With just a few days left until Halloween, many of us will be anxious to put the candy bowl away, dim the lights, and watch a scary movie. I’d like to recommend my pic for the single best Shakespeare play for Halloween, and you might be surprised to learn which one it is:
It’s not Macbeth, despite its ghosts and witches, it’s not Hamlet, though it has a famous scene in a graveyard. In my opinion, the scariest, most horrific, most disturbing Shakespearean play is the ancient Roman revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus!
Titus is the most violent, most outrageous play in the Shakespearean cannon and features murder, mutilation, cannibalism, (and even featured the first recorded trick or treating). It was also his first tragedy ever, written around 1590. Back in this period, Shakespeare’s theater was also the site of public executions and blood sports like Bear-baiting, so Shakespeare knew that gore sells. He also knew that people were reading the bloody tragedies of the Roman poet Seneca, so he created a play that out-does the Roman master of bloody violence!
So why have you not heard of it?
Too violent for school For most people, their first encounters with Shakespeare is in the classroom, and because of the violence in this play it’s definitely not appropriate for high school. The most famous atrocity in the play happens to Titus’ daughter, who is raped offstage. Then, to keep her from incriminating the men who raped her, the rapists cut off her hands and cut out her tongue. Quite a departure from the “Honey tongued” Shakespeare we see in the comedies and sonnets.
It’s vulgar: T.S. Eliot declared that Titus Andronicus is “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written.” For people who expect Shakespeare to be poetic and romantic, this play is a sad dissapointment.
It’s Over the top- People don’t just die in this play, they get butchered horror movie style! Some get stabbed and thrown in a pit, some get their limbs chopped off, one character is buried alive! Many scholars say that after one atrocity after another, the only way you can react to the horror onstage is to laugh. Look at this scene where the villain of the play, Aaron the Moor, confesses to a laundry list of hideous atrocities which he did just for the pleasure of being evil:
Scholars often compare the dark comedy of Titus to the films of Quentin Tarantino, who will murder his characters in grotesque, but funny ways. I won’t even give away the surprise ending where Titus and his daughter gets their revenge, but let’s just say that they would certainly agree with Tarantino that revenge is a dish, best served cold!
It might be racist As I mentioned in the clip above, the main villain of the play is a black man. Aaron, like Richard III is completely evil and unapologetic about it. When I was studying Shakespeare in college, James Earl Jones, (Darth Vader himself) came to my school to talk about Shakespeare’s racially diverse characters. He argued though that nobody treats Aaron any differently until they learn about his heinous crimes and that the person who seems to hate Aaron’s blackness the most is himself. Look at this passage and see if you agree:
I go, Andronicus: and for thy hand
Look by and by to have thy sons with thee. Aside Their heads, I mean.
O, how this villany Doth fat me with the very thoughts of it! Let fools do good, and fair men call for grace. Aaron will have his soul black like his face (Titus, Act III, Scene 1).
Now the question to ask about Aaron and most of Shakespeare’s villains, is are they bad because they’re different (different race, differently abled, illegitimate birth), or did they become bad from people treating them badly?
Serious note– Even though productions often dramatize the violence and rape in Titus as over-the-top black comedy, this kind of rape and violence happens in real life, every day, particularly violence against women like Lavinia. One reason why this play is gaining popularity is sadly, that this kind of violence is more common in our current society with the shocking number of rapes committed in this country (1 in 5 women, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center), and the brutal murders in this play suggest many real-life atrocities such as Abu ghraib,
If you can’t get to the theater this Halloween and want to watch a production of Titus, you’re in luck: In 1999, Julie Taymor, famed director of the Broadway production of The Lion King, directed a film adaptation of Titus which I consider the single greatest Shakespearean film of all time. The movie captures the grotesque comedy of the play, while also visually showing the beauty of Shakespeare’s poetry. It also doesn’t get hung up on historical accuracy just because the play is set in Rome. Best of all, the cast in incredible: Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Langue, Alan Cumming, Harry Lennox and more. This cast knows how to do Shakespeare for the movies and their work shows in every scene. Interesting side note: Hopkins actually considered making this movie the last movie of his career, which explains his amazing glee and energy in the role of Titus. Below is a nice in-depth analysis of the film
Last April, a NY post article called “The Bard’s Ballot,” compared the republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to Bottom the Weaver from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I found the comparison amusing, but sadly misguided. Trump isn’t a foolish actor trying to play Fairy king, he’s a conniving, evil bully who has slaughtered his opponents and is poised to take all the power in this country. There is only one character in the cannon who matches this level of cruelty: the hunchbacked cripple Richard III.
As you know, I’ve written about this before, but even I felt hesitant to compare Trump to the most vile of Shakespeare’s villains but frankly, if the hump fits, wear it.
How did this happen? How did we as a country get here? To try and solve this question, let’s take a lesson from Shakespeare. What follows is an analysis of the careers of both Trump, and Shakespeare’s Richard of Gloucester. For both men I’ll try to report chronologically through the play and through the primary to the election. For you teachers, this is a good way to explore the plot of Richard III, and you might want to adapt this post as a project for your students.
But first, a short disclaimer- I use the name “Shakespeare’s Richard” because I want to be clear that I’m talking about the character and not the historical king, who, as I discussed in a previous post, bears little resemblance to Shakespeare’s iconic villain.
Analysis of Shakespeare’s Richard/ Donald Trump. Acts and Scenes taken from Open Source Shakespeare.com
Comparisons Before both men were nominated to their positions of power, everyone thought they were a joke. Trump’s Orange face, ridiculous combover, and obvious lack of experience made news pundits literally laugh out loud when people even suggested he’d be the nominee.
Meanwhile, Shakespeare’s Richard got plenty of jeers himself because of his hump, bad limp and tiny hands, (sorry I mean withered arm). The first time he speaks in Henry VI, Part II, Act V, Scene one, Lord Clifford (a Lancastrian) just tells him to shut up:
Lord Clifford. Hence, heap of wrath, foul indigested lump,
As crooked in thy manners as thy shape!
In both cases, it proved dangerous to ignore the man, because it gave him a chance to slaughter everybody- In Act 1, Richard gets his brother Clarence arrested for treason. Then in Act III he arrests Lord Rivers, Grey, and Vaughn, chops off Lord Hastings’s head, and secretly has his own nephews murdered.
Trump’s kind of murder is more an assassination of character- he accused Ted Cruz of being Canadian, attacked Marco Rubio’s sweatiness, and relentlessly attacked everything about Carly Fiorina from her business record, to her appearance. Which brings me to my next point about Trump/ Shakespeare’s Richard:
Both Blame all the country’s problems on women– Richard knew that the only way to get away with killing his opponents was to blame his murders on someone else, someone whom the nobles hated even worse than himself. His brother the king married Elizabeth Woodville, a poor widow who had no political influence. The nobles hated her for “cheapening” the English monarchy. Even worse, Elizabeth made her brother Anthony into Lord Rivers and her son the Marquess of Dorset. Richard blames them for his brother’s death and has them sent to prison and execution. He even blames the queen king herself for his deformed arm, in a plot to get one of her supporters executed.
Trump’s feuds with Rosie O’Donnell, his overtly sexist remarks against female reporters, and of course, his infamous claim that Hillary Clinton is the co-founder of ISIS and that her legacy is one of death, destruction, and weakness, demonstrate his mysogynist, scorched-earth rhetoric when dealing with the first female presidential nominee.
Another parallel is that Shakespeare’s Richard is particularly nasty when attacking people’s sexual history. Just like Bill Clinton, King Edward IV had a widely publicized affair with a woman, which damaged his reputation. Richard curses Jane Shore, Edward’s mistress as a witch and blames her for the King’s death, (when actually Richard had a greater hand in it). Smearing his brother as an adulterer helps Richard establish himself as a pious, humble king in Act III. In the clip above, you see Richard accepting the crown dressed as a monk, complete with rosary and a prayer book in his hand. Trump mirrored this kind of hypocrisy when he attempted to attack Bill Clinton’s infidelity with Monica Lewinsky, despite the fact that it has nothing to do with Hillary’s campaign. In addition, it’s been well documented that Trump has been married four times, and cheated on his first wife with the woman who would become his second.
Both Men Stir Up deep Hatred and Animosity– As I mentioned in my previous Trump post, Trump has basically made his campaign on promising to deport immigrants and refuse Muslims into this country, which means he has created a power base of highly xenophobic people who have even resorted to violence in his campaign rallies.
Shakespeare’s Richard is just as vile. Not only does he get the nobles to support him because they’d rather see him on the throne than Elizabeth’s children, at the end of the play, he uses some extremely xenophobic remarks against his enemy Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond. Henry was living in France for most of his life, and his army was mostly composed of Welshmen, which Richard exploits by condemning them all as foreigners.
Notice how at the end of the speech, Richard (in true Trump fashion), warns his followers that if they don’t destroy Richmond’s followers, (whom he calls ‘Bretons’), that they will rape the Englishmen’s wives and daughters, sound familiar?
In Order To Win, Both Men Have A Powerful mouthpiece- BUCKINGHAM V Surrogates
To convince the English people to reject King Edward’s sons as bastards, Richard enlists the help of the Duke Of Buckigham, an oily politician if ever there was one and a cunning orator. Basically, Buckingham is Richard’s campaign manager.
To get the nobles to support Shakespeare’s Richard, first Buckingham gets Will Catesby to spy on Lord Hastings, to see if he’ll side with Richard or the prince. When Hastings turns out to be indifferent, Richard calls on the Privy Council to chop off his head. Hmm, who else has asked his supporters to assassinate his opponent?
Then Buckingham stages a campaign rally to try and get the citizens to support Richard, and this leads me to the most bizarre example of life-imitates Shakespeare I’ve ever seen.
Both Richard and Trump paid people to support him:
According to the Hollywood Reporter, back on June 12th, 2016, Trump paid a bunch of actors to cheer at one of his campaign rallies. This was one of the most embarrassing dirty tricks of the Trump campaign (so far), and amazingly, it worked! But then again, it worked for Richard as well:
In Act III, scene 7, Buckingham plants a bunch of people in a crowd during a speech where he declares the prince illegitimate, and demands “All they that love their county’s good say: “God save Richard, England’s worthy king.”
Duke of Buckingham. I bid them that did love their country’s good
Cry ‘God save Richard, England’s royal king!’
Duke of Buckingham. No, so God help me, they spake not a word; 2225
But, like dumb statues or breathing stones,
Gazed each on other, and look’d deadly pale.
Which when I saw, I reprehended them;
And ask’d the mayor what meant this wilful silence:
His answer was, the people were not wont 2230
To be spoke to but by the recorder.
Then he was urged to tell my tale again,
‘Thus saith the duke, thus hath the duke inferr’d;’
But nothing spake in warrant from himself.
When he had done, some followers of mine own, 2235
At the lower end of the hall, hurl’d up their caps,
And some ten voices cried ‘God save King Richard!’
And thus I took the vantage of those few,
‘Thanks, gentle citizens and friends,’ quoth I;
‘This general applause and loving shout 2240
Argues your wisdoms and your love to Richard:’
And even here brake off, and came away.
Notice in line 2235, Buckingham makes it clear that the only people who call out to Richard are Buckingham’s followers, not members of the general public. Also note earlier where he has to speak for Richard second hand, like a modern Trump surrogate. It seems almost comic that Trump borrowed such a text-book piece of political villainy.
After the fake rally for Richard, Buckingham brings a group of citizens to Baynard’s Castle in order to”beg” Richard to accept the crown. As you saw in The Hollow Crown clip earlier, while Richard plays monk, Buckingham plays concerned citizen, trying to keep the “bastard” son of a letcheous king from disgracing the country by putting the “humble” Richard on the throne.
Trump has many people whose sole job is to lie about everything he says and does, from his campaign manager, ( who, by the way, believes that the reason women are raped is they aren’t as strong as men), to his campaign surrogates who try to twist and spin every racist, sexist, and downright ludicrous thing Trump says:
Richard/ Buckingham’s fall:
The first three acts of Richard III are an upward climb for the title character, but then in Act IV, when Richard orders the murder of King Edward’s son, he slowly loses his supporters, including Buckingham. You’ll see in this scene from Act IV, Scene ii, once Richard is crowned, he is instantly faced with a multitude of threats to his power, leading him to murder his nephews and try to marry his own niece. Meanwhile, after Buckingham leaves King Richard, he is found, captured, and has his head chopped off.
Trump may be on a downward spiral already. True, he didn’t murder children, (although he does apparently hate babies). In the past three weeks, he slandered the family of a war veteran, declared that his opponent is the founder of ISIS, and is losing in almost every major poll. Also, his own Buckingham, his campaign manager Paul Manafort, got his head on the block by being forced to resign from Trump’s campaign. Manafort has a long history of getting money from people like Vladimir Putin, which raises suspicion that he might have been involved in the Russian hacking of the DNC emails. Even worse for Trump, he now knows that his immigration policy won’t work and won’t appeal to the majority of Americans, and is now promising to do nothing different from Obama, despite the months he spent promising to kick out as many undocumented minorities and Muslims as possible. Voters do not tolerate flip-flopping candidates, and this back pedaling could seem like a fatal weakness.
The aftermath/ the Future?:
Shakespeare’s Richard was a cruel tyrant who led the country into a civil war and spent all his time trying to keep the crown on his head. His allies deserted him, and he was left crying for a horse before he was eventually defeated… by a woman! Queen Elizabeth Woodville resisted Richard’s demands to give him her daughter to him in marriage, and instead gave Henry Tudor her consent to marry the young princess (who was also named Elizabeth). The marriage legitimized Henry as heir to the throne.
Henry then challenged Richard to battle and defeated him at the Battle of Bosworth field, then took the throne as King Henry VII. His dynasty led England to the greatest period of peace and prosperity in its history, with a woman on the throne who was also called Elizabeth.
Let’s hope the election plays out as well as Shakespeare’s Richard III, just as Trump’s ominous rise to power has mirrored Shakespeare’s Richard’s infamous career.
Before we continue our exploration of Shakespeare’s “Richard the Third,” I would be remiss if I didn’t spend a little time talking a little about the real Richard Plantagenet, Duke Of Gloucester and king of England from 1483-1485. I have to get this out of the way first and foremost: although “Richard III” is classified as a history play, most of the facts in it are untrue, or severely exaggerated. In this post I will try to separate the character from the man to try and make clear what Shakespeare changed from history and why.
First, a video bio I created:
The facts are these:
-He was a real English monarch who reigned 1483-1485.
– Richard was the younger brother of King Edward IV, and helped his brother take the crown away from King Henry VI, in a series of battles known as The Wars Of the Roses.
– The battles got their name because Richard’s family (the House Of York), used a white rose as its symbol, while King Henry’s faction used a red rose.
– Like Ned Stark in Game of Thrones, Richard was the undesputed “Warden Of the North,” in charge of crushing a potential Scottish invasion.
– In April of 1483, Richard’s brother King Edward IV died. As Lord Protector of England, Richard was entrusted to take care of the country, and Edward’s two sons (the new heirs to the throne). In late May, Richard arrested three lords on suspicion of treason while he guided the two princes to London. Within one month, the two princes were publicly declared illegitimate by the Archbishop, thus making Richard the new king.
– Sometime during Richard’s two year reign, Edward’s sons disappeared. Many believe they were murdered and Shakespeare’s sources named James Tyrrell and Michael Forrest as the murderers, acting under King Richard’s orders. In 1674, the skeletons of two boys believed to be the princes were discovered in the Tower Of London. The remains were interred by King Charles II. So far, nobody has confirmed if the remains belong to the princes or what happened to the young boys.
-Richard was defeated and murdered by Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond at the Battle Of Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485. His successor founded the House Of Tudor which included Henry VIII, Mary I, Edward VI, and Queen Elizabeth I.
Few contemporary sources survive from Richard’s day, so it’s unknown whether Richard did kill the princes. Even more mysterious, although he did work to depose a king, oppress the Scots, and take the throne from Edward’s kids, some sources claim Richard was actually a just and good king. In the lack of facts, Richard’s legend continues to grow
-After finding his skeleton, scientists discovered that Richard was not deformed, although he did have scoliosis. Thomas Moore added the hump, while Shakespeare added the withered arm.
– There is no physical evidence that Richard killed the two princes, and many others wanted them dead, including Henry Tudor himself!
-Richard also probably was a good king according to some contemporary accounts, as you can see in this video with Monty Python’s Terry Jones:
Why were the facts twisted?
– Remember, Richard was defeated by Henry Tudor, Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather, so there was no way Shakespeare or anyone else in Elizabethan England could get away with portraying him as a good king.
– Shakespeare’s main source was a history by Sir Thomas More, who was 12 at the time of Richard’s reign. More was Henry VIII’s royal chancellor, so he couldn’t afford to be nice to Richard either. More’s history set the groundwork for Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard as a deformed monster.
The point is, people have known for centuries that Shakespeare’s Richard is no more true than the myth of Robin Hood. Even Laurence Olivier admits before his film even starts that this story has been “scorned in proof thousands of times.” Nevertheless, like Robin Hood, this story is part of the fabric of English society, and it still has value as a cautionary tale about corrupt governments, and how one man may lose his soul (and a horse) in pursuit of power and revenge.
Even today, people continue to gain power by manipulating fear, hatred, and religion, which is why we as a society need Shakespeare’s Richard. The play is so universal it was re interpreted in 2007 as “Richard III: an Arab tragedy.” Shakespeare’s Richard is so close to today’s dirty politicians that we have TV shows on both sides of the Atlantic inspired by him, (more on that later). And Richard himself is so compelling a character that centuries of great actors, cartoon characters, and even occasional rock stars have wanted to emulate him.
The lesson of the story is that a single demagogue can gain control of a corrupt system if we let him. Hitler, Saddam, Trump. It’s no accident that Olivier chose to play Richard right as the war was ending in Europe, and his popularity in that role rose exponentially after post war Britain saw the parallels between the “honey words” of Richard, which captivated England, to Hitler’s fiery rhetoric, which nearly destroyed it. The larger point through all four plays of Shakespeare’s history cycle, (not just “Richard III,”) is that greed and cruelty within one family can lead to chaos on a large scale, especially when it’s the royal family.
For more information:
The Daughter Of Time by Josephine Tey, 1951: This is the most famous book that sets down the case that Richard’s reign was maligned by history. In addition to having excellent research, it is also a compelling novel.
Shakespeare’s English Kings by Peter Saccio. To help students of Shakespeare separate fact from fiction, and get a sense of the lives of the men whose lives shaped Shakespeare’s history plays, Professor Saccio of Dartmouth College created a short, easy to read biography of all 10 of Shakespeare’s monarchs.
Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night! – William Shakespeare
One of the greatest classical actors of our time has gone to his great reward, which I hope includes a “good show” from Shakespeare himself. Most people know Alan Rickman as the slimy Professor Snape, or the evil Hans Gruber, or the cheating husband from “Love Actually,” but a generation ago he was a Shakespearean acting phenomenon at the Royal Shakespeare Company, playing such roles as Jaques, Hamlet, and Achilles. As much as I love Harry Potter, I think it’s wrong to remember such a versatile actor for only one role, so here’s a retrospective of his work that I found this morning. Guardian Tribute to Alan Rickman
“Good night sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
Today is the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, one of the greatest victories in English history, where King Henry the Fifth and his 5,000 troops, fought and won against the French, who outnumbered them 5 to 1! Why is this important? Well, in Shakespeare’s history play Henry the Fifth, he gives the king the greatest pep-talk speech of ALL TIME!
This speech is so awesome, it’s cool even when a 5-year old does it!
So you may be wondering, what is Agincourt, and what is St. Crsipin’s Day?
Well Agincourt is a castle in France where on October 25th, 1415, King Henry fought a decisive battle that helped him conquer all of France. For more info on the battle, click here to read this article from the Telegraph.
As for St. Crispin, I wrote about him before when I was working on a high-school production of “Henry the Fifth,” which you can read about here. Long story short- he was the patron saint of SHOEMAKERS!
And finally, a funny take on the battle from my favorite kid’s show, “Horrible Histories.”
In 1936, famed director Orson Welles, (known for his iconic film Citizen Kane), produced an equally memorable production of Macbeth. At the time, Welles was a theater director, working with a government-funded theater group called The Federal Theater Project. The goal of the FTP was to help support the theater during the Great Depression. Welles also found a way to have his production help black actors by, and casting exclusively African Americans.
Although Welles kept Shakespeare’s text, he changed the setting to a tribe in Haiti instead of medieval Scotland, and changed the witches into Voodoo priestesses. Below is the only surviving footage of the production, the final scene in which (spoiler alert), Macduff carries Macbeth’s head and sets it on a pole, proclaiming Malcolm the new king. You can see the witches taking a wicked joy when Macbeth’s cursed head is impaled, implying that Welle’s witches had vengeance on their mind when they drove him to kill Duncan.
Notice also the actor who screams “Peace, the charm’s wound up,” at the end of the play. He is playing the part of Hecate, the goddess of magic who appears before Macbeth in Act IV. According to legend, Actor Eric Burroughs was a real Voodoo priest, as were the drummers Welles used to spectacular effect during the show. Many critics called the frenetic drumming that occurred during the show and in scene changes an experience that they’d never forget.
Welles’ innovations helped black actors and theater in general survive during the Depression, but not everyone praised his efforts. Journalist Percy Hammond criticized the merits of the performance, arguing that the government shouldn’t pay for artistic projects. The next day when he returned to the theater, he was greeted by a rhythmic thumping underneath the stage that intensified until the critic abandoned his seat and left the theater. The next day, he fell suddenly ill and died! Was his illness a voodoo curse? We may never know, but this story clearly illustrates the effectiveness of Welles’ staging, and the dark occult appeal that lurks beneath the text in any production of Macbeth.
1. Dunton-Downer Leslie and Alan Riding.The Essential Shakespeare Handbook: Macbeth p.367. New York: DK Publising Inc, 2004.
2. Rippy, Marguerite. Orson Welles and the Unfinished RKO Projects: A Postmodern Perspective pp 75-76. Retrieved 10/21/15 from Google Books.