Skip to comments.Shakespeare's Bloody Problem: Why the Tragedies Almost Never Work Anymore
Posted on 06/20/2014 12:35:52 PM PDT by nickcarraway
One character, his torso already relieved of arms and legs, is tossed onto the barbecue. Anothers hands and tongue are severed to keep her from reporting a crime. (Shes then stabbed to death anyway.) Two more characters are beheaded; one behanded; one hanged. For those who like their violence more ironic, theres this happy couple: the man left buried up to his neck to starve, the woman fed a pie made from the minced remains of her sons. The meal may give her heartburn, but its the subsequent stabbing that kills her.
A Game of Thrones episode? No, its Titus Andronicus, the Shakespearean tragedy whose death toll of 14 leaves only three main characters alive at the end. Do we care that its plot has something to do with a Goth queens vengeance on a cruel Roman general? We do not; its so crazily violent it almost leaps genres directly to farce. (Julie Taymors 1999 film version is chic torture porn.) And if Titus is sometimes given a pass, being Shakespeares first tragedyhe wasnt yet 30whats to explain the gory overkill of the great mature tragedies, churned out in an astonishing spurt that began seven years later? Othello, I grant you, has only three stabbings and a smothering, all structurally necessary and dramatically coherent. But the others are massacres. Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth (to which Ill add Richard III, though its technically a history play, and of Tituss vintage) depict 39 unpretty deaths, leaving aside whatever supernumerary corpses a director might wish to strew upon Bosworth field or the hill of Dunsinane.
These would be idle statistics if the four plays I mention were performed only as rarely as Titus, but they appear to be the most popular noncomedies in the canon, at least in New York. (The slightly less fatal Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, and Julius Caesar are also slightly less frequent visitors.) Theater critics thus have the opportunityprovided almost entirely by Shakespeare, since contemporary drama is notably short on goreto watch hundreds of people die horribly each season. Most of my reviewing colleagues seem to enjoy this; audiences must, or producers wouldnt offer the same quartet so often. But with five major Macbeths in the past three years (including Kenneth Branaghs current one) as well as the adaptation Sleep No More, and four major Lears planned in 2014 alone (plus a goodly smattering of Richards and Hamlets always in the offing), I find myself dreading the shedding of even one more drop of Shakespearean stage blood. As a result, I have come to loathe the sight of those four titles on press releases. Or perhaps not the titles so much as the executions they portend; rarely do I see the plays done well enough to justify the awfulness they ask us to witness. And if theyre not properly awful, whats the point? Do Much Ado and be done with it.
So at the risk of being quartered and spit-roasted by outraged bardolaters, let me ask: Are Shakespeares big tragedies, however bloodily enacted, now ineffectual onstage? Related Stories
The problem, if it is one, is partly in the plays and partly in us. I cant help noticing, as I watch them through splayed fingers, how all four are structured. In their first halves, Shakespeare dramatizes the intersection of intimate relations and political power, employing the most imaginative theatrical poetry ever written to knit the complexities together. But having climbed these wonderful stairways of insight, they then take a slide down Bloodbath Mountain. All the marvelous thickness of family intrigue in Lear and Hamlet, all the madness of marital love in Macbeth, all the knottiness of psychopathology in Richard seem to dissipate around the middle of Act Three, replaced by swordplay, death skits, war scenes, howling, eye-gouging, head-severing, and pageants of frenzied murderousness. Its almost as if Shakespeare didnt trust his audience, or the part of it standing in the yard with oranges, to hang around for the second half unless he threw them a bone or ten. Of course, theres still high-class poetry scattered amid the Grand Guignol for the groundlings, some of it as beautiful as ever. But it now floats free from the binding of story, like marooned islands of fat in a broken mayonnaise.
You will not be surprised to hear that Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater, which is presenting John Lithgow as Lear at the Delacorte this summer, responds to this caricature with a resounding no. You may see that Grand Guignol aspect in Titus Andronicus and Timon of Athens, he says, but by the time Shakespeare is writing the great tragedies hes not generally writing for two different audiences. Hes showing a very diverse audience what makes them one. Hes binding them. Binding them by a shared interest in violence?
Its not the violence but the extremity of emotion, Eustis answers. Shakespeare is unafraid to tackle those extremes. And he almost always gives you the opportunity to draw the violence out of the characters. For instance, in Lear, genuinely horrifying acts of physical violence are happening onstage. For that to work you have to believe that this degree of savagery has been unleashed in the world by Lears actions. If your attention is firmly rooted in the dramatic journey of the character and the play, in the idea that a few bad decisions can unleash everything thats worst about human nature, the violence will be connected to that. But in the Scottish play, he continues, using the euphemism for Macbeth, thats really difficult. Most productions fail because you reach a certain point and you feel youve come to the end of Macbeths spiritual journey, at about the time he sees Banquos ghosthalfway through the play, in the middle of Act Three. There is no more to find out about him after that, and you do get the feeling that Shakespeare decided to kill off Macduffs wife and kidsin Act Fourto compensate for what may have been a thinness in his central character. Thats where some productions descend.
I think hes right, except that in my experience Lear descends just as often as Macbeth, if not oftener. Ive never seen a Lear work all the way through; if it hasnt foundered before, it always does so by Act Five, scene three, when the two evil daughters, after enacting a scene from Dynasty, croak serially. On the other hand, I have seen two Macbeths that managed to keep their balance. Onethe National Theatre of Scotland version with Alan Cumming that played on Broadway last yeardid so by setting the entire play within the fevered mind of a mental patient. (The murder of Macduffs son was efficiently represented by a wee empty sweater.) Whether the result was really Macbeth is arguable, but it was coherent. The other is Branaghs, now playing at the Park Avenue Armory. Within its theme-park trappings, it offers an integration of violence with scenic concept and dramatic development I can only compare to a modern musical. No accident that in staging the production Branagh was joined by Rob Ashford, who initially made his name as a choreographer. The violence throughout is as carefully considered, as varied in style and intensity, and as smoothly woven into the narrative as a scoreful of well-wrought (if totally unhummable) song and dances.
But these are exceptions. A more typical experience of the tragedies was the one provided by Patrick Stewarts 2008 Macbeth, preemptively set in an abattoir. (We will pass over Ethan Hawkes, last fall, apparently set in a mumblecore movie.) Or the Old Vic Richard III at BAM in 2012, in which Kevin Spacey finessed the inconsistencies of the text by shouting at them for nearly three and a half hours. And though this sometimes worked, especially when Spacey was funny, the director Sam Mendes couldnt really do anything about the pileup of violence in the second half except top it with a final sickening gesture: Spacey hung upside-down like Mussolini. It did not send me out of the theater worrying about the fate of evil men in an evil world but rather about the poor guy running the rig. What if he dropped Spacey? Making the violence more baroque and gross doesnt make it more effective; lacking a connection to the way we think about violence today, it just looks silly. It should be an insight, not a cudgel, thus justifying Macduffs exclamation upon finding the bloody corpse of King Duncan: Confusion now hath made his masterpiece. This rarely happens. (Gloucesters eyes and Macbeths head often elicit titters.) Mostly, the corn syrup and red dye just seem gratuitous, as easily shrugged off as the far more realistic depictions of mayhem that are instantly available on websites and cable, in movies and video games. This is the part of the problem thats not in the plays but in us, inured as we are by omnipresent simulacra of violent death. Theaters frenzied attempt to compete with digital gore is bound to fail, because stage violence is necessarily false and actors are ineffably real.
Ashford and Eustis agree that the stage should not even enter that competition; on the other hand, Eustis adds, a medium so uniquely fleshly cannot abandon the depiction of violence. Our physical bodies taking the damage, on both sides of the footlights, is a deeply powerful use of the theater, he says. In Ashford and Branaghs Macbeth, the most effective effects are suggestive and multisensory: the bodies knocking against the wooden sidings that divide the muddy playing area from the audience; the acrid smell of that mud; the cacophony of swords. (We never actually see Macbeths severed head.) But this also suggests that directors (and fight choreographers) have a fine needle to thread if the theater is to do its duty of reacquainting us with the consequences of our choices.
That those consequences are not usually palpable in our daily lives may be the heart of the problem. The kinds of violence so many of us actually worry about are hypothetical, happening elsewhere, to other people: terrorism, random crime, or soldiers off fighting in distant lands. In Shakespeares big-four tragedies, almost by definition, those are things we never see. The battles are right here. And the crime is always on purpose, specific, custom-made. It is perpetrated by family members and social climbers and, often enough, by potentates (or their henchmen) to effect a very particular, public end. To avenge a father. Hog an inheritance. Clear a path to the throne. Shakespearean stage violence thus seems metaphorical now: It bothers us, or doesnt, without saying why. Unless youre a Vince Foster fantasist, you do not believe our elected officials are ordering hits on opponents or inconvenient friends. Indeed, most of our politicians lack the tragic touch: They appear to have no awareness of their failings. They are more like characters in the comedies and odd romancesthe benighted bumblers and entitled foolsthan like Lear or Richard.
No, we cant blame the kings anymore; we are the kings, and thus the tragic figures. Our hands may look cleaner than Macbeths, but (without getting too party-line here) we do pretty much what he did to maintain status. We just dont acknowledge it. We as a people are incredibly separated from the violence that for the most part supports our way of life, says Eustis, a former red-diaper baby who calls even a theater critic comrade. Weve exported it to other places, he adds, or into the past.
In short, Macbeths violence should be akin to that in 12 Years a Slave. We no longer flay housemaids with whips, but 100 years ago we didsomewhere, somebody still doesand we still have a race problem. So the violence of that film resounds. The trick is to find ways to connect the truths of how we experience and participate in such violence, if only by proxy, to the more literal forms depicted in the plays. Ive seen it done, particularly in mash-ups of the Roman tragedies, where the assassinationsso familiar to ushelp. Tarell Alvin McCraneys radical edit of Antony and Cleopatra at the Public this winter began to get at a contemporary idea of violence by making Rome a kind of Napoleonic France and Egypt a colonial Haiti. The themes of sexual and political dominance immediately snapped into line (though other things snapped out). And four years ago, Daniel Sullivan, who directs this summers Lear, turned Shakespeares ickiest comedy, The Merchant of Venice, into a nearly coherent tragedy. At any rate, the baptism of Shylock was the most meaningfully violent thing Ive ever seen in a Shakespeare production. Of course, Shakespeare didnt write it.
If it takes scissors and paste to restore this crucial aspect of the power of the tragedies, so be it; Shakespeare, in more ways than one, is public domain. His characters are always connected to the damage they do. We should not be horrified by that so much as scared: scared that if we were put in an analogous position we would do the analogous thing.
...and it is painful to read him...
No, buddy, it's you.
That’s why we love him.
A real tragedy is waiting to happen with Obama.
He could turn a phrase, whoever he was.
“The Taming of the Shrew”, is my favorite.’ O’ Kate, sweet Kate.............. Followed by Richard the Second. “O’ what a rogue and peasant slave am I....”
That’s not what this article is saying.
A true crock. He begins with Titus Andronicus, by far the most atypical Shakespear play to establish his premise. The Shakespeare tragedies work just fine. I read them regularly to give me perspective on the headlines.
When these plays were written, bear-baiting took the place of the World Cup (and the bears didn't fake injury, either). Elizabeth I had sent Bingham to Ireland to finalize the brutal takeover of that country. the Thirty Years' War was a couple decades away. They still drew and quartered people (Fawkes' co-conspirators, 1606), broke them on the wheel, and subjected them to sarcasm, f'Petessake. And that was just England.
The plays work perfectly well. What doesn't work is applying early 21st-century political correctness to them.
and he's a white guy.
Shakespeare only scratched the surface of human depravity.
Thus, to contend that the modern audience cannot be engaged by Shakespeare is absurd. Even updating of the English text might not be necessary, if the actors will simply speak slowly and clearly, and if the action, stage or film, is directed with an eye toward explicating the text.
Sons on anarchy is essentially Hamlet on motorcycles.
Shakespeare and the tragedies are as relevant today as when they were written. The human heart remains the human heart. And you are right Shakespeare on stage can be amazing. Even Ethan Hawke couldn’t ruin Macbeth for me. And he tried he really tried. Henry Winkler “the Fonz” did a better job in the Happy Days production of Hamlet. “He’s talking about taking the big dive here people”.
We recently watched a BBC production of a condensed Henry IV/Henry V, titled The Hollow Crown, starring Tom Hiddleston, who plays Loki in some of those comic-book movies. It was an outstanding presentation, abridged but not updated, and the settings and action made the language intelligible even to our 12-year-old.
It was intended to be performed, not just read. Dialogue describes action, dress, and settings, and doesn't make as much sense if you're not seeing it.