It’s November, the month when we Americans ponder perilous journeys to new worlds and give thanks to the people who settled our country. As this clip from “Shakespeare In Love” illustrates, Shakespeare clearly had these kinds of journeys on his mind. They influenced plays like “Twelfth Night,” “The Comedy Of Errors,” and especially “The Tempest.” It’s not surprising that long journeys to America were on Shakespeare’s mind; he lived right at the time of the first settlements in America, and the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving only four years after Shakespeare died:
However, as I said in my “Is Shakespeare Being Cancelled?” post, the people who colonized America were hardly saints and they did impose their own culture on the indigenous people that lived there. This tension between the romantic ideal of taming the unspoiled wilderness of America and the reality of colonization is deep within Shakespeare’s last solo play. Its hero is a magician with the power to control spirits and who enslaves the only creature living on the island before he came- Caliban.
Though Prospero did not come to the island by choice, he certainly imposes his will on the creatures and spirits of the island and even calls himself the lord of it. On the other hand, he eventually leaves, pardons Caliban, sets Ariel free and resumes his former life as the Duke of Milan, so the story isn’t entirely about colonization. At its core, The Tempest is a story about revenge, savagery, and redemption. Audiences back in 1611 would probably see Caliban as a savage with his rough manner, bizarre appearance, and peculiar religious beliefs. But the real savage is Prospero, who like Dr. Frankenstein, gives in to his baser desires for control and revenge; enslaving Caliban, and conjuring the Tempest to take his revenge on his brother Antonio. But Prospero eventually repents and abandons his quest for revenge and this decision improves everyone’s lives, especially his own. He can now move on and become a better duke and a better man.
This play is fascinating to ponder and it has spawned countless re-interpretations. As I said before, this journey to a strange new world has influenced both the Horror and Science Fiction genres. The themes and characters of The Tempest can be found in works such as Frankenstein, to Brave New World, to Star Trek, which is why this month, I will be not only analyzing The Tempest, but also the Shakespearean roots of one of my favorite TV shows- Star Trek: The Next Generation!
If you are your child are interested in learning more about this fascinating play, I actually teach a class about it as part of my course on Shakespeare’s Comedies which starts November 5th at 4PM, EST. Below is a trailer and link:
Today I’ll be tracing the recurring themes and motifs that evolved from Shakespeare’s last solo play, “The Tempest,” and chart a course that explains the evolution of this play into the beloved Star Trek franchise.
Shakespeare’s The Tempest is based on a real story. As I said before, the story might have come from a traveler’s story about visiting the island of Bermuda in the early 1600s. The idea of Europeans going to an uncharted island, meeting the strange inhabitants, and ‘civilizing’ them, might have inspired Shakespeare to write the story of Prospero.
In addition to the Bermuda story, the age of English colonization had firmly begun at this time. The first English colony in America, Jamestown was settled in 1607, and The Tempest came out 1611.
At the same time, The King was worried about magic and trying to marry his daughter off to a prince.
Shakespeare wasn’t allowed to comment on contemporary issues, so instead of setting the play in England or even contemporary Europe, he set it on a fantastical island with spirits Prospero can control. His control becomes a metaphor for colonization. At the same time, we see a fantasy version of James’ daughter’s marriage in the romance between Ferdinand and Miranda. The motifs of discovering strange new worlds and encountering new races of people form the core of Star Trek and space-based science fiction in general, and an adaptation of The Tempest in the 1950s would set the template that the Enterprise and her crew would be built on.
“Forbidden planet”- The Tempest goes Sci-Fi
Forbidden Planet is a story about a dashing, adventurous captain, a curmudgeonly doctor, and a science officer who are from a United group of planets that peacefully searches for “brave new worlds,” and the people in them. Obviously, these characters are very similar to Captain Kirk, Dr. McCoy, and Mr. Spok, so clearly Star Trek owes its initial creation to the success of Forbidden Planet, which was a Sci-fi adaptation of the Tempest. The question then is if there is there more that we can say about the connection between Shakespeare and Star Trek.
Star Trek’s relationship with Shakespeare
The main connective tissue of Star Trek and The Tempest is the use of exotic locations and alien cultures to explore issues that were close to home. When people in 1600 went to see Hamlet Prince of Denmark they didn’t see an ancient legend of a Viking Prince as the original Amleth, written by Saxo Grammaticus; what they saw was a thoroughly modern story of a Renaissance Prince tackling theological issues that had only just been dreamt of by the English protestants; issues of predestination, issues of Calvinism, issues of the questions about the issue the existence of purgatory, etc. That would have been unheard of to the original audience of Prince Hamlet. The appeal was seeing a different place and time to retell an ancient legend that at the same time spoke to the present time of the 17th century. Star Trek does the same thing only looking to the future instead of the past.
Like Star Trek, Shakespeare used exotic locations to examine issues that were universal, (no pun intended), issues that were very much for the consumption of his audience. Look at Star Trek; every alien race the Enterprise encounters is an allegory for some culture or idea on Earth, like the two-toned alien Lokai and Bele that represent segregation and racism, or the Klingons who represented the Soviet Union, or the Borg, who represent imperialism and authoritarianism, cults, and to a certain extent fascism,
In Star Trek, space-age technology was always secondary to character; it was always about fragmenting the human condition into different recognizable alien species. Through the characters of Dr. McCoy, Captain Kir, and Mr. Spok, Star Trek examines humanity through 3 distinct points of view; that of Kirk the wide-eyed Explorer, McCoy, the cynical doctor with a heart of gold, and the cold and logical Mr. Spock. As the series went on, the allegories to contemporary affairs grew more nuanced, like how in Star Trek 6, the conflict between the Federation and the Klingons represents the final days of the Soviet Union, and the fear on both sides of what a post-Cold War world would be like.
Star Trek The Next Generation: The Tempest, Reformed.
Why did the creators of Star Trek cast Patrick Stewart, the foremost Shakespearean actor of his time, to play the captain of the Enterprise? I would say it is because Shakespeare is a writer who follows some of the same tropes that Star Trek would later use, so the creators needed a Shakespearean actor to communicate these ideas to the audience.
When Star Trek: The Next Generation first came out in the mid-1980s; the lens through which we saw alien cultures changed significantly: Picard sees humanity and the universe through a sentimental lens; viewing all cultures with no concept of superiority or paternalism. Like Shakespeare, Picard sees these cultures as his own and all worthy of respect. That’s why these cultures are often drawn to him and embrace him as one of their own, such as in the episode where he literally lives the life of a man named Kamin on the now-dead planet of Katan, and becomes the only living man to pass on their stories:
Picard’s greatest antagonist Q is a warped mirror of Picard; somebody who sees humanity as a plaything but nonetheless is intrigued and fascinated by human nature:
Taken together, Picard and Q are like the two sides of Shakespeare’s Prospero in The Tempest. Simmilar to how Dr. Morbius represents Prospero’s ego in Forbidden Planet, Picard represents the superego- the part devoted to improving the lives of his crew and the aliens he helps, and who looks at each “brave new world,” he encounters with awe and respect.
Q however, is Prospero’s Id- a malevolent, cynical, vengeful man, (who like Prospero in the episode Deja Q, is actually banished from his rightful place in the Q Continuum). He torments and enslaves creatures for his own amusement and his curiosity about humanity is more morbid and sadistic than scientific or philosophical. With this in mind, it makes sense that Q has been such an enduring part of the Star Trek series since he is an essential component of the series’ psychological makeup.
Science fiction in general is about possibilities- looking at where we came from and where we are and asking questions about where we are going. Generally speaking, Shakespeare looked more to the past than the future, but his conclusions were pretty much the same- he saw “What a piece of work man is,” but also feared greatly for his survival. Star Trek takes these concepts and projects them out to the far future. Even though in the 24rth century humans have mastered space travel, eliminated poverty, and put aside petty prejudice, people are still people and the conflicts they have don’t change. What’s great about Star Trek is how well both choose to tell the eternal story of the human condition, looking before and after and making some truly profound discourse on what it means to be human. Perhaps the real final frontier is the same as the first- the human heart.
“Upon Such Sacrifices: King Lear and the Binding of Isaac”
I’ve compared King Learto a fairy tale in the past, but i haven’t compared it to a story from the King James Bible, even though Shakespeare, in all likelihood wrote and performed it for James himself. This article form the Jewish Review of Books is a comparison between Lear and the Old Testament Bible. First, the author has a tantalizing historical tidbit that might explain why Shakespeare chose to write Lear for King James:
Before ascending to the English throne, James VI of Scotland wrote a political guide, Basilikon Doron, for his eldest son advising him never to divide his kingdom (as Lear does) but “make your eldest son Isaac, leaving him all your kingdoms.”
The article also draws some fascinating parallels between Lear and other Biblical patriarchs especially the sacrifice of Isaac, which takes place in Genesis 22, or as it’s known in Jewish tradition, the akeda.
The akedah prompts different questions than King Lear does, not of how so much tragedy could have sprung from a foolish love test, but how the God of all creation could have put his faithful servant to such an unconscionable test in the first place. And so there is a long interpretive tradition that labors to elide that fact in increasingly creative ways. Surely God never intended Isaac to be a sacrifice—the boy was merely to be present at the sacrifice! How could Abraham have thought otherwise, when God had already sworn that it was through Isaac that his promise to Abraham would be fulfilled? Or, alternatively, surely Abraham never doubted that God was merely testing him—after all, Abraham tells Isaac himself that God would provide a lamb to substitute!
It’s interesting to see the parallels between Lear and an Old Testament patriarch. He constantly asks his gods for help and swears by them when he pronounces his doom, yet arguably he has no real faith in his gods or his daughters, which is why his foolish love test in Act I, serves as the catalyst that corrodes and destroys his kingdom and his life. However, maybe Lear sees himself this way, as a king appointed by God, with the authority to test his daughters’ love as God tested Abraham. Ian McKellen seems to share this view and sees Lear as a priest who is unwilling to give up his “special relationship with his gods.”
The actor playing Lear can benefit from studying the sort of old-fashioned patriarchs presented in the Bible because they help shape his worldview. In addition, the concept of faith and how it is tested is another big theme in Lear and contrasting how men in the Bible keep their faith while Lear loses it is an illuminating way to contextualize both works. Was Shakespeare trying to write a parable for kings? Perhaps, but he certainly encapsulates very well the struggles and anxieties of keeping power, and the desire for divine intervention when a kingdom bleeds.
Stagecraft has a fascinating and interesting history. The way we portray spectacle on stage has changed a lot since the advent of television and movies, which utilize computers and animatronics, etc. to create impossible things that could never be is shown live. In a way, the pre-recorded nature of film and TV gives theater practitioners an advantage because the more clever they are with their stagecraft, the more impressive it is for the simple fact that it is live- happening right now in front of an audience.
What I want to do with this post is to speculate whether, with the technology of the time, if Shakespeare could have used some kind of visual spectacle to portray otherworldly creatures, such as the ghosts in Hamlet and Macbeth
The conventional wisdom
Most books I’ve read on Elizabethan stagecraft say that the theaters of this era were very minimalistic in design. They had trap doors, they had galleries, they had a primitive flying rig, and they had music and some simple sound effects, but most of the experience was watching the actors, their costumes, their bodies, and hearing their voices hence ‘audience’- audio, “To hear.”
We are told there wasn’t much visual representation of spectacle and fantasy on Shakespeare’s stage, which which is is odd because there are some pretty fantastical elements in his plays, especially Hamlet and Macbeth, where the former calls for a ghost and the latter calls for a ghost, witches, and a literal goddess to appear on stage. How may one ask, was this achieved back in Shakespeare’s day, the late 1590s and the early 1600s? The conventional wisdom is that the ghosts in Hamlet and the ghost in Macbeth came through a trap door in the stage known as Hell.
If you’re you go to the Globe now you can see this actual trap door being used. It used a primitive pully system to open up in the middle of the floor. The ghost would ascend to the stage through a small step ladder. Hamlet’s father’s ghost is described as wearing a suit of armor and being very pale. Banquo’s ghost is described as having long hair dappled with blood.
Banquo’s ghost appears during a banquet in Macbeth’s honor. Based on this hypothesis it’s likely that a banqueting table was brought out into the middle of a stage to conceal the ghost, to make it more of a surprise when it ascends onstage through the trap door, but the effect to modern taste would be rather dull. However impressive the performance, this cannot stand up to the stunning nature of visual effects using computer technology, motion capture, et cetera. I wanted to see if there are any Elizabethan theatrical illusions that would still have been accessible to Shakespeare back in the 1590s.
Idea #1: A Smoke-monster ghost?
My research began with this video from the YouTube History Channel Atun-Shei Films, where the author traces the history of film, (both as photography and film as a projection). He cites at the start, an incident in 1536 where a supposed necromancer appeared to conjure a ghost for an unsuspecting rube. According to The Lives Of the Necromancers, the solution was achieved by creating huge clouds of smoke within the theater space, (which was the Colosseum) and then using a primitive camera obscure to project a frightening image Into this space.
Camera Obscura is a term is it Latin for dark chamber the principal had been discovered for century had existed for centuries bit is for centuries but only in the 1530s this was the 1st recorded example of it being used to create a theatrical illusion.
The question is, could Shakespeare’s company have performed the same illusion with the technology of the day? Honestly, I find it rather unlikely that Shakespeare’s audience would’ve put up with huge clouds of smoke in a wooden amphitheater. Still, the fact remains that primitive projection technology existed back in Shakespeare’s day, which means a director could reasonably implement it in a production of Hamlet or Macbeth, even under the constraints of Original Practices.
So the question remains, is there a visually striking way to represent the ghosts that could actually work in Shakespeare’s theater. My first idea is…
Idea 1: Glow In the Dark Paint
Glow-in-the-dark paint wasn’t invented until 1908, but there are some rocks that naturally glow such as hackmanite and phosphorus.
Theoretically, Shakespeare’s company could have crushed this rock into a powder and made it into a paint that glowed onstage. There is precedent for this- in The Hound Of the Baskervilles, Sherlock Holmes discovers that the terrifying ghost-hound is merely a large dog painted with phosphorescent paint:
In mere size and strength it was a terrible creature which was lying stretched before us. It was not a pure bloodhound and it was not a pure mastiff; but it appeared to be a combination of the two–gaunt, savage, and as large as a small lioness. Even now in the stillness of death, the huge jaws seemed to be dripping with a bluish flame and the small, deep-set, cruel eyes were ringed with fire. I placed my hand upon the glowing muzzle, and as I held them up my own fingers smouldered and gleamed in the darkness.
“Phosphorus,” I said.
“A cunning preparation of it,” said Holmes, sniffing at the dead animal.
Doyle, Part IV.
Though this paint would potentially make a terrifying effect, this would be impossible at an outdoor theater during the day. This makes it unlikely that Shakespeare used glow-in-the-dark paint at the Globe, as most of the performances took place in the afternoon. That said, both Hamlet and were written just at the point in which Shakespeare’s company was in the process of acquiring an indoor theater, the Blackfriars.
The Blackfriars and Shakespeare’s stagecraft
Almost all of these ideas would depend on Shakespeare having access to a theatre in which he could control the lighting. As you can see, the Blackfriars was lit with candles and its indoor nature meant that performances weren’t dependent on sunlight. Greg Doran, former director of the Royal Shakespeare Company has theorized in the past that maybe while his company was preparing to move into the Blackfriars, Shakespeare was changing his material to make it both literally and figuratively darker.
In the reconstructed Blackfriars, (where I studied and interned for three years), there is a trap-door and flying rig like the Globe, so the conventional trap-door ghost can and has been utilized there. I would also argue that in the Blackfriars unlike the Globe, there was a chance for more variety of theatrical illusions- perhaps a smoke projection, magic lantern, or even…
Idea 3: A Pepper’s ghost
A Peppers Ghost is a stage illusion that dates back to the 19th century. It uses the principle of refracted light to project the image of a ghost on top of a piece of glass. This image will appear translucent and could be very impressive to an audience at the Blackfriars! As you can see in the diagram below, the actor could be under the stage in the trap door standing in front of a mirror, and the glass sheet could be used to project his image to the audience. The only concern would be that this could limit the blocking of the other actors, and it might not make the ghost visible to the audience members in the upper galleries, but it would still be an impressive visual effect that uses scientific principles known in the 17th century.
Pepper’s Ghost illusions are still used frequently in theme parks, trade shows, and concerts where singers interact with “holograms.” As a special Halloween treat, (or trick as the case may be), I’ve included a video that will allow you to make your own Pepper’s ghost at home. If you choose to make one, leave me a comment!
So, in conclusion, though we are taught that Shakespeare’s theater often reveled in simplistic theatrical designs, I personally think that there is more room to explore low-tech theatrical illusions like these, especially at companies like the Globe Theater and the American Shakespeare Company, which pride themselves on using Shakespeare’s original staging practices. Live theater has dodged giving up its ghost for 2,000 years by exploring the limits of live theater through movement, voice, story, music, and yes spectacle. I think theater practitioners, even Original Practitioners should keep innovating new kinds of spectacular means to keep creating fresh interpretations of Shakespeare, that still keep within the spirit of the play’s original time and place.
Bonus: If you want to learn more about the stage illusions of Shakespeare’s company, click here to listen to That Shakespeare Life Podcast with Cassidy Cash. In this episode, she interviews theater professor Frank Mohler, who describes how thunder and flying effects were done in the 17th century, using records of the period, and his own experimentation.
Playing a Disney princess is akin to playing a character in a William Shakespeare play. You’re not going to be the only one inhabiting the role, and chances are, you’re not even the first one to take on the part. These are characters that are bigger than one human being and that includes the people who wrote them in the first place. Figures like Ariel, Snow White, or Elsa endure for so long that they could never be tied down to just one performer.
Quote from DOUGLAS LAMAN ” The Untold Truth Of Brave.” Looper 2022
As I have done several times before on this site, I’m going to compare a Disney princess to a Shakespearean character, and if you’ve been paying attention, you can probably guess to whom I’m going to compare Merida, a Scottish woman who seeks counsel from a witch. That’s right, Lady Macbeth! But I’m not just going to write about how Macbeth is similar to Brave. In fact, I’m going to primarily focus on how they are not similar. I would argue that the film’s greatest strengths occur when it parallels and subverts a lot of the elements of Macbeth. I would further argue that the film’s greatest weakness is that it didn’t go far enough with these themes and ideas, and due to the film’s troubled (dare I say… CURSED) production history, it is frankly a bit unfocused and doesn’t have a successful conclusion because it didn’t commit to the ideas it set up at the beginning of the film.
In medieval Scotland, a young princess named Merida (Kelly MacDonald), is strong, a skilled fighter, and a superlative archer. Yet, these skills are irrelevant and invisible to her mother Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), who believes that a princess should strive to be beautiful, poised, diplomatic, and willing to sacrifice her own freedom for the good of the realm. This is why she has positioned her daughter, the heir to the throne, to marry one of her father’s allies, which she has no interest in doing.
Merida chafes at her mother’s controlling nature and wishes to change her fate. First, she defies her mother openly by challenging her suitors to an archery contest, and (in a glorious mash-up of Robin Hood and Odysseus), she defeats them all with three excellent bullseyes!
Faced with her child’s rebellion and the diplomatic disaster that her behavior caused, Ellinor is of course furious. Earlier in the film, Ellinor mentions that a selfish prince brought his whole kingdom into bloodshed and war because of an act of defiance like this. Mother and daughter have a bitter argument that causes Merida to leave home and try to change her fate a different way.
Merida follows the legendary Will O’the Wisp into the forest and meets a witch, who promises to brew her a potion to change her fate and….
[Spoiler alert] This is where the story gets ridiculous. It turns out that the potion changes Merida’s mother into a bear. The second half of the movie is basically a Brother Bear ripoff where a character turned into a bear has to learn the error of their ways, and deal with being an animal. Yes, there’s conveniently a monster bear called M’ordu who Elinor has to fight as a bear to protect Merida, and with her mother unable to speak, Merida finally has to speak to the lords like a princess, which is all well and good, but the drama and character arcs set up in the first half are completely muddled once Elinor consumes that potion.
The cursed production
I was completely baffled by the choice to make Ellinor turn into a bear, especially given how grounded the first half of the movie was, but I want to make it clear- I do not blame the creator. Brenda Chapman, the original writer/ director had a very personal and clear vision for the story, as you can see in the quote below.
[I was inspired by] My love of Scotland, the old Grimms and Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales, but mostly my relationship with my daughter. She has been quite a challenge to my “authority” since she was five years old. I love that she is so strong, but it sure doesn’t make my job easy! She is my Merida … and I adore her.
Brenda Chapman, Ms. Magazine 2012
Chapman, who also directed The Prince Of Egypt, is clearly a very talented writer and director. It’s hard to know what the original story Chapman envisioned was, but as the quote above indicates, it was always intended to be a fantasy story that explores the relationship between a mother and daughter. Maybe the bear transformation was part of Chapman’s original idea, but I have to believe it would have been handled better than this.
In any case, the production suffered because Chapman found herself at odds with John Lasseter, Pixar’s CEO. Their clashes no doubt made it harder to develop the story in a productive way. Chapman points out that her being a female director, trying to tell the story of the first-ever female Pixar protagonist was in itself a ‘hard sell’ to the higher-ups at Pixar.
“I hit a lot of the issues with being a woman and also trying to put forward a female-led story.” She also claimed that her conflicts with former Pixar chief creative officer John Lasseter related to her being let go as the director of “Brave.” Chapman further remarked that plans to shift “Brave” to a father-daughter narrative didn’t work out and the film circled closer back to her original mother-daughter vision.
Brenda Chapman, writer and original director of “Brave”
By contrast, look at how the second director Mark Andrews describes the experience:
So it’s kind of like we are all pals and there’s a really good camaraderie and support system here, so if I’m sitting there going “I’m drowning! I’m drowning! I’m failing and I don’t know what’s going on, I need help!” they are there to help.
“I will not trust you, aye, nor no longer stay in your cursed company, DISNEY!”
So you can see that the decision to sack both Chapman and her original idea for the script probably cost Pixar precious time that they couldn’t use to develop the film; they must have grudgingly realized that throwing the mother-daughter relationship story aspect away wouldn’t work, and had to rescue that idea instead of developing it through the rest of the script.
So when I came on, I looked at it and I go “Okay, I just need to strip this down to who’s story is it? It’s Merida’s. Let’s go back to the basics with Merida and clean everything out. What does she need to learn? What is her arc? How is she going to go through this story? Who are the characters around her? Who is her biggest foil? Well that’s her mom, right? Why?” I had to just take all of these elements that they already had, but focus them down and clear a lot of the clutter away. There was a lot more magic involved and the magic was affecting the environment. “Do I actually need that to tell the story?” So there were those things.
In addition, the new director probably didn’t have a personal connection to the story, nor the support of the studio. I think it’s fair to say that based on Andrew’s description, Pixar was a bit of a boy’s club (at least in 2012), and I get the feeling based on the results of the film, that they weren’t putting as much effort into this story that features a female protagonist. If I were making this film, I’d probably connect the two halves of the story and borrow liberally from tropes in the story of Macbeth.
Shakespearean tropes in “Brave”
First of all, I’d like to mention that there are veteran Shakespeareans in the cast and creative team- Elinor is voiced by Emma Thompson, one of the greatest Shakespeareans of our time. Further, the movie is scored by Patrick Doyle, who did the music for every one of Kenneth Branaugh’s Shakespeare films. You can read about both of them in my review of Branaugh’s Henry V.
Trope 1: Fate vs. Responsibility
As in my review of Encanto, the title character of Macbeth is not the protagonist of Brave. In fact, he’s barely seen in the film at all, but he is mentioned many times; the wicked prince who eventually becomes the fearsome bear Mor’du.
Obviously, there are also parallels with King Lear, where the patriarch splits his kingdom between his children, and their cruelty and selfishness lead to civil war. However, I feel the Macbeth parallel is even more pronounced. Not only is the story set in Scotland, but the wicked prince feels entitled to the throne, and uses witchcraft to try and obtain it.
Both Banquo and Macbeth encounter the witches, but only Mabeth takes their prophecies to mean he must kill the king. He and his wife choose a dark fate and show themselves to be lacking in morals. Macbeth becomes an internal monster, while Mor’du becomes monstrous in every way.
What makes Mor’du work is that he is literally a cautionary tale for what Merida may become- her mother tells his story to warn her that if she continues to selfishly value herself above her kingdom, she may cause chaos and bloodshed, which she nearly does when she humiliates the lords at the archery contest.
Trope 2: Magic as forbidden desire
The film centers around the ancient Scottish myth of the will-o-‘the-wisp, which guides characters to their destinies. Like The Force, there is a dark and light aspect to the wisp. Sometimes they help people improve their fates, while sometimes they tempt people to their doom.
Both Merida and the wicked prince follow the wisp to a witch’s cottage and they both ask for the same thing- to change their fate. The prince asks for strength so he can win the civil war and become king, while Merida asks for the ability to change her mother’s mind.
It’s also interesting that everything in the witch’s shop is bear themed. This could be a weird quirk of hers, or it might be another subtle way to thematically bind these two characters together. Maybe the old witch can sense these characters have similar spirits. It’s also interesting that the witch keeps carving bears when she gives up witchcraft, perhaps out of guilt for creating the monster Mor’du. As I mentioned in my post on the witches, they might not necessarily be evil, they merely facilitate the fate of the characters.
Trope 3: Toxic Masculinity and patriarchy
Witchcraft has long been a shorthand in theater and film for female power. Sadly, in Macbeth, it is framed as monstrous, that is, both attractive and morally wrong. When Lady Macbeth prays to dark spirits, it is because she seems unable to find any kind of power for herself, and resorts to witchcraft.
The raven himself is hoarse That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan Under my battlements. Come, you spirits That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full Of direst cruelty!
Lady Macbeth, Act I, Scene 5.
As this funny sketch from Second City indicates, in a modern context, Lady Macbeth’s problem isn’t that she wants power or wants to make herself queen, it’s that she goes about it the wrong way. I absolutely love the way the actress says: “I really need a job.” It’s hilariously tragic the way the sketch sums up how useless and isolated this character feels.
Sorry about the ad, but again, this sketch is useful to contextualize Lady Macbeth’s frustrations with a patriarchial society- if female power is considered abhorrent, she feels she has no choice but to use abhorrent means, which begs the question- which is more evil- dark magic, or the patriarchy?
Merida and Lady Macbeth have the same problem; society has pre-determined their fate as nothing more than wives and mothers which is why they both seek out magic to change that fate. Likewise, Macbeth and Mor’du are driven by toxic masculinity to change their fates by violently seizing power.
What’s great about this film is that it has buried within all its silly bear comic subplot, a clever spin on a classic tale that touches on patriarchy, ambition, and greed. Like Encanto and Lear, what I like about Brave is that it takes Shakespearean tragedy as an example of what almost happened to the main character. I wish that some of the fluff and fur was trimmed off this story and that Brenda Chapman’s vision for the film was truly realized, to make the film a true masterpiece.
This is a 30 minute cartoon version of Macbeth originally produced for the BBC in 1992. It features Brian Cox as the voice of Macbeth (before he was the voice of McDonald’s), and Zoë Wanamaker as Lady Macbeth (before she was a witch who teaches at Hogwarts).
I like the way it portrays the horror imagery of the play in sort of a European-manga animation hybrid. Admittedly, there are better ones in the series, but this one is still pretty neat.
To check out other episodes in the series, view this playlist:
In this 9 week course, students will discover Shakespeare’s greatest characters- Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and others through games, dramatic readings, and interactive projects! -The class is designed to be ala carte- you can learn about all these plays, choose a specific play to focus on, or do the entire course. Each class will have a game of some kind, an engaging quiz, and a short explanation of the setting, characters, and motifs of one or more plays. Each class will also include a close reading of a famous speech.
Background on the Tragedies- the Wheel of Fortune
I will explain the basic structure of Elizabethan tragedies and the concept of Fortune, which is a motif Shakespeare uses in all of his tragedies. I will also debate the concept of “The Tragic Flaw:” the notion that otherwise good people are brought down by single character flaw. Finally, we will quickly summarize the premise behind all 11 of Shakespeare’s tragedies.
The Greek Plays
I will summarize Shakespeare’s two tragedies that are set in ancient Greece and provide commentary on their themes and ideas. I will also draw parallels between the Ancient Greek tragedies of Aeschylus and Euripides and Shakespeare, with a particular emphasis on the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s beliefs on the function of tragedy, which influenced every major drama for the last 2,000 years.
The Roman Plays- From Republic to Empire
We will take a bloody, backstabbing journey to ancient Rome, and discuss how Shakespeare shows through these four plays the dissolution of a republic into an empire. We will discuss the themes of democracy, dictatorship, mob rule, and savagery. Plays covered: Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Titus Andronicus.
In addition to the character and his speeches, I’ll draw parallels to the history behind the play, including witchcraft in the Jacobean era, and the Gunpowder plot against the king!
“Othello”- The Lovers and the Devil
I will talk about how Shakespeare dramatizes race and prejudice in the context of Othello’s struggle with prejudice and his own jealousy.
“King Lear”- The Blind Fools and the Hermit
I will discuss the complex plot of Shakespeare’s tragedy about old age, blindness, betrayal, and families ripped apart by greed.
Think Like a Director
I will teach the students to think like a director and develop a concept for the characters, set, lights, etc. I’ll also briefly take you through famous productions of these great tragedies by the Royal Shakespeare Company and others.