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Shakespeare's Bloody Problem: Why the Tragedies Almost Never Work Anymore

Photo-illustration by Ritterized. Photos by T. Charles Erickson (Hawke); Stephanie Berger/Courtesy of the Park Avenue Armory (Branagh); Joan Marcus (Spacey); Richard Termine (Stewart).

One character, his torso already relieved of arms and legs, is tossed onto the barbecue. Another’s hands and tongue are severed to keep her from reporting a crime. (She’s then stabbed to death anyway.) Two more characters are beheaded; one behanded; one hanged. For those who like their violence more ironic, there’s this happy couple: the man left buried up to his neck to starve, the woman fed a pie made from the minced remains of her sons. The meal may give her heartburn, but it’s the subsequent stabbing that kills her.

A Game of Thrones episode? No, it’s Titus Andronicus, the Shakespearean tragedy whose death toll of 14 leaves only three main characters alive at the end. Do we care that its plot has something to do with a Goth queen’s vengeance on a cruel Roman general? We do not; it’s so crazily violent it almost leaps genres directly to farce. (Julie Taymor’s 1999 film version is chic torture porn.) And if Titus is sometimes given a pass, being Shakespeare’s first tragedy—he wasn’t yet 30—what’s to explain the gory overkill of the great “mature” tragedies, churned out in an astonishing spurt that began seven years later? Othello, I grant you, has only three stabbings and a smothering, all structurally necessary and dramatically coherent. But the others are massacres. Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth (to which I’ll add Richard III, though it’s technically a history play, and of Titus’s vintage) depict 39 unpretty deaths, leaving aside whatever supernumerary corpses a director might wish to strew upon Bosworth field or the hill of Dunsinane.

These would be idle statistics if the four plays I mention were performed only as rarely as Titus, but they appear to be the most popular noncomedies in the canon, at least in New York. (The slightly less fatal Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, and Julius Caesar are also slightly less frequent visitors.) Theater critics thus have the opportunity—provided almost entirely by Shakespeare, since contemporary drama is notably short on gore—to watch hundreds of people die horribly each season. Most of my reviewing colleagues seem to enjoy this; audiences must, or producers wouldn’t offer the same quartet so often. But with five major Macbeths in the past three years (including Kenneth Branagh’s current one) as well as the adaptation Sleep No More, and four major Lears planned in 2014 alone (plus a goodly smattering of Richards and Hamlets always in the offing), I find myself dreading the shedding of even one more drop of Shakespearean stage blood. As a result, I have come to loathe the sight of those four titles on press releases. Or perhaps not the titles so much as the executions they portend; rarely do I see the plays done well enough to justify the awfulness they ask us to witness. And if they’re not properly awful, what’s the point? Do Much Ado and be done with it.

So at the risk of being quartered and spit-roasted by outraged bardolaters, let me ask: Are Shakespeare’s big tragedies, however bloodily enacted, now ineffectual onstage?

The problem, if it is one, is partly in the plays and partly in us. I can’t help noticing, as I watch them through splayed fingers, how all four are structured. In their first halves, Shakespeare dramatizes the intersection of intimate relations and political power, employing the most imaginative theatrical poetry ever written to knit the complexities together. But having climbed these wonderful stairways of insight, they then take a slide down Bloodbath Mountain. All the marvelous thickness of family intrigue in Lear and Hamlet, all the madness of marital love in Macbeth, all the knottiness of psychopathology in Richard seem to dissipate around the middle of Act Three, replaced by swordplay, death skits, war scenes, howling, eye-gouging, head-­severing, and pageants of frenzied murderousness. It’s almost as if Shakespeare didn’t trust his audience, or the part of it standing in the yard with oranges, to hang around for the second half unless he threw them a bone or ten. Of course, there’s still high-class poetry scattered amid the Grand Guignol for the groundlings, some of it as beautiful as ever. But it now floats free from the binding of story, like marooned islands of fat in a broken mayonnaise.

You will not be surprised to hear that Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater, which is presenting John Lithgow as Lear at the Delacorte this summer, responds to this caricature with “a resounding no.” “You may see that Grand Guignol aspect in Titus Andronicus and Timon of Athens,” he says, “but by the time Shakespeare is writing the great tragedies he’s not generally writing for two different audiences. He’s showing a very diverse audience what makes them one. He’s binding them.”

Binding them by a shared interest in violence?

“It’s not the violence but the extremity of emotion,” Eustis answers. “Shakespeare is unafraid to tackle those extremes. And he almost always gives you the opportunity to draw the violence out of the characters. For instance, in Lear, genuinely horrifying acts of physical violence are happening onstage. For that to work you have to believe that this degree of savagery has been unleashed in the world by Lear’s actions. If your attention is firmly rooted in the dramatic journey of the character and the play, in the idea that a few bad decisions can unleash everything that’s worst about human nature, the violence will be connected to that.

“But in the Scottish play,” he continues, using the euphemism for Macbeth, “that’s really difficult. Most productions fail because you reach a certain point and you feel you’ve come to the end of Macbeth’s spiritual journey, at about the time he sees Banquo’s ghost”—halfway through the play, in the middle of Act Three. “There is no more to find out about him after that, and you do get the feeling that Shakespeare decided to kill off Macduff’s wife and kids”—in Act Four—“to compensate for what may have been a thinness in his central character. That’s where some productions descend.”

I think he’s right, except that in my experience Lear “descends” just as often as Macbeth, if not oftener. I’ve never seen a Lear work all the way through; if it hasn’t foundered before, it always does so by Act Five, scene three, when the two evil daughters, after enacting a scene from Dynasty, croak serially. On the other hand, I have seen two Macbeths that managed to keep their balance. One—the National Theatre of Scotland version with Alan Cumming that played on Broadway last year—did so by setting the entire play within the fevered mind of a mental patient. (The murder of Macduff’s son was efficiently represented by a wee empty sweater.) Whether the result was really Macbeth is arguable, but it was coherent. The other is Branagh’s, now playing at the Park Avenue Armory. Within its theme-park trappings, it offers an integration of violence with scenic concept and dramatic development I can only compare to a modern musical. No accident that in staging the production Branagh was joined by Rob Ashford, who initially made his name as a choreographer. The violence throughout is as carefully considered, as varied in style and intensity, and as smoothly woven into the narrative as a scoreful of well-wrought (if totally unhummable) song and dances.

But these are exceptions. A more typical experience of the tragedies was the one provided by Patrick Stewart’s 2008 Macbeth, preemptively set in an abattoir. (We will pass over Ethan Hawke’s, last fall, apparently set in a mumblecore movie.) Or the Old Vic Richard III at BAM in 2012, in which Kevin Spacey finessed the inconsistencies of the text by shouting at them for nearly three and a half hours. And though this sometimes worked, especially when Spacey was funny, the director Sam Mendes couldn’t really do anything about the pileup of violence in the second half except top it with a final sickening gesture: Spacey hung upside-down like Mussolini. It did not send me out of the theater worrying about the fate of evil men in an evil world but rather about the poor guy running the rig. What if he dropped Spacey?

Making the violence more baroque and gross doesn’t make it more effective; lacking a connection to the way we think about violence today, it just looks silly. It should be an insight, not a cudgel, thus justifying Macduff’s exclamation upon finding the bloody corpse of King Duncan: “Confusion now hath made his masterpiece.” This rarely happens. (Gloucester’s eyes and Macbeth’s head often elicit titters.) Mostly, the corn syrup and red dye just seem gratuitous, as easily shrugged off as the far more realistic depictions of mayhem that are instantly available on websites and cable, in movies and video games. This is the part of the problem that’s not in the plays but in us, inured as we are by omnipresent simulacra of violent death. Theater’s frenzied attempt to compete with digital gore is bound to fail, because stage violence is necessarily false and actors are ineffably real.

Ashford and Eustis agree that the stage should not even enter that competition; on the other hand, Eustis adds, a medium so uniquely “fleshly” cannot abandon the depiction of violence. “Our physical bodies taking the damage, on both sides of the footlights, is a deeply powerful use of the theater,” he says. In Ashford and Branagh’s Macbeth, the most effective effects are suggestive and multisensory: the bodies knocking against the wooden sidings that divide the muddy playing area from the audience; the acrid smell of that mud; the cacophony of swords. (We never actually see Macbeth’s severed head.) But this also suggests that directors (and fight choreographers) have a fine needle to thread if the theater is to do its duty of reacquainting us with the consequences of our choices.

That those consequences are not usually palpable in our daily lives may be the heart of the problem. The kinds of violence so many of us actually worry about are hypothetical, happening elsewhere, to other people: terrorism, random crime, or soldiers off fighting in distant lands. In Shakespeare’s big-four tragedies, almost by definition, those are things we never see. The battles are right here. And the crime is always on purpose, specific, custom-made. It is perpetrated by family members and social climbers and, often enough, by potentates (or their henchmen) to effect a very particular, public end. To avenge a father. Hog an inheritance. Clear a path to the throne. Shakespearean stage violence thus seems metaphorical now: It bothers us, or doesn’t, without saying why. Unless you’re a Vince Foster fantasist, you do not believe our elected officials are ordering hits on opponents or inconvenient friends. Indeed, most of our politicians lack the tragic touch: They appear to have no awareness of their failings. They are more like characters in the comedies and odd romances—the benighted bumblers and entitled fools—than like Lear or Richard.

No, we can’t blame the kings anymore; we are the kings, and thus the tragic figures. Our hands may look cleaner than Macbeth’s, but (without getting too party-line here) we do pretty much what he did to maintain status. We just don’t acknowledge it. “We as a people are incredibly separated from the violence that for the most part supports our way of life,” says Eustis, a former red-diaper baby who calls even a theater critic “comrade.” “We’ve exported it to other places,” he adds, “or into the past.”

In short, Macbeth’s violence should be akin to that in 12 Years a Slave. We no longer flay housemaids with whips, but 100 years ago we did—somewhere, somebody still does—and we still have a race problem. So the violence of that film resounds. The trick is to find ways to connect the truths of how we experience and participate in such violence, if only by proxy, to the more literal forms depicted in the plays. I’ve seen it done, particularly in mash-ups of the Roman tragedies, where the assassinations—so familiar to us—help. Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “radical edit” of Antony and Cleopatra at the Public this winter began to get at a contemporary idea of violence by making Rome a kind of Napoleonic France and Egypt a colonial Haiti. The themes of sexual and political dominance immediately snapped into line (though other things snapped out). And four years ago, Daniel Sullivan, who directs this summer’s Lear, turned Shakespeare’s ickiest comedy, The Merchant of Venice, into a nearly coherent tragedy. At any rate, the baptism of Shylock was the most meaningfully violent thing I’ve ever seen in a Shakespeare production. Of course, Shakespeare didn’t write it.

If it takes scissors and paste to restore this crucial aspect of the power of the tragedies, so be it; Shakespeare, in more ways than one, is public domain. His characters are always connected to the damage they do. We should not be horrified by that so much as scared: scared that if we were put in an analogous position we would do the analogous thing.

*This article appears in the June 16, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.