For the final class of my course on Shakespeare’s Tragedies, I’m coaching two young actors on a pair of tragic speeches I’ve selected, and I thought I’d share some of that work with you. The first is a speech by Lady Macbeth that comes from Act I, Scene v, which I discussed in another post. But today, I’m going to talk about the second one, Iago’s soliloquy in Act II, Scene iii.
Iago. And what’s he then that says I play the villain? When this advice is free I give and honest, Probal to thinking and indeed the course1490 To win the Moor again? For ’tis most easy The inclining Desdemona to subdue In any honest suit: she’s framed as fruitful As the free elements. And then for her To win the Moor—were’t to renounce his baptism,1495 All seals and symbols of redeemed sin, His soul is so enfetter’d to her love, That she may make, unmake, do what she list, Even as her appetite shall play the god With his weak function. How am I then a villain1500 To counsel Cassio to this parallel course, Directly to his good? Divinity of hell! When devils will the blackest sins put on, They do suggest at first with heavenly shows, As I do now: for whiles this honest fool1505 Plies Desdemona to repair his fortunes And she for him pleads strongly to the Moor, I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear, That she repeals him for her body’s lust; And by how much she strives to do him good,1510 She shall undo her credit with the Moor. So will I turn her virtue into pitch, And out of her own goodness make the net That shall enmesh them all. Othello, Act II, Scene iii Lines 1488- 1513.
The Given Circumstances
Iago has begun his plan to humiliate Cassio and destroy Othello and Desdemona by getting Cassio drunk and sending Roderigo to fight with him. Alone in soliloquy, Iago explains how his advice to Cassio, to ask Desdemona to plead Othello on his behalf, is in reality the pin that will set off an explosion of distrust and pain for all of them:
Iago poisons Othello’s mind by deceiving him into thinking his wife is unfaithful. He also manipulates the lusts and prejudices of those around him. These actions, coupled with a number of passages where he brings up Satanic or hellish imagery, are why many productions portray Iago as if he were The Devil himself, and explain his hatred for Othello as nothing more than desire to do evil for its own sakee; what the poet Colridge called: “Motiveless malignity.”
It is true that Iago speaks and acts like The Devil through the course of the play, but that doesn’t mean he thinks like a devil. Any actor will tell you that ‘motive-less malignity,’ is impossible to play. An actor has to construct a reason for why his character behaves this way. Below are some interviews and quotes from great Iagos who explain how they justified Iago’s evil and tried their best to find the man within the monster.
Iago is an easy part to bring off and rarely fails to impress. I am not the first to realise that there is no need to act the underlying falsity of the man rather to play “honest Iago” on all occasions. “Do not smile or sneer or glower — try to impress even the audience with your sincerity”: Edwin Booth. As Iago confides the truth to the audience (as always in Shakespeare), they are privy to his deceit and the gulling of Roderigo, Cassio, Desdemona and Othello himself. It is an unfair advantage and early on Willard accused me of trying to get the audience on my side against him. I explained that I didn’t need to try — Shakespeare had organised it that the villain’s part should be the audience’s portal into the action. The history of the play records many more serious misunderstandings between the Moor and his Ancient.
Iago loves to turn holy things on their head, and he revels in it with phrases like: “Divninity of Hell,”
“Do and Undo” and the notion of turning virtue into pitch, a substance that defiles what it touches.
Puns, Assonence, and Alliteration
In this speech especially, Iago likes to play with similar-sounding words “Fool” and “Fortune,” as well as sounds within those words like “Plied/Plead” and “Pour/Moor.” Iago’s soliloquy shows off that his ability to manipulate language as well as his ability to manipulate people.
Fortune/ Angels/ Devils/ Pitch
Iago. And what's he then, That saies I play the Villaine? When this aduise is free I giue, and honest, Proball to thinking, and indeed the course To win the Moore againe. For 'tis most easie Th'inclyning Desdemona to subdue In any honest Suite. She's fram'd as fruitefull As the free Elements. And then for her To win the Moore, were to renownce his Baptisme, All Seales, and Simbols of redeemed sin: His Soule is so enfetter'd to her Loue, That she may make, vnmake, do what she list, Euen as her Appetite shall play the God, With his weake Function. How am I then a Villaine, To Counsell Cassio to this paralell course, Directly to his good? Diuinitie of hell, When diuels will the blackest sinnes put on, They do suggest at first with heauenly shewes, As I do now. For whiles this honest Foole Plies Desdemona, to repaire his Fortune, And she for him, pleades strongly to the Moore, Ile powre this pestilence into his eare: That she repeales him, for her bodies Lust' And by how much she striues to do him good, She shall vndo her Credite with the Moore. So will I turne her vertue into pitch, And out of her owne goodnesse make the Net, That shall en-mash them all. First Folio Transcription from Internet Shakespeare Editions
For the first 13 lines, Iago’s verse is uneven and has a lot of run on lines. It almost seems like he’s speaking in prose, which is to say, that he is speaking from his mind, but not his heart. Then, right at the line: “Divinity of Hell,” the tone changes, the verse is slower and more deliberate. Now Iago is letting his real feelings out- his narcisism, his sadistic glee, his mysogyny and his utter hatred of everyone in the play.
Questions to consider
Again, what is the real reason Iago hates Othello? Jealousy? Lust? Envy?
How does Iago feel about this plot? Does it give him pleasure? Pain? What will destroying Othello accomplish for him?
The Moor, howbeit that I endure him not, Is of a constant, loving, noble nature,1090 And I dare think he’ll prove to Desdemona A most dear husband. Now, I do love her too; Not out of absolute lust, though peradventure I stand accountant for as great a sin,
In this interpretation, I believe Iago really actually loves Desdemona and hates Othello for taking her away from him. His unrequited love also manifests itself as a bitter hatred toward her. In our culture, men who love women but are unable to possess them are demeaned and mocked with terms like ‘simp,’ ‘incel,’ ‘loser,’ or even ‘cuck.’ With this in mind, I think Iago’s devilish imagery is based on being denied love. Like Lucifer, I feel Iago lost paradise when he lost Desdemona, and now hates everyone who takes her away from him, including himself.
For the final class of my course on Shakespeare’s Tragedies, I’m coaching two young actors on a pair of tragic speeches I’ve selected, and I thought I’d share some of that work with you. The first is a speech by Lady Macbeth that comes from Act I, Scene v. In this speech, Lady Macbeth prays to dark spirits to make her cold and remorseless, so that she can convince her husband to kill the king, and take the throne.
Lady Macbeth. The raven himself is hoarse That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan Under my battlements. Come, you spirits390 That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood; Stop up the access and passage to remorse, That no compunctious visitings of nature395 Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts, And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers, Wherever in your sightless substances You wait on nature’s mischief! Come, thick night,400 And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell, That my keen knife see not the wound it makes, Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark, To cry ‘Hold, hold!’ Macbeth, Act I, Scene v, Lines 388-403.
The Given Circumstances
Lady Macbeth has just received a letter from her husband. That letter informs her the witches prophesied he would be king. Soon after she’s finished reading it, another messenger, (hoarse and out of breath), tells her that King Duncan will be staying at her castle tonight! Lady Macbeth immediately sees this as the perfect opportunity to make her husband king, by plotting to murder Duncan as he sleeps under her roof.
I’ve seen at least six productions of “Macbeth” and when it comes to this scene I think the main interpretations I see are either that Lady Macbeth is gleefully evil, or highly sexual. While it is true that she is praying to dark spirits, and her language when she speaks to Macbeth is sexually charged, I feel that these are not the only options when playing this character.
I love the regal poise of Francis in this 2021 movie. She is utterly in control and has absolutely no qualms about murder. I get the sense that she’s more praying to Mercury to get her to speak daggers to her husband, instead of to Lucifer to help her use one. She even has knives coming out of her ears (look at those earings!) This Lady Macbeth doesn’t seem evil in the sense of a cartoon villain. She’s just a woman in a violent society who believes that regicide is an acceptable way to sieze power. I think in this world, might makes right.
By contrast, Judy Dench in the 1979 RSC production is also very human. Her spirits are like… well spirits. You get the sense that she’s taking a swig of liquid courage to get her to go through with these actions which SHE KNOWS ARE WRONG.
Ravens in Greek and Norse myths were birds of prophecy and associated with the goddess of magic, Hecate (who appears in the play in Act IV). Ravens often appeared to announce deaths or execution. The speech is also full of imagery that rejects traditionally ‘feminine’ virtues. Lady Macbeth seems to associate womanhood with kindness, mercy, pity, and remorse and thus attempts to shed her femininity to accomplish her cruel objective of killing Duncan.
The Rauen himselfe is hoarse, That croakes the fatall entrance of Duncan Vnder my Battlements. Come you Spirits, That tend on mortall thoughts, vnsex me here, And fill me from the Crowne to the Toe, top-full Of direst Crueltie: make thick my blood, Stop vp th'accesse, and passage to Remorse, That no compunctious visitings of Nature Shake my fell purpose, nor keepe peace betweene Th'effect, and hit. Come to my Womans Brests, And take my Milke for Gall, you murth'ring Ministers, Where-euer, in your sightlesse substances, You wait on Natures Mischiefe. Come thick Night, And pall thee in the dunnest smoake of Hell, That my keene Knife see not the Wound it makes, Nor Heauen peepe through the Blanket of the darke, To cry, hold, hold. Macbeth, Act I, Scene v, First Folio Reprint from Internet Shakespeare Editions.
It’s interesting to note that (in the First Folio text) this speech is only three sentences long. It is a constant build up of energy with only three stops. In addition, Shakespeare puts the most important words, at the end of each line. Almost every line ends with something Lady M wants to kill, such as Duncan, or wants to kill within herself (peace, remorse, nature, Woman(hood). The verse also has commands strewn about in the beginnings and ends of lines. The question is, how confident does Lady Macbeth feel while giving them?
Questions to consider
One of the biggest questions I have with this play is why Lady Macbeth and her husband want to be king and queen anyway? After all, Shakespeare has written plenty of plays that detail how hard and stressful (uneasy) it is to be king. Plus, Macbeth is already a trusted lord and friend of the king, why would he want to damn himself to get a job he knows isn’t his to take? I think that, especially now in the 21st century, it’s very important to have a coherent motive for why the Macbeths are willing to kill for the crown.
Looking over the text, my actress sensed a deep loneliness in Lady Macbeth and a haunted feeling that makes her seem desperate to change her life. I thought about how insomnia and paranoid fears are repeated motifs in the play, as well as character traits found in both Macbeth and later Lady Macbeth. Then I thought- Macbeth is a soldier; his wife has probably had to spend years wondering if he is going to come home and imagining what kind of terrible death he might suffer on the battlefield While the king sits safely at home. Perhaps she sees killing the king as a form of revenge for all the fear and sleepless nights she’s experienced, and an attempt to protect her husband from war, by safely placing him on the throne. Maybe she sees this as the only way to make sure her beloved husband never dies in battle. Therefore, instead of watching an evil woman become more evil, you’re watching a good woman, (with good intentions), damn herself for love, which I would argue is a much more active and dynamic choice.
This list is not about skill or the talent of the actor. This is to honor the contributions of Shakespearean actors who also appeared in one of my favorite film and television franchises of all time: Star Trek. Accordingly, some of the actors who weren’t essential to either Star Trek or Shakespeare or both are placed lower on the list even if I personally love the actor or the character they portrayed.
#10: Marina Sirtis
The English actress played Counselor Troi on Star Trek: TNG. Like John DeLancie, however, aside fromplaying Ophelia inHamlet, I was unable to find much Shakespeare in her credits, which is a shame because she has an incredible speaking voice. I frankly think the creators of the show spent way too much of the series trying to sexualize her and didn’t create enough opportunities for her to use her telepathic abilities or her empathic abilities.
#9: John Delancie
Like I said before, I am judging these actors for their cumulative contributions to Shakespeare, and unfortunately, I didn’t find many Shakespeare credits for Mr. DeLancie. That said, he is one of my all-time favorite Star Trek actors and was part of Star Trek The Next Generation all the way through the series. As the omnipotent entity Q, Mr. DeLancie plays a Richard III-like villain who manipulates the poor humans around him for his own amusement. He is also very interested in human nature and engages in many debates with Picard on the virtues of humans, like in this epic scene:
Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek envisioned the 23rd century as a time when mankind would be united in purpose but all people would keep their cultures and racial identities. Accordingly, a lot of the cast came from a diverse cultural background; African Americans, Russians, and very notably, Jews. One man who brought his own Jewish background into the core of Star Trek was Leonard Nimoy- son of Russian Jews who spoke Yiddish. In the article above, Nimoy mentions how he incorporated the famous Vulcan hand gesture of “Live Long And Prosper,” from the blessing his rabbi gave his congregation, which Nimoy saw as a boy:
Nimoy started out as a theater actor, starting with Yiddish theaters in Boston and New York, and he continued to work in theater and radio before and after Star Trek. His first foray into Shakespeare happened in 1975 when he was cast as Malvolio in Twelfth Night.
“I’ve been studying and reading and watching Shakespeare long enough to feel excited and positive about it. The biggest problem an actor has is finding good material. With Shakespeare, you know that not only do you have good material, you have a proven piece that has been staged successfully many times.”
— Leonard Nimoy, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 1975.
Though Nimoy is now internationally beloved for his work on stage, screen, and radio, as a child had to overcome prejudice because of his Jewish roots. I wish Nimoy had played Shylock in theMerchant of Venice since he had the potential to play the role with a lot of passion and pathos. Just goes to show that Mr. Nimoy was a man of great accomplishment and creativity, and a Renaissance Man to boot.
#7 George Takei
I studied at the Shakespeare Institute at Stratford Upon Avon in 60s. So it is with great joy that I will be making my London stage debut this January!
With his iconic deep, smooth voice and skill as a fencer I wasn’t surprised to find out that the actor who played Hikaru Sulu was a classically trained actor. Sadly, I was unable to find many Shakespeare credits for Mr. Takei, which is a shame since I wanted to find some clips of him performing Shakespeare to put here. The best I could find was this clip from TOS.
I was able to find this interview where the actor shares his thoughts on Shakespeare. I’m actually going to see Mr. Takei in a live show in April of 2023, and I suggest you do too if you can. He’s a fascinating guy and a great activist for Asian Americans and the LGBTQ+ community. Like Leonard Nimoy, he has overcome discrimination and oppression and spread his wings creatively through many different media. Hopefully, I can update this list once I see him live to include more quotes and thoughts about Shakespeare from the man himself.
#6: Brett Spiner
Brett Spiner is a multi-talented veteran of film, stage, screen, and radio, so it makes sense that he has a grounding in Shakespeare. More than that, Spiner’s character, the andriod Lt. Commander Data, (one of the best characters of Star Trek: The Next Generation), faces a Shakespearean dilemma- he wants to understand what it’s like to be human, though he isn’t. He is not only mechanical but he doesn’t have emotions. Therefore he offers an objective commentary on the way the human characters interact, not unlike Horatio in Hamlet or the Fool characters in many other Shakespeare plays.
Data’s struggle to understand humanity even extends to reading and performing Shakespeare himself, as this clip shows:
Data even impersonates a Shakespearean actor playing Puck in the episode Time’s Arrow, (a preview of Spiner’s role as Puck in Gargoyles):
I might be cheating a little by putting Spiner this high on the list, since technically he hasn’t done many full Shakespeare plays, but doing these little snippets as Data on Star Trek, or as Puck on Gargoyles was a way to introduce Shakespeare to younger viewers, which as I will discuss later, is one of the great gifts Star Trek gave Shakespeare fans like me.
#5: William Shatner
To be honest, I don’t care much for William Shatner as an actor or a person. He drove away a lot of his fellow cast members on Star Trek, his ego is infamous, and his delivery of Shakespeare is clipped, slow, and I would argue, lazy. That said, Shatner is very good at playing characters who are arrogant, and he does know a lot about how to deliver Shakespeare for TV.
I will give credit to Shatner; he’s good at playing smarmy or arrogant characters which is why Captain Kirk was a good role for him. He was also surprisingly good as Marc Antony- he really sells the verbal irony as he subtly attacks Brutus in the “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech. Like Kirk, Antony is (to quote General Chang in Star Trek VI), “An insubordinate, unprincipled, career-minded opportunist,” and Shatner plays both of them with skill and relish.
Shatner actually got his first break in the theater as an understudy in a production of Henry V, where he got to take on the title role when Christopher Plummer got sick (more on that later). As this video above shows, Shatner continued to play Shakespeare throughout his career, and as Kirk, he explored the ‘brave new worlds of Star Trek with a Shakespearean curiosity.
#4 Benedict Cumberbatch
Though his contribution to Star Trek is comparatively small- playing the villain Khan in Star Trek: Into Darkness, Benedict Cumberbatch is quickly becoming the best of the new generation of Shakespearean actors who have made the leap to the Final Frontier. I covered his Shakespeare work in other posts such as my review of his Hamlet. So let’s just enjoy the Machiavellian villainy in this clip, where he taunts Spock with Richard III-like glee.
#3 Christopher Plummer
[William] Shatner was Plummer’s understudy in a 1956 production of Henry V at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Plummer could not go on one evening due to illness, which led to Shatner’s big break. “He didn’t do what I did at all,” Plummer recalled in a separate interview. “Where I stood up to make a speech, he sat down. He did the opposite of everything I did. And I knew that son of a $%*# was going to be a star.”
Christopher Plummer, who tragically died last year, was a loss to both stage, screen, and by all accounts, everyone he knew or worked with. He was a dear man a consummate professional, and he brought that skill with Shakespeare and a love of Star Trek to create one of the greatest villains in Star Trek history.
General Chang, the war-mongering Klingon in “Star Trek VI”, who assassinates his own Chancellor Gorkon to start a war with the Federation, is a great antagonist, especially considering that Kirk was tempted to do the same thing himself. Kirk hates the Klingons and wishes death and destruction on the whole race. This film came out just two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the blind hatred between the Klingons and the Federation is a brilliant metaphor for the last days of the Cold War.
Shakespeare appears at the center of this metaphor- Chang assassinates Gorkon like Brutus killed Caesar, fearing that his peace talks with the Federation would destroy the Klingon Empire. Chang hates The Federation and Kirk in particular. The only human he has any affection for is Shakespeare, (whom he himself believes is Klingon), and he taunts Kirk with Shakespeare quotes relentlessly. Chang’s character also has echoes of Macbeth- killing his king and then blaming someone else in a show trial where he serves as the prosecution. Finally, just like Macbeth, Chang dies fighting when the Enterprise figures out how to shoot at his ship while it’s cloaked.
As the quote above indicates, it’s fitting that Plummer played Chang since the two of them have had a friendly rivalry ever since they played opposite each other in Henry V. He’s a great antagonist onstage and a towering, dignified presence offstage. In a way, the two men were two sides of a coin- Shatner being a loud and boisterous movie/ TV star, Plummer being a dignified, matinee-idol type. These big egos tussle extremely well in Star Trek VI, yet, as even Shatner admitted, they admired each other a lot:
Before I move on, I’d like to show you my favorite performance of Plummer’s. It’s a short monologue from Long Day’s Journey Into Night, where Plummer plays a washed-up Shakespearean actor, who ruined his career doing populist trash. One can see some of Plummer’s antipathy toward The Sound Of Music in his performance. Still, thankfully, Plummer didn’t meet the same fate as James Tyronne:
#2: David Warner
It’s appropriate that Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, which is a film named after a quote from Hamlet cast a beloved Hamlet, David Warner. Like Patrick Stewart and Benedick Cumberbatch, Warner was a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and he played Hamlet back in 1975:
Warner’s character in Star Trek VI thinks that this speech is about the future, and like MLK, Gorbechav or Gandhi, he tries to bring a “brave new world” to fruition by making peace with his enemies through nonviolent means. This includes sharing his love for Shakespeare. I like to think that Gorkon knows that Shakespeare was actually human, and when he quotes him to the Enterprise crew, it’s a means to ingratiate himself to the humans by finding common ground.
Sadly though, Gorkon in his idealism forgets that the speech is actually about death (or possibly it was translated incorrectly into Klingon). Indeed, this misunderstanding of humans and Klingons is what costs Gorkon his life. The situational and verbal irony of this quote from Hamlet is worthy of Shakespeare himself and it helps Warner’s performance become one of the most memorable in the movie.
Amazingly though, as if one incredible Star Trek performance wasn’t enough, Warner came back again. Ignoring his performance in the infamous Star Trek V, Warner gave a truly chilling performance as the sadistic Cardassian Gul Navek in the two-part episode “Chain Of Command,” where he captures and tortures Captain Picard!
Like the Klingons, the Cardassians are a warlike race of conquerors who use their war machine to better their society through conquest. In subsequent portrayals, they seem like a metaphor for the Nazis since they attempted to exterminate the Bajoran race, and their military philosophy seems to be inspired by fascism. In this episode, Warner’s character echoes many horror stories of POWs enduring sadistic torture at the hands of the likes of Adolph Eichman, Heinrich Himmler, and many other monsters who told their torturers to “On no account show the slightest mercy.”
The chilling way Warner plays Gul Madred is one of the high points of the series. He and Stewart worked before on a production of Hamlet in 1965, and the way these two play off each other is masterful. Warner is powerful, in command, dangerous, and sly. Picard never knows when he is telling the truth, and as time goes on, Madred revels in how much closer he is to breaking the pitiful human. Still, Picard in his wonderful stoicism never breaks, and briefly manages to turn the tables on Gul Madred, when he makes the mistake of opening up to Picard about how in reality, he is a scared and miserable soul, trying to fill the emptiness of his heart with power and sadistic pleasure. Again, these two actors are so powerful that all you need is them, and a dark room to create compelling drama.
#1: Sir Patrick Stewart
You probably saw this coming. Not only is Stewart the most important character on Star Trek: The Next Generation, but he’s also one of the greatest living Shakespeareans, and has become a sort of icon for Shakespearean acting himself.
Stewart has given so many memorable performances over the years, but one of my favorites was fairly recent- when he played Marc Antony in Antony and Cleopatra. I mentioned how, in Julius Caesar, Antony is essentially the Captain Kirk of his time- brash, cunning, arrogant, and unprincipled. In the play that bears his name though, Antony is a shadow of his former self- a drunk, foolish old man who is completely blinded to the threat Octavian poses to him. Stewart said that he based his portrayal on his own father, who was himself a soldier and an alcoholic, who was very abusive to the young Stewart and his mother. With this in mind, the portrayal has a poetic justice to it that the man who lied and cheated so many Romans finally gets cheated by the foremost man of Rome. At the same time, Stewart makes us feel for him; since so many people admire Stewart (myself included), seeing him play a man who is bringing himself low, makes us all want to save him from himself. It’s the definition of catharsis.
I’m delighted to share with you my recommendations for the best Hamlets committed to film! I was pretty strict with my criteria which left a few Hamlets out, so if I missed yours, let me know in the comments.
In order to make this list:
I have to have seen the whole thing. Sadly that excludes a lot of unfilmed productions or films I haven’t got around to seeing.
The interpretation has to take a unique stance on the play.
The actor has to have a clear grasp of the part.
I personally have to like it. This is subjective, and I will make it clear if something is my opinion, or if I think this interpretation works for classes or private viewing.
By the way, if you’re a teacher, I’ll be sure to mention which productions work for classes, and which, for whatever reason, do not. I also can recommend Common Sense Media to give you a good idea what age group this film works best for:
So, without any further adieu (get it?):
The Good Hamlets
#10: Arnold SChwarzenegger in “Last Action Hero”
I would love to do a full review of this movie. When it works, it is actually a thoughtful deconstruction of the action movie genre, and as this clip shows, the movie concedes that Hamlet was actually the first great action hero. Schwarzenegger is really funny as an action movie parody of “Hamlet,” and everything he does is pretty cathartic for bored school boys who have to read the play in class. Plus, as a funny easter egg, the teacher in the scene who is showing Olivier’s Hamlet on the screen is played by Joan Plowright, who played Gertrude IN THAT FILM, and was married to Olivier in real life!
#9: Bart Simpson in “Tales from the Public Domain”
It’s absolutely astonishing how many Shakespeare easter eggs are in this little episode! How they make fun of medieval history, (the Danes were in fact Vikings in the early middle ages), Elizabethan theater, (when Bart does a soliloquy and is surprised that Claudius can hear him), and the way they compress Shakespeare’s longest play into a five minute episode is masterful satire.
In addition, the cast is perfectly chosen among the Simpsons’ core cast. Long-time viewers know that Moe has wanted to sleep with Homer’s wife for years, so making him Claudius is a brilliant choice. Plus, Dan Castellaneta steals the show with his over-the-top performance as the ghost, which actually reminds me of a 1589 review of Hamlet by Thomas Lodge:
“[He] walks for the most part in black under cover of gravity, and looks as pale as the vizard [mask] of the ghost who cried so miserably at the Theatre like an oyster-wife, Hamlet, revenge!”
THOMAS NASHE, “PREFACE” TO ROBERT GREENE, MENAPHON, (1589)
In any case, this clip is a great way to introduce anyone to Hamlet and I highly recommend it.
#8: Austin Tichenor in “The Complete Works of Shakespeare- Abridged”
This show is very special to me- in around 1997 my parents went to England and brought home a copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged). I’d only read “Romeo and Juliet” previously and through this show, I gained an appreciation for all of Shakespeare’s plays. Seeing the plays through parody made them seem less lofty and stuffy, and made me want to see and read the original works. This is especially true for “Hamlet,” which occupies the second half of the show, where Hamlet is portrayed by Austin Tichenor.
Tichenor wins my award for “Hammiest Hamlet,” which is just delightful to watch. He clearly takes the part WAAAY too seriously, as evidenced by how emphatically he demands solemn silence from the audience while he attempts to do “To Be Or Not To Be.” Tichenor also serves as the pedantic straight man who tries to keep the show moving and academic, while mediating between his bickering co-stars Adam and Reed. This wonderful Three-stooges dynamic makes every minute of the show fun and frenetic. However, the cast makes it very clear that they are making fun of Shakespeare with love; they never mock the play, they inform as well as entertain, and occasionally they even move the audience as Adam does at the end. In short, this show helped me form my approach to Shakespeare, and it’s largely through Tichenor that I read Hamlet at all, so he’s to blame for this website.
#7: Richard Burton, 1964 (stage production directed by John Gielgud).
With the advent of TV and film making theater seem obsolete, directors knew they had to do something drastic in order to get people to come to the playhouses. Enter John Gielgud, one of the greatest Hamlets of the early 20th century, who directed Richard Burton in a highly-acclaimed production with minimum sets and with actors wearing rehearsal clothes. The idea was to let Shakespeare’s words and the actors’ performances be the focus, and save spectacle for film and TV. This approach has been adopted by many theater companies since, including a few I’ve been a pat of.
Burton has a lot of energy and manic physicality in his portrayal and it makes his Hamlet engaging to watch. Plus Gielgud himself as the ghost is almost operatic to hear. I highly recommend any theater fan to watch it, though it might not translate in a classroom much.
# 6: Laurence Olivier, (Film 1948)
I have my issues with Olivier as an actor and apparently I’m not alone:
I find Olivier’s acting over-the-top, lacking in emotion and subtlety, and I think his directing is generally self-centered. He rarely deigns to give close-ups to anyone but himself and a lot of the scenes he directs are filmed like stage plays. That said, Olivier’s Hamlet is really good. SIr Laurence talked to Ernest Jones about the theory that Hamlet might have had an Oedipus Complex and created a unique and well-thought-out interpretation for his Hamlet. First off, casting his real-life wife Joan Plowright as Gertrude, fills the Closet scene with uncomfortable tension. He also did a great job making the ghost seem as imposing and accusatory as possible, as well as making Claudius as disgusting as possible.
You get the idea that this film is how Hamlet sees the world with its dark and shadowy towers, representing Hamlet’s melancholic mind, his imprisoned spirit, and his dark desires. Also as many people have pointed out, Gertrude’s bed chamber looks like a female organ, making the Oedipus theory even more explicit.
Even I have to admit that Olivier nailed the “To Be Or Not To Be,” Speech. He squirms at his own Oedipal fantasies, and contemplates jumping off the battlements in a captivating and subtle way. The performance and cinematography is iconic, and it makes me grudgingly admit Olivier, for all his faults, is still one of the best Hamlets of all time.
I would recommend this film to every Shakespeare film fan and any hardcore Shakespeare scholars. I would caution against showing the whole thing in a class however, since it’s black and white, and again, I find Oliver’s delivery very old-fashioned.
#5: Paul Gross, (StratforD Festival, 2000)
Thus far, I’ve mainly reviewed British and American Hamlets. Paul Gross is one of Canada’s most celebrated actors who gained fame as one of the best Hamlets at Toronto’s Stratford Festival. Unlike most Hamlets who go for the humanistic prince version of Hamlet, Gross plays him with sort of an animal intensity, like a wounded bear who will growl at you if you get in his way.
I have to admit I broke my own rule with this one- I haven’t really seen Gross’ portrayal, but I believe I saw it well-represented in his role as Geoffery Tennent, the Shakespearean Actor-turned madman-turned director in the Canadian TV show “Slings and Arrows.” This amazing dark comedy portrays the ins and outs of a Shakespeare Company from the normal problems of mounting a play to backstage drama, even the funding and marketing gets focus! Basically, the show is The Office for Shakespeare nerds, except for one ghostly cast member (no spoilers).
4. Benedick Cumberbatch / John Harrell
I couldn’t make up my mind between these two Hamlets, so I’m listing them together (guess that makes me Hamlet too). One is one of the most accomplished Shakespearean actor in recent memory, an RSC alumn, and a Hollywood star to boot, Benedick Cumberbatch.
Both these actors have similar strengths- they’re both tall and imposing with aquiline features. They are also highly physical performers. I talked in my lecture on Richard III about how Harrell performed the role of Gloucester with his legs tied together and a bowling ball strapped to his hand. Appearance-wise- Harrell and Cumberbatch are so similar, that it’s actually a joke at the ASC that they must be long-lost twins.
That said, when it comes to their approach to Hamlet, these two actors couldn’t be more different. Cumberbatch focused on Hamlet’s emotional turmoil- he was tortured and angry, full of youthful angst and volatility. This particular production is sort of an anachronistic mash-up of modern and period, which gives it a sort of dream-like quality that I really enjoy. Like Richard Burton, the director knows how to stage a play differently from a movie or TV show, which is especially important with this actor, since we can see him on all those platforms.
Nor should they have. Full of scenic spectacle and conceptual tweaks and quirks, this “Hamlet” is never boring. It is also never emotionally moving — except on those occasions when Mr. Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is alone with his thoughts, trying to make sense of a loud, importunate world that demands so much of him.
John Harrell on the other hand is a more mature and subtle Hamlet, more interested in saving his hide than contemplating his navel. This Hamlet masks pain with humor and sardonic wit and it translates to all his relationships with the King, Queen, and courtiers.
Rather than a sour, dour, morose, obtuse, naval-gazing Hamlet, this prince was cunning, cynical, devious, sarcastic, and very much enjoying his feigned madness, his chess game with the king, and his fencing bout with Laertes.
OK, I have to admit that I didn’t see this whole production either, but it’s so cool and the acting is so good I wish I had! Papaa Essiedu is an electrifying blend of wit, sadness, manic excitement, and rage. His fresh take on a role that can be rather dour is why even the little I’ve seen of his performance makes it one of my favorites!
#2: David Tennet, RSC 2009
Tennet does an incredible job of encapsulating Hamlet’s quick wit, giddy excitement, frailty, fury, and frustration, especially with himself. I love the fact that he does “To Be Or Not To Be” in a superhero T-Shirt. In a way, this Hamlet is constantly wishing he was more of the action-movie type that Schwartzenegger parodies at the top of this list. Like Harrell, Tennent’s Hamlet masks his pain with humor, but you can see him struggle with it and try to pull himself out of despair. All these Hamlets find a way to nail at least one aspect of the character, but Tennet in his short 3 hours on the stage, manages to highlight all of them.
I recommend this version for any viewer in any classroom. It’s beautifully shot, extremely well acted, fast-paced, funny, and exciting. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Honorable mentions: Anton Lester, Ian McKellen, MiChelle Terry, and Sir John Gielgud
I haven’t seen any of these Hamlets and have been unable to locate any clips, but I have the deepest respect for all of these actors, so I thought I’d highlight them here.
I’d also like to give special mention to Michelle Terry. Gender-blind productions of Shakespeare get a lot of flack that is undeserved, and there’s nothing wrong with a female Hamlet. To quote Geoffrey Tennet in Slings and Arrows: “Shakespeare didn’t care about anachronism, and neither should we.”
I didn’t include Ms. Terry in this list, simply because I wasn’t able to get to the Globe, and I wanted to focus on productions that people can watch for free. If you wish, you can watch her 2018 performance on the Globe Theater’s steaming website:
You probably saw this coming. I’ve made it clear in other posts that I absolutely love Branaugh’s Hamlet, after all his film was one of the first Shakespeare movies I ever saw and the first one I really enjoyed. I discuss in detail why I love this movie the best in my review of the film, but to summarize, I think the direction is incredible, the music is excellent, the cast is nearly perfect, and Branaugh himself puts a huge amount of love, craft, skill, experience, and maybe a little madness into his portrayal of the character. I know Branaugh isn’t everyone’s cup of tea; other Hamlets on this list might be more enjoyable, fun, or subtle, for you. But for me, Branaugh’s will always be my favorite.
Today I pay tribute to a remarkable book written by a great actor, who has inspired me and countless others.
I was privileged back in 2011 to see Anthony Sher on stage playing is playing Edmund Kean in John Paul Sartre’s pastiche of Shakespeare entitled “Kean.” It was a very good casting because this actor very clearly had a lot of raw energy and at the same time charisma and wit. But at the same time, he also seemed to have tenderness, sadness, and insecurity behind his eyes. I didn’t realize it but this actor, Sir Antony Sher, who sadly passed away just last year, would change my life.
When I was still in college I knew that I was going to go to grad school, and I wanted to write a graduate thesis on Richard III. Through my research, I came to realize that this same actor produced what is still regarded it as one most acclaimed and influential productions of the play ever. In 1984, Sir Antony played an iconic Richard III at the Royal Shakespeare Company which was revolutionary for its raw energy, tragic emotions, and creative physicality. Mr. Sher played the role on crutches and was able to scuttle around the stage like a spider.
I feel very therefore very privileged that I was at Able to see him perform live and to research his performance for my thesis.
One of my greatest aids for this was Sir Antony’s own book about the process of writing Richard that he wrote while in the process of doing Richard, “A Year Of the King. It’s organized in the form of a diary and a lot of the pages are available for free on Google Books. I strongly recommend it. In this review, I’m going to praise his massive preparations for the role talk about the effects of the production going forward in future productions of Richard III.
In 1982, Sir Antony was playing the Fool in a production of King Lear with Michael Gambon, (the future Dumbledore from Harry Potte). During during the performance, Sher suffered a leg injury that required him to be on crutches for several months. In his diary, Sher records how angry being perceived as disabled made him feel. His physical therapy took place at the Remedial Dance Clinic, Harley St. Six months later in August of 1983 Sher was cast in Tartuffe with Bill Alexander as director, (who would later direct him again in Richard III). A chance meeting with Trevor Nunn, (who was the Artistic director at the time), put the idea of him playing Richard into Alexander’s head. After another meeting with Terry Hands, Sher was offered the role.
“The truth of the matter was I was terrified of the verse, ashamed of my inexperience with it and nursing a fear that I was trespassing anyway. Wasn’t classical theatre the territory of handsome, rich-voiced Brittish giants like Gielgud and Oliver, and out of bounds for little Cape Town newbies like me?”
Sher, Year Of the King, page 9
Fighting with Olivier
When Antony Sher approached the role of Richard in his 1984 RSC production, his first intention was to make his portrayal of Richard’s deformity and disability different from Laurence Olivier’s. Sher and Olivier believed Richard is both physically and mentally deformed, therefore, Sher’s massive preparation for the role included thorough research into the physical effects of real disability and a deep examination of its psychological effects. Unlike Olivier, Mr. Sher believed that Richard’s deformity was the key to understanding his character and that every aspect of Sher’s characterization stemmed from his interpretation of that deformity. This work produced a captivating physical characterization and a startlingly human re-conception of Richard’s mind.
Sher’s characterization of Richard’s body resulted in an image, which he referred to as “The Bottled Spider.” Richard had a massive hump in the center of his back, massive arms, and two crutches that fitted onto Sher’s forearms, allowing him to scuttle across the stage, giving the impression of a poisonous spider. Sher created this iconic physical characterization through a combination of textual research, sketches, medical research into real deformities, image research, and real-life experience. The guiding principles that Sher used in creating Richard’s deformity were creating a severely deformed character that the audience would identify with. At the same time, Sher attempted to create a physicality that he could sustain through the run of the show without major injuries (21 &30). According to Sher, the role of Richard III is legendary for crippling actors who sustain severe damage to their backs and shoulders (39). Thus Antony Sher’s Richard was physically designed to be both functional for the actor, and both realistic and remarkable for the audience.
The first step towards Sher’s physical characterization of Richard was going through the text for clues. Sher found several references to what Richard’s deformity looks like in the speeches of Queen Margaret, (unlike Cibber, Sher’s version kept the character of Margaret in the play). Margaret refers to Richard repeatedly as various beasts, alternating between Boars, hounds, and the bottled spider that would become so important to the final characterization. Before Sher settled on a spider as the animal Richard most resembles, he experimented with several others including boars, apes and bulls. Sher did several sketches of bulls, which he saw in a BBC TV program. Sher was attracted to bulls and their raw power and massive shoulders. Sher wanted an animal that was threatening and powerful to give his portrayal a ‘tragic dimension’ (64).
Having to say ‘I was born in South Africa’ stuck in my throat like a confession of guilt.’
Sher, p. 25
Another image from the text that Sher thought about repeatedly was the image of Richard’s hump as a mountain. When Richard refers to his hump as “an envious mountain on my back,” Sher thought back to the Lion’s Head mountain in Kingstown South Africa. Sher grew up in South Africa and visited there during apartheid. The mountain spoke to Sher’s notion of Richard’s raw, tragic power. Sher sketched the mountain several times, and combined it with other images of bulls and spiders and this became the overall concept for Richard’s hump- an image of thick power that simultaneously weighs down the figure of Richard, and gives him his strength.
I feel he should be severely deformed, not just politely crippled as he’s often played. Bill says one should identify with him: a man looking in from the outside and thinking, ‘I’ll have some of that.’
November 7, 1983
The most memorable part of Sher’s physical performance as Richard was the way he manipulated the two arm crutches that he wore for the first half of the performance. Sher’s Bottled Spider image mainly depended on his ability to manipulate the crutches. The crutches became part of Richard’s body (Cerasano 621) and, far from making Sher’s movements clumsy or stiff, they gave him the ability to transform himself into a strange four-legged creature that would move around the stage incredibly fast. Director Bill Alexander told Sher during rehearsals that he intended to use the crutches in as many ways as possible. For example, the crutches also served as a weapon because of Sher’s ability to swing them around like clubs. One chilling moment of the performance occurred when Sher’s Richard entraps lord Hastings (Brian Blessed) by folding his crutch-arm across Hasting’s neck; foreshadowing Richard’s later decision to chop off Hastings’ head (Cerasano 621).
The problem in playing him extremely deformed is to devise a position that would be 100 per-cent safe to sustain over three hours, and for a run that could last for two years. Play him on crutches perhaps? They would take a lot of the strain off the danger areas: lower back, pelvis and legs. And my arms are quite strong after months at the gym. Also I was on crutches for months after the operation so they have a personal association for me of being disabled. They could be permanently part of Richard tied to his arms. The line, ‘Behold mine arm is like a blasted sapling wither’d up,’ could refer to one of them literally. The crutches idea is attractive, too attractive at this early stage. Must keep an open mind on the subject.
Sunday Nov, 19, 1983
Physical therapist Charlette Arnold, helped Sher get into clinics for people with real disabilities. She also provided Sher with books on back disorders, which led Sher to choose the back disorder Kyphosis as the model for Richard’s hump. Kyphosis causes a large central hump in the back, which Sher immediately adopted because it resembled the mountain image of his sketches. Also, the central hump was different from Olivier’s side hump. Sher’s research on back disorders was of great use in the coronation scene in which he and Lady Anne appear with bare backs. Bill Alexander hired makeup artist Christopher Tucker to create a lifelike prosthetic for Richard’s back. The audience was thus forced to see Richard as a naked, deformed man, contrasted next to the beautiful bare back of his wife, creating a powerful moment that re-enforced Richard’s humanity. Sher would also use a humanistic approach to his portrayal of Richard’s mind, which, like Richard’s body, he developed through extensive research.
Psychology- Richard III on the couch
“In several copies I’ve looked at it’s called The Tragedy of King Richard the Third. Yet a tradition has evolved of playing it as black comedy. I’ve never seen anyone play Richard’s pain, his anger, his bitterness, all of which is abundant in the text. It seems to me that Richard’s personality has been deeply and dangerously affected by his deformity, and that one has to show this connection.
November 19, 1983 p. 30
In his research, Sher made the link between deformity and psychopathology. Unlike Oliver, who played Richard as a paranoic, Sher played Richard as a psychopath. In his research into psychopaths, Sher uncovered the idea that psychopaths often suffer childhood traumas. The text of Richard suggests that Richard’s mother hated him, and such a lack of affection could realistically change a boy into a psychopath. Through this probing of the text and research into psychology, Sher concluded that Richard’s deformity is a realistic source of desire for revenge.
Sher talked to his own psychiatrist, Monty Berman who provided him with insight into Richard’s mind. Monty helped Sher dispel the idea that Richard is a superhuman fiend. On the contrary, Richard’s persona is very similar to real live psychopaths. Berman theorized that the pain at being deformed, coupled with the violent upbringing Richard had living through the Wars of the Roses, could transform Richard into a remorseless killer.
Sher: “How do you explain Richard the Third then?” Monty: “Well, how did you feel when you were on crutches last year?” Sher: “I hated people staring at me.” Monty: “What did you want to say to them?” Sher: “F#$% off! What are you staring at?” Monty: “Precisely. Anger. Richard is revenging himself on the whole world, destroying a world he sees as hating him.”
Monty: “We treat the disabled appallingly. They come up against dreadful prejudice. The disabled person experiences frustration and if given the chance, will lash out.” Sher: “So are you saying Richard’s behavior is normal?” Monty: “Under the circumstances, absolutely normal.”
Sher and Berman also believe Richard has the humor of a psychopath- a sardonic wit that has no regard for the feelings of his audience. Sher looked at the parallels between Richard III, and serial killer David Nilsen, who would invite people over for tea and strangle them, and boil their heads on his stove. Nilsen once told police with Richard-like humor that; “Having corpses was better than going back to an empty house.” One could easily hear the same sort of gruesome wit in the phrase: “I do love thee so, that I shall shortly send thy soul to heaven,” (R3 I,i).
A psychopath like Richard kills in order to try and feel emotion; “Each murder is an attempt to release anger, an attempt at catharsis, and each time it is unrelieved. It’s like promiscuous sex without love. Each climax is less and less fulfilling so the appetite grows until it is insatiable.” Thus Berman allowed Sher to break with the tradition of playing Richard as a completely inhuman monster, and play him as a very real, very human tortured soul.
Although Antony Sher attempted to play Richard as a psychopath, his portrayal of Richard’s pain could become sympathetic. His observation of people in clinics and his own personal experience of being on crutches taught him about the cruelty that the disabled suffer. However, although he did very great work to try and understand the condition of being deformed and disabled, his portrayal was still an affected disability; an act. In the book “Framed: Interpreting Disability in Today’s Media,” the author speaks about how watching an able bodied actor play disability can actually alienate the audience from the character he is portraying. The performance is seen as an act, a novelty, not an honest representation of real people. One way to eliminate this barrier between character and actor is to cast a Richard who really does suffer from a disability or deformity. I’ve talked in previous posts about how last month’s Public Theater performance was a deliberate attempt to move away from theatrical illusion and re-contextualize Richard’s deformity in the form of race, and contextualize disability by letting actors with disabilities play the heroic parts, while only Richard was able-bodied.
In a way, like Olivier, Sher’s performance is a new monolith that actors must work hard to distinguish themselves from. He spent an entire year building his Richard from the ground up, experimenting with new ways to portray his deformities, his disability, his psychology, and of course, how he looks and moves onstage. Reading this book, an actor gets a great appreciation for all the work Sir Antony Sher included in this wonderful performance, and hopefully, the book will inspire new and creative ways to portray this character in the future.
Thank you for reading. If you want to see some of Sher’s physical and psychological techniques in practice, please watch the thesis presentation that I did at the Blackfriars playhouse below. If you are interested in signing up for one of my acting courses, click here. Thank you!
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.