Is it possible to define Snape as a good or bad character? Or is he simply far too complicated?

Snape in his potions class room from the Order of the Pheonix
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

For Snape sympathisers, he was an ambitious and cunning Slytherin hero with a tragic ending. For those who can simply never forgive him, Snape was an unnecessarily cruel teacher who wanted to make everyone’s lives as miserable as his own. Of course it’s a big question, but an important one: was Snape actually a good guy, or a bad guy? Is it even possible to measure? Probably not, but let's unpick one of the wizarding world's most textured characters anyway.

He despised Harry at first sight…

Illustration of Severus Snape from the second Order of the Phoenix infographic
Severus Snape. © JKR/Pottermore Ltd.™ Warner Bros.

When we first met Snape, it was all very pantomime villain, with his hooked nose and his greasy hair. We know that Snape hated Harry because he reminded him of James, his childhood bully, and yet Harry did absolutely nothing to warrant Snape’s disdain. As Dumbledore once pointed out, Harry’s personality was much more like his mother’s, and yet Snape could only see what he wanted to see – and for some reason that was a vain, smug 11-year-old. As such, Snape was a constant source of misery in Harry’s life, and since Hogwarts was meant to be a place of refuge for the Boy Who Lived after his childhood with the Dursleys, we’re not sure we can forgive him in a hurry. That being said…

...he was forced to care for the carbon copy of his childhood bully

Homepage Carousel Harry Ron Snape

Just imagine, for a moment, that you committed yourself to spend over a decade watching over the child of someone who had made your life a living hell. And not only that, but the child in question just happened to be the spitting image of them. It would be hard not to gain pleasure from failing them at Potions at the very least, right?

The office dissolved but re-formed instantly. Snape was pacing up and down in front of Dumbledore.
‘– mediocre, arrogant as his father, a determined rule-breaker, delighted to find himself famous, attention-seeking and impertinent –’
‘You see what you expect to see, Severus,’ said Dumbledore, without raising his eyes from a copy of Transfiguration Today. ‘Other teachers report that the boy is modest, likeable and reasonably talented. Personally, I find him an engaging child.’
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

He was cruel to Neville and Hermione for no reason

Say we accept and understand why Snape treated Harry like leftover Bubotuber pus while teaching him at Hogwarts. There was, however, no excuse for why he was so cruel to poor old Neville. And Hermione even got a horrific remark at one point, too, when Snape dubbed an ambitious, intelligent young teenager an insufferable know-it-all.

But Neville seemed to bear the brunt of Snape’s disdain when he wasn’t occupied with Harry and his friend. Neville might not have been the most apt at potions in his first year, but which of us hasn’t messed up ingredients while cooking, for example, with disappointing results? Neville needed help, not to be constantly berated. And worse – Snape even threatened the life of Trevor the toad!

Neville’s fear of Snape was so great that even his Boggart took Snape’s form, and it's pretty upsetting to think that a child’s worst fear was one of his teachers.

However, as this is a debate, we’ll say this: since Neville could also have been the subject of the prophecy that eventually led to Lily Potter’s death, it could be that Snape hated him as much as Harry due to this. Because if the prophecy had been interpreted to have been about Neville, Lily would have lived.

…But still. It’s a stretch. And also: Trevor!

He was a product of his childhood

Moony Padfoot Prongs and Wormtail at Hogwarts by the lake
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Although we don’t know too much about Snape’s home life, he most certainly came from a broken family. In the memories of Lily that Harry watches in the Pensieve, he doesn’t seem particularly joyful when Lily asks him about his parents, and Snape briefly mentions how much they have been arguing. There’s another terse remark made about Snape’s Muggle father, who ‘doesn’t like anything much’ apparently.

As such, Hogwarts should have been the place where Snape could have a fresh start. As a particularly talented student, he should have thrived at the wizarding school, but he didn’t, and it was all because of James and Sirius choosing him as a target from the very first day. How could anyone not be embittered by that irreplaceable loss of happiness and possibilities thanks to a couple of popular, rule-breaking Gryffindors?

His love for Lily

Illustration of young Severus Snape and Lily Evans from Read the Magic
© JKR/Pottermore Ltd.™ Warner Bros.

Possibly Snape’s saving grace was his endless love for, and devotion to, Lily Potter. Her friendship was one of the most important things in his life, and it destroyed him to watch his main nemesis pursue her as well. Of course, it was eventually Snape’s descent into the Dark Arts and his admiration for Voldemort that caused Lily to turn her back on him once and for all. After her death, for which he felt responsible, he dedicated the rest of his life to protecting her only son. What could be more heroic and self-sacrificing than that? Yay, team Snape! Oh, but…

He would have let James and Harry die

Dumbledore and Snape talking from the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2

Since this didn’t happen, it’s hard to say for sure, but when Snape realised that he had accidentally told Voldemort about the prophecy concerning Harry and realised that the Dark Lord intended to kill the family, he ran to Dumbledore… only so that he would save Lily. As Dumbledore pointed out, he would have been quite happy to have let Voldemort go after his enemies, just so long as the woman he loved was protected. Which, we have to say, is the ‘having Luna commentate Quidditch’ of bad moves.

‘If she means so much to you,’ said Dumbledore, ‘surely Lord Voldemort will spare her? Could you not ask for mercy for the mother, in exchange for the son?’
‘I have – I have asked him –’
‘You disgust me,’ said Dumbledore, and Harry had never heard so much contempt in his voice. Snape seemed to shrink a little.
‘You do not care, then, about the deaths of her husband and child? They can die, as long as you have what you want?’
Snape said nothing, but merely looked up at Dumbledore.
‘Hide them all, then,’ he croaked. ‘Keep her – them – safe. Please.’
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

There is so much more that can be said about Snape’s anti-heroism, his terrible mistakes, his antagonistic personality. Of course, he eventually ended up being Dumbledore’s man through and through, and spent his final years fighting for what was right. He was outraged when he discovered that Harry himself had to die to defeat Voldemort, after spending years protecting him, yet still taught Potions in a cruel, bullying and domineering way.

So, could you ever define Snape as good or bad?

Well, as you might have guessed, the answer to that will never, ever be that simple. Sorry to be a killjoy, but you knew we could never truly pin down Snape. We’re sure you all have your own opinions on his actions, but really, we think the true answer is that no one is truly good or bad in the end: just made up of many different shades. Snape did terrible things and also amazing things: both of these facts can be true at the same time. That’s the thing about Snape – he was almost impossible to label, which is why his character is such a triumph, and a character we are still debating over twenty years later.

So we’ll let you make your own mind up about Snape, but heed these words from Sirius Black in the Order of the Phoenix film: ‘We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.’