Well, it happened. A man whom I have described as a villain of Shakespearean proportions is now the president. You might have read in my Richard III post that I had hoped that the election would play out like the history play about a deformed tyrannical king with bad hair. What I forgot when I made that prediction was that the king in question, Richard III, does become king for a little while.
Here’s another way of putting it. I found it on the Facebook page of a friend of mine, Austin Tichnor of The Reduced Shakespeare Company:
I don’t want to talk too much about devisive politics because I feel that the country and the world is hurting too much because of people who want to reduce the world into “my party,” “my country,” and turn everything and everyone else into “the other.”
What I want to talk about in this post, is what I hope for our new president, some words of wisdom from The Bard, and maybe some words of healing for those people who feel like “the other,” starting with some of the people I might have offended with my earlier posts.
Why Donald Trump is like Henry V, (we hope).
A lot of people are full of anxiety right now because nobody is really sure what kind of president Trump will be; will he follow through with his campaign promises? Will he take power from those in Washington and give it to the people, as he said in his inaugural address? How much will his past life as a real-estate tycoon influence his work as president? This uncertain climate reminds me very much of the end of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II, where the old king dies leaving the kingdom to his son. Thus far, the prince, (known as Hal to his friends), has been wasting his time drinking in a bar in Eastcheap with his disreputable friend, Sir John Falstaff. Watch this scene where he and Falstaff mock the king and trade insults with each other:
But, on his deathbed the real king summons his son and knocks some sense into him, demanding that he take the job of running the country seriously. In Act IV, Scene v, the prince, (thinking his father is dead) tries on his father’s crown right before King Henry wakes up and curses his son with a long and terrible speech. Below is King Henry’s deep rebuke of his son Hal, detailing his fears of what will happen when the prince becomes king.
What! canst thou not forbear me half an hour?
Then get thee gone and dig my grave thyself,
And bid the merry bells ring to thine ear
That thou art crowned, not that I am dead.
Pluck down my officers, break my decrees;
For now a time is come to mock at form:
Harry the Fifth is crown’d: up, vanity!
Down, royal state! all you sage counsellors, hence!
And to the English court assemble now,
From every region, apes of idleness!
Now, neighbour confines, purge you of your scum:
Have you a ruffian that will swear, drink, dance,
Revel the night, rob, murder, and commit
The oldest sins the newest kind of ways?
Be happy, he will trouble you no more;
England shall double gild his treble guilt,
England shall give him office, honour, might;
For the fifth Harry from curb’d licence plucks
The muzzle of restraint, and the wild dog
Shall flesh his tooth on every innocent.
O my poor kingdom, sick with civil blows!
When that my care could not withhold thy riots,
What wilt thou do when riot is thy care?
O, thou wilt be a wilderness again,
Peopled with wolves, thy old inhabitants! King Henry IV, Part II, Act IV Scene v.
I have to wonder if Obama feels a little like King Henry, since Trump has promised to repeal Obamacare, reverse many of his executive orders, and put his own “Mad Dog” ruffians in charge of the country. I also find it ironic that King Henry is worried about foreign ruffians becoming part of English society, while Trump is worried about keeping them out of America.
The good news is that Prince Hal eventually became a wise and effective ruler. In the play that bears his name, King Henry V united his country, and achieved a famous victory over the French. Everyone in the play was shocked and amazed by how he transformed himself from a drunk into an effective king. Trump has that same opportunity; although his poll numbers are low right now, he can prove his commitment to the job and amaze the country.
This is what I’m sure all of America hopes Trump will do for the country, although I have trouble believing that it will actually happen. It seems more likely to me that he will exploit his position to help his businesses, just as he has done his entire career, and he already shows signs of doing now. It seems unlikely that he will achieve anything that will protect the dignity of Americans, or achieve prosperity for anyone but himself.
I believe that the best we can hope for with Trump is a presidency that mirrors one of Shakespeare’s most mediocre kings. Richard II, who stole land away from his nobles because he believed being king gave him God’s permission to do whatever he wants. Trump was practically quoting Richard, when people wondered about his many potential conflicts of interests between the presidency and his business empire. Moments like this make me and many others like me curse the way businessmen-turned-politicians can give away America’s dignity dollar by dollar, as John of Gaunt famously cursed in Richard II:
JOHN OF GAUNT
Methinks I am a prophet new inspired
And thus expiring do foretell of him:
His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last,
For violent fires soon burn out themselves;
Small showers last long, but sudden storms are short;
He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes;
With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder:
Light vanity, insatiate cormorant,
Consuming means, soon preys upon itself.
This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death! Richard II, Act II, Scene i.
If you’re like me and millions of other people around the country who don’t have a lot of faith in this new government, the question becomes, “What do we do now?”
I believe that once again, Shakespeare can offer words of wisdom and comfort in this moment of doubt and uncertainty. One quote I keep coming back to is from a play you’ve likely never heard of- The History Of Sir Thomas More. You won’t see this text in any collected edition of Shakespeare, because the play is actually unfinished. Only a tiny portion of it survives, and it was never published. It has the incredible distinction to be one of the only surviving play manuscripts from Shakespeare’s day, and if he did write it (which no one can definitively prove), it is the only play written in his own handwriting. Even if Shakespeare did not have a hand in writing it, it is one of the most poignant speeches I’ve ever read, and it has an incredible message for our nation and for the entire world.
First, a little background. Sir Thomas More was a real man who worked as Chancellor of England under Henry VIII. He was famously executed for refusing to support the king’s divorce of Queen Katherine Of Aragon because of his devout Catholic beliefs, and for that reason he is still considered a man of great principle and honor. The scene which Shakespeare allegedly helped write however, takes place earlier, when More was just a sheriff of London.
In the speech below, More is trying to break up a riot where a mob of people are trying to murder a group of immigrants from the country, accusing them of stealing jobs from Englishmen, (sound familiar)? More pleads with them to show compassion and to be open to other points of view. Here is More’s speech, performed by Sir Ian McKellen.
Here’s the text of the speech:
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another….
Say now the king
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whether would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour? go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,
Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? this is the strangers case;
And this your mountainish inhumanity.
Sir Thomas More, Act II, Scene 4.
Finally, here’s a link to view the original manuscript, which is on display in the British Library in London.
The obvious condemnation of xenophobia and hatred of immigrants in More’s speech is obvious, so I won’t belabor it, but it’s worth noting that this problem has been going on for over 400 years. What I’d like to focus on is what More says at the end: when a nation erupts into violence against immigrants it cheapens itself and the world takes notice. Also, it is the job of those in authority to protect, not stay silent when such attacks take place. This is why we need to think carefully about Trump’s proposals regarding immigrants, Muslims , and other such “strangers.”
In a more general sense, I feel that in our divided nation, we all are feeling like strangers. Whether you’re a man or a woman, Democrat or Republican, Caucasian or Non-Caucasian, many thousands of people in this nation all seem to feel that someone is treating them like “strangers,” and our task, all of us, as Americans and human beings, is to “take the stranger’s case,” by looking at other people’s points of view with compassion and an open mind. That, by the way was made Shakespeare a great writer; his own ability to see into the minds of kings and peasants, women and warriors, ghosts and gods.
So here’s the big question: whom would Shakespeare vote for? I believe he would vote for whomever would try to learn from the lives of these strangers, and use his or her authority to protect their right to speak their minds. Deciding who that person is, is a task I leave to you.
This is a holiday gift for all of my loyal readers; a treasure trove of Shakespeare performances.
Lovely piece of comedy, but I better not see this quoted in anyone’s term papers!
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:
Look by and by to have thy sons with thee.
Aside Their heads, I mean.
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,
Plot summary and more at Schmoop.com
Review of Julie Taymor’s Titus
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
Another good review comes from the French Shakespeare Society: https://shakespeare.revues.org/1558
And finally, a review from Roger Ebert: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/titus-2000
So that’s my two cents on Titus Andronicus. Happy Halloween everybody!