Medieval beliefs remained strong in Shakespeare’s era; the idea that real, literal demons haunted humanity is still believed by some today.
Lucius: O worthy Goth, this is the incarnate devil
That robb’d Andronicus of his good hand;
This is the pearl that pleased your empress’ eye,
And here’s the base fruit of his burning lust.
–(Titus Andronicus, V.i.2163-67)
Nym: They say he cried out of sack.
Hostess Quickly: Ay, that a’ did.
Bardolph: And of women.
Hostess Quickly: Nay, that a’ did not.
Boy: Yes, that a’ did; and said they were devils incarnate.
Hostess Quickly: A’ could never abide carnation; ’twas a colour he never liked.
–(Henry V, II.iii.859-65)
Shakespeare’s use of the phrase “devil incarnate” – which he never actually put in those exact words in his plays – is the same as ours today. Unlike many of his sayings or catchphrases, there’s none of the drift in meaning by which, for example, “kill with kindness” has gone from an ironic implication of deliberate cruelty to a more modern torture – making a target worry that too much niceness must conceal a sinister hidden motive. A ‘devil incarnate” is still, as it was then, the worst possible human being – an irredeemably wicked individual to be avoided at all costs.
In Shakespeare’s day, of course, the reasons for someone to be so evil were considered different than ours. We tend to write modern villains as suffering mental illness – like sociopathy, or PTSD from childhood trauma – or with clear motivations of greed, lust, or jealousy. In short, they’re broadly realistic people with a strong urge to get something and no problem hurting and killing others who get in their way. We all know milder versions of that, and we can make the leap to more serious, intense villainy.
Elizabethans and Jacobeans had a different frame of reference. They were almost all Christians, and far more literal and severe in their beliefs than almost anyone alive today. They believed quite firmly that if God could incarnate himself in a human form, surely the Devil could do the same. As such, villainy in Shakespeare is generally internal and inexplicable – they’re just born that way, with a devil in them trying to get out.
I’d actually argue that some of the worst villains in Shakespeare aren’t ‘Devils Incarnate’ in this sense. Richard III, nasty little ferret that he is, tends to have a reason for what he does – power, women, revenge, they’re not pretty but they’re fairly obvious. The real Devil works pro malo, to do evil because it’s their calling – in the above speech from Titus Andronicus, Lucius isn’t referring to the Goths as devils (they’re arguably no worse than the Romans by this point in the play) but the monstrous Aaron the Moor, who incites barbarity from all around him and, when asked if he’d like a last-minute chance to apologize, simply replies:
Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly,
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
But that I cannot do ten thousand more. (V.i.2276-9)
Or we could look at King Lear‘s Edmund, who disdains any idea that he’s a victim of birth order, parentage, stars or fate, declaring that
This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are
sick in fortune, often the surfeit of our own behaviour, we make
guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars. (I.ii.441-3)
The really scary thing isn’t the person who’ll knife you for a dollar and a sandwich; it’s the person who’ll do it for no reason at all, when you least expect it, that should keep you up at night. Shakespeare got that, and that’s why the villains that stay with us are those, like Iago in Othello, who responds to the question of why he destroys others with an arrogant “Demand me nothing: what you know, you know” (V.ii.301) that echoes his ominous early admission that “I am not what I am”. (I.i.65) Someone entirely unpredictably evil, just for the sheer joy of it, with no reward other than having hurt someone else – truly that’s as close as we get to the Devil incarnate.