Category Archives: Genres

Creative Casting of Revenge Tragedy: “Romeo and Juliet” meets “Game of Thrones”

One of Shakespeare’s earliest revenge tragedies is Romeo and Juliet. I’m a big fan of Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation, and was looking forward to seeing if Sir Kenneth Branagh could top it with his most recent stage production. I saw the play as-live through Kenneth Branagh Theatre Live, and was really pleased with the way it was adapted to the setting of 1950’s Italy, complete with monumental hand gestures and Sophia Loren looks. The cast included the timeless Sir Derek Jacobi as the oldest performing Mercutio on record, Lily James continuing her ingénue streak as Juliet, and Richard Madden, formerly Game of Thrones’ Robb Stark, performing on a twisted ankle as the simultaneously bright-and-teary-eyed Romeo.

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On top of the exciting casting of the main characters, I was extra impressed to see that women were cast as traditionally male characters, like the thugs Sampson and Gregory, and a servant of the Capulets, named Peter. Peter delivers one of my favourite lines in the play. Unaware that she is speaking to the enemy of her master, she tells Romeo of a party being held by Capulet: “If you be not of the house of Montagues, I pray, come and crush a cup of wine.” I love the imagery of that line: the violence of the crushing, the bloody splatter of squished grapes, and the destroyed cup, discarded and forgotten in the festive ruckus of the masquerade. Despite the violence of this image and the invitation’s deliberate exclusion of the Montagues, Capulet refuses to allow his nephew to be violent towards Romeo when he appears at the party and ogles Juliet. Capulet admonishes Tybalt:

 

Content thee, gentle coz, let him alone;
He bears him like a portly gentleman;
And, to say truth, Verona brags of him
To be a virtuous and well-govern’d youth:
I would not for the wealth of all the town
Here in my house do him disparagement:
Therefore be patient, take no note of him:
It is my will, the which if thou respect,
Show a fair presence and put off these frowns,
And ill-beseeming semblance for a feast.

 

Despite the fact that the Montagues are his enemy, Capulet refuses to “here in my house do him disparagement”: he forbids violence against a guest in his home, no matter who that guest is. Capulet escalates in rage not at Romeo’s attendance, but at the insult of Tybalt’s intended violence. Capulet’s response immediately brings to mind the concept of “Guest Right,” which entitles any guest who shares the bread and salt of their host to their host’s protection while under that roof. This is a topic that keeps coming up in my favourite show: Game of Thrones. Like any living, breathing person right now, I’m pretty obsessed with it. This season, the show’s violence has escalated to Shakespearean proportions. In order to avoid ruining it for those of us who aren’t caught up, I’d like to talk about Shakespearean resonances with a revenge scene from much earlier in the show: The Red Wedding.

 

SPOILER ALERT: Stop now if you don’t know what The Red Wedding is and don’t want to read spoilers!

 

The Wedding between Edmure Tully and Roslin Frey is meant to consolidate the treaty between House Stark (represented by the King in the North) and House Frey, who control an tactically-important river crossing in the fictional setting of Westeros. The Wedding was meant to be between Walder Frey’s daughter and the King in the North, but King Robb meets someone young and beautiful during the War of Five Kings (the book and show marry him to two different characters), and can no longer fulfill his promise to Frey. Father of the bride-to-be Walder pretends to forgive Robb for his breach in their agreement, and feeds the King the bread and salt that signify the Freys’ protection.

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Robb Stark and his wife Talisa on Game of Thrones

 

Frey, however, is fed up with not being taken seriously by his allies, and forges an unholy alliance with the enemy Lannister faction, as well as a trusted soldier from within Robb’s own ranks. After the most important members of Stark’s army are seated around Walder’s table and are listening to the cacophonous wedding music performed by disguised members of House Frey, the “musicians” pull their weapons out from the instruments and bloodshed ensues. Robb dies. His mother dies. His pet direwolf dies. Many loyal members of his army die. They trusted Walder Frey because of Guest Right, and died for it.

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Robb crying over his wife’s lifeless body during The Red Wedding

So how does this tie back to Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet? Because Richard Madden plays Robb Stark and Romeo. By considering the “creative casting” behind Branagh’s production, we can think more deeply about the topic of revenge: when is revenge just and what constitutes a low blow? Who deserves revenge and when is an avenger in the wrong? Richard Madden may change his accent and cut his hair, but both of his characters fall in love with women that they shouldn’t. Their impulsive marriages come at the cost of their lives, and the lives of those they love. Capulet refuses to allow his nephew to “make a mutiny among my guests” at the feast, but Tybalt finds another opportunity to attack Romeo, leaving behind the bodies of Mercutio, Tybalt himself, and Lady Montague, who dies of her grief when her son is banished from Verona.

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Romeo crying over Juliet’s lifeless body in Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet

Tragedy is defined by the number of dead bodies onstage at the end of a play. Revenge is the impulse to kill, and revenge tragedy is when the impulse to kill ultimately kills the killer, as well. By thinking about revenge on TV today, we can reflect on those beautiful little details that Shakespeare left behind for us. By reflecting upon the issues that Shakespeare brought up in his revenge tragedies, we can gain a greater appropriation for the politics and drama that we continue to consume today.

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Mercutio and Tybalt: casualties of revenge tragedy

 

 

 

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Why aren’t we teaching Two Gentlemen of Verona?

This weekend, I’ve been reading Two Gentlemen of Verona. It’s the second time I’ve read it, the first time at my leisure, and it makes me wonder: why isn’t this being taught in schools? Why have I always had to read it on my own?

Here are some reasons why this play is worth teaching:

–       Its scenes are short and the language is relatively simple.

–       It contains two strong female characters and a bunch of male ones, providing potential for group performance. This means that more students have a chance to perform, and nobody has to learn too many lines, much easier than the big tragedies.

–       It has two clowns! That makes for double the comedy!

–       It also has a “bit with a dog”, which we know from Shakespeare in Love, is always a winner for both young and old.

–       It has cross-dressing, which is always important to teach in terms of gender/sexuality dynamics and how women weren’t allowed onstage in Shakespeare’s time

–       It has countless elements from two well-known and often-taught tragedies: Othello (jealousy, scheming to break up one’s best friend’s relationship) and Romeo and Juliet (banishment, sneaking away to be with one’s lover), yet it’s a comedy.

–       Yes, yes, I know – the comedy is a very troubling one, on account of the whole “Valentine loves Silvia, but so does Proteus, who said he loved Julia, but he actually tries to rape Silvia in the forest” thing. Oh, and the whole “Valentine forgives Proteus, and offers (?!?) him Silvia to re-solidify their bonds of friendship” thing. Yeah, that’s misogynist; maybe they should change the title to “Two Ungentlemanly Men of Verona? It doesn’t have the same ring to it. Obviously, teachers do not want to condone rape, the rape myth, or any sort of philosophy other than “only yes means yes.” But we also wouldn’t want the rampant racism of Othello and the teen-runaway-marriage of Romeo and Juliet, and we still teach those. I think it’s totally worthwhile to give the students that shock factor, and then discuss why that’s not acceptable today. Show them how Shakespeare starts the play in such a way that we can totally relate to his writings of youthful infatuation and the wretchedness of long-distance relationships, but how, ultimately, things were different in his time. No matter how durable his writing is, and I know that’s the biggest reason we appreciate his works today, it’s still vital to recognize that he was a product of his time, and wrote for audiences of his time. And unfortunately, the audiences of his time didn’t offer wiggle room when practicing the “bros before hoes” rule.

Okay, so I know that these opinions may be controversial. But perhaps I want it to be that way, in the hopes of stirring up some conversation! What do you think: should this play be taught in schools?

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Happy Birthday Shakespeare!!!

Welcome back, Reader! I don’t know whether this will make you squeal with joy or pout in dismay, but this is not going to be a biographical blog post to honour the Bard’s date of birth. Did you know that aside from today being my birthday (!!!), and Shakespeare’s birthday, it was also his death day? Next piece of trivia: The Tempest was recorded as the last play Shakespeare wrote on his own. I am not the first to connect the play with the end of his life, but I would like to be the first to share this connection with you!

The Tempest is a play about Prospero, the former Duke of Milan. He was overthrown and exiled on a rickety boat during a tempest (giant storm) by his brother Antonio and Alonso, the King of Naples, when he was too busy playing with magic to rule. When the Alonso and Antonio sail the seas to go to a wedding, Prospero uses his magic to set off another tempest, shipwrecking them on the island where he lives and rules over all the creatures with his magic. Once he has his revenge, he tells them he forgives him, but he promises never to forget their sins against him. His daughter and the king’s son marry, Prospero promises to drown his magic books, and he is able to return home with a promotion and the scars of his former grudge.

Shakespeare’s plays can be divided into several genres, and The Tempest falls into the most complicated one: Romances. Not to be mistaken with the romantic comedies of today, Shakespearean Romances are known to include the following:

–         Families torn apart and then reunited, but with visible scars

–         Endings in which the conflicts seem to be resolved, but that resolution is never unconditional

–         An element of the supernatural

–         Strangeness

Shakespeare delved into the Romances at the end of his career, and I think they are so steeped in strangeness and the supernatural because Shakespeare was personally grappling with the idea of the afterlife, or: “The undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveller returns.” In this context, his thoughts would have ranged from angels and devils to whether he would be reunited with his own family on the other side.

What caught my attention in The Tempest was how Shakespeare incorporates the supernatural (his musings on the characters who might star in his own afterlife) with seemingly normal human life. This play takes every type of self-aware being and puts it in a blender, leaving us with blurred distinctions of what defines being a ‘person’. Think of it as a spectrum:

Animal ——- Human ———Spirit ——-Demon

One character doesn’t have to fall into a single slot; instead, they can hover over several.

The best example of a character that just will not stay in one category is Caliban. Trinculo, Alonso’s drunken butler says:

Sir Herbert Beerholm Tree as Caliban, 1904

What have we
here? a man or a fish? dead or alive? A fish:
he smells like a fish;

In other sections of the play, he is called monster, mooncalf, son of the devil, and his name is actually an anagram for the word ‘cannibal’. Because Shakespeare left no drawn sketches of what he wanted his characters to be like, we’re left with this totally ambivalent (going in many directions) description of Caliban. When putting the play on stage and screen, directors have to make the decision: do I make Caliban fish-like? Do people call him devil out of cruelty, or should I outfit him with horns to match?

Well, Shakespeare wanted to make it one degree more difficult. To contrast with his monstrous image, Caliban happens to have a poetic mind. When leading the fearful Trinculo and his friend Stephano through the island, he comforts them by saying:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

This verse has made critics take pause and say: we know Caliban is visually unattractive, but Caliban can speak so poetically! Does the ability to speak poetry make one a person? Or does it force us at least to believe he’s not an animal, but could be some other being? Search the play all you want: there is no definite answer. That is because Shakespeare was a master at blurring distinctions, thereby forcing us to realize that what we think of as ‘truth’ is defined subjectively (based on personal feelings) rather than objectively (representing stone-cold facts).

Defining personhood

"What care these roarers for the name of king?", Designed by Walter Crane

Different characters in this play would define personhood in different ways. Alonso, the king of Milan, tells the mariners to ‘Play the men’ while sailing through the tempest. To him, people overcome their natural instincts whereas animals would flee in fearful situations. To the Neapolitan (from Naples) nobility, personhood is not enough of a distinction: men must also be classified in a social hierarchy. Their beliefs are shattered during the tempest when the boatswain begs the king to go back to his cabin because he’s interfering their attempts to survive. The king assumes he’s privileged because of his social status and the Boatswain rebukes him with one of Shakespeare’s most deliciously egalitarian lines: “What care these roarers for the name of king?” These words thrust the nobility into a ‘green space’: a place where the way of life is different and forces them to re-evaluate the crooked social codes they followed at home.

But this green space doesn’t just teach Alonso’s men a lesson: it teaches Prospero. Although he rules over the spirits, his fairy-like personal assistant, Ariel, is the one who tells him to forgive and forget. When Prospero and Ariel watch over the shipwrecked and horrified Neapolitan nobility, it is Ariel who suggests:

Your charm so strongly works ’em
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.

Prospero, who is up to his elbows in magic, has lost that essential humaneness which comes with being human. He asks Ariel for advice: “Dost thou think so, spirit?”, to which Ariel responds, “Mine would, sir, were I human.” Only then does he realize he’s gotten in too deep and must drown his books to regain his humanity.

Sir Antony Sher's "Bottled toad" Richard III, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1984

So back to the question: what does it mean to be a person? Is it empathy? Is it looks? Caliban is ‘not honoured with / A human shape’, but he could have been born deformed, like Richard III, who was called a ‘toad’ and ‘bottled spider’ in his self-titled Shakespearean play. To Prospero, humanity and self-control go hand in hand.  When he first got to the island, he treated Caliban well, feeding him “water with berries in’t.” Then Caliban tried to rape Prospero’s daughter, Miranda. From then on, Prospero considered him unworthy of humane treatment, calling him “Thou poisonous slave, got by the devil himself,” treating Caliban as a slave and forcing him to fetch his wood and build his fires.

Do I think Caliban is a person? I’d say yes. Why? Because he knows that Propsero, too, has lost his self-control. Prospero has let the magic take over his humanity, and Caliban knows he can overthrow Prospero by stealing his magic books. He tells Trinculo and Stephano that in order to rule the island, they must:

Remember

First to possess his books; for without them

He’s but a sot, as I am

Caliban is aware that he and Prospero share something in common: human weakness. Just as Caliban was outnumbered by the spirits Prospero sent to physically torment him when he didn’t fetch food fast enough, the old and magic-less Prospero could never win when outnumbered in hand-to-hand combat. And just as Caliban acknowledges Prospero as one like himself, Prospero later admits: “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.”

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