So, in the spirit of equality… five Really Nasty Female Literary Characters who prove, beyond any doubt, that women can be every bit as revolting as men:
Julia Agrippina (AKA Agrippina the Younger… no idea who the Elder was, but if there’s a Younger, there’s gotta be an Elder. Them’s the rules.) – Robert Graves wrote a two-volume tale (I, Claudius and Claudius the God) about the eponymous Roman Emperor, and I discovered this gem when I was but a tadpole, after watching the BBC TV series in the late 1970s. Agrippina appears quite late in the tale when she becomes Claudius’ fourth wife --- which, given she’s his niece, is definitely icky. But the marriage is political, and there’s no love lost between the two… she merely wants her son by a previous marriage, a fellow who will one day be notorious as the emperor Nero, to supplant Claudius’ own son in the line of succession. Which she accomplishes. Once that little task is taken care of, she doesn’t need Claudius anymore… so she murders him, feeding him a dish of poisoned mushrooms. Turns out the joke is ultimately on her, though, as Nero doesn’t particularly want mommy dearest bossing him around, and, though historians’ accounts conflict, there are suggestions he eventually murders her.
Morgause of Orkney – the Arthurian saga --- which evolved/expanded a great deal over a period of 1000 years or so --- employs different names for King Arthur’s scheming half-sister, depending which version of the story one consults. Any way you slice it, though, she’s not a nice person, to put it mildly… while married to another dude (King Lot), she seduces Arthur and becomes pregnant. Which is bad enough, but as I said, she’s also Arthur’s half-sister. Eww. He doesn’t know… but she does… and doesn’t care, because she’s a gal looking for power. Their son, Mordred, eventually grows up to kill Arthur and destroy his accomplishments. Two betrayals for the price of one.
Lady Macbeth – I’ve mentioned Lady M numerous times before, because I can’t help it: she’s such a great example of a purely evil female character. She’s also, really, the brains and more importantly the force of will behind her dithering husband’s dastardly plot to murder Scottish King Duncan and assume the throne. When Macbeth has second thoughts about betraying Duncan, who’s a guest in the Macbeth castle, it’s Lady M who goads him on, insulting Mac’s courage and dismissing the betrayal. She even says she’d be prepared, if she had a baby, to dash its brains on the ground if it meant gaining power. Okayyyy, then. Oh, yeah, she’s a piece of work, all right… though ironically, she eventually can’t live with the knowledge of what she and hubby have done: she has a mental breakdown, then kills herself (prompting a shocked Macbeth to launch into one of the great Shakespearean monologues about life’s futility).
Jadis the White Witch – C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles, which definitely qualifies as children’s lit, serves up this sterling example of betraying evil. Jadis, who freezes all of Narnia in a hundred-year-long winter, has murdered the population of her original world, Charn, killing her own (unnamed) sister in the process. She’s aware of the prophecy that four human children will ultimately overthrow her, so when disgruntled Edmund Pevensey shows up, she knows she’s got her work cut out for her to confound the prophecy. She masquerades as a much nicer version of herself to gain Edmund’s trust, then ruthlessly turns around and betrays him the moment he’s of no further use. Tilda Swinton does a masterful job playing her icy cruelty in the 2005 (yikes, is it really that long ago?) film version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
Mildred Ratched (that’s Nurse Ratched to you, bub) – when Ken Kesey wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1962, I doubt he’d any idea of how Nurse Ratched’s face, in the form of actress Louise Fletcher from the 1975 film version, would become synonymous with cold, calculating, emotionless evil. (Fletcher went on to play another great female villain/betrayer, the venomous Kai Winn of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.) The betrayal aspect of her personality arises because, as head nurse of a hospital’s psychiatric unit, she should be the gentle, nurturing type, and she’s anything but. She tyrannizes/terrorizes the unit’s patients without qualm or mercy, and is ultimately responsible for one patient’s suicide and another’s lobotomization. The film’s ending is bleaker --- Kesey has her losing her grip over the unit at story’s end, but in the film, there’s no suggestion of that.
Well. There we are. A coven of calumny. A haven of harpies. A klatch of kooks. A verity of villainy. (Sorry… I’ll stop with the alliterative fest now.) But these are not nice ladies, and you certainly wouldn’t want to meet them on a darkened street at night. They don’t do anything particularly worse than their male equivalents in other stories, but because of the hoary old literary cliché about women all being life-giving, wholesome, maternal types --- a cliché, thankfully, on its way out --- their behaviours can strike us as more shocking.