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Thursday, November 22, 2012

He gives you what you want, and then some.

Finally have time to sit down and re-watch The Hollow Crown: Henry IV part 2. Last night it hit me. Of the many things Shakespeare does, one thing he does exceedingly well (in his best work, of course) is to give the audience what they expect, just like Hollywood blockbusters and popular culture, and then something else that subverts the expectation.

In his time, Shakespeare was no low-budget indie filmmaker embarking on a path of artistic enlightenment separate from popular consumption. He had to sell tickets. He was no Paul Thomas Anderson or Jim Jarmusch or John Sayles. There was no virtue in shunning the box office for art. He had to give people what they wanted. 

So he did. He gave them a ruthless, blood-sucking loan shark of a Jew. He gave them a black man who comes to a white man's home and takes away his daughter with his virility. He gave them patriotic, rousing battle cries on St. Crispin's Day and blood-boiling victory at Agincourt. He gave them a pair of star-crossed young lovers. He gave them the sword-crossing revenge climax they sat through the entire play for. Oh, he was not going to turn away his ticket-buying audience by questioning their stereotypes and prejudices and needs for a good tale with a satisfying end. No, he put on a good show and gave them what they wanted. 

And then he gave them more than what the audience bargained for and, after satisfying their expectations for assurance, he fucked with their mind with just a little more. The loan shark Shylock questions, "If you prick us do we not bleed?" The black man says, "the one that loved not wisely but too well." The soldiers question what was in it for them bleeding and dying in the mud of Agincourt. Falstaff sneers, "What is honour? A word." 

So we leave the theater but are haunted long after. In the back of our mind a suspicion stirs that he was in fact fucking with us, that in fact the Jew is us, the black man is us, and the evil, twisted villain, Richard III, is us too. 

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