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:
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, authoritarians 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 root 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 the patricians talk about them. This could be interpreted 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
I’ve seen four live productions of Romeo and Juliet, (5 if you include West Side Story). I’ve also watched four films (6 if you include West Side Story and Gnomio and Juliet) and one thing that I’ve noticed again and again, and again is that you can tell the whole story of the play with clothing. This is a story about families who are part of opposite factions whose children secretly meet, marry, die, and fuse the families into one, and their clothes can show each step of that journey.
The feud Nearly every story about a conflict or war uses contrasting colors to show the different factions. Sometimes even real wars become famous for the clothes of the opposing armies. The Revolutionary War between the redcoats and the blue and gold Continentals, the American Civil War between the Rebel Grays and the Yankee Bluebellies. In almost every production I’ve ever seen, the feud in Romeo and Juliet is also demonstrated by the opposing factions wearing distinctive clothing.
Historically, warring factions in Itally during the period the original Romeo and Juliet is set, wore distinctive clothes and banners as well. . In this medieval drawing, you can see Italians in the Ghibelline faction, who were loyal to the Holy Roman Empire, fighting the Guelph faction (red cross), who supported the Pope. Powerful families were constantly fighting and taking sides in the Guelf vs. ghibelines conflict in Verona, which might have inspired the Capulet Montegue feud in Romeo and Juliet.
Even the servants of the nobles got roped into these conflicts, and they literally wore their loyalties on their sleeves. The servants wore a kind of uniform or livery to show what household they belonged to. The servants Gregory and Sampson owe their jobs to Lord Capulet, and are willing to fight to protect his honor. Perhaps Shakespeare started the play with these servants to make this distinction very obvious. Here’s a short overview on Italian Liveries from the Metropolitan Museum of Art:
In 1966, director Franco Zepherelli set a trend with his iconic use of color in his movie. He chose to make the Capulets wear warm tones while the Montegues wore blue and silver. Juliet (Olivia Hussey) wore a gorgeous red dress that made her look youthful, passionate, and lovely, while Tybalt (Michael York), wore red, orange, and black to emphasize his anger, and jealousy (which has been associated for centuries with the color orange). By contrast, the Montagues like Romeo (Leonard Whiting) wore blue, making him look peaceful and cool. These color choices not only clearly indicate who belongs to which contrasting factions, but also help telegraph the character’s personalities. Look at the way these costumes make the two lovers stand out even when they’re surrounded by people at the Capulet ball:
Zepherilli’s color choices were most blatantly exploited in the kids film Gnomio and Juliet, where they did away with the names Capulet and Montegue altogether, and just called the two groups of gnomes the Reds and the Blues.
To get Romeo and Juliet to meet and fall in love, Shakespeare gives them a dance scene for them to meet and fall in love. He further makes it clear that when they first meet, Romeo is in disguise. The original source Shakespeare used made the dance a carnival ball, (which even today is celebrated in Italy with masks). Most productions today have Romeo wearing a mask or some other costume so that he is not easily recognizable as a Montague. Masks are a big part of Italian culture, especially in Venice during Carnival:
In the 1996 movie, Baz Luhrman creates a bacchanal costume party, where nobody wears masks but the costumes help telegraph important character points. Mercutio is dressed in drag, which not only displays his vibrant personality but also conveniently distracts everyone from the fact that Romeo is at the Capulet party with no mask on.
Capulet is dressed like a Roman emperor, which emphasizes his role as the patriarch of the Capulet family. Juliet (Claire Danes) is dressed as an angel, to emphasize the celestial imagery Shakespeare uses to describe her. Finally, Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) is dressed as a crusader knight because of the dialogue in the play when he first meets Juliet:
Romeo. [To JULIET] If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:720
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Juliet. Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,725
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.
Romeo. Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Juliet. Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
Romeo. O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.730
Juliet. Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.
Romeo. Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take.
Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged.
Juliet. Then have my lips the sin that they have took.
Romeo. Sin from thy lips? O trespass sweetly urged!735
Give me my sin again.
Juliet. You kiss by the book. Romeo and Juliet, Act I, Scene V, Lines 719-737.
Notice that Romeo calls Juliet a saint, and later an angel in the famous balcony scene, which explains her costume at the ball. Juliet refers to Romoe as a Pilgrim, which is a cheeky comment on his crusader knight costume. In the Crusades, crusader knights made pilgrimages to the holy land, with the hope that God (and presumably, his angels) would forgive their sins. Romeo’s name even means “Pilgrim.” Luhrman makes clever nods to Shakespeare’s text by dressing Romeo and Juliet in this way, and gives the dialogue a bit of a playful roleplay as the characters make jokes about each other’s costumes- Romeo hopes that he will go on a pilgrimage and that this angel will take his sin with a kiss.
In Gnomio and Juliet, the titular characters meet in a different kind of disguise. Rather than going to a dance with their family, they are both simultaneously trying to sneak into a garden and steal a flower, so they are both wearing black, ninja-inspired outfits. Their black clothing helps them meet and interact without fear of retribution from their parents (since they do not yet know that they are supposed to be enemies. The ninja clothes also establishes that for these two gnomes, love of adventure unites them. Alas though, it doesn’t last; Juliet finds out that Gnomio is a Blue, when they both accidentally fall in a pool, stripping their warpaint off and revealing who they are.
Sometimes the dance shows a fundamental difference between the lovers and the feuding factions. West Side Story is a 20th-century musical that re-imagines the feuding families as juvenile street gangs, who like their Veronese counterparts, wear contrasting colors. The Jets (who represent the Montagues) wear Blue and yellow, while the Sharks (Capulets), wear red and black. The gang members continue wearing these colors on the night of the high school dance, except for Tony and Maria (the Romeo and Juliet analogs). In most productions I’ve seen, (including the 2021 movie), these young lovers wear white throughout the majority of the play, to emphasize the purity of their feelings, and their rejection of violence. Thus, unlike Shakespeare’s version of the story, West Side Story makes the lovers unquestionably purer are more peaceful than Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and their clothing makes this clear.
The Merging of the family (8:30-11:00)
Costume Designer Charlene in the 2006 AU production deliberately had the characters change clothes when they get married. Juliet was wearing the same iconic red dress as Olivia Hussey for the first two acts of the play but then changed into a pale blue gown that matches Romeo. The clothes re-enforce the idea that the marriage represents Romeo and Juliet abandoning their family’s conflicts, and simply showing their true colors.
Another way of getting everyone in the family to subconsciously unite in grief would be to costume everyone wearing black except Romeo and Juliet. At the end of the play, The Capulets are already mourning Juliet, (because she faked her death in Act IV), and the Montegues are already mourning Lady Montegue (who died offstage). Just by these circumstances, everyone could come onstage wearing black, uniting in their grief, which is further solidified when they see their children dead onstage.
Not all productions choose to costume the characters like warring factions, but nevertheless, any theatrical production’s costumes must telegraph something about the characters. In these production slides for a production I worked on in 2012, the costumes reflect the distinct personality of each character and show a class difference between the Montagues and the Capulets.
The 2013 Film: Costumes Done Badly
The 2013 movie is more concerned with showing off the beauty of the actor’s faces, and the literal jewels than the clothes:
Most of the actors and costumes are literally in the dark for most of the film, probably because the film was financed by the Swarofski Crystal company, who literally wanted the film to sparkle. Ultimately, like most jewelry, I thought the film was pretty to look at, but the costumes and cinematography had little utilitarian value. The costumes and visual didn’t tell the story efficiently, but mainly was designed to distract the audience with the beauty of the sets, costumes and the attractive young actors. The only thing I liked was a subtle choice to make Juliet’s mask reminiscent of Medusa, the monster in Greek Myth, who could turn people to stone with a look. I liked that the film was subtly implying that love, at first sight, can be lethal.
If you’re like me, you are probably saddened by the loss of the great American actor, Sidney Poitier. He was part of the original cast of the great American play A Raisin In the Sun, and earned countless accolades for his roles on stage and screen like In the Heat Of the Night, Porgey and Bess, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? and The Greatest Story Ever Told.
In this interview, Poitier’s friend Denzel Washington talks about how Poitier was a beacon, not just for black actors but a gold standard for all actors.
Washington also discusses his role in the film Macbeth, in which he plays the title role. As I mentioned in my Much Ado About Nothing review, Denzel is a consummate performer of Shakespeare and I for one can’t wait to see him as Macbeth. This is nor just because he was an absolute joy in Much Ado, but because Denzel is famous for playing characters that start out as good men become violent and evil in films like Training Day, American Gangster, and Flight. I have high hopes that Denzel’s Macbeth will rank among his greatest performances.
Macbeth is now playing at selected theaters and streaming online on Apple+. I plan to see it and hope that you will too.
Just in time for October, I’m offering an online class for kids ages 13-18 about Shakespeare’s most spooky and cursed play:
If you follow this blog you know I’ve written a lot about this play before. Though this class will be more like a game where I teach the class using multimedia, games, and a digital escape room!
I’ll start by speaking to the students in character as Shakespeare, and tell them the story of Macbeth using a multimedia presentation.
I will then test the students’ knowledge with a fun quiz that was inspired by the popular mobile game Among Us. As you know, the game is similar to a scene from the play, so I thought it would be an appropriate way to test the kids’ knowledge.
The final part of the class is a digital escape room I’ve created. I don’t want to give too much away, and you can’t play it unless you sign up for the class, but let’s just say it’s fun, spooky, educational, and challenging!
If you want to sign up now, the course is available every weekend in October, and then by request after that. Register now at Outschool.com. if you take the course, please leave me a good review.
I’m teaching a series of online summer classes and I am very excited about this one in particular. I will teach a short class for kids ages 10-18, about duelling and swords. I will then explain basic stage combat moves, and finally choreograph a short fight for the students to do at home!
Registration starts now! Space is limited so go to Outschool.com, ASAP. Cost is $5 per child.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day! The Emerald Isle has long been a source of illumination for poet’s pens and Shakespeare was no exception. The Bard of Avon is indebted to Mother Ireland not only for the inspiration he took, but sadly for the pain he gave her back.
None of Shakespeare’s plays are set in Ireland, but he freely adapted elements from Irish folklore. English poet Edmund Spencer visited Ireland in the 1590s and adapted the folklore he picked up into his opera The Fairy Queen, which Shakespeare adapted into A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The Irish created and continue to tell many of the fairy legends and stories that we retell and adapt today. If you go to Lullymore park in Ireland, you can see a place that is essentially a “Fairy preserve.”
The old stories tell that Fairies are magical creatures who live in hollow places in the earth. Some are benevolent and help give rain and pleasant weather to the Earth, Like the king and Queen of the fairies, Oberon and Titania:
And the mazed world, By their [the tides] increase, now knows not which is which: And this same progeny of evils comes From our debate, from our dissension; We are their parents and original.
— Titania, (Queen of the Faries), A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act II, Scene i.
Titania in this speech shows great concern for nature, humanity, and the planet. She believes it is the responsibility of fairies, particularly herself and her husband Oberon, to control the elements and keep humans and fairies safe. Some fairies, however, are cruel and enjoy playing tricks on mortals, just like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Queen Mab in Romeo and Juliet.
This is a short analysis I created of the tricks Puck plays on people in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as part of my acting course on Ouschool.com. Note the different ways Puck is portrayed in photos as a satyr, a rotund elf, and sometimes as an almost- demon like figure.
Cringe-worthy Shakespeare: Shakespeare’s only Irish character, captain mcmorris in “Henry V”
When Shakespeare is racially insensitive towards people of color, the cringe-worthy writing is mercifully few and far between. With the exception of Aaron the Moor and Don Armada, there are only a few sporadic derogatory references to non-White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Sadly though, Shakespeare might have permanently harmed the Irish through his character the Irish captain Macmorris in Henry the Fifth, his only Irish character.
According to The Irish Times, there is a longstanding stereotype that still exists in the British Isles that Irish people are violent, short-tempered, and essentially savages and Shakespeare might have invented this stereotype (or at least popularized it) when he wrote this scene from Henry the Fifth, Act III, Scene ii:
FLUELLEN To the mines! tell you the duke, it is not so good to come to the mines; for, look you, the mines is not according to the disciplines of the war: the concavities of it is not sufficient; for, look you, the athversary, you may discuss unto the duke, look you, is digt himself four yard under the countermines: by Cheshu, I think a' will plough up all, if there is not better directions. GOWER The Duke of Gloucester, to whom the order of the siege is given, is altogether directed by an Irishman, a very valiant gentleman, i' faith. FLUELLEN It is Captain Macmorris, is it not? GOWER I think it be. FLUELLEN By Cheshu, he is an ass, as in the world: I will verify as much in his beard: be has no more directions in the true disciplines of the wars, look you, of the Roman disciplines, than is a puppy-dog. Enter MACMORRIS and Captain JAMY GOWER Here a' comes; and the Scots captain, Captain Jamy, with him. FLUELLEN Captain Jamy is a marvellous falourous gentleman, that is certain; and of great expedition and knowledge in th' aunchient wars, upon my particular knowledge of his directions: by Cheshu, he will maintain his argument as well as any military man in the world, in the disciplines of the pristine wars of the Romans. JAMY I say gud-day, Captain Fluellen. FLUELLEN God-den to your worship, good Captain James. GOWER How now, Captain Macmorris! have you quit the mines? have the pioneers given o'er? MACMORRIS By Chrish, la! tish ill done: the work ish give over, the trompet sound the retreat. By my hand, I swear, and my father's soul, the work ish ill done; it ish give over: I would have blowed up the town, so Chrish save me, la! in an hour: O, tish ill done, tish ill done; by my hand, tish ill done! FLUELLEN Captain Macmorris, I beseech you now, will you voutsafe me, look you, a few disputations with you, as partly touching or concerning the disciplines of the war, the Roman wars, in the way of argument, look you, and friendly communication; partly to satisfy my opinion, and partly for the satisfaction, look you, of my mind, as touching the direction of the military discipline; that is the point. JAMY It sall be vary gud, gud feith, gud captains bath: and I sall quit you with gud leve, as I may pick occasion; that sall I, marry. MACMORRIS It is no time to discourse, so Chrish save me: the day is hot, and the weather, and the wars, and the king, and the dukes: it is no time to discourse. The town is beseeched, and the trumpet call us to the breach; and we talk, and, be Chrish, do nothing: 'tis shame for us all: so God sa' me, 'tis shame to stand still; it is shame, by my hand: and there is throats to be cut, and works to be done; and there ish nothing done, so Chrish sa' me, la! JAMY By the mess, ere theise eyes of mine take themselves to slomber, ay'll de gud service, or ay'll lig i' the grund for it; ay, or go to death; and ay'll pay 't as valourously as I may, that sall I suerly do, that is the breff and the long. Marry, I wad full fain hear some question 'tween you tway. FLUELLEN Captain Macmorris, I think, look you, under your correction, there is not many of your nation-- MACMORRIS Of my nation! What ish my nation? Ish a villain, and a bastard, and a knave, and a rascal. What ish my nation? Who talks of my nation? FLUELLEN Look you, if you take the matter otherwise than is meant, Captain Macmorris, peradventure I shall think you do not use me with that affability as in discretion you ought to use me, look you: being as good a man as yourself, both in the disciplines of war, and in the derivation of my birth, and in other particularities. MACMORRIS I do not know you so good a man as myself: so Chrish save me, I will cut off your head. GOWER Gentlemen both, you will mistake each other. JAMY A! that's a foul fault. A parley sounded GOWER The town sounds a parley. FLUELLEN Captain Macmorris, when there is more better opportunity to be required, look you, I will be so bold as to tell you I know the disciplines of war; and there is an end. Exeunt
Irish History and Shakespeare: The tempestous relationship between england and Ireland
The mayor and all his brethren in best sort, Like to the senators of the antique Rome, With the plebeians swarming at their heels, Go forth and fetch their conquering Caesar in: As, by a lower but loving likelihood, Were now the general of our gracious empress, As in good time he may, from Ireland coming, Bringing rebellion broached on his sword,
Henry V, Act V Chorus
James Shapiro in his excellent book, A Year In The Life Of William Shakespeare, 1599, posits that contemporary affairs in Ireland might have inspired some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays in including Richard II, Henry V, and Julius Caesar. In 1594 the Earl of Tyrone began a rebellion in Ireland against the English, and in 1599, Queen Elizabeth dispatched the ambitious and chivalrous Earl of Essex to quell it. As you can see in the quote above, Shakespeare mentions Essex’s fight in his play of Henry V, which probably premiered at around the same time Essex was in Ireland.
The audience may have been watching Henry conquer France, but many would have been thinking about Elizabeth’s struggle to conquer Ireland.
BBC Radio 4 Extra – Shakespeare’s Restless World, Ireland: Failures in the Present – Transcript – Shakespeare’s Restless World – Programme 7
Though King Henry successfully conquered and united England and France, Essex failed spectacularly, and Elizabeth was deeply embarrassed by the whole scenario. She was also deeply alarmed by the popularity of Shakespeare’s tragedy Richard II, which shows onstage the deposing and killing of a king who had no children and failed to quell a rebellion in Ireland.
Elizabeth was worried about her subjects but she was also very worried about Essex overseas. Everyone, (including Shakespeare), remembered that 2,000 years ago, Julius Caesar went from him the Senate’s Consul General to dictator by amassing an army, then threatening to invade Rome under the pretense of helping to quell a foreign invasion. Caesar made his name by subjugating tribes in Gaul (modern-day France), and the Senate was worried that he would come home and use his army for a military coup. Look at the expressions on the faces of Cicero and Brutus when they see Caesar coming home in triumph in this scene from the HBO series Rome.
Elizabeth repeatedly attempted to curb Essex’s power while he was fighting in Ireland; she refused to give the Earl more troops for fear that he might be staging a potential coup. Her fears would later be proven right when in 1602, Essex attempted to head a rebellion and take the Crown for himself, but not before one of Essex’s friends commissioned Shakespeare’s company to portray the deposing and killing of King Richard II. Essex was trying to turn himself from a failed Henry V to a victorious Henry IV, and his queen into Richard II.
Shakespeare might have been inspired to write Julius Caesar after being an unwitting pawn in the political drama between Essex and the queen, and might have even created the character of Cinna the Poet as an analog for Shakespeare himself. In the play, Cinna the poet is mistaken for one of the conspirators by an angry mob and is murdered in the street. Perhaps Shakespeare created Cinna the Poet as a way of coping with the fear he must have had that people might mistake him for a radical, after his play Richard II briefly made him a walking target for those opposed to Essex’s rebellion. In any case, Julius Caesar eloquently documents the kind of anxiety of not knowing who could be trusted when it comes to politics, whether it be a populist warrior like Julius Caesar or Essex, or the Queen, privy council, or indeed Roman senate, and the whole thing started from a failed attempt to quell a rebellion in Ireland.
In summation, even though Shakespeare sets no plays in Ireland, Irish history and Irish culture are everywhere in his plays. England and Ireland are I are indeed separate islands but the cultural exchange between England and Ireland has inspired Shakespeare and many other great writers for centuries. After all Shakespeare’s most famous honorific, ‘the Bard of Avon’ comes from an ancient Irish tradition of semi-mystical poets, who in Irish folklore, were able to see the future and glimpse worlds that are unseen to ordinary mortals. What Shakespeare really felt about Ireland we don’t know but we do him but he does owe the Irish people a lot of thanks, and on this Saint Patrick’s day, I honor their contribution to him and to him all the world
Shapiro, James. A Year In the Life Of William Shakespeare, 1599. Chapter 6: Things Dying and Things Reborn.