The Goldfish Theory of Character or, Shakespeare is Dead

Content warning: The essay below very briefly deals with representations of abuse, self-harm, and rape as deployed by one of the narratives discussed.

I’m going to talk to you about the graphic novel Kill Shakespeare, written by  Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery, but first I need to talk about goldfish and the Magic Mike films.

Goldfish, as common wisdom tells us, grow to the size of their containers: a goldfish kept in a tiny bowl will be tiny, a goldfish kept in a large tank will grow to match the proportions of that tank.  Fictional characters work the same way.

Let me explain with an example: Steven Soderbergh’s 2012 film Magic Mike is a drama about a young man who befriends the titular Mike and falls into the seedy-glamorous world of male stripping.  It’s an amusing movie at times, but also a drama, filmed and performed in a vaguely documentarian style, and while the film suggests the upsides of being a male stripper (attention, sex, money) the overall plot concerns Mike’s desire to leave the “lifestyle” behind.

The sequel, 2015’s Magic Mike XXL, directed by Gregory Jacobs, is one of the weirdest things in the world to watch if, like me, you view it for the first time back-to-back with the prior film.  This is because the first movie’s generic constraints (a person desires to become respectable by escaping their affectively rich but at times dangerous and socially disreputable job) is directly at odds with the generic setup of the second (a person who left a fulfilling line of work finds life hollow and ‘gets the band back together for one last show’).  Characters who exist in both films must shift considerably in order to fit the new genre: the supporting cast of the first film, all visually striking (ie, they’re all pretty attractive dudes of various molds) and distinct but wholly static (they do not change at all from the beginning to the end of the film), are one-by-one reintroduced and given a touchpoint for their “arcs.”  For instance, “Big Dick Richie,” whose defining characteristic in the first film is “being the guy with the biggest dick,” is presented with a problem in Magic Mike XXL: he cannot find a woman to accommodate his extremely large dick, and this in concert with his aging is undercutting his sense of himself and his place in life.  In the course of the film he meets a wealthy, sassy, middle-aged wine mom who is more than happy to hook up with him for the night, and I would be lying if I said that this is not in fact a satisfying arc for this character in this film.

But my point is this: characters are like goldfish in that they can grow to match their containers.  Magic Mike XXL is fascinating to me because it is a totally different movie than its predecessor in almost every conceivable way, and yet its differences are in fact expansions of moments, elements, or ideas present in the first film.  It is, in short, a kind of fanfiction of Soderbergh’s movie: rather than trying to “continue the story” of the first movie (it ostensibly does this, but really it disposes of it entirely), Magic Mike XXL extracts the characters from that plot and its world and drops them into a new container, logically developing them from their starting points in the prior film but making use of the new container to take them in tonally different directions.

Now here’s the sad truth: goldfish don’t actually grow to match their containers.  There are, in fact, only sick and healthy goldfish.  A goldfish in a small tank with no or poor filtration will not be healthy enough to grow larger than its container.  A goldfish in a large aquarium with good filtration, plenty of food, and ideal temperatures will grow exceedingly well.  What makes the Magic Mike films work is not that characters are moved from small containers to larger ones, but rather they are moved between two basically very good containers well suited to letting them flourish to fulfill specific roles as the genre of the film necessitates.

Now, Kill Shakespeare.

Kill Shakespeare is a graphic novel series from IDW Publishing with a simple premise: all of Shakespeare’s characters are real and coexist, and some of them want to kill him.  Others do not, and try to stop the characters who want to kill him.  It’s extremely bad.  If you want to see my selection of “really awful moments” in the normal vein of internet snark, see this Twitter thread.  All these admissions aside, I’m not going to talk to you at length about how the comics are bad, but rather think about why, and what that can tell us.

In Act 4 of Hamlet, Hamlet is sent by Claudius to England to be executed.  In the play as we know it, pirates attack, Hamlet parleys with their leader, and negotiates his return to Denmark to conclude Shakespeare’s tragedy.  Very well!  In Kill Shakespeare, however, what happens is pirates attack and then go ahead and take Hamlet to England, where Richard III has joined forces with Macbeth and his Lady to hunt down a mythological being, a god and creator, “Shakespeare,” whose magical golden quill allows him to control the world.  Hamlet soon meets up with a rebel faction led by Juliet Capulet and Othello, with Falstaff serving as comic relief/a kind of Obi-Wan to Hamlet’s recalcitrant Luke (Prince Hal, meanwhile, is never mentioned, and apparently does not exist, since Hamlet fills his role as Falstaff’s second banana).

As premises go, this is not a bad one.  I can ask pedantic questions all day, of course, such as: why does Juliet refer to England as her “country” when she is, in Shakespeare, from Verona (and Hamlet continues to be from Denmark, the Macbeths from Scotland, etc)?  Why is Shakespeare god (the characters quite gratingly use the word “Will” in place of “God” in their oaths)?  Is this Shakespeare who is god the same Shakespeare we the readers know about, and is the England in which the story takes place in some sense “our” England, and if not, then what the fuck is this place and who are these people?

None of these questions are ever answered and they are pedantic because the point here is not to puzzle out an ontology by which all of Shakespeare’s creations coexist, but to provide you with an excuse to see them fight it out. Yet the premise falters because, say, unlike Fables — which uses fairytale logic native to its source material to cram together diverse character archetypes — Kill Shakespeare is stuck in an odd position of treating Shakespeare’s extremely specifically situated characters as if they were fairytale archetypes.  That is, the writers are torn constantly between telling a fairly straightforward Campbellian adventure story (Hamlet discovers he is a prophesied King of Shadows, whatever that means, and will return Shakespeare to his people) while also paying deference to the popular notions of these characters as “timeless types” (Hamlet constantly refuses his Campbellian call to action, but never for any clear reason, and he literally stops talking about Denmark at all after a certain point, leaving the entire plot of Hamlet hanging en medias res).

The problem is that Hamlet outside of Denmark turns out not to be very interesting.  The first volume of the four-volume series is particularly slapdash, introducing all the major players and fitting a vaguely Shakespearean skin over fairly archetypal characters (this is Juliet, the brains of the rebellion, here’s Othello, her bodyguard [and boy if that isn’t a representational decision worth pausing over], here’s Lady Macbeth, a femme fatale setting out to seduce and betray all the other villains, etc etc).  The second volume ends up being the most interesting, as this is when the writers start thinking through their decisions to transplant these characters.  It’s notable, also, that this volume is host to the few places where the comics explicitly invoke Shakespearean plots to then conspicuously modify them.

For instance: Lady Macbeth turns out to be a femme fatale because, since helping Macbeth to the throne of Scotland, she admits she was the one who’s thirsted for power all along, and she’s decided to take charge of her own life.  Okay, cool.  And Hamlet? Well, it turns out he has daddy issues because his father was actually not a very good king, and suspected everyone — including his brother and his own son! — of plotting against him, so Hamlet’s basically been charged with revenging a man he hates and who hated him.  Juliet explains how a last-second deviation from the well-known ending of Romeo and Juliet killed her lover but left her alive and heartbroken (plot twist: after Juliet and Hamlet have hooked up, that Romeo is still alive and he’s also a huge asshole, but anyway).  Both Othello and Iago escaped their altercations in Cyprus (though Desdemona was not so lucky…) and now they’ve been playing a game of cat-and-mouse across Europe or whatever the hell this place is.  These moments are when Kill Shakespeare is at its most interesting: when it’s very consciously attempting to adapt its extracted characters to their new environment, without the plot-points we use to traditionally render them intelligible.

But at the end of the second volume, Hamlet convinces Shakespeare (who’s been living in a cottage in the woods drinking and being a hot mess for no particular reason) to return during Juliet’s battle against Richard III.  Shakespeare’s magic quill, which supposedly grants powers of creation, here just shoots lightning bolts and kills people.  Anyway, Richard dies and Lady Macbeth (having long ago betrayed her husband with Richard) goes into hiding.  Falstaff dies, in the manner of comic relief/mentor characters everywhere, and Shakespeare goes off to wander his creation because I guess blowing up some of it made him want to see it again?

This is the point where the series really goes off the rails, as the story continues for two more volumes after the main plot has been entirely defused.  In the third volume, the writers decide to go into a “grimdark” direction — rather than pulling various characters together, they begin to reimagine them.  And so we have Prospero and Miranda,  alone together on their island: Miranda is clearly represented as a victim of domestic abuse (Prospero keeps her drugged/enchanted to the point of psychosis), self harm (she cuts herself), and rape (by Caliban, a giant furry wolf monster who speaks in broken English [and given these characters’ textual and critical history, there’s a lot to feel queasy about here]).  Let me be clear, as stupid as this all is, I’m not offended at what the writers have “done” to these characters because they are timeless, beautiful works of Shakespearean art, but rather that they have extracted and reinterpreted them in the laziest and crudest possible ways — especially after the prior volume showed such moments of interesting attention to how Shakespeare’s characters might deviate from what we know of them, rather than presenting their difference as inexplicable and obstinate fact.

The problem with this latter approach — presenting a character as just, for some reason, different, and yet also the same — is that it always raises the question of why even bother?  Why does Prospero, for instance, want to kill Shakespeare?  Because Shakespeare (who is god, remember) killed his wife, he alleges.  But how and why?  Was this a thing that literally happened, or is it an effect of how Shakespeare “wrote” Prospero?  Well, it turns out that Shakespeare ran a weird wizard school where he taught Prospero, Lady Macbeth, and Sycorax magic before he went off into hiding.  Also, uh, Sycorax was Prospero’s wife?  Or something?

The fourth volume is even weirder, as the protagonists are captured by yet another band of pirates, led by the masked pirate king Cesario, who has a lover, Viola.  These two characters are, in Twelfth Night, the same character, and if you know this and have watched The Princess Bride then you can guess that by the end Cesario will die and Viola will take over his identity.  But this Viola also has no twin brother and is not a shipwrecked noblewoman.  Indeed, aside from the Cesario/Viola payoff, there’s no clear reason for this to be Viola at all.  The climax of this volume — the final one to date, which resolves none of the dangling plot threads such as “why is any of this happening” — involves Viola’s confrontation with Young Lucius from Titus Andronicus, who is also a pirate, and apparently still an ancient Roman, but also, and get this: a cannibal.  It seems all the Andronici are cannibals now, even though in Shakespeare’s play Titus used forced cannibalism as a mode of revenge against his enemies rather than participating in it himself.  And the victim of his revenge — Tamora, Queen of the Goths — showed up earlier in the series as a ranger and scout for Richard III (in England), so, like, what is her relation to this story?

The thing about Kill Shakespeare, in the end, is that the tank it places Shakespeare’s goldfish in isn’t particularly good: the water is murky, the food slight.  Characters shift and change in interesting ways sometimes, and sometimes they are so translated it becomes confusing why we even bother recognizing them as Shakespeare’s characters.  And this is what I mean when I say that Shakespeare is already dead: these continuances of his characters, no matter how flimsy or stupid they might seem to me, are real continuances, and Shakespeare won’t stop them.  These writers are calling out the name “Shakespeare,” tapping into the wellspring of cultural capital, and trying to pay forward some conglomeration of ideas gleaned from the textual and popular corpus we call Shakespeare.

But Shakespeare is dead.  Or dead and alive, living in death.  He has been elevated, in the world of the comic, to the confusing status of the sovereign exception (as Giorgio Agamben would have it): he is an embodied man who somehow created the place he inhabits and the people he interacts with, who ostensibly controls this place and these people, even as they constantly threaten to dethrone and kill him.  Or as Harold Bloom would have it, Shakespeare is dead because Shakespeare has “invented” us as his readers even as we are constantly misreading him, and he can’t say boo about it.

Shakespeare is dead because, factually, the man is dead, but also because the Bard, in the popular imagination, is shorn of the specifics of place and time and genre that, as I argued before, are the trellises along which what we call in fiction “character” and in reality “personality” may grow.  In the place of Shakespeare as a personalized entity we are left with the curio cabinet of his various characters, left to us like action figures.

What the comic dramatizes is the confusing and incoherent narrative torsions by which popular culture continues to invest in an idea of Shakespeare’s creative supremacy and timeless universality even as such canonization threatens to efface and erase Shakespeare and his characters “as they really are,” instead installing in their place only tenuous connections, odd doubles, shadow-selves, remixes and riffs.  This is, in fact, what the Shakespeare industry is built upon: strategic movements of the erasure and the eruption of context as they relate to the Shakespearean text and its potential performances.  (I have a dissertation chapter on this, even).

Literary and artistic history is full of examples of people who have done extremely interesting things with Shakespeare’s goldfish.  Kill Shakespeare, for all its vaulting ambition, is not a particularly good caretaker: nevertheless, in seeing these goldfish flounder, we can trace in acute detail the mechanisms by which continuance and reproduction (mal)function.

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