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As Evil as Claire Underwood: Five Devious Female Characters in Literature

Those who have watched House of Cards' fifth season will know that the formerly neutral and even innocent phrase "My Turn!" has just acquired unsuspected threatening connotations. This is thanks to Claire Underwood, one of the power-hungry and ruthless protagonists of the popular Netflix show.


As corrupt and immoral as you might consider Frank Underwood’s wife, we all agree that Claire is one of the most formidable female characters in recent fiction. Be honest, we love her! Of course, actress Robin Wright’s remarkable performance – and stunning beauty – has a lot to do with it. Besides, don’t be deceived, it has always been her turn!

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While you wait for season six, you may want to meet similar heroines in literature. Here are some of the most wicked – and fascinating – women you will come across in novels and plays.

Macbeth (No Fear Shakespeare)

It is said that Shakespeare’s characters convey every single feeling human beings are capable of experiencing. 

In one of the Bard of Avon’s most famous tragedies, Macbeth, we encounter unmitigated ambition and relentless determination to achieve power. 

This is the story of a man who believes in the prophecies of witches. They told him he would become the king of Scotland. More than anybody else, however, it’s his wife, Lady Macbeth, who wants to believe in the augury. Nothing will stop her from making her husband fulfill his destiny and conquer the royal post. 

Murder, treason, and madness will pave the couple’s way to the top, and their subsequent fall. Lady Macbeth is clearly the most obvious inspiration for Claire Underwood’s character.

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Dangerous Liaisons

We are in 18th century France. The whole life of the debauched Vicomte de Valmont is "employed in spreading trouble, dishonor, and scandals in families" of the aristocracy. 

His reputation precedes him, yet he seems irresistible. He counts on a powerful ally to help him accomplish his predatory missions: his former lover, the even more depraved and calculating Marquise de Marteuil, queen of intrigue and deception. Her favorite pastime is to seduce men, playing with their feelings, in order to bring them down. 

Now a new opportunity has opened up and the Marquise and the Vicomte must unite forces to take full advantage of it. The goal is to corrupt and ruin the sweet 15-year-old Cecilia Volanges, an innocent former convent boarder who is about to marry the Count of Gercourt, one of the few men who dared to reject and betray the Marquise de Merteuil in the past.

Now she wants revenge and is eager to enlist Valmont in her scheme. The story is told through letters exchanged between the various characters, allowing the reader to follow the Machiavellian steps taken by the evil couple in weaving their dangerous web around the unsuspecting victims.

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Dom Casmurro

This is the story of an adultery that may of may not have happened. The reader has access to only one side of the story, the unreliable narrator’s version. Bentinho is a lonely, insecure and resentful middle-aged man with too much time on his hands - and it’s through his perspective that we look back and follow the developments of the love story between him and his childhood neighbor, Capitu

We understand she was an attractive and determined young woman, prepared to have her way in all matters of life. Some people, however, were suspicious of her from the very beginning. This is how one the characters describes Capitus eyes in the novel: a gypsy's eyes, oblique and sly. 

The narrator, on the other hand, was, for the greatest part of his life, completely captivated, and uses these words to talk about his lover’s eyes: 

“Lovers' language, give me an exact and poetic comparison to say what those eyes of Capitu were like. No image comes to mind that doesn't offend against the rules of good style, to say what they were and what they did to me. Undertow eyes? Why not? Undertow. That's the notion that the new expression put in my head. They held some kind of mysterious, active fluid, a force that dragged one in, like the undertow of a wave retreating from the shore on stormy days. So as not to be dragged in, I held onto anything around them, her ears, her arms, her hair spread about her shoulders; but as soon as I returned to the pupils of her eyes again, the wave emerging from them grew towards me, deep and dark, threatening to envelop me, draw me in and swallow me up.” 

But now he may think very differently. Was Capitu really unfaithful? One of the greatest mysteries in Brazilian literature.

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I, Claudius

Meet Livia, Roman Emperor Claudius’s grandmother, wife to Augustus (63 BC to 14 AD). The reader learns that, "the name 'Livia' is connected with the Latin word which means Malignity." Surely she lives up to expectations. 

The first third of this most popular historical novel – the autobiographical account of Claudius’s life and times – is dominated by facts related to this ambitious, sly and dangerous woman. Livia’s objective is to remain in power for as long as she lives,  relentlessly scheming to have her son Tiberius replace Augustus after his death – to reign together with him. 

To achieve her ends, she will not hesitate to lie, manipulate and kill – poison being her preferred weapon. 

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

The embodiment of society’s narrow-mindedness, unreasonably strict norms and inability to deal with diversity, Nurse Ratched has never had her power threatened until the arrival of the rebellious and diffident Randle McMurphy at the psychiatric ward she’s in charge of.

McMurphy is a force to be reckoned with; he will question her authority and everything she stands for. A fierce battle will ensue, and the consequences will be tragic.

A typical product of the turbulent 60s, Ken Kesey’s novel has aged well. Its metaphors and issues are still relevant, although it may have lost some of the more subversive impact it had at the time it was first published, when young people were advised not to trust anybody over 30, and to just turn on, tune in and drop out.

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Jorge Sette is Bookwitty's Regional Ambassador for South America. He represents the company, writing relevant content for the region, recruiting contributors, contacting partners and ... Show More