Alan Rickman’s death this last month had many people praising this fine actor, for his contributions as an actor and director, but also for his portrayal of Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films. I’ve always loved Alan Rickman, but I’ve always preferred the Harry Potter books to the movies—not that I didn’t appreciate Rickman as Snape. I doubt anyone could have done it better.
What struck me was how often the discussion turned to the character of Snape himself as a tragic hero. I’ve read similar comments before. But reading another tiresome spate of the same gave me reason to look through the books once again. Snape may very well have vowed to protect Harry from Voldemort, but that doesn’t make him any less a nasty teacher; Snape may have died fulfilling his vow, but that doesn’t erase his treatment of Harry throughout the series.
Some points to get off my chest. First, Snape’s love for Lily Potter always struck me as pathological—certainly more obsessive than romantic. Second, his love for Lily causes him to make a vow to protect Harry, but only for the sake of the dead Lily, not for Harry. Third, Snape singles Harry out for a particular brand of abuse, one he vindictively delights in heaping on the Boy Who Lived. And finally, Alan Rickman, I’m sure, understood that Snape was a nasty character, which is why his portrayal of Snape is so spot on.
Here are seven passages from the books to serve as a reminder of how nasty this character gets. You may find Snape’s love for Lily romantic, but don’t forget he’s a nasty teacher, and he hates Harry.
1. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
(First day of Potions class—the first encounter between Harry and Snape.)
“Potter!” said Snape suddenly. “What would I get if I added powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?”
Powdered root of what to an infusion of what? Harry glanced at Ron, who looked as stumped as he was; Hermione’s hand had shot into the air.
“I don’t know, sir,” said Harry.
Snape’s lips curled into a sneer.
“Tut, tut — fame clearly isn’t everything.”
He ignored Hermione’s hand.
“Let’s try again. Potter, where would you look if I told you to find me a bezoar?”
2. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
(In Lockhart’s office, following the petrifaction of Mrs. Norris, the cat.)
“If I might speak, Headmaster,” said Snape from the shadows, and Harry’s sense of foreboding increased; he was sure nothing Snape had to say was going to do him any good.
“Potter and his friends may have simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said, a slight sneer curling his mouth as though he doubted it. “But we do have a set of suspicious circumstances here. Why was he in the upstairs corridor at all? Why wasn’t he at the Halloween feast?”
Harry, Ron and Hermione all launched into an explanation about the deathday party. “… there were hundreds of ghosts, they’ll tell you we were there —”
“But why not join the feast afterward?” said Snape, his black eyes glittering in the candlelight. “Why go up to that corridor?”
Ron and Hermione looked at Harry.
“Because — because —” Harry said, his heart thumping very fast; something told him it would sound very far-fetched if he told them he had been led there by a bodiless voice no one but he could hear, “because we were tired and wanted to go to bed,” he said.
“Without any supper?” said Snape, a triumphant smile flickering across his gaunt face. “I didn’t think ghosts provided food fit for living people at their parties.”
“We weren’t hungry,” said Ron loudly as his stomach gave a huge rumble.
Snape’s nasty smile widened.
“I suggest, Headmaster, that Potter is not being entirely truthful,” he said. “It might be a good idea if he were deprived of certain privileges until he is ready to tell us the whole story. I personally feel he should be taken off the Gryffindor Quidditch team until he is ready to be honest.”
3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
(In Snape’s office, after Harry’s second trip to Hogsmeade.)
“So,” he said, straightening up again. “Everyone from the Minister of Magic downward has been trying to keep famous Harry Potter safe from Sirius Black. But famous Harry Potter is a law unto himself. Let the ordinary people worry about his safety! Famous Harry Potter goes where he wants to, with no thought for the consequences.”
Harry stayed silent. Snape was trying to provoke him into telling the truth. He wasn’t going to do it. Snape had no proof — yet.
“How extraordinarily like your father you are, Potter,” Snape said suddenly, his eyes glinting. “He too was exceedingly arrogant. A small amount of talent on the Quidditch field made him think he was a cut above the rest of us too. Strutting around the place with his friends and admirers … The resemblance between you is uncanny.”
“My dad didn’t strut,” said Harry, before he could stop himself. “And neither do I.”
“Your father didn’t set much store by rules either,” Snape went on, pressing his advantage, his thin face full of malice. “Rules were for lesser mortals, not Quidditch Cup-winners. His head was so swollen —”
4. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
(In the room off the Great Hall, just after Harry’s name comes out of the goblet.)
“It’s no one’s fault but Potter’s, Karkaroff,” said Snape softly. His black eyes were alight with malice. “Don’t go blaming Dumbledore for Potter’s determination to break rules. He has been crossing lines ever since he arrived here —”
“Thank you, Severus,” said Dumbledore firmly, and Snape went quiet, though his eyes still glinted malevolently through his curtain of greasy black hair.
5. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
(In Snape’s office, after Harry sneeks a look at Snape’s memory in the pensive, which I admit is pretty bad.)
Harry felt himself rising into the air. The summer’s day evaporated around him, he was floating upward through icy blackness, Snape’s hand still tight upon his upper arm. Then, with a swooping feeling as though he had turned head over heels in midair, his feet hit the stone floor of Snape’s dungeon, and he was standing again beside the Pensieve on Snape’s desk in the shadowy, present-day Potions master’s study.
“So,” said Snape, gripping Harry’s arm so tightly Harry’s hand was starting to feel numb. “So … been enjoying yourself, Potter?”
“N-no …” said Harry, trying to free his arm.
It was scary: Snape’s lips were shaking, his face was white, his teeth were bared.
“Amusing man, your father, wasn’t he?” said Snape, shaking Harry so hard that his glasses slipped down his nose.
“I — didn’t —”
Snape threw Harry from him with all his might. Harry fell hard onto the dungeon floor.
“You will not tell anybody what you saw!” Snape bellowed.
“No,” said Harry, getting to his feet as far from Snape as he could. “No, of course I w —”
“Get out, get out, I don’t want to see you in this office ever again!”
And as Harry hurtled toward the door, a jar of dead cockroaches exploded over his head. He wrenched the door open and flew away up the corridor, stopping only when he had put three floors between himself and Snape. There he leaned against the wall, panting, and rubbing his bruised arm.
6. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
(Later, during a potions class. Some petty revenge on the part of Snape.)
Snape, meanwhile, seemed to have decided to act as though Harry were invisible. Harry was, of course, well used to this tactic, as it was one of Uncle Vernon’s favorites, and on the whole was grateful he had to suffer nothing worse. In fact, compared to what he usually had to endure from Snape in the way of taunts and snide remarks, he found the new approach something of an improvement and was pleased to find that when left well alone, he was able to concoct an Invigoration Draught quite easily. At the end of the lesson he scooped some of the potion into a flask, corked it, and took it up to Snape’s desk for marking, feeling that he might at last have scraped an E.
He had just turned away when he heard a smashing noise; Malfoy gave a gleeful yell of laughter. Harry whipped around again. His potion sample lay in pieces on the floor, and Snape was watching him with a look of gloating pleasure.
“Whoops,” he said softly. “Another zero, then, Potter …”
Harry was too incensed to speak. He strode back to his cauldron, intending to fill another flask and force Snape to mark it, but saw to his horror that the rest of the contents had vanished.
7. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
(Harry’s confrontation with Snape on the Hogwarts grounds, after Snape kills Dumbledore at the top of the astronomy tower.)
Twenty yards apart, he and Harry looked at each other before raising their wands simultaneously.
But Snape parried the curse, knocking Harry backward off his feet before he could complete it; Harry rolled over and scrambled back up again as the huge Death Eater behind him yelled, “Incendio!” Harry heard an explosive bang and a dancing orange light spilled over all of them: Hagrid’s house was on fire.
“Fang’s in there, yer evil — !” Hagrid bellowed.
“Cruc—” yelled Harry for the second time, aiming for the figure ahead illuminated in the dancing firelight, but Snape blocked the spell again. Harry could see him sneering.
“No Unforgivable Curses from you, Potter!” he shouted over the rushing of the flames, Hagrid’s yells, and the wild yelping of the trapped Fang. “You haven’t got the nerve or the ability —”
“Incarc—” Harry roared, but Snape deflected the spell with an almost lazy flick of his arm.
“Fight back!” Harry screamed at him. “Fight back, you cowardly —”
“Coward, did you call me, Potter?” shouted Snape. “Your father would never attack me unless it was four on one, what would you call him, I wonder?”
“Blocked again and again and again until you learn to keep your mouth shut and your mind closed, Potter!” sneered Snape, deflecting the curse once more. “Now come!” he shouted at the huge Death Eater behind Harry. “It is time to be gone, before the Ministry turns up —”