“Do you know what “nemesis” means? A righteous infliction of retribution manifested by an appropriate agent. Personified in this case by an ‘orrible cunt… me.” – Brick Top, Snatch (2000)
In Greek mythology, Nemesis was the spirit of divine retribution and “the goddess of revenge”, the name itself related to the Greek word nemein, meaning “to give what is due”.
The Romans equated the Greek Nemesis with Invidia, sometimes called Pax-Nemesis, who was the patroness of gladiators and worshiped by victorious generals. The poet Mesomedes wrote of Nemesis as the “winged balancer of life” and the “daughter of Justice”. But this notion that Nemesis is a revered heroine and avenger of crime is quite different from the more modern associations with the name.
Today, the title of “Nemesis” has evolved to describe one’s worst enemy, usually someone or something that is the polar opposite of oneself, yet still shares a set of similar qualities or traits. In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series, Professor James Moriarty is the nemesis to Sherlock Holmes: both well-schooled intellectuals, gifted with critical, analytical minds, yet Moriarty is a mastermind of evil. Holmes, who uses logic for the good, refers to Moriarty as the “Napoleon of Crime”.
Moriarty is depicted as Holmes’ worst enemy, his primary antagonist; however, a nemesis need not be limited to the primary villain alone. In fact, a nemesis is quite often used as a supporting rival character. She can even be considered a friendly troublemaker, someone who meticulously waits for a chance to mess things up for the hero, not because she wants to thwart the protagonist’s ultimate goal, but quite simply because the Nemesis hates the hero. The irony of course is that if the hero was destroyed, the Nemesis would have no one to hate; therefore, when push comes to shove, the Nemesis will often join forces with the hero and fight together to conquer the primary antagonist.
The 2010 Starz TV series Spartacus: Blood and Sand is a helpful example to illustrate. Clearly, Spartacus’ ultimate antagonist is Batiatus, his duplicitous master, yet Crixus, Batiatus’ top gladiator and former “Champion of Capua” (a title he lost only to Spartacus). Crixus’ hatred of Spartacus fuels him to recover from his wounds, training harder, taking hold of the opportunity to face Spartacus in a match to the death, yet both rivals find common in the heat of the battle and fight side by side like brothers to topple the house of Batiatus.
The Rival Nemesis in TV and film:
Crixus (Manu Bennett), Spartacus’ (Andy Whitfield) fellow gladiator and former “Champion of Capua”. – Spartacus: Blood and Sand (2010, Season 1).
Newman (Wayne Knight), Jerry’s neighbor who lives down the hall. – Seinfeld (1992 – 1998, Seasons 3 to 9)
Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger), the harsh Staff Sergeant who is at odds with the more compassionate Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe). – Platoon (1986).
Martin Hansen (Josh Lucas), John Forbes Nash’s (Russel Crowe) Princeton rival and fellow Carnegie scholarship recipient. – A Beautiful Mind (2001).
Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), a corporate lawyer for the Weyland-Yatani Corporation who accompanies Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the marines to LV-426 to oversee the “company’s interests” during the mission. – Aliens (1986)
Bob Sugar (Jay Mohr), Jerry Maguire’s (Tom Cruise) protégé who not only is sent by management to fire Jerry but also steals Jerry’s top superstar football prospect, Frank Cushman, expected to be #1 in the NFL Draft. – Jerry Maguire (1996)