Last month, I took a short vacation to Las Vegas, where, as some of you know, I went to Area 15 and the Omega Mart Exhibit. I also visited the Las Vegas Mob Museum. I’ve been fascinated by the mob for years. The Mob (AKA The Outfit), has within its many threads a potent combination of corruption, seduction vice, and violence all hidden behind the veneer of honorable men who do what they feel they have to to protect their families and their communities.
Not surprisingly, while at the museum, I saw parallels between the history of organized crime and Shakespeare, specifically his most popular history play about a powerful family that takes over the crown of England in a brutal turf war, and then one of its most feared soldiers bribes, intimidates, and murders his way to the top; Richard III.
A Protection Racket: Feudalism vs. La Cosa Nostra
The structure of the mafia paralleled the feudal system. In a world where a police force didn’t offer much protection for marginalized communities, the mafia thrived by offering protection for these communities, (especially to immigrants and people of color in the 19th and early 20th century).
Much earlier than that, the feudal system of the middle ages, which started to crumble after Richard’s reign ended, was designed specifically so poor peasants could get protection from wealthy landowners after the fall of the Roman Empire. These lords offered the protection of their knights to these peasants i. Return for labor and a percentage of their income working the field. Like the mafia, these peasants paid tributes to their lords and these lords demanded loyalty. In the museum, there’s an interactive video where you can become a ‘made man,’ which means become an official member of a mafia crew. Like a king knighting a lord, this ceremony meant pledging your life to your superiors, and being at their beck and call no matter what. In addition, like medieval knights, mafiosos were not allowed to murder other made men without permission from their capo or boss.
However benevolent they might appear, In both cases the Dons and the medieval lords were extorting their underclass. Failing to pay tribute to their lords would cause the peasants to lose their lands, and any disloyalty to the mafia would be severely punished. These powerful, violent thugs used their private armies to intimidate the weak into giving them what they wanted.
Part II: The Two Families
To thoroughly explain the parallels between the Wars of the Roses and the mob, I need to make clear that Richard iii is more than just the story of one man’s rise to power, although there are also mafia stories that fit this mold such as Scarface, White Heat, and the real-life story of Al Capone.
As this hilarious “weather report” from “Horrible Histories,” makes clear, during the Wars of the Roses two powerful families, (each with a claim to the English crown) fought each other in a brutal turf war. As Shakespeare characterizes in his play Henry VI, Part III, the battles between the houses of York and Lancaster shook England like a mighty storm, and for a while it was hard to tell who would prevail:
Henry VI. This battle fares like to the morning's war, When dying clouds contend with growing light, What time the shepherd, blowing of his nails,1105 Can neither call it perfect day nor night. Now sways it this way, like a mighty sea Forced by the tide to combat with the wind; Now sways it that way, like the selfsame sea Forced to retire by fury of the wind:1110 Sometime the flood prevails, and then the wind; Now one the better, then another best; Both tugging to be victors, breast to breast, Yet neither conqueror nor conquered: So is the equal of this fell war.
Henry VI, Act II, Scene i
During the Wars of the Roses, it was King Henry’s incompetence and mental illness that gave the Yorkists the ability to challenge the House of Lancaster for the crown. In the 1920s, the passage of the 18th amendment, (which made alcohol illegal, and thus a profitable commodity for organized crime), that allowed the mob to rise to unheard-of power through illegally buying, distributing, and selling alcohol. As the photo and subsequent video shows, Prohibition largely led to the rise in organized crime in America, especially in Chicago. During Prohibition, the Italian Sough-side Gang fought for control of Chicago’s bootlegging trade and subsequently destroyed their competition from the Irish gangs through corruption, intimidation, and violence.
The Don rises- Richard Vs. Al Capone
Like the Italian and Irish gangs In Prohibition-era Chicago, the Yorkist and Lancastrian armies battled for the English throne. As Ian McKellen’s excellent movie (set in the 1930s) shows, Richard was instrumental in destroying the leading Lancastrians at the Battle of Tewkesbury, including Prince Edward and King Henry.
In Chicago, the most feared mobster soldier was Al Capone, who many scholars believe was responsible for killing off high ranking members of the Irish gang during the infamous St. Valentines Day Massacre, where the gang members were ‘arrested’ by South Side gangsters disguised as cops. As the Irish stood against the wall with their hands behind their heads, the phony cops pulled out Tommy guns from their coats and let out a hail of bullets on their unsuspecting quarry.
In Shakespeare’s play, the only Lancastrian to survive the war is Queen Margaret, wife to the murdered King Henry, and mother to the slaughtered Prince Edward. In this scene from Al Pacino’s “Looking For Richard,” she curses Richard for his cruel slaughters. It’s not surprising that Pacino was so drawn to Richard II that he starred in and directed this film. After all, Pacino is famous for playing mafia characters who slaughter their way to the top.
Once Capone killed the competition, he ruled a multimillion-dollar empire of bootleggers and maintained that empire through corruption, intimidation, and by constantly playing innocent, just like Richard himself.
Hypocrisy, Corruption and hidden violence
“Men in general judge more by the sense of sight than by the sense of touch, because everyone can see, but few can test by feeling. Everyone sees what you seem to be, few know what you really are; and those few do not dare take a stand against the general opinion.”
Both Richard III and mobsters are masters of double-speak, that is, seeming to say one thing and meaning something else. Look at this passage where Richard talks about killing his nephew, then denies it:
Richard III (Duke of Gloucester). I say, without characters, fame lives long. [Aside] Thus, like the formal vice, Iniquity, I moralize two meanings in one word.
Las Vegas: The town that bedded and abetted the mob.
After Al Capone’s demise and the repeal of Prohibition, the mafia found another vice to capitalize on: gambling. As the video below indicates, using their connections with the Teamsters Union and midwestern bookmakers, the mob in the midwest financed, built, and run almost every casino in Las Vegas, including The StarDust and the Hassienda. Once the casinos were built, the mob extorted millions of dollars from the casinos every month!
The profits from the casinos bought the mob even more power and influence, but this skim depended on making sure the bosses controlled their underlings, and defended their casinos from cheaters and snitches, which is why they defended their casinos through intimidation and violence.
Murders in The White tower and the city of sin.
“Simple, plain, Clarence. I do love thee so, that I shall shortly send thy soul to Heaven.”
—Richard III, Act I, Scene i
When Richard of Gloucester starts his quest to become king, he begins by convincing his brother King Edward to execute his other brother George. Richard bribes the murderers to kill George before the king can reverse the death sentence. Richard has thus eliminated another obstacle in his way, and gained two loyal followers who will do anything for his gold.
The mafia dealt the same way with traitors, stool pigeons, and anyone who tried to challenge the bosses. Look at this tour of the Mafia museum, where the grandson of the gangster Meyer Lansky starts by reminiscing about the glamourous lifestyle of Las Vegas mobsters, but the tour quickly takes a dark turn as Lansky II talks about how his grandfather ordered brutal executions for anyone who crossed The Las Vegas Outfit.
It was an enormously interesting trip going to the Mafia Museum, and if you can get out to Las Vegas, be sure to visit, (don’t forget the password to visit the speakeasy bar in the basement!) It was eye-opening for me how prevalent the sort of corrupt protection racket that started in the middle ages and continued into most of the 20th century helped define The Wars of the Roses and the mafia. As long as the strong prey on the weak and the law can’t protect everyone equally, these kinds of violent thugs will be lurking in the shadows, waiting for a shot at the crown.
I love Game Of Thrones! If you’ve ever read the books or seen the series on HBO, like me you might be amazed by the scale and complexity of the world author George RR Martin created. He wove together a rich tapestry of medieval history, legends, and yes, Shakespeare. He used some of Shakespeare’s plots, commented and expanded on his themes, and adapted some of his iconic characters into a very rich and in a way, very modern story.
Since the prequel series “House Of The Dragons” premieres today, I’m going to examine the components of Martin’s narrative that he embroidered off of Shakespeare’s plots, themes, and characters. If you like my take on this, or if you disagree, please leave a comment below! If you have any suggestions for other popular works adapted from Shakespeare, let me know and I’ll review them on the blog!
Part I: Story
Shakespeare wrote four plays that chronicle a series of civil wars where powerful families battled each other for the crown of England. Like Game of Thrones, the conflict was mainly between the kingdoms in the North and South:
Shakespeare’s three parts of King Henry VI and Richard III chronicle the real struggle between the Yorkists in the north to take the crown from the Lancastrians in London in the South.
Part II: Themes
Power corrupts, especially those who go seeking it.
The death of chivalry and honor in favor of political backstabbing.
King Henry VI has a speech where he watches a great battle while sitting on a molehill, watching the tide turn back and forth between his soldiers and the Yorkists. As with Game Of Thrones, the more blood each side has on its hands, the harder it becomes to decide whom to truly root for. In the end, it doesn’t seem to matter- kingdoms are won and lost as arbitrarily as a game. All it takes is time, and a good player to win.
The silence of the Gods. Shakespeare’s King Lear is constantly making oaths to his gods and asking them to punish his enemies. Likewise, Lear’s friend the Duke Of Gloucester, places his faith in the gods to protect Lear and punish the usurpers Goneril and Regan. Nevertheless, the action of King Lear doesn’t show any kind of divine judgement- Lear is exiled, goes mad, is sent to prison, and finally dies. Gloucester loses his sight, his lands, and dies randomly right after he is re-united with his son Edgar. In both King Lear and Game Of Thrones, there is a persistent question as to the nature of the gods, or even the surety of their existence.
King Lear mourns Cordelia’s death by
James Barry, c. 1786.
No where is this more apparent than at the end of the play King Lear, when, just as it seems that the Duke of Albany is about to reward the good people and punish the wicked, King Lear arrives howling, with the dead Cordelia in his arms. “Is this the promised end?” in horror at the gods’ apparent cruelty. https://youtu.be/7acLWsal1FU
In Game Of Thrones, the good characters pray to their old gods and new, but never seem to hear from them or sense their influence. Osha, the Wildling even suggests that the gods have no power in King’s Landing, where the special God’s Wood trees have been cut down.
Part III: Characters
Below is a list of my favorite GOT characters, with my interpretation of their Shakespearean roots.
Ned Stark- Humphrey Duke of Gloucester from Henry VI, Part II
Duke Humphrey is a Yorkist from the north of England, just as Ned is Lord of Winterfell, a powerful kingdom in the north of Westeros. King Robert makes Ned Protector Of the Realm when he dies, which makes him king in all but name, and tasked with taking care of Robert’s young son Joffrey until he comes of age.
Portrait of the historical Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester from the National Portrait Gallery, artist unknown.
In Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy, King Henry the Fifth makes his brother Humphrey Lord Protector before he dies, to take care of England until his infant son Henry VI comes of age to rule. Like Ned, Humphrey is loyal, blunt, and only interested in keeping the realm at peace. In both Westminster and the Red Keep, all the lords are conniving and ambitious, and only interested in advancing themselves politically. These two lord protectors are the only ones with the good of the kingdom in mind.
Both Ned and Humphrey are betrayed and executed by those ambitious lords around them for the same reason; they stand in the way of the lords in their quest for power. In Henry VI, Part II, Henry’s ambitious queen Margaret starts a smear campaign against Humphrey’s wife, then pressures the King to force Gloucester to resign. As if that weren’t enough, Margaret also secretly conspires to murder the noble duke. Similarly, In Game of Thrones (Spoiler Alert), queen Circe puts her son on the throne and proclaims Ned a traitor. In both cases though, once the Lord Protector dies, the whole kingdom erupts in fights and arguments for the crown on all sides.
Ned Stark also resembles the heroes of Shakespeare’s Roman plays. He is cold and stoic as Brutus, and a devoted soldier like Titus Andronicus. Ned’s dire wolf is another connection with Shakespeare’s Roman plays; the wolf 🐺 is the symbol of the Roman Empire; packs of cold hunters who depend on each other for the survival of the family.
King Joffrey- Saturnine from Titus Andronicus– Joffrey is like the worst kind of tyrant- rash, proud, violent, and cruel. He lacks the maturity to make wise decisions and because of his privileged upbringing, he takes even the tiniest slight against him as an act of treason, and leaves a trail of heads in his wake. Worse still, he is easily manipulated by his mother Circe, who teaches him to act and feel superior to everyone else, and never care for the good of anyone but himself. In that way, he is very much like a Roman Emperor like Nero or Caligula, the real people whom Shakespeare adapted into the character of Emperor Saturnine in his play Titus Andronicus.
When we first meet Saturnine, he leads an angry mob into the streets of Rome, demanding to be made emperor, and threatening all out war if he doesn’t get his way. He also turns on the loyal soldier Titus, (who helped him win a war and win his crown), just because Titus wouldn’t give Saturnine his daughter in marriage. In the clip below from the 1999 movie Titus, Emperor Saturnine (Alan Cummings) is furious just because Titus wrote some mean scrolls about him, after Saturnine killed two of Titus’ sons, and banished a third.
King Robert Baratheon- Edward IV from Richard III.
◦ In the first book of the Game of Thrones series, Robert is the King of the Seven Kingdoms, having won a civil war to take it away from the Mad King Araes Targaryen. Edward in the play Richard III has just won the crown of England after a civil war against the mad King Henry VI. Both men were powerful warriors and used to be strong and handsome. People loved and feared him, but now the pressures of keeping the throne has literally consumed them.
Next had come King Robert himself, with Lady Stark on his arm. The King was a great disappointment to Jon. His father had talked of him often: the peerless Robert Baratheon, demon of the Trident, the fiercest warrior of the realm, a giant among princes. Jon only saw a fat man, red-faced under his beard, sweating through his silks.
Jon had noticed that too. A bastard had to learn o notice things, to read the truth that people hid behind their eyes. Two seats away, the king had been drinking heavily all night. His broad face was flushed behind his black beard.
In this passage from Thomas More’s History Of Richard III, (Shakespeare’s primary source for the play), More chronicles how Edward went from a handsome young king, loved and feared by all, into a gluttonous, lecherous, sick old man, who was consumed by care.
He was a goodly personage, and very princely to behold: of heart, courageous; politic in counsel; in adversity nothing abashed; in prosperity, rather joyful than proud; in peace, just and merciful; in war, sharp and fierce; in the field, bold and hardy, and nevertheless, no further than wisdom would, adventurous. Whose wars whosoever would well consider, he shall no less commend his wisdom when he withdrew than his manhood when he vanquished. He was of visage lovely, of body mighty, strong, and clean made; however, in his latter days with over-liberal diet , he became somewhat corpulent and burly, and nonetheless not uncomely; he was of youth greatly given to fleshly wantonness, from which health of body in great prosperity and fortune, without a special grace, hardly refrains. This fault not greatly grieved the people, for one man’s pleasure could not stretch and extend to the displeasure of very many, and the fault was without violence, and besides that, in his latter days, it lessened and well left.
-Thomas More, History Of Richard III, c. 1513
There are also similarities in how the characters died. King Robert was killed by a wild boar, while King Edward was killed by his brother Richard, whose sign was a white boar. As a bonus, the stag that is the sigil of House Baratheon, is also the seal of King Richard II, the king who, in the Shakespearean tragedy that bears his name, started the civil war when he was murdered in the Tower Of London. Below is a picture of the famous Wilton Diptych, (Richard the Second’s private alter piece), which depicts the king and all the angels in heaven wearing a badge with a white stag on it.
LittleFinger -Lucio from Measure For Measure, Iachimo from Cymbeline, Bawd from Pericles, etc. Shakespeare has a host of character like this lord of Westeros, the Master of Coin. He is cowardly and cynical, but he is also very clever and understands people’s weaknesses, especially sex. Like Bawd from Pericles, Little Finger has grown rich off brothels, and like many real life governments, he turns his prostitutes into spies. This gives him not only cash, but dirt on every lord in the 7 kingdoms. He only worries about Ned Stark, (who can’t be bought), and Vares the eunuch, who can’t be seduced. Little Finger is basically an oily politician and exploits the power of lust in the men of King’s Landing.
Jon Snow– Edgar and Edmund in King Lear Philip the Bastard in King John.
◦ Snow is the illegitimate son of Ned Stark. He’s aware of what he is, so he joins thieves and rapers as a knight of the Night Watch to make a life for himself, just as Edgar becomes a mad beggar in King Lear once he is accused of attempted murder. He has few illusions and like all the base-born children in Shakespeare:
He was who he was, Jon Snow, bastard oath breaker motherless, friendless, and damned. For the rest of his life, however long that might be- he would be condemned to be an outsider, the silent man standing in the shadows who dares not speak his true name.”
◦ Shakespeare wrote several characters born out of wedlock such as Phillip Falconbridge in King John, and Edmund from King Lear.
Unlike Jon Snow, Edmund in King Lear uses deceitful and cruel cunning in order to advance his position in life. Snow doesn’t try to change the rules, but both of them know that no one is going to give them anything. Early in book one, Jon learns to accept the cruelty of the world, and to accept what he is:
Let me give you some council, bastard, never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armor yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.
Song Of Ice And Fire, p. 57.
🦁 Tyrian Lannister –
Obviously he shares some parallels with Richard III, with his small size and the fact that he is the most hated member of a powerful family. In fact, Peter Dinklage who plays Tyrion played Richard the Third back in 2004.
In terms of his personality however, Tyrion has neither the cruelty, nor the bitterness of Richard. For this reason, I would argue that Tyrion more closely resembles Sir John Falstaff.
◦ Like Falstaff, Tyrion laughs at his physical form as a way of disarming his enemies.
◦ Both Characters are famous for talking their way out of anything.
◦ Both characters are down on their luck for most of the books
Both characters are, ahem, fond of drink. Falstaff even has a beer named after him:
◦ Most Of all, Tyrion and Falstaff are survivors – they will do anything to stay alive, good or bad. They are also unapologetic about acting cowardly and deceitfully to avoid death. In Falstaff’s famous ‘Catechism speech,’ he mocks the concept of honor and how it frequently gets men killed.
‘Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before
his day. What need I be so forward with him that
calls not on me? 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.
Now observe this passage where Tyrion reacts to the death of a noble knight who was foolish enough to wear armor while crossing a river on a raft.
“Good my lord,” the messenger said. “Lord Brax was clad in plate-and-mail when his raft overturned. He was so gallant.” “He was a fool,” Tyrion thought, willing his cup and staring down into the wind depths. Crossing a river at night on a crude raft, wearing armor, with an enemy waiting on the other side–if that was gallantry, he would take cowardice every time. Song of Ice and Fire, 765.
My favorite part of the books is the way Martin writes the female characters. All the female characters are dealing with the fact that women have very little power or say in their society and they all use Shakespearean means or methods to get what they want.
🦁 Circe- Tamara and Lady Macbeth
Just as her son Joffrey has the arrogance and sadistic cruelty of a Roman emperor, Circe is a mirror image of the cruel empress Tamara, Queen Of Goths in Titus Andronicus. Both women are attracted to power and motivated by revenge. Tamara wants revenge against General Titus, who executed her son in the war. After seducing and marrying the emperor, she uses her influence to execute two of Titus’ sons. She then uses her lover Aaron the Moor (with Whom she secretly has a child), to concoct a plot to rape and mutilate Titus’ daughter. And if that weren’t enough, she tries to drive him mad by appearing at his home dressed as the Roman goddess Revenge. In short, Tamara is a classic femme fatale, who raises above the social oppression of her sex by seducing powerful men, and stabbing them in the back.
Circe is also a femme fatale, though Martin gives her more time to explain her motivations than Shakespeare gives Tamara. Like the Queen Of Goths, Circe marries King Robert Baratheon, while secretly having a taboo affair, this time with her brother Jamie. The difference is that Circe kills not strictly for vengeance, but mainly to conceal the fact that her son Joffrey is actually the product of her incest in order to protect him and eventually make him king. This is why Circe kills Ned Stark, Jon Aron, and consents to the murder of all or Robert Baratheon’s true born sons.
Circe does desire revenge, but not against anyone in particular. Instead, she wants to repay the patriarchy that keeps her down simply because she is a woman. Quote about Circe when she talks about how jealous she is of Jamie. In that chapter we get a great sense of who Circe really is. Because she’s a twin, she compares herself to her brother, observing how Jamie was given on her glory and respect when he became a knight and a member of the King’s Guard, while she was sold off to king Robert at the age of twelve like a slave or a common whore. Why, Circe asks, if she looks so much like him and acts so much like him, is she treated so differently just because she’s a woman? In a perverse sort of way, her incest might be a misguided attempt to claim part of Jamie’s honor and power through sexual conquest. Both Tamara and Circe show how an oppressive patriarchy can plant truly destructive thorns in the hearts of women, and these two queens reap that bitter harvest by cutting down the men in power one by one.
like camera Circe is driven by her love for her children and her desire and her pride and desire for vengeance. She spends the first half of the place seducing the emperor to gain his favor and then when she is made empress she uses her power to systematically destroy Titus and his family. Similarly, Circe marries king Robert and then when he dies she makes her son she then kills Ned Stark guy in prisons his daughter tries to kill the second of and
Hermione From The Winters Tale ❄️ 🐺
◦ Kindness and mercy are her weapons as well as her will and devotion to her friends and family. Even Tyrion is impressed by her integrity.
🐺 Aria- Imogen from Cymbeline
◦ If it’s a mans world, pretend you are one! She learns to use a sword ⚔️ and uses her small size and gender to sneak away from her enemies.
🐉 Daenerys Targaryen- Cleopatra!
◦ Crafty and beautiful
◦ Uses her sexuality to gain a powerful man’s protection
◦ Her dragons 🐉 make her a goddess, elevating her beyond a woman and even a queen. In a society that opposed and ignored women, female monarchs needed to practically deify themselves in order to get the same respect as their male counterparts.
Just as the real Cleopatra claimed to be a descendant of the goddess Isis and Elizabeth I was part of the cult of the virgin queen, The Mother Of Dragons has a mythic power that commands fear and adoration.
In the final chapter of book one, Daenerys tries to simultaneously say goodbye to her warrior husband Khal Drogo, and to get her few remaining soldiers to swear loyalty to her. She dresses him, she braids his hair, she puts him atop a pyre, and waits for a star to pass overhead to give his funeral a cosmic significance:
“This is a wedding too.”
The pyre shifted and the logs exploded as the fire touched their secret hearts. She could hear the screams of frighten horses and the voices of the Dothraki. “No,” she wanted to shout to him, “No my good knight, do not fear for me. The fire is mine. I am Daenerys Stormborn, daughter of dragons, bride of Dragons, Mother Of Dragons.”
This mirrors how, once Cleopatra loses Antony and knows that the Romans are coming to capture her, she says goodbye to Antony, and asserts herself as queen.
Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have Immortal longings in me: now no more The juice of Egypt’s grape shall moist this lip: Yare, yare, good Iras; quick. Methinks I hear Antony call; I see him rouse himself To praise my noble act; I hear him mock The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men To excuse their after wrath: husband, I come: Now to that name my courage prove my title! I am fire and air; my other elements I give to baser life.
Have I the aspic in my lips? Dost fall? If thou and nature can so gently part, The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch, Which hurts, and is desired. Dost thou lie still? If thus thou vanishest, thou tell’st the world It is not worth leave-taking. Antony and Cleopatra, Act V, Scene ii.
Dany does the same thing. She lights the pyre to help her husband ascend to the heavens, taking his place among the stars. Then, she sits on top of the pyre along with her three dragon eggs. Miraculously, she survives the fire and the dragons hatch, thus establishing her as the true heir of House Targarean and the Mother Of Dragons.
After witnessing the queen embracing her serpentine children, the blood riders that swore oaths to defend her husband swear again to defend her, promising to help her win the Iron Throne. Her power to command loyalty can win her the throne, and unlike Robert, keep it!
There are enough comparisons between Shakespeare and GOt that one playwright even adapted Shakespeare to resemble a Game Of Thrones story. Below is a poster of
Play Of Thrones, an adaption Of The Henry VI plays that, as I’ve mentioned, are full of characters and scenes similar to Game Of Thrones:
This past month, there was a free production of Richard III in New York’s Shakespeare In the Park, starring Danai Gurira as the title character. I have not seen this production, though I wish I had. I enjoyed the actress Ms. Gurrira in such films as “Black Panther,” and would love to see her do Shakespeare. What is more, the concept intrigues me. This project explores themes of toxic masculinity, racial identity, inferiority, and misogyny.
Unsurprisingly, with so many heady topics in the production, this Richard III is still somewhat controversial. Some right-wing critics dismissed the whole production as a piece of ‘woke propaganda,’ but I feel this is unfair.
When Danai Gurira of Marvel’s “Black Panther” first takes the stage in the title role, the actress has no perceivable hunchback or arm trouble. And yet the dialogue suggesting Richard suffers from a lifelong physical issue (“rudely stamped”) has been kept in. Perhaps we are to use our imaginations. Who knows? We are certainly tempted to close our eyes.
I will not judge this production based on the acting because I haven’t been able to see it. What I will do is take a stance on the validity of the concept. Specifically, I want to ask if this play is a good examination of toxic masculinity and if it would it be worthwhile to see it portrayed by a black woman, as opposed to a white man. The short answer is an emphatical “Yes.”
Richard III is definately an example of toxic masculinity. He is violent, full of hatred, vengeance, and mysogeny. He is constantly insulting women from Lady Anne, Jane Shore, Queen Elizabeth, and even his own mother. In fact, the source of Richard’s toxic attitude is that he blames his mother for his disability and deformity:
Well, say there is no kingdom then for Richard;1635 What other pleasure can the world afford? I'll make my heaven in a lady's lap, And deck my body in gay ornaments, And witch sweet ladies with my words and looks. O miserable thought! and more unlikely1640 Than to accomplish twenty golden crowns! Why, love forswore me in my mother's womb: And, for I should not deal in her soft laws, She did corrupt frail nature with some bribe, To shrink mine arm up like a wither'd shrub;1645 To make an envious mountain on my back, Where sits deformity to mock my body; To shape my legs of an unequal size; To disproportion me in every part, Like to a chaos, or an unlick'd bear-whelp1650 That carries no impression like the dam. And am I then a man to be beloved? O monstrous fault, to harbour such a thought!. 3H6, Act III, Scene i, lines 1635-1653.
Now I should clarify the difference between deformity and disability, which are characteristics that Richard III has as part of his character makeup. According to the Americans With Disabilities Act, a disability is defined as: “A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” This could include paralysis, autism, or any number of congenital or acquired conditions. Richard’s disability is primarily his limp (caused by his unequally shaped limbs), and his withered arm. What’s interesting in this production is that while the title role is played by an able-bodied woman, most of the rest of the cast have actual disabilites. Watch this clip of the famous courtship scene between Richard and Lady Anne, who plays her role in a wheel-chair.
While a disability is a legal term that is recognized by lawyers and governments alike, the term “deformity” is more subjective; it generally refers to any kind of cosmetic imperfection. In Richard III, this applies to Richard’s hump and withered arm.
The Elizabethans thought that deformity was a sign of disfavor from God, and that deformed people were constantly at odds with God and nature, as Francis Bacon puts it in his essay, “On Deformity.”
As deformed people are physically impaired by nature; they, in turn, devoid themselves of ‘natural affection’ by being unmerciful and lacking emotions for others. By doing so, they get their revenge on nature and hence achieve stability.
Richard III has this drive for revenge in spades and I believe it manifests itself as a particularly terrible form of toxic masculinity. Richard definitely wants the crown to make up for his lack of ‘natural affection,’ but he is also especially malevolent towards women.
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days
Seeing a woman play this kind of misogynist dialogue forces the audience to take it out of context and question Richard’s point of view. We see casual misogyny every day, and seeing a woman deliver it is quite illuminating.
Richard’s deformity and Blackness
Another provocative choice by Danai Gurira’s portrayal of Richard is the fact that she plays the role of Richard without the hump or withered arm. She herself explains that for her production, Richard’s perceived deformity, is actually represented by her being a black woman:
He’s dealing with the otherness compared to his family, in terms of not being Caucasian and fair like them.” The word ‘fair’, is used a lot in the play.
Shakespeare writes Richard as constantly striving to compensate for his deformities by being clever, violent, and eventually, by becoming king. As I wrote before in my review of Othello, for centuries black people have been portrayed as inferior; aberrations of the ‘ideal fair-skinned form’. So, to the Elizabethans, blackness itself was a form of deformity, and the rawness of addressing this uncomfortable fact in this production should be commended.
English people are already trained—and we have scholars like Anthony Barthelemy has talked about this in his book Black Face, Maligned Race, where the image of blackness, as associated with sin, with the devil, all of these things, makes it quite easy to map onto then Black people these kinds of characteristics. Then, those kinds of characteristics allow for the argument that these people are fit to be enslaved. – Dr. Ambereen Dadabhoy, Race and Blackness in Elizabethan England Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 168
So while I can’t speak to the production’s acting or staging, I will emphatically defend the notion that this production’s concept is valid. Richard III is an example of toxic masculinity through his self-hatred, violence, misogyny, and narcissism. In addition, as I’ve written before, in the Early Modern Period, blackness was considered an aberration or deformity, and seeing it in the person of Richard, with the implicit understanding that black people still face this kind of prejudice today, opens a much-needed dialogue that any production of Shakespeare shouldn’t be afraid to open.
In short, by re-contextualizing Richard’s deformity and disabilities, this production gets to the heart of the play’s moral for our times. The early modern period’s toxic attitudes towards deformity and disability created the Renaissance monster of Richard III. We in the 21st century must examine our own societal prejudices and toxic attitudes so this monster does not come to haunt us in real life.
Ages: Adult/ Teen. There’s some PG-13 language, and the subject matter touches on racism and anti-Semitism, so it shouldn’t be read by really young kids.
Premise: Like the Midsummer Night’s Dream edition I already reviewed, this is the full play with Manga inspired illustrations. However, unlike Midsummer, this book is more conceptual. It reinterprets all the characters as either fairies, aliens, mermaids or merman, or some other fantasy characters. It is literally a fairy tale, which I find a fascinating concept for a number of reasons. That said, like any interpretation of Merchant, this choice is somewhat controversial for reasons I will get into below.
“A friend of mine said she got married in Venice and described it as like being in an RPG.”
Faye Yong, Illustrator for “The Manga Shakespeare: Merchant Of Venice.”
What Does Role-Playing Game (RPG) Mean? A role-playing game (RPG) is a genre of video game where the gamer controls a fictional character (or characters) that undertakes a quest in an imaginary world.
Defining RPGs is very challenging due to the range of hybrid genres that have RPG elements.
Traditional role-playing video games shared five basic elements:
The ability to improve your character over the course of the game by increasing his statistics or levels.
A menu-based combat system with several choices of skills, spells, and active powers as well as an active inventory system with wearable equipment such as armors and weapons.
A central quest that runs throughout the game as a storyline and additional (and usually optional) side quests.
The ability to interact with elements of the environment or storyline through additional abilities (e.g. lockpicking, disarming traps, communication skills, etc.)
The existence of certain character classes that define the characteristics, skills, abilities, and spells of a character (e.g. wizard, thief, warrior, etc.)
My reaction: I honestly don’t know what to think about the way the comic depicts races. In the interview above, illustrator Faye Yong explains how she chose a fantasy aesthetic for the graphic novel.
She read the script and represented the characters like the Prince of Aaragon, the Prince of Morocco, and re-interpreted them as fantasy characters. A good example is the Prince of Aragon. As you can see in this scene from the 2004 movie, Shakespeare portrays Aaragon as a vain, shallow person. Incidently, Aaragon is a province of Spain, over which the English just won a major naval victory, so Shakespeare makes this character a mockable popinjay since the Spanish were still the mortal enemies of the English:
Fay Yong wanted to heighten Aaragon’s vanity, so she made him a beautiful creature with long, flowing hair.
This is telling: Yong immersed herself with Shakespeare’s text, but she didn’t really delve into the real world context. She wasn’t interested in the real cultures of Aaragon, Morrocco, or even Venice, but to take Shakespeare’s impression of these cultures, and use Japanese style animation to tell Shakespeare’s story. For most of the play, this approach works quite well. After all, Shakespeare depicts Portia and her home in Belmont as an almost ethereal place, where men come from far and wide to see this magical kingdom, and Portias father gets a prophetic vision on his death bed that makes him alter his will so that only someone who can decipher his riddle will get to marry Portia and inherit her estate. Like I said, the scenes in Belmont work very well as a Manga comic, particularly Bassanio’s Zelda-style fetch quest where he has to choose the right casket to marry Portia. I hope someone someday turns this idea into a real game.
However, the scenes in Venice don’t work as well because Shakespeare wrote them with a clear understanding of the real Venice, and the tensions between the Jewish and Christian communities. Details like Antonio’s anti-Semitism, Shylock’s fury at his daughter marrying a Christian, and Portia’s own racism and anti-Semitism is frankly erased when you view it out of the context of the real Venice.
Another example of questionable racial re-interpretation is theThe Prince of Morrocco, who like Aaragon, is a suitor to Portia who likewise fails to choose the proper casket and win Portia.
In Yong’s version, Morocco has green, rather than brown skin now, (sort of like Piccolo from Dragon Ball Z), which is problematic because we associate green with sickliness and that makes this speech of Morocco’s even more problematic:
Mislike me not for my complexion, The shadow'd livery of the burnish'd sun, To whom I am a neighbour and near bred. Bring me the fairest creature northward born, Where Phoebus' fire scarce thaws the icicles, And let us make incision for your love, To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine
Not surprisingly, the most controversial illustration choices center around Shylock the Jewish moneylender. As I’ve written before, Shylock has always been a controversial figure, and this comic interprets him in a way I find simultaneously simplistic and highly thought-provoking.
Faye Yong has stated that she wanted to make Shylock look the same as the Christian characters, but that his garb would reflect a sort of “dark elf” aesthetic. She describes him as the sort of fantasy character that worships the moon, rather than the sun. On the one hand, I applaud her for not giving into the old Jewish stereotypes like red hair, hook noses, etc. I also have to admit that Shylock is sort of a dark vengeful figure (he is after all, the villain), so making him a dark elf works on the surface.
On the other hand, again, without the context of anti-Semetism, and the complex relationship between Jews and Christians in the 16th century, much of the Shakespearean text is devoid of meaning. Perhaps this is an attempt to make the play more easily accessible to young readers like teenagers, and I applaud that, but as I wrote in my post about why everyone should read or teach this play, learning about the historical context of real Jews is this play’s great gift, and that is lost in this version.
On the other hand, depicting Shylock like some kind of dark elf or warlock actually brings to life a very real aspect of anti-Semetic prejudice that many people overlook today: for most of western history, many of our stereotypes of Jews were interlinked with our stereotypes about witches!
Jewish Stereotypes and the Occult
So, ironically, much the same way Ian McKellen’s Richard III helped modernize the complex medieval politics of the 15th century, seeing Shylock as a semi-mystical, possibly occult figure, actually brings to light some of the prejudices that real Jews in the 16th century faced!
In conclusion, Merchant Of Venice is extremely hard to adapt in a comic book context, and some aspects are a little lost in translation. That said, it is gorgeous to look at, and it has a great visual shorthand that enlivens Shakespeare’s text in a unique and appealing way.
Recommendation: I’d recommend this book to all mature fans of Shakespeare, anime, Manga, D&D, or any kind of nerd stuff!
Ages: Pre Teen- Adult. No violence or explicit imagery, but the visual format might be confusing for younger viewers.
Sometimes the over-the top nature of manga drawings works well with this play. When Helena is mooning over Demetrius, we can see highlights in her eyes that work very well within the big-eyed, expressive style of Manga. By contrast, some other characters like Oberon are drawn very sharply, making him appear stern and even grim.
Another thing the style of pictures does is to literally illustrate the poetic passages of the For example, when Titania delivers her “These are the forgeries of jealousy,” speech, the images of the text compliment
Recommendation: This book is a good resource for classrooms exploring the text of
Happy Pride Month everyone! This month I’m going to concentrate on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” more info on Shakespeare’s comedies, and a few little nerdy analyses, but first I wanted to extend a friendly hand to members of the LGBTQ+ community, whom arguably Shakespeare has celebrated in some of his writing, especially in Midsummer and the other comedies.
The quote on the featured photo comes from “Twelfth Night.” The character Antonio repeatedly mentions how much he loves Sebastian (Viola’s twin brother). He shows a great amount of courage and devotion. Sadly, Sebastian doesn’t reciprocate his feelings, but he is grateful to Antonio, and tries to help him when he gets in trouble.
If you’re interested in queer readings and queer coding in Shakespeare, enjoy this video analysis from Kyle Kalgren and Rantasmo- a scholar who delves into queer representation in popular media:
Let me know if you’d like me to cover more of this topic. I admittedly, haven’t read many Queer Theory papers on Shakespeare, but it’s a fascinating and wide-ranging topic. It also helps develop the case that, as Rantasmo puts it: “If we truly believe (and I do) that Shakespeare is a universal writer, then his plays should be able to speak to all races, cultures, and all forms of love.”
Ages: Adult/ Teen. There’s some PG-13 language and a lot of fighting and gore, so it’s not really for kids
Premise: William Shakespeare is more than just a simple playwright- he has a magic quill that brings his characters to life. Some of the characters worship him like a god or like a father. Unfortunately, others (namely, the villain characters), are unhappy with their stories and want revenge, causing a civil war led by Richard III, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and Iago (who is once again, betraying Othello). Our heroes include Juliet, Othello, Falstaff, Hamlet, and Captain Cesario (who is actually Viola from Twelfth Night in disguise). Can the heroes defeat the villains? Can Shakespeare save his precious creations from destroying each other before it’s too late?
My reaction: In essence, this graphic novel is like Season 4 of one of my favorite TV shows, Once Upon A Time. The premise is that an ordinary writer is given the power to create living characters, some good and some evil. In fact, in Once Upon A Time Lore, Shakespeare WAS one of the Authors in the OUAT universe
The main difference between Once Upon A Time and Kill Shakespeare is that the action is far more violent, and the characters have one main quality- ANGST. As I said, the villains are not happy with Shakespeare, which makes perfect sense. Macbeth famously called his life a “Tale told by an idiot,” and Richard III loves to blame his problems on either God, or his mother, since one or both of them cursed him with deformity and love of wickedness. It makes complete sense that these characters would rage against their creators. The heroes (especially the tragic ones) are also struggling with their sad pasts and trying to reconcile their feelings for Shakespeare. Is he their god? Is he their father? If so, is he a good one or a bad one?
What I like the most about this graphic novel is that the characters are consistent with how the real Shakespeare wrote him, yet they make different choices in the graphic novel. They also grow and play off each other in many interesting ways. Here are some examples:
Juliet in this version is much more of a fighter than a lover. She is a general of all the heroic Shakespearean characters and uses her hope and her wits to rally the troops. That said, she still misses Romeo, who died from the poison just like in Shakespeare’s version, and still has love in her heart. I won’t give anything away but, let’s just say that this time she climbs someone else’s balcony.
Falstaff This might be my favorite change in this version. Falstaff is still witty and gluttonous, but in this version, he’s on a bit of a redemption arc. He commits himself to fight with the rebels and even has faith in Shakespeare and the people around him. Plus, just like his moments with Prince Hal, Falstaff forms a father-son bond with Hamlet in this version, which is really fun to watch. It’s like they took everything bad about Falstaff and metaphorically ‘trimmed the fat.’
Hamlet (AKA The Shadow King in this version), is still brooding over the loss of his father, his murder of Polonius, and his loss of Ophelia. He has once again been thrust into a quest that he’s not sure he can complete- fighting King Richard, finding Shakespeare, and convincing him to help the heroes. That said, he is still capable of warmth, humor, and even romance (no spoilers).
MAJOR SPOILER ALERT
In Volume 2, Shakespeare is a jaded mentor figure who has retreated to an enchanted forest after failing to protect his creations. His arc is very similar to Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi, in that he made a major mistake, failed to live up to the impossibly high standards people had for him, and hides away at the bottom of a bottle. He now has to choose whether to take responsibility for his creations or stay hidden away alone. I love this arc, I love the scene where he talks to Hamlet, and I love the way they develop his character.
It’s a small point, but with the exception of Falstaff and Viola, the comic characters in Shakespeare (at least in Volume 2), don’t have much to do. Feste and Sir Toby Belch appear as traveling players but they barely interact with the tragic leads. I think this was to keep the tone of the novel consistent, but honestly, I do kind of wish they had broken up some of the tragedy with some more comedy.
Recommendation: I’d recommend this book to all mature fans of Shakespeare, anime, Manga, D&D, or any kind of nerd stuff!