"The Body of Richard and the Afterlife of Shakespeare"
“There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted.” So says Frank Underwood
(Kevin Spacey), a contemporary Richard III. To which we might respond:
“The King is dead, long live the king?!”
Volume 42, Number 2
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Almost exactly a year ago, the skeleton of King Richard III was found. During an archeological dig in Leicester, England, the bones were discovered and DNA testing proved them to be Richard’s “beyond reasonable doubt.” The skeleton told a new story of Richard’s death: two violent blows to his head, ten wounds, and evidence of “humiliation injuries” in keeping with stories of his naked body having been put on display. The bones were squeezed into a “roughly-hewn grave” too small for the body, “forcing it to be squeezed in to an unusual position.” Supporters of the King, especially from the Richard III Society, were quick to say they hoped the discovery would force “academics to re-examine history,” especially the many “false claims” surrounding him (Jones, n. pag.).
Learning of this strange discovery reminded me of visiting the Richard III museum in York, England. I travelled there in 2001 when I was researching Richard Loncraine’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s
Richard III (1995). The museum is located near the city’s ancient walls, and nothing but the building itself is directly connected with the time Richard lived. The display is dominated by fabricated tabloid news headlines about the king, images of the crook-back including pictures from Laurence Olivier’s film, and a fabricated trial of Richard on posters and audiotape. The tape of “Richard III’s trial” for the death of the Princes is played every fifteen minutes, the voices being heard from a speaker behind a mannequin dressed in roughly Elizabeth garb, standing in a makeshift witness box. The voices on the tape (lawyers for the defense, Richard III, Henry, Elizabeth) speak in a mixture of “ye olde English” (“m’ lord,” “my liege,” and so forth), quotations from Shakespeare’s play, and modern speech. Museum visitors are invited to listen to this trial and then make their own judgment by signing in the “guilty” or “not guilty” guestbook (on a cursory look, I saw each book had about the same number of entries). There are many posters around the museum about the false impressions of Richard generated by Shakespeare (inspired, in turn, by More), gesturing to the possibility of reaching a more authoritative truth and an authentic Richard through another fictional re-enactment. But this anachronistic museum is perhaps the strangest “factional” construction of them all, inviting visitors to play the game of writing history.
Shakespeare made Richard larger than life, and the role has been given mythic status by numerous great actors including Laurence Olivier, Ian McKellan, and Kenneth Branagh. The mesmerizing power of the character, especially in his diabolical charm, cannot be confined by a grave or a room. Whatever the historical truth may be, and no matter what slander the Richard III museum attaches to Shakespeare’s play, he still shaped Richard into far more than the Vice characters that preceded him; surely we cannot but be mesmerized by him as masterful puppeteer of others’ lives, especially when he directly invites us to take pleasure in his terrifying powers of rhetorical manipulation.
The grave and the room at the Richard III museum are contained spaces, but Shakespeare’s Richard still speaks to us beyond the bounds of all places. Perhaps the most startling re-examination of Richard is in Kevin Spacey’s performance in the American (Netflix) adaptation of a BBC television show,
House of Cards (2013- ). It would be an exaggeration to say that Spacey’s character, Frank Underwood, is Richard. However, Frank’s dry wit, rhetorical acumen, indomitable will for power, and capacity for absolute ruthlessness remind me repeatedly of the King. This is most clear in Frank’s many asides, when he speaks to us as his co-conspirators, barely able to conceal his own glee while he destroys other people’s lives. Spacey has, not incidentally, recently played Richard III in an extended run of Sam Mendes’s production for the Old Vic Theater in London. As Frank, he functions like a Richard who will never have to face his comeuppance in Act Five. It is entirely possible to appreciate Spacey’s performance without Shakespeare’s character in mind. However, having identified the connection, I cannot watch
House of Cards without feeling haunted by his predecessor. Keeping the play in mind, superimposing it upon a viewing of
House of Cards like a thin layer of tracing paper, makes both the darker and playful details of the show more perceivable. Equally, for all Richmond’s closing platitudes at the end of Shakespeare’s play, it is as if Richard has found a new way to live. He has escaped the grave and moved from England. Frank is the new “boar” who devours ribs, hates children, wields the power of his Lady Macbeth-like wife, and needs no horse.
However we view any one of Shakespeare’s characters, all adaptations of his work give them new afterlives. In our first article, Christopher Bertucci focuses on the often sidelined Bianca subplot of
The Taming of the Shrew and the relationship between Bianca and Kate in particular. He argues that two major film adaptations (the 1967 film directed by Franco Zeffirelli, set in the sixteenth century, and
10 Things I Hate About You, the 1999 film directed by Gil Junger, set in a contemporary high school) show a “sisterly bond between Kate and Bianca” that creates a “space for feminist resistance,” even if that same relationship is “strained at times” (414). The sisters of Zeffirelli’s film resist patriarchal power, without this being explicit or necessarily representative of the play. And though
10 Things has often been read as an example of antifeminist backlash, Bertucci makes modest claims for the film’s having progressive potential, especially in its representation of Bianca. Neither film is entirely conservative or progressive: instead, both films resonate with Stuart Hall’s conception of popular culture as “the arena of consent
and resistance” (qtd. in Bertucci 421, my emphasis).
In the next essay, John Garrison provides an analysis of queer desire and self-erasure in
Coriolanus (2011). He foregrounds the homoeroticism of the film, particularly as it is embodied by the characters of Coriolanus and his enemy Aufidius when they combat each other. In so doing, Garrison illuminates the curious power of the film as it conflates seemingly irreconcilable oppositions: violence and sexuality, fighting and loving. Drawing on the work of Sigmund Freud, Laura Mulvey, and Judith Butler, he also analyzes the shifting identity of Coriolanus, especially as it is subject to the terrifying will of his mother, as Coriolanus expresses his own desire for “ego dissolution” (429), and as the film represents the visual and verbal fusing of Coriolanus’s and Aufidius’s identities. Ultimately, he argues that the film’s themes of “identity loss, violent masculinity, and eroticism” are inextricably related to each other (431).
Next, Robert Geal explores how the films Anonymous (2011) and
Shakespeare in Love (1998) represent the concept of authorship. In particular, Geal considers how the “Death of the Author” is thematized in both films. Within these adaptations, the processes of construction (the re-telling of at least one originary text) cannot be altogether obliterated, and yet Geal argues that the self-reflexivity of Shakespeare is contained within conservative, suturing structures. For all its self-conscious playfulness, Shakespeare in Love may be read as a relatively safe representation of the author’s control over his text. Anonymous presents a more complex case: the title creates the expectation of allegorizing “cinema’s inherent unauthored seamlessness” (443), yet the film also re-mythologizes the presence of the author behind the text (even if it is Oxford writing the name “William Shakespeare” on his plays). That said, Geal also points out that the film ironically presents the author’s signature as a lie, thus denying a “true author” or source of meaning (445).
Ronan Ludot-Vlasak focuses on an episode of the television show
Cold Case Files titled “Stalker,” a family murder-mystery that repeatedly alludes to Romeo and Juliet “as a legitimizing strategy” (452). The episode invokes the play in many ways: through direct quotation, a character named “Romeo,” its narrative structure, and a strong visual allusion to the film adaptation directed by Baz Luhrmann (1996). Rather than arguing that the episode adapts a core or “real” meaning of Shakespeare’s play, Ludot-Vlasak applies Robert Stam’s arguments for the open structures of intertextuality in which all final meanings are deferred. More specifically, he argues that “Stalker” calls direct attention to some darker elements of the play, most notably through making desire inseparable from night and death. The episode joins a broad conversation of critical investigation as it challenges Romantic readings of the play’s protagonists and their all-consuming love, and as it transforms the tragedy to a thriller with elements of the gothic genre and the horror film. “Stalker” contributes to the afterlife of the play, while also decentering its untouchably “high” (or canonical) status.
Johnathan H. Pope provides a provocative analysis of Strange Brew (2010), a film for television that has been frequently dismissed as but a lowbrow and loose comedy with superficial similarities to
Hamlet. Conversely, Pope argues that it is a “thoughtful adaptation” of the play (461). More specifically, Pope argues that the film is a metacinematic and metatheatrical exploration of adaptation processes. The evaluative claim for whether or not it “succeeds” as a reworking of
Hamlet becomes irrelevant in this context. At first glance, the relationship between
Strange Brew and Hamlet seems strained: the film’s primary location is a brewery, its narrative is focused on “mind-controlling beer,” and the connections lie in straightforward elements of plot and characters’ names. But Pope argues that the film critically engages with processes of “appropriating, commodifying, and adapting Shakespeare” (463), especially through its self-conscious use of parody. Moreover, as Pope shows, the relationship with Hamlet is far from casual, especially as the film explores key themes of the play.
In the final essay of this issue, Amanda Kane Rooks provides an equally provocative analysis of how Ophelia is represented in the 2000 film adaptation of
Hamlet directed by Michael Almereyda. Rooks begins by noting a troubling pattern in contemporary representations and performances of Ophelia that fetishize and objectify her beauty, disempowerment, and victimization. She argues that the Ophelia of Almereyda’s film (played by Julia Stiles) has an unusually progressive level of agency that gives her “ideological potency” (475). For Rooks, Almereyda positions Ophelia as Hamlet’s “double” (476), standing with him against the cruel and corrupt corporate world in which they live. She reads Stiles’s performance as much more capable of resistance and protest than the Ophelias of other film adaptations of the play, including those played by Jean Simmons, Helena Bonham Carter, and Kate Winslet. Unlike Simmons’s “disturbingly pitiful ignorance” (478), Winslet’s sexualized mania, or Bonham-Carter’s most “erotically inspired insanity” (479), Stiles’s Ophelia emerges as the embodiment of more assured female agency. She is neither weak nor sexualized in a titillating way. Unlike the other Ophelias who seem to understand too little, this Ophelia comprehends too well how she is entrapped by the patriarchal world around her.
We hope our readers will enjoy these original contributions to scholarship on recent Shakespeare adaptations. Our authors show how they all contribute to the afterlife of the playwright, much like Frank Underwood adds to Richard III’s life beyond the grave.
 This production is part of the “Bridge Project,” a “transatlantic partnership of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Old Vic and Neal Street Productions” (McNulty, n. pag).
Jones, Bryony. “Body found under parking lot is King Richard III, scientists prove.” CNN. 5 Feb. 2013. Web. 11 Mar. 2014.
McNulty, Charles. “Theater Review: Kevin Spacey in “Richard III” in London.” Los Angeles Times. 1 July 2011. Web. 11 Mar. 2014..
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