the Sultan's only daughter Asteria against her will (in real life, Murad had several known daughters and none of them by the name of Asteria).
    • A somewhat lesser case, since the character in question is given a few Evil Virtues by the librettist, but still. Though Sultan Murad II did lead campaigns against the Albanians and did besiege Kruja (without success), there is no evidence that he tried to rape Donika Arianiti or that he was ready to sacrifice his daughter's life just on principle. In fact, even Byzantine sources are known to describe Murad as a fair and pious man who treated captives well.
  • Yes Virginia: The Musical promotes Frank Church, the man who wrote the famous editorial in answer to Virginia O'Hanlon's letter, to such a role in the second act, portraying him as a curmudgeonly pessimist who takes glee in mocking Virginia and crumpling up her letter.

In-Universe examples

  • In Hamilton, Burr laments that, because of his historic duel with Hamilton, he will always be remembered as a villain, and Hamilton as a hero. The sad part is he's not wrong.
    When Alexander aimed at the sky
    He may have been the first one to die
    But I'm the one who paid for it
    I survived, but I paid for it
    Now I'm the villain in your history