As we know, this month I am celebrating all things Shakespeare in honor of the Bard’s birth/death month. Today, I’ll be discussing my favorite book, If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio.
Note that this post does include major spoilers, so if you haven’t read If We Were Villains yet and don’t want to be spoiled, check out the book before you read this post.
Would it really be a Shakespeare-themed month if I didn’t talk about If We Were Villains? Honestly, I’m pretty sure that the idea for a Shakespeare-themed month was developed specifically so that I could rant about this book. This book lives in my mind absolutely rent-free twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. Some days my brain just randomly goes, “hey, remember when [redacted] happens in IWWV?” and then I just sit and stare at a wall for a bit. I’ll finish reading it and immediately want to read it again. When I say I love this book, I mean I love this book.
As someone who lives and breathes theatre, loves Shakespeare to possibly an unhealthy amount, and is weirdly obsessed with murder mysteries with morally gray characters, it almost feels as though If We Were Villains was written specifically for me. For me, If We Were Villains is one of those books that leaves me breathless every time I read it. From the first sentence, I am fully immersed in this world. In fact, usually, once I start reading it I don’t stop until I’ve finished it (my apologies to everyone I’ve ever tried to buddy read this book with).
There are so many things that I love about this book which means there are so many things that I could delve into, but if I did that, this post would turn into a 10-page essay. So, I’ve decided that I’m going to focus on three specific things that I think are done brilliantly, and maybe one day I’ll write a follow-up post. Three of my favorite things in this book are foreshadowing, Shakespeare’s influence, and characterization.
In my opinion, If We Were Villains is a master class in literary foreshadowing. While writing the majority of this post I was in the middle of a reread and there were so many moments where I read a bit and just said: “M.L. Rio’s mind!”. My favorite kind of foreshadowing is the type that is very subtle, so subtle that it doesn’t fully register until the moment the truth is revealed. The kind that makes you think back to what you read before and you can’t believe you missed the clues. In my opinion, that’s the best type of foreshadowing, and this book has that in droves. There is so much foreshadowing, so picking specific moments to point out is difficult, but I’ve narrowed it down to some of my favorites.
The reason why the foreshadowing in If We Were Villains is so brilliant is because everything is woven in so seamlessly. The majority of the foreshadowing is given through discussions of Shakespeare. You’re fooled into thinking that they’re just discussing the play that they’re rehearsing or discussing in class when in actuality, M.L. Rio is telling you what is going to happen next in the book.
The entire first act is filled with foreshadowing of Richard’s death. In Act 1, Scene 1, the seven of them are going over their monologues for Caesar auditions. Alexander says that he can predict the casting. When he gets to casting Richard, the following conversation happens:
“Well, obviously Richard will be Caesar.”
“Because we all secretly want to kill him?” James asked.
Richard arched one dark eyebrow. “Et tu, Brute?”
Upon the first read, this comes off as friends (and sort of rivals) just having a go at each other. Joking around. Falling into the preconceived roles they have found themselves in. It’s not until almost the end that you realize you’re given Richard’s killer on the eighth page of the book. Later on, in that same scene, James turns to Oliver and says,
“Your time will come to be the tragic hero. Just wait for spring”
Again, this comes off simply as two theatre students discussing the roles they get cast in and what roles they would like to play. At first, you have no idea that this is what would end up happening to Oliver. When I read the book for the first time, right after I finished it I went back through the text to find the clues that I missed and when I read this line I lost it. My literal note next to it in my copy that’s annotated just says, “SCREAM.”
There are so many other amazing moments of foreshadowing. Frederick asking if it’s more important that Caesar is assassinated, or that he’s assassinated by his friends? Richard being told that as Caesar he dies in act 3, just as he does in the third act of the book.
The foreshadowing in this book is truly unparalleled and I will forever be screaming about it.
In Act 2, Scene 8, Oliver says:
“It was just us – the seven of us and the trees and the sky and the lake and the moon and, of course, Shakespeare. He lived with us like an eighth housemate, an older, wiser friend, perpetually out of sight but never out of mind, as if he had just left the room”
This story is as much about Shakespeare as it is about the seven of them. Shakespeare is woven into every moment of every page. Shakespeare is a character in this story. His stories and his words influence them at every turn.
Something I absolutely love about the story is how easily Shakespeare’s text is woven into their daily conversations. When I was performing, my friends and I would have full conversations quoting lines and lyrics from musicals, it’s honestly just what theatre kids do. There are many phrases that Shakespeare coined that people use in their daily lives without even knowing, but that’s another conversation for another time. For these characters, speaking Shakespeare’s words in their daily lives is second nature. That, in part, is because they live and breathe Shakespeare all the time, but it’s also because Shakespeare’s text allows them to put into words the emotions that they’re unable to express themselves. In the Act 4 Prologue, Oliver says:
“The thing about Shakespeare is, he’s so eloquent… He speaks the unspeakable. He turns grief and triumph and rapture and rage into words, into something we can understand. He renders the whole mystery of humanity comprehensible.”
In musicals, the characters begin singing because they can no longer express what they are going through in spoken word. They need to sing it. They need to set it to music and have the melodies express their innermost thoughts. That is why these characters speak through Shakespeare all the time. They’ve spent so long living in his world, that his words are sometimes the only thing that they can say to express what they’re thinking. Just as Oliver says, Shakespeare makes things comprehensible for them. I personally think that it 100% makes sense for Shakespearian language to be part of their daily discussions and I think it’s done extremely well. It’s also done for a purpose.
Every Shakespeare reference is completely intentional and is there to move the plot forward. I think it’s brilliant the way M.L. Rio used situations and text from Shakespeare’s plays to mirror the situations happening to the characters.
The Halloween performance of Macbeth is the catalyst for everything that happens. The cracks in their group were already there, but Richard not being cast as Macbeth, (and his inability to handle it) is what sets the entire plot into motion. Caesar being the first show of their fall semester with Richard playing Caesar and James playing Brutus sets up their fight the night of the Caesar party and Richard’s assassination by James. The Romeo and Juliet Christmas Masque makes Oliver realize the depth of his feelings for James, which ultimately leads to him taking the fall for Richard’s murder. King Lear has James playing the antagonist on stage, just as he’s become the antagonist in his own life.
Another brilliant parallel between IWWV characters and Shakespeare characters would have to be James’ breakdown. James’ breakdown mirrors the slow madness that takes over Macbeth – it’s also a great little bit of foreshadowing that James is Macbeth on Halloween and then has a very similar breakdown. After the murder of Duncan, Macbeth has fits of fevered action, terrible guilt and fear, and pessimism. James goes through all of the same things. Richard’s death and his part in it slowly drives him into madness. While Macbeth’s fear and guilt translate into going on a murder spree, James’ anguish is taken inward (with the exception of when he breaks Oliver’s nose). M.L. Rio has actually spoken on that scene between James and Oliver, as well as James’ mental state from Richard’s death on, and she also parallels that to Macbeth’s madness. You can read that here.
While one would expect a book about Shakespearean actors to have lots of Shakespeare references, If We Were Villains goes above and beyond. Shakespeare is fully immersed in every part of the book. In fact, in the Act 4 Prologue, Colbourne asks Oliver if he blames Shakespeare for any of it, and Oliver says he blames Shakespeare for all of it. Shakespeare is not only the eighth main character of this story, he is the most important character of this story.
In my opinion, the characters in If We Were Villains are some of the most well-written, developed, and complex characters that I’ve read about in recent years. While there are many things that bring me back to IWWV time and time again, including the things previously mentioned, the characters are the ones that really bring me back. I just really feel a connection to them. I fell in love with them right away (well, not Richard, but I love to hate him) and have become so attached to them.
Every time I read the book I feel as though I learn more about them. I understand them more – their motivations, their wants, their needs, their fears – they continue to develop with every read. Which, I believe, is great character writing. They do not stay stagnant.
I really love morally gray characters, and the seven of them are about as morally gray as they come. Which is good. In real life, people are morally gray. No one is all good. No one is all bad. We are flawed people who sometimes do good things and sometimes do bad things. That’s why these characters feel so real.
The best books have characters that feel like real people and for me, these characters definitely feel that way. In fact, sometimes I forget they’re fictional.
Truthfully, I have so many thoughts about characterization that it’s almost hard to put into words. As an actor, I have spent so much time getting into the mindset of whatever character I play, sometimes forgetting where I end and they begin (something James struggles with) which has made character analysis a natural thing I do while reading. If I did a full character analysis for each character, this post would honestly be at least 10,000 words, so I shall refrain.
Oliver, James, Meredith, Richard, Alexander, Wren, and Filippa are some of the most interesting and complex characters I’ve ever encountered, and I will never tire of reading their story.
Honestly, I could go on and on and on and on about this book. I could probably talk about it for hours and not have finished articulating all of my thoughts. There are some books that, once you read them, find a way of burying into your soul and becoming a part of you. For me, If We Were Villains is that book.
Have thoughts on IWWV? Leave them in the comments, I’d love to discuss them!