Shakespeare: an Observation of Life

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What is it about Shakespeare’s characters and stories that make us all able to relate in some way or another 400 years after they are written? Maybe it’s his take on inner conflict, or is it how he never portrays a hero as perfect, or a villain as all evil? There is a certain universal truth about the human condition in every story. Whether it is the tragic outcome of unchecked greed and ambition, an unrelenting desire for revenge, or the pursuit of love, his representation of human nature is just as real and as relevant today, as it has been through the centuries.

Most of Shakespeare’s characters are complex personalities led into tragedy by their shortcomings (Johnson). Even Shakespeare’s heroes are never just heroes; Shakespeare tends to build his stories through “false heroes” such as Othello, Anthony and Brutus, and “good villains” or “villains with a conscious” like Macbeth (Johnson). It is this type of inner conflict that makes Shakespeare’s stories so insightful and relatable. People love to identify with the hero. They like to think of themselves as heroes in their own lives and the success of a hero in a story makes them feel better about their chances of success in their own lives.

While a hero may be the object of any story, a hero is only as great as the obstacle he can overcome (Pattison). The obstacle can be almost anything, it could be a tornado ripping through a city or a killer great white shark, but it is the human villain that develops and changes as the story unfolds, that is the most relatable, and therefore the most interesting obstacle to overcome. Maybe this is because, unlike other obstacles, villains share commonalities with the average person, but they are perverted by some sort of extremism (Johnson), thus making them easy to hate but is still somehow relatable.

Shakespeare does a remarkable job creating relatable villains. Shakespeare’s villains are not horrible people with no sense of humanity, instead they are complex, misguided characters, often more complex and deeper than his heroes. Shakespeare’s villains are arguably the reason why Shakespeare’s plays so relatable and timeless. While most people might tend to classify characters into good and evil, but, just like most of us, Shakespeare’s characters are rarely divided so neatly into good and evil. Macbeth is a great example of one of Shakespeare’s characters that embodies both good and evil (Pattison).

He was once a respected man, but gave into the temptation of great power after being egged on by the person he respected the most, his wife Lady Macbeth (Jamieson). Shakespeare plays on a universal fear of humanity: the fear of giving into temptation. By making Macbeth, who is essentially good man, waver before succumbing to temptation, Shakespeare demonstrates that we’re all capable of great wickedness in life, and consequently, are all potential villains. The fact that Shakespeare plays on such a universal fear is what make Shakespeare’s story of Macbeth so adaptable.

A countless number of adaptations have been made worldwide, and cover a very wide variety of cultures. Akira Kurosawa’s Japanese adaptation Throne of Blood is one of the more well-known adaptations. Generally speaking, adaptations often have to alter the core story significantly in order to translate well for other audiences. However, Shakespeare’s Macbeth just happen to perfectly reflect the view that pride and personal ambition are negative qualities which is a core value in Japanese society, which probably made it easier for Kurosawa to film an adaptation for a Japanese audience with little alteration to the main story (Rosenbaum).

For Macbeth, his ambition led to the betrayal and murder of Duncan, Banquo, Macduff’s wife and children. Washizu, Macbeth’s Japanese counterpart, made the same mistakes that Shakespeare’s character did. When the spirit in the forest, the representation of the three witches, gave her prophecy to him and Miki, Washizu immediately began the same downward spiral that Macbeth made (Kurosawa). Washizu seemed much less willing at the start than Macbeth did (Shakespeare, pg. 841-951. ).

The evil brought on by the ambition led to a psychotic break for both Lady Macbeth as well as her Japanese counterpart, Lady Asaji (Jamieson). As I had mentioned earlier, Shakespeare liked to blur the lines of good and evil. He did just that with his play The Taming of The Shrew. This time he initially portrayed the heroes as villains, and the villains as heroes. One of the more interesting things about this play, and likely the reason why there are so many adaptions made, is that no one seems to agree on who the real hero is, and who the real villain is.

The truth is that almost every character in The Taming of The Shrew was the villain at one time or another; Petruccio was abusive to Katherine, Katherine was verbally abusive to nearly everyone, Bianca manipulated Lucentio to get what she wanted, Lucentio manipulated Petruccio, etc…( Shakespeare) As lighthearted as this play is it still manages to make a couple of points that relate to life. Firstly, things are not always as they seem, and secondly, that all of us have been the villain to someone at some point in our lives. The lack of a defined villain has caused numerous adaptions, each of which portray a different character as the villain.

The BBC adaptation “Shakespeare-Told: The Taming of the Shrew” focuses primarily on the relationship of Petruccio and Katherine (Richards). In this case Katherine was portrayed as the villain. They emphasized her verbal abuse, and downplayed Petruccio’s abusive actions towards Katherine, and, instead, portraying him more as an eccentric drunk than anything else. Making Katherine the primary villain helped develop Katherine’s character depth which in-turn caused the audience to become more emotionally connected with the whole story.

Even with all of the alterations made, the adaptation still managed to make one of the key points: things are not as they seem. Another well-known Taming of the Shrew adaptations is the modern day film adaptation 10 Things I Hate About You (Junger). The movie takes place in a modern-day high school that both Bianca and Kat attend. Their overprotective father will not let Bianca date until Kat does. Overall the movie follows Shakespeare’s play fairly well, but as with most “Shrew” adaptations, a few simple changes focus the villain status on only one character. In this case the villain is Bianca.

In Shakespeare’s play, Petruccio was a slightly abusive eccentric man that used food deprivation among other things to break down Katherine whereas Pat, his 10 things I Hate About you counterpart, is a charming, polite, guy with an undeserved bad reputation that won over Kat, Katherine’s counterpart, by treating her with nothing but respect. Although Kat was initially portrayed, in both the play and the film 10 Thing I hate about You, as a villain, The film goes on to develop her character further by explaining why she was acting like such a “heinous bitch” (Junger) which, in the end, makes her actions seem far more justifiable.

While these alterations were most likely made to update the play’s portrayal of gender roles to fit today’s views, these modifications also made Bianca the villain by default. While the film did make the original point: things aren’t always as they seem. By making Bianca stand out as the villain; the film stressed a more cautionary point that was not clearly made in the original play: Be careful of what you wish for. So what is it about Shakespeare’s characters and stories that are so universal?

What makes us able to relate in some way or another some 400 years after they are written? Regardless of the type of story, Shakespeare was always a keen observer of the human condition. His character portrayals displayed insight into human fears, shortcomings, and eccentricities (Johnson). The fact is that even when Shakespeare’s stories were not particularly profound (like The Taming of The Shrew), he always managed to engage the mind, heart, and other parts of the human psyche all at once.

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