Columns > Published on April 23rd, 2014

LURID: Bardic Birthday Bloodfeast

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.

Happy 450th birthday William Shakespeare – if you are indeed the William Shakespeare who wrote all the plays and poetry and not some random guy with the same name who also happened to live in sixteenth century Stratford-Upon-Avon.  If indeed that guy was the guy. And if this is even the correct day, with the playwright’s nativity so auspiciously timed to coincide with the feast of St. George, patron saint of England…

Conspiracy theories aside, we should be celebrating the supreme artist known as Shakespeare for many things in this anniversary year, not least the way he embraces violence in his storytelling.  Four and a half centuries on from the entrail-smeared stages of Elizabethan and Jacobean London, modern audiences find certain scenes in certain plays still wrench at the gut. 

Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories contain lurid moments of murder, torture, mutilation and suicide – heads roll, guts spill, eyes are gouged out and hands chopped off.  Yet the violence is never casual or gratuitous, as it is in so much modern entertainment.  It is perpetrated by and on the main characters, a direct result of the choices they make and the consequences they must resolve. It is inescapable, part of their flawed human condition, integral to their moral struggle and honor code.  It packs an emotional punch that resonates long after the final curtain, rather than delivering an instantly forgettable thrill.  Shakespeare’s representation of violence is so raw and powerful it still tickles our desensitized twenty-first century palates.

'Master of the killing phrase'

Shakespeare was nothing if not inventive when it came to murder: stabbing, poison and double teen suicide in Romeo and Juliet; beheadings and infanticide in Macbeth; eye-gouging and hanging in King Lear; strangulation (and more stabbing) in Othello; pustule-inducing poison poured into the ear in Hamlet; venomous snakes clasped to the breasts of maidens in Antony and Cleopatra; and fatal immersion in a vat of Malmsey wine in Richard III. Although, in fairness, Shakespeare stole the last from historical traditions regarding the final fate of George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence, who supposedly devised his own method of execution by adult beverage.

Shakespeare’s representation of violence is so raw and powerful it still tickles our desensitized twenty-first century palates.

Theatre of Blood (1973), starring Vincent Price, functions as both an introduction to and a greatest hits of Shakespeare’s kills. Price plays a failed Shakespearean actor, Edward Kendal Sheridan Lionheart, who returns from the dead to wreak vengeance on the circle of critics who denied him an award, giving it instead to a “twitching, mumbling boy”.  Aided by a deranged gang of meths-glugging transients, Lionheart lures each critic into a re-enactment of a memorable moment in Shakespearean tragedy, plundering lesser-known horrors such as the multiple stabbing from Julius Caesar, the tying of Hector to a bolting horse’s tail from Troilus and Cressida, Imogen waking up next to a headless corpse in Cymbeline, and Joan of Arc’s burning at the stake from Henry VIth part 1, along with the more notorious examples listed above.

The thousands-strong audiences flocking into London’s Globe or Swan theatres in the latter half of the sixteenth century would have relished a screening of Theatre of Blood.  Elizabethan tastes in popular entertainment ran from barbaric to bloodthirsty.  The theatre was only one option for an afternoon’s pleasurable pursuits – others included cock- or dog-fighting, bull- or bear-baiting, hangings or witch-duckings.  To compete, the newly opened public theatres presented equally savage spectacles.  Dramas incorporated torture, rape, tavern brawls and battlefields, all liberally spattered with the go-to stage effect of fresh pigs’ blood (and guts), delivering the look and the stench of death.

'Now is the winter of our discontent'

This ongoing atrocity exhibition reflected the grim realities of life in the late sixteenth century. Death was an all-too familiar specter at the Elizabethans’ feasts. They suffered high infant mortality rates, outbreaks of bubonic plague, smallpox, tuberculosis and cholera, plus all manner of fatal accidents: archery is a particularly dangerous sport for spectators, and drowning while performing ablutions – in tubs, rivers and cesspools – also claimed a lot of victims. 

They also carried a lot of knives (for eating), axes and cudgels about their daily business and drank heavily, which meant that disagreements over the dinner table often escalated into culpable homicide.  Exacerbating an already volatile situation, crop failures in 1586, 1590, 1595, 1596, and 1600 led to increased poverty and vagrancy, with cutthroat thieves prowling the highways between towns and the dark alleys within.  Returning soldiers swelled the numbers of desperate homeless.  England was embroiled in continuous foreign wars from 1585 to 1604, and made heavy use of conscription (around 15% of able-bodied men aged 15-59).  After a brutal period of military service many conscripts found themselves destitute, isolated from protective family structures, unable to find work. 

These were dangerous years to be walking the streets of London, which is perhaps why metropolitan audiences reveled in the blood-drenched tragedies on offer as entertainment. Shakespeare wasn’t the only game in town in the 1590s: Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1589), a truly lurid tale of insanity, the supernatural, murder and suicide, outsold everything else in sight, and audiences also thrilled to the work of Christopher Marlowe. These playwrights provided a moral framework for the malfeasance they experienced as part of city life. Within the confines of the theater and their narratives, villains were punished, meaning wrought from senseless violence, resolution achieved, lessons learned. 

Drama also offers catharsis, emotional release gained from watching others’ suffering played out on stage; the more extreme the suffering, the more satisfying the catharsis, or so the theory goes.  Violence, bloodshed and suffering are major components of Richard III, Titus Andronicus, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice and Julius Caesar, tragedies all written and produced in the last decade of the sixteenth century, Shakespeare’s first as a professional writer.  The cruelties inherent within them reflect both the showman’s desire to play to the cheap seats, and the artist’s desire to filter the savage preoccupations of his time.

'Revenge should have no bounds'

Titus Andronicus (1593/4) is by far the bloodiest of these plays.  It contains so much carnage that for centuries questions have been raised about its authorship – could the Bard really be responsible for such butchery? Set in the decadent last days of the Roman Empire, the plot centers on Titus, a general who has been engaged in a successful ten-year campaign against the Goths.  He returns to Rome in triumph, turns down the opportunity to be emperor, and plans to spend a peaceful retirement in the bosom of his family.  Unfortunately for Titus, his last actions as a general (the capture of Tamora, Queen of the Goths, and the execution of her eldest son as vengeance for his own slain heirs) have sown the seeds of destruction.  Tamora marries the new emperor, Saturnius, and uses her influence to wreak horrific vengeance on Titus and his family.  Titus, the battle-hardened soldier, retaliates, and soon they’re locked into a vicious eye-for-eye, hand-for-hand, child-for-child cycle of revenge that leaves barely a character untouched.  The action incorporates crowd-pleasing scenes of murder, mutilation, rape, and cannibalism, but it also asks some challenging questions about honorable and dishonorable conduct in war, and explores the consequences of applying martial principles to civilian life.

Between the 1660s and the 1920s Titus Andronicus languished outside the canon, unperformed, except in bowdlerized versions.  Shakespeare’s original text was only revived after the horrors of the First World War had been absorbed into the zeitgeist.  It was staged at the Old Vic in 1923 as part of a ‘Complete Works’ project, and was one of the biggest successes of the seven-year cycle.  Subsequently, twentieth century audiences embraced the play and it became a popular, if notoriously difficult to stage, addition to the repertoire, with major actors relishing the challenge of the roles:  in 1955, Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh (who were still, if miserably married) played Titus and his daughter Lavinia in a Royal Shakespeare Company production.  Julie Taymor’s 1999 film version attracted an all-star cast, with Anthony Hopkins as Titus, Jessica Lange as Tamora, Harry Lennix as Aaron the Moor, and a nubile Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Chiron.

Titus Andronicus has also proven remarkably robust when it comes to setting: directors have staged it against a backdrop of war in the 1940s, Mussolini’s Italy, South Africa in the era of apartheid, Mao’s China, and in styles that range from harsh realism, with murders shown in the spotlight, to eerie symbolism, with most of the bloodshed implied and offstage.  The measure of any production is usually the first time Lavinia appears after her hands and tongue have been cut off.  Sometimes, her torment is represented via metaphor, as streams of red ribbons emitting from her mouth and stumps.  Sometimes, as in Lucy Bailey’s 2006 production at Shakespeare’s Globe, she is covered in such realistic gore that when she reveals the raw flesh of her fresh-lopped limbs, groundlings faint in shock.  Either way, Shakespeare’s riffs within the play on aggression, and his exploration of the depths to which both men and women sink in the service of vengeance remain as vivid and evocative in the 21st century as they were to his contemporary audiences.

Nonetheless Titus Andronicus, in all its bloody glory, is an early work.  As Shakespeare hit his stride and (along with his theatre company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men) found his eager, paying audience, he penned two or three plays per year throughout the 1590s, developing his voice, honing his language, and expanding his concept of violence as an intrinsic but unpleasant element of the fallen human condition.  While other playwrights were responding to the cheers and catcalls of packed houses and heading towards the ultra-violence of Jacobean tragedy, Shakespeare was on a different path.  Fifteen plays after Titus, in 1600, he turned again to the core topics of murder and revenge, but this time from an entirely different perspective: Hamlet

'My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth'

In Hamlet – and in the major tragedies that followed, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth – Shakespeare doesn’t stint on gore.  There were bills to pay, and onstage murder was the easiest way to guarantee fat box office receipts.  The shift came in the way the protagonist contemplated interpersonal violence. Titus, and the tragic heroes who followed (Romeo, Prince Hal, Brutus) perpetrate violent acts as part of an inviolable honor code – hurt me and I will hurt you.  Murder gives the narrative dynamic impetus, propelling the perpetrator faster, harder in the direction he was already headed. 

In the later tragedies, there’s less of a sense of the inevitable, of a set course of lethal action.  The protagonist desists from crowd-pleasing violence (often under duress, or subject to temptation), angsting about choices (which include non-violent solutions) until the moment he doesn’t, and only then is he lost. Hamlet’s all talk until he slays Polonius, then there’s no going back.  Macbeth is mere sound and fury until he kills Duncan and unleashes a maelstrom of bloody payback.  Othello resists the full implications of Iago’s lies for the longest time before erupting into morbid jealousy. Lear, too, clings to his dream of peaceful abdication until Edmund’s machinations force him to call for the French army to invade and sort his reptile daughters out. 

This approach to violence as an intellectual, rather than an instinctive choice, driven by rationality and circumstance rather than the heat of the moment, is very modern, and reflects current preoccupations with nature/nurture and media influences.  By shifting his focus from the violent action to the thought processes driving it, by refusing to be satisfied with representation without elucidation, Shakespeare was future-proofing his fictions, keeping his characters and their misdeeds relevant for generations yet to be born. The influence of his tragedies is writ large on the current cultural landscape – from the revenge spiral of The Following to the messed up morality of Breaking Bad to Dexter’s soliloquizing to the unending power-plays of Game of Thrones

Shakespeare’s use of violence chimes with both his and our contemporary appetites for destruction, suggesting we are closer in nature to our Renaissance forebears than we might like to think.  Since the Age of Enlightenment, by way of the Romantics, and, more recently, the Greatest Generation, we’ve bought into the concept that we’re engaged in a one-way progression away from barbarity towards ever-more sophisticated civilization.  We believe we’re calmer, fitter, happier.   We’ve evolved beyond the urge to exact personal revenge for every wrong experienced. We put our faith in state-sponsored forces of law and order, trusting they'll address injustice on our behalf.  Yet, still we cling to our violent entertainments and the catharsis they bring.  Experiencing the savage intensity of Shakespearean tragedy serves as a valuable reminder of how far we haven’t come.

Theatre of Blood gets a Blu-Ray release on May 5th, 2014.  Features include a newly recorded audio commentary with horror aficionados The League of Gentlemen (Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith), plus interviews with author and film historian David Del Valle, star Madeline Smith and composer Michael J. Lewis.

About the author

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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