Tag Archives: Tom Hiddleston

Shakespeare and Thor

Thor and Loki

Thor and Loki

I have a confession to make: I’m pretty obsessed with the Thor franchise. Of For some reason, watching the 2011 film and the 2013 sequel has become downright therapeutic; the end of the semester is hectic and stressful, but re-watching these movies for the fifth, eighth, tenth times just relaxes me. At first, I figured it was the lineup of sexy male leads: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Idris Elba…but then I thought that it’s the rainbow runway known as the Bifrost that boosts my mood. But then today, I was IMDB-stalking this film that I mindlessly love, and it turned out that it might be more subconsciously mindful than I had thought: Thor is immensely Shakespearean!

Feore as Laufey the Frost Giant

Feore as Laufey the Frost Giant

Today’s initial curiosity was to check IMDB for who played King Laufey, King of the Frost Giants. I squealed with delight when I found out that under five hours’ worth of makeup is Colm Feore. Feore is American-born actor who gets mad props for choosing to be a Canadian one. He consistently performs in distinctly Canadian (re: lower-budget and publicity) drama, such as his recurring role in the second season of Paul Gross’s Slings and Arrows, or headlining as King Lear at this year’s Stratford Festival.

Falstaff in comic form: Volstagg the Voluminous

Falstaff in comic form: Volstagg the Voluminous

The main draw for me to start watching these films was that Kenneth Branagh, who is known for directing and starring in Shakespeare films, directed the first installment. The big question, then, is why, aside from obvious financial reasons, would a Shakespearean heavy-hitter devote his time to directing a superhero blockbuster? To Branagh, it seems, it all came down to the script. In an interview with daily science blog io9, Branagh discusses the similarities between Henry V, a character he had once played, and Thor. Branagh notes that both characters struggle with to prove themselves to their fathers as part of their coming of age, and suggests that Thor’s banishment and later redemption by his father Odin (Antony Hopkins! squee!) is not unlike the younger Prince Hal’s selfish, disrespectful self. Heck, Thor even has his own Falstaff! In a line that combines my research interests of affect and food, the distraught Volstagg defends his stress eating by shouting: “Do not mistake my appetite for apathy!”

And of course, we can’t forget Tom Hiddleston, whose performance trajectory suggests that he’s looking to fill (and dare I say, outgrow?) Branagh’s Shakespearean shoes. Hiddleston most recently received an Olivier Award nomination for his lead role in Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse in London, and got his professional Shakespearean beginnings at the same theatre, in the role of Cassio, next to Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Othello and Ewan McGregor’s Iago. In the same year as he performed Othello, Hiddleston was also featured in the play Ivanov, starring Branagh. The two developed a strong working relationship and a short while later, Hiddleston auditioned for the movie’s lead role, but was cast as Loki instead.

Hiddleston developed his character based on his own Shakespearean influences. He tells GeekExchange.com:

When I created Loki with Ken Branagh (Director of Thor) we talked about Edmond the bastard son, someone who’s grown up in the shadow of another man. And in King Lear, Edgar is the legitimate son, the favored son. Edmond is the bastard, the illegitimate, the one who’s less loved… underloved, which feeds his lack of self-esteem.

Loki as part Frost Giant

Loki as part Frost Giant

Hiddleston sees much of Edmund in Loki, when his character learns that the reason why he is overshadowed by his blonder, handsomer brother is because he was cast-off as a baby Frost Giant, and Odin took pity on him, opting to raise Loki as his own back in Asgard. While Odin doesn’t follow Gloucester in taking liberties to rub his son’s bastardy in his face (which I’ll be blogging on in the coming month!), Loki nonetheless seethes with resentment because he thinks that he would be a better king than Thor.

Themes of growing up and “manning up”; power hunger; the triumph of light over darkness and good over evil are not, of course, restricted to the fantasy realm. This is why Stuart Moore, co-author of the Marvel tie-in book The Art of Thor: The Dark World reminds us that “despite the low-culture trappings of comic book films, they’re the closest thing in modern entertainment to the kind of grand-scale melodrama that Shakespeare trafficked in.” He’s right. Just like Shakespeare wrote to put bums in seats, so did Branagh, in directing this blockbuster. And with that, I say: Go on, then! Bring on the third installment!

 

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Filed under Characters, Performances, Roles, Shakespeare

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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The Hollow Crown: Henry IV part 1

One way to fight the winter blues is to accept that it’s too cold for any sane person to leave the house. Instead, we must find ways to enjoy the great indoors. My proposed solution is twofold: the first is the miracle of slow-cooked applesauce. While you don’t get the pleasure of licking the tinfoil lid off the childhood favorite, eating it warm, straight out of the slow cooker, will change your life forever. The second part of the solution is to get into your jam-jams and comfiest robe, and watch lots and lots of movies.

Jeremy Irons as Henry IV

Jeremy Irons as Henry IV

…Shakespeare movies, that is! I’ve been downloading way too many BBC adaptations and watching too few, so last night I decided to change that. I’ve been on a little Tom Hiddleston kick lately (can you blame me?), so I started with 1 Henry IV. I consider this the most unfortunately-named Shakespeare play, as its boring title doesn’t signify its compelling main character (Prince Hal), the fun he has with Shakespeare’s most comic character (Falstaff), and coming of age that Prince experiences in this play.

Michelle Dockery as Lady Percy

Michelle Dockery as Lady Percy

This production is certainly well cast. Few actors make better brooding, guilt-ridden rulers than Jeremy Irons, slightly less lecherous than in his role as Rodrigo Borgia, and Hiddleston plays a bright-eyed mischievous Prince Hal. Michelle Dockery, fresh from Downton Abbey, glows, alabaster as ever, and I really enjoyed the way Richard Eyre amped up the flirtiness between Kate and Hotspur, who is often portrayed as loving his horse more than his wife.

Prince Hal and Falstaff

Prince Hal and Falstaff, besties for life?

Simon Russell Beale, who has been treading the boards of the English stage nonstop for the past couple of years, was a good Falstaff. Good, not great, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on why. I love the character, an irresponsible, lecherous, glutton who leeches off friends both high and low, yet his true devotion to Hal peeks through. What I don’t appreciate is that Richard Eyre thought it necessary to back each of Falstaff’s sympathetic speeches with an affecting violin track. I recognize that medium of film allows for certain enhancements to the text that the stage does not, but that does not mean that Shakespeare’s words themselves need more enhancing than an actor’s clear voice. Take, for example, the following speech:

Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is honour? a word. What is in that word honour? What is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no. Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so ends my catechism.

This is one of the most profound speeches in the Shakespearean canon. Honour inspires me to fight, by why should I, when I might just die? What is the value of dying in the name of honour? Will honour heal my bloody wounds? Will honour take care of my family when I’m gone? The dead man can find few, if any, practical applications for honour, so why pursue it? Falstaff asks these rhetorical questions, offering a catechism in the name of the Abbot of Unreason, all the while showing just exactly how reasonable he is. Falstaff is the one to make us question the nature of heroism: is the king heroic for forcing his army to fight and kill a hundred thousand “rebels”, who on any other day would be counted as fellow countrymen? Is Hal heroic for leaving the tavern in order to aid the King in a war that was only brought on after his father took the crown from Richard II? Falstaff may be a leech on society, but Shakespeare’s words show he is the one shrewd enough to know the finality of death, a truth that need no violins to prove it.

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