Tag Archives: Shakespeare on Film

Bullying in Shakespeare

To engage young people in the wonderful world of Shakespeare, educators tend to begin with old faithful: Shakespearean insults. The exercise is easy to set up and on top of being hilarious, the obscure jokes help educators to sneak in little lessons on Shakespeare’s language: “Why is that particular word insulting? Here’s a history lesson!” Truth be told, most of the expressions are slang for erectile dysfunction or venereal disease! Pretty risqué!

Today, while watching The Hollow Crown: Henry IV Part 1 (2012, dir. Richard Eyre), I thought about another way of bringing Shakespeare into classroom conversation: let’s talk about bullying. So often we read Shakespeare’s speeches as meditations on virtues we should possess: selflessness, mercy, and courage. But what about when Shakespeare shows us a really awful character, someone who has charisma, but delights in causing others pain? Do we ignore those characters? Not a chance.

A drunk Hal and Falstaff

A drunken Hal and Falstaff

We find a Shakespearean bully in Prince Hal, Henry IV’s son and the future Henry V. Hal spends all of his time at a tavern in a scummy part of town, and it pains his father that he’s not participating in his courtly duties. Hal delivers a soliloquy about how he’s just waiting for the perfect time to show the whole kingdom that he’s worthy of the crown. Yet, even after he shares these lofty aspirations, Hal maintains his persona as the guy who can “drink with any tinker in his own language during my life”; he prides himself on being able to speak the language of the common people, and sees that as a selling point for his new generation of kingship.

But is it possible that Hal genuinely enjoys being at the pub because he can lord himself over all the guests and staff? This is a big change from being shamed by his father back home at court! Hal asserts his dominance at the Boar’s Head Tavern by playing a trick on the slack-witted busboy, Francis. Francis has a busy role, and as all the customers call out to him, he delays helping them by calling back, “Anon, anon!”, showing that he’ll be there soon. Hal gets his buddy Poins to call out to Francis from another room, while Hal monopolizes the busboy through meaningless conversation. Francis is forced to keep shouting “Anon, anon!” to Poins, but Hal laughs hysterically because he asks Francis stupid questions that he keep answering with, “Anon, anon!” This goes on for a while, much to Francis’s increasing anxiety.

Hal and Poins: Besties.

Hal and Poins: Besties.

Francis’s limited vocabulary is the butt of Hal’s joke; it’s easy for the one brought up by the kingdom’s finest tutors to laugh at the uneducated, but I find Hal to be the worst kind of hypocrite because he prides himself on his ability to speak the language of the people and then uses it to exploit them. Francis is overworked and underpaid, and instead of pitying his need to work so hard, Hal creates more obstacles to prevent him from getting his job done.

It’s important to ask: Why is Hal doing this? We know he does this to share a laugh with Poins – is it because Hal doesn’t have friends in the manipulative world of court, and is trying to cement his friendship with the bar rat Poins, instead? The joke definitely indicates something about Hal’s self-consciousness. Even beyond his desire for friendship, I see a character that is so busy delaying his own coming of age that he’s displacing his own anxieties onto the innocent Francis.

What might seem to be a silly prank is nonetheless bullying because Hal is exploiting Francis’s subservient position.  No matter how loudly Poins calls for him, Francis is obviously going to delay helping Poins (calling back “Anon, anon!”, on cue) because it is his responsibility to make the Prince comfortable; his livelihood depends on the Prince’s favour. So it is okay when Hal finally lets Francis finally leave by bellowing at him, “Away, you rogue! dost thou not hear them call?”? No! He’s exploiting his social inferior for his own amusement! That’s not fair, and it’s not the kind of attitude that people should emulate when trying to be “princely.”

Goneril and Regan: don't mess with these two.

Goneril and Regan: Don’t mess with these two.

So the next time you’re studying one of Shakespeare’s plays, look for the bullies. It could be Gratiano in Merchant of Venice, the terrible Demetrius and Chiron in Titus Andronicus, or maybe the bully is a woman, like Goneril or Regan in King Lear. Watch out for them: Shakespeare’s bullies are everywhere. They offer us the chance to learn about the motivations and weaknesses of all kinds of difficult people, and with those lessons, we can develop strategies for how to overcome negative influences and channel our struggles into something positive.

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Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing

In early April, I had the privilege of watching an advance screening of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing at the annual conference of the Shakespeare Association of America. Needless to say, the two hundred Bardolators in the room were pretty darn excited to mouth the entire play in unison. We were even luckier because the director himself sent the film over with a special introduction for us. In it, he gave his answer to that frequently asked question, “Why Shakespeare?” His gleeful response: “Why cake?” Those words assured me that Shakespeare’s text was in good hands.

A black-and-white romantic comedy in 2013? Joss Whedon’s 2012 Much Ado About Nothing

Why do I say “text”? Isn’t the whole point of this film that it’s a play performed, and then edited for the screen? Let me explain. The earliest buzz around 2012’s Much Ado was that it was filmed in black-and-white. That’s a pretty risky decision for someone producing a play by a 400-year old writer, and in the wake of Kenneth Branagh’s colourful Hamlet and Baz Luhrmann’s tripped-out R+J. Those were both released in 1996, and we’ve only gone further down the rabbit hole of CGI and HD ever since. I’d like to suggest not the reason (because that’s Whedon’s job), but the effect of Whedon’s decision to go black-and-white, and that’s that it reduces distraction. The party that goes on in this film is but a smaller version than that in Luhrmann’s recent Gatsby, but the difference is that in this film, you can enjoy the spectacle while also being able to pay attention to the words of “Sigh no more (Hey nonny nonny)“. Instead of looking at what Beatrice is wearing, we can focus on the way she “speaks poniards and every word stabs”. As long as Benedick shaves his beard and Hero wears white on her wedding day, it’s all kosher to me.

Old-school Ken and Em in Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

The other question that people have asked me about this film is: “How does it compare to Branagh’s 1993 film?” Good question. I’m going to go right ahead and say this: Whedon’s is better. And that’s not to say that I don’t love watching “Ken and Em” fall in love, because I really, really do, but that film came out two decades ago and even though none of us have aged a single bit, the play has earned a touch-up. Branagh’s version was sentimental and set with lovely ladies in white dresses, frolicking in the Tuscan sun. The “merry war” took on a more literal resonance in Branagh’s film, as he and the Duke’s men appear in military uniforms. Whedon’s version, on the other hand, is set in his own LA mansion. Don Pedro’s men wear finely-tailored suits, and lacking the swagger or any sort of non-WASP ethnicity to pass for mobsters, they seem like movie producers with concealed weapons. That prompts me to ask what this mise-en-scene does to illuminate the play’s themes of honour, chastity, betrayal, and second chances. In this case, the question for me is as follows: where does honour stand in 2013 LA, where people party all night and go jogging at first light? My answer is that this modern revision of the play concerns itself with pride rather than honour. But Whedon complicates this notion of “rather than”: his production brings to light how honour and pride are two sides of the same coin. The currency? Vanity. This play revolves around appearances: was it Hero making love to another man on the night before her wedding? Can Beatrice and Benedick really trust each other until they read each others’ sonnets? Whedon accentuates this obsession with the visual through an omni-present camera-person, closed-circuit security cameras, and mirrors. Four hundred years old and still rife for adaptation, Shakespeare’s plays offer themselves up for this sort of filmic imagery.

"Forget not that I am an ass."

“Forget not that I am an ass.”

Alas, I cannot make any comment on how the cast fits in to the other television shows and movies of the Whedon-verse, and thus I can’t address Nathan Fillion’s performance, but people were really excited about it, and tickled by his role as Dogberry the malaproping constable. What I can say is that you don’t need to have watched Buffy and Angel in order to love this movie. This is a must-see in theaters, a must-buy when it comes out on DVD, and if you want to recreate that feeling of hot summer nights, drinking wine and flirting with the rich and handsome, pick up the soundtrack, too!

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Filed under Performances, Reviews, Stage to Page to Stage and Screen