On this Memorial Day, I’m inspired by a quote to ponder what it really means to “Support Our Troops,” living and dead. The quote comes from an epilogue written for a 1778 performance of Shakespeare’s obscure Roman Tragedy, “Coriolanus:”
The most interesting thing about the play is how modern it is. One of his few plays that deals directly with the drama of democracy. And more than that, it deals with the seemingly modern phenomenon of officials undone by public opinion. So many of Shakespeare’s characters have to answer to their God or their king, or (as Coriolanus does), his family. Only rarely, do they answer to the people.
Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s strangest and most controversial plays. Its principal figure is a warrior, exemplary in his courage and single-minded dedication, who finds it difficult to adjust to life away from the battlefield. Refusing to compromise and contemptuous of anyone who does not live up to his exacting standards, Coriolanus, not long after being nominated for the high political office of consul, is cast into exile, accused of treason and ends up leading an army to invade and destroy Rome.
Warren Chernaik, Emeritus Professor of English in the University of London
What do we not owe soldiers?
Throughout the play, Coriolanus shows nothing but contempt for popular rule. This certainly suggests that he is aristocratic in his political views, but arguably he is much more militaristic. Remember that to be a Consul or any kind of high ranking position in the Senate, the senators all served in the army for a set term. Coriolanus respects the Senate more than the Assembly because the former is full of his fellow comrades in arms.
Coriolanus is first and last a soldier and he represents a society run by the war machine. For centuries, authoritarian who rule through a cult of personality have propped up Caius Martius as an ideal of a military society. After all, it was Mussoluini who organized his fascist dictatorship around the Roman Empire, and the play Coriolanus was taught in literature classes during the Third Reich. They probably looked like Starship Troopers.
So to recap, though we owe soldiers a lot for their courage and sacrifice, nobody owes them Blind obedience, because that is the roots of fascism. Look at this actual excerpt from a literary textbook about Coriolanus that was given to children in Nazi Germany.
The poet deals with the problem of the peaople and its leader, he depicts the ture nature of the leader in contrast to the aimless masses; he shows a people led in a false manner, a false democracy, whose exponents yield to the wishes of the people for egotistical reasons. Above these weaklings towers the figure of the true hero and leader, Coriolanus, who would like ot guide the deceived people to its health in the same way as, in our days, Adolf Hitler would do with our beloved German Fatherland.
Martin Brunkhorst, “Shakespeare’s Coriolanus in Deutscher Bearbeitung. Quoted from Weida
.So now that I’ve established what we don’t owe our soldiers, what do we owe them?
What do we owe our soldiers?
[ ] Honesty- why are you fighting? Is dying for one’s country worth it? Unlike Henry V, in which Shakespeare makes it very clear why the king is trying to conquer France, we don’t really understand why Rome wants to destroy the Volskies, and it seems somewhat arbitrary. I think one of the ways we sympathize with Coriolanus is that he never “asks the reason why; his is but to do and die,” as Tennyson puts it. He has one speech where he rallies the troops, but it just seems flat and hollow without a clear reason why the soldiers should risk their lives.
[ ] A chance to heal When he comes home to run for Consul, Coriolanus is required to show his battle scars to the people, and refuses to stay in the room when people talk about them. This could be interepreted as more arrogance where he is disgusted to be in the same room as common men, but I think there’s another aspect. I think Coriolanus has PTSD, and every time he sees or hears about his scars, his repressed memories bubble up to the surface and drown him in fear. His story is partially a story of how all soldiers need help to deal with the trauma they endure on a regular basis.
[ ] Love for their courage and sacrifice. Whether the conflict is right or wrong men and women risked their lives for it, and that is worth compassion. [ ] Good leaders.Coriolanus is a play where arguably nobody cares about the people. Coriolanus and the Patricians look down on them, and the tribunes see them as a means to gain power. With all this political in fighting who is really trying to make life better? Better for the starving Romans? Better for soldiers like Coriolanus? In a republican society like Rome, we owe it to our soldiers to participate in politics so men like Coriolanus aren’t sent to die on a whim. If we don’t use our voices, we are the common cry of curs that Coriolanus characterizes us as:
Compassion– in John Osborne’s version the title character goes mad from his trauma and of course, in Shakespeare’s version, he’s driven out of Rome and then killed by Aufidius. Even today, many soldiers suffer from poverty, sickness, life-altering injuries, and of course, PTSD. This Memorial Day, let’s all try to help ease the lives of the men and women who have suffered for us.
SHAKESPEARE AND BRITISH OCCUPATION POLICY IN GERMANY, 1945-1949 by Katherine Elizabeth Weida B.A. (Washington College) 2011
As I said in my “Is Shakespeare Being Cancelled?” post, there is a long tradition of using Shakespeare as the epitome of creative arts, especially in England. For centuries, British imperialists have justified their subjugation of other cultures by claiming that English culture is superior, and Shakespeare became an unknowing cog in the machinery of cultural imperialism.
Since it is pretty much impossible to de-throne Shakespeare, one response that other cultures have used is to elevate their own artists to Shakespearean status. People are already calling Lin-Manuel Miranda the American Shakespeare, and there have been many other Shakespeares around the globe (Feng). Thre’s nothing wrong with this; after all, every culture has its own cultural heroes and they help embody what
One other response to cultural imperialism is of course, to reject it, and since its inception, the Communist Party has sought to exclude, belittle, and suppress access to Western imperialist art. Shakespeare was banned during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, and even today the Communist Party is quicker to elevate artists likely to praise Chinese artists as being “Shakespearean,” than to praise Shakespeare directly. Just last year, President Xi Xinping officially declared that poet Tang Xianzu was “The Chinese Shakespeare.”
To be fair, Tang XIanzu was Shakespeare’s contemporary and there are some startling similarities between the themes and ideas expressed by the two poets:
China has produced some wonderful ballets, operas, and poetry so it makes sense that even though the government has suppressed Shakespeare in the past, the Chinese people have expressed a love of Shakespeare for over a century. As early as 1903, Chinese intellectuals started reading and translating Shakespeare and the first Chinese adaptation of Shakspeare was a rhymed ballad version of Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene written by Deng Yizhe in 1910 (Sun, 1932). Today productions of Shakespeare are very popular in China and Shakespeare has facilitated a fascinating cultural exchange between east and west.
In addition to Chinese students encountering Shakespeare in the classroom, and the popularity of theater productions of Shakespeare in China, there are some fascinating efforts for English and Chinese speaking audiences to use Shakespeare as a bridge to cultural understanding. Right now, plans are underway to build a replica of Shakespeare’s birthplace in the southern Chinese city of Fuzhou. Meanwhile in Stratford Upon Avon, the government of Fuzhou gave a statue of Tang Xianzu and statue to be featured prominently in the garden of the actual Shakespeare birthplace on Henley Street (Woodings).
In addition, Royal Shakespeare Company Artistic Director Greg Doran, (former husband of the great RSC actor Antony Sher), has spearheaded a number of outreach projects designed to translate Shakespeare’s The Tempest into a format better suited for theater productions in China. The final show, which premiered in 2018, was not only a successful collaboration between east and western artist, but the production, with its themes of freedom and liberty, was likely to ruffle feathers in the Chinese government, according to (Yuan Yang).
In Xi’s closely controlled China, The Tempest’s themes of liberty and identity clearly carry political ideas at odds with the ruling party — “thought is free”, the sprite Ariel sings. The implicit challenge to the status quo extended from the ideas to the production itself at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing. It offered new freedoms to the Chinese actors from the centre’s in-house theatre ensemble. Under the guidance of director Tim Supple, this was the first time they had been invited to experiment with performance and alter the text.
Yuang Yang. “The Bard in Beijing: how Shakespeare is subverting China”
To sum up, every culture has been exposed to Shakespeare, and many have found ways to re-interpret him, appropriate him, and use him as a tool of cultural appropriation. This is neither good nor bad, it just is. It is. What is interesting is that China has taken Shakespeare from a tool of imperialism into a tool of both multiculturalism, and occasionally, as a subversion of their government. Studying the way other China and cultures have interpreted Shakespeare is a window into the values of those cultures and thus, helps to further build a global community.
Below is a scene from a Chinese opera version of Hamlet for your viewing pleasure!
If you read my blog for an extended period of time, or if you listen to my podcasts, or if you’ve taken any of my classes online, then I probably told you the notion that I believe that you could find Shakespearean roots in just about every single work of Western and quite a few of Eastern literature. Shakespeare is ingrained in our culture and therefore a lot of his influence can be felt in almost every bit of media we take in. One of my favorite ways to illustrate this, is by looking at Disney movies, trying to prove that every Disney story is at least a little bit inspired by a Shakespeare play as you’ve seen from my comedy series if Shakespeare wrote for Disney:
I had an enormous challenge on my hands when Disney came out with the new film Encanto. Previously I’ve found it very easy to deconstruct Disney film plots and spot their Shakespearean roots: Pocahontas is Romeo and Juliet by Disney’s own admission, Aladdin is basically the Tempest, Mulan is Twelfth Night, and the Lion King is Hamlet, as many people have pointed out.
Encanto was really really hard because it is such a fresh and original story. It is deeply rooted in Columbian culture, so trying to defend the notion that it has anything in common with the works of a 400 year old English male playwright is a tough claim. I don’t mean to suggest that this movie is a deliberate reinterpretation of Shakespeare. That would be insulting and limiting to the breadth of the story. My main purpose with this post is to show how universal and powerful these two stories are- to pay Encanto the compliment that, like Shakespeare, the story transcends cultural and historical boundaries and tells a story we can all relate to, and this is why I am making this bold claim, that Encanto resembles King Lear, albeit with a happy ending.
It was hard for me to realize that Encanto resembles Lear because the Lear character is not the focus of the movie; the focus of the movie is the Cordelia character Mirabelle if you’ve read King Lear or then you know that Cordelia is vital to the first 2 scenes of the play, and then goes offstage until Act 4 when where she is reunited with her father in prison, then cures his madness just long enough for her to be hanged. Her death is the darkest, grimmest, bleakest moment that Shakespeare ever wrote. She is the heart of the play and Lear’s failure to listen to her forms the heart of the play’s message; when an older generation clings to power and power or money or status or anything else besides their family, ultimately they suffer tremendously.
In his first line of the play King Lear, the king says that he wants to give up his kingdom, conferring it to his daughters and their husbands, but what he is really trying to do is to get his daughters to say they love him and to give them the kingdom as a reward.
This deal also has more strings attached; Lear basically says: “Now that I’ve given you my kingdom, you have to house me in your castle with a retinue of a 100 knights.” And the only child who really loves Lear and has his best interest in hearts is Cordelia, and Lear violently disclaims yet disclaims her and and renounces his permit his parental claims on her and yeah and since and since her and banishes her from the kingdom along with her husband the king of France.
So who is the king Lear figure in the Encanto? Abuela Alma! Think about it, she is a woman who is spending the whole play clinging and holding on to the power that the Magic Candle gives to her. she spends the whole movie trying to protect the Encanto, and when she mistakenly believes that Mirabelle is a threat, she pushes her away. Her other children Papa, Julietta, and Bruno she rules with an iron fist, and she flies into panics and rages whenever anything seems to threaten the safety of the candle. For example, when Bruno gets the magic prophecy that Mirabelle might destroy the house and destroy the Encanto, Abuela refuses to let Mirabelle talk to anybody ever and generally acts in a cruel controlling way.
Look at this passage when Lear rejects his loving daughter Cordellia. Given what I’ve mentioned- the fists of rage, the clinging to supernatural powers, and the controlling demands for loyalty and obedience from his children, who does King Lear sound like?
Lear: For, by the sacred radiance of the sun, The mysteries of Hecate and the night; By all the operation of the orbs115 From whom we do exist and cease to be; Here I disclaim all my paternal care, Propinquity and property of blood, And as a stranger to my heart and me Hold thee from this for ever. The barbarous Scythian,120 Or he that makes his generation messes To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom Be as well neighbour'd, pitied, and reliev'd, As thou my sometime daughter. King Lear, Act I, Scene i.
As Ian McKellen explains in this interview, like Abuella, Lear clings to power, which he derives from supernatural forces, ignores people who care about him, and believes that his authority is absolute:
Power and violence in Encanto and King Lear
Marxist critics believe that Lear’s power s is based on violence like most medieval kings and violence is actually connected to abuela as well. Let’s not forget that the candle was forged after the faceless Men with machetes attempted to murder abuela and her whole village. The candle is Abuela’s power, but it is also a constant reminder of the violence that she escaped. It is also therefore a symbol of her trauma. Perhaps these characters became so controlling and distant and cold because of the trauma they endured. Lear is supposed to be a king of Britain back in the pre Christian era of the Anglo Saxos; he must have seen countless invasions:
The former king says himself that he’s fought in wars with his good biting falchion (a kind of sword). Whether they’ve seen falchions or machetes, these characters have seen violence and want to protect themselves against seeing the pain of it again, and ultimately it is their children that suffer because of it.
In King lear the kingdom is ripped apart between the 3 daughters and in Encanto, the house is literally ripped apart by the rift between the family and Abuela. Lear foolishly tries to bribe his daughters into flattering him; promising them the kingdom if they demonstrate how much they love him. Therefore Lear demands obedience and love and expects his family to fawn on him as if they were his subjects, not his family.
Lear’s favorite daughter Cordelia refuses to take the bribe and cannot put her love into words, so she says nothing. Lear is enraged and treats this small disobedience like an act of treason:
Arguably Abuella makes the same mistake. She treats her children as her subjects too and exploits their gifts in order to keep the community happy. Her fear of losing her home is the reason she pushes them all to be indispensable to the community. Think of the psychological and physical pressure Louisa mentions in her song:
Much like Lear and Cordelia, Mirabelle and Abuela argue about how her clinging to the past is hurting her family and how the pressure she puts on them is literally ripping their home and family apart:
Perhaps the biggest connective motif between Encanto and King Lear is the the motif of sight and sightlessness. Both Lear and Lord Gloucester are blind to the danger that they’re in and blind to who their real friends and enemies are. Lear trusts his 2 elder daughters because they flatter him, he trusts his drunken Knights who only succeed in getting him forced out of the cold. Conversely, Lear ignores Cordelia. who really loves him, as well as Kent, who is a loyal nobleman to the very end, and he ignores the Fool because he’s a fool. If he had heeded any of their advice he would not have died alone and powerless. Therefore his sightlessness is a deadly weakness.
Gloucester, the other old man character in Lear has another problem with sightlessness and his is much more literally. Gloucester’s bastard son Edmond deceives him into thinking that his legitimate son Edgar is plotting to kill him. The old man sends Edgar away, makes Edmund his heir, and then Edmond betrays him and gets him arrested for treason.
In the play’s most savage scene, Gloucester is tortured and his eyes are literally pulled out of his head. From this moment Gloucester finally sees Edmond’s treachery, and he laments that he stumbled when he saw. Gloucester feels like he is finally able to see clearly now that he is blind not unlike the ancient Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex.
of course nothing this gruesome can be shown in a Disney movie but the image of sight is constantly referenced in Encanto visually, and also through the lyrics of the songs. Even the name of the character; Mirabelle comes from the Spanish word ‘mira’ which means to look, and the first thing one might notice about her is her brightly painted green glasses, which constantly draw attention to her ability to see.
Mirabelle, like Cordelia is able to see that her family is in pain, she sees that her family, the Encanto, and the house is a danger while Abuela is constantly deluding herself and everybody else in thinking that nothing is yet wrong. Through the course of the movie, Mirabelle is able to fix the various problems she sees. For instance, she sees that her sister Louisa is taking on too many responsibilities and refusing to admit that she is tired and feels weak. She realizes that her sister Isabella is tired of being the perfect golden child, that her Uncle Bruno is not the monster that the family declare him to is be layer him to be, (however catchy their song about him is), and It is through her sight and her perceptiveness that Mirabelle is able to heal the wounds in her family, The last wounds that she heals, of course, are the cracks on her house, and her own Abuella’s wounds, the wounds that went deep through her and even deep through her house; she mends the problems that happened the instant that that candle came into being,
Notice how many times the words “look,” and “see” are mentioned in the lyrics. Mirabelle re-iterates how each person in her family is more than their gifts, more than just the roles Abuella put them in, and they respond by telling her to look at her own gifts and be proud of who she is. She heals them by seeing them as they are, and they heal her by seeing her too.
It was when I realized this that I understood that this movie is what would have happened if King Lear had only listened to the people who really cared about him, and did not succumb to idle flattery, if he did not let his pain and his trauma dictate the rest of his life. There’s a wonderful hopeful message here that family wounds can be healed if we take time to see and address them. If you read King Lear and then see the movie you can see both how these family wounds can be healed, and the tragic consequences if they are not.
I hope that this little post has helped you appreciate both works because they are both magnificent and they are both carefully constructed and they both tell a very simple lesson for all families. As families, we need to recognize our faults, forgive faults in others, and work together to mend the pain and suffering that we experience in our lives. Mirabell and Cordelia show that we can all be heroes if we see the truth, and speak what they feel not what they ought to say.
Gloucester and His Sons, PBS Learning Media: Shakespare Uncovered: witf.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/shak15.ela.lit.gloucester/gloucester-and-his-sons-king-lears-subplot-shakespeare-uncovered/?student=true