Fair is foul and Foul is fair
By Zack Lynch
Judith: How many this time?
Shag: Dead? 13. Maybe more.
Judith: 50, 539.
Shag: You can’t count the war dead. I’m not responsible for the war dead.
– from Equivocation
In Equivocation, the first exchange between playwright Shag and his daughter Judith subtly questions the bard’s readiness to “off” most of his literary creations. Judith then calculates the suspected mortality rate of Shag’s current draft, much to his disapproval. Through this interaction, playwright Bill Cain exposes his characters’ inner infatuation with death and violence. Once presented with this interesting notion, the audience may begin to run their tally of just how violent Shagspeare (or his historical counterpart Shakespeare) may have been throughout the canon of his work.
While theater audiences in Elizabethan and Jacobean England enjoyed Shakespeare’s comedies, it was the bloody and destructive appeal of the tragedies that packed the houses. Subsequently, Shakespeare continued to provide the “blood and guts” that audiences readily expected from him. Cain expertly uses the character of Shagspeare in Equivocation to reveal the moral issues surrounding the use of violence and death onstage as a message. Did Shakespeare have an agenda that transcends the action onstage and challenges the beliefs and behaviors of the monarchy, the audience and perhaps himself?
Between the suicides, murders, and combat causalities, it is hard to determine whether the fallout of Shakespeare’s violence onstage was pure entertainment or cautious warning. The horrors found in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus lead to one of his most successful performances. It is also not coincidence that Shakespeare’s tragic masterpieces have their fair share of blood, sweat and tears. Shakespeare was even known to add more gruesome details to his original sources – Hamlet’s father is poisoned with a potion so potent that it immediately causes bubbling scabs on his body, King Duncan is lured to Macbeth’s castle to be slaughtered in his bed, etc. Shakespeare took the liberty to make the demise of his characters stand out through gory details or moral ambiguity.
Whether or not Shakespeare structures his violent plots out of truth or ambiguity, Cain paints a picture of a playwright struggling to depict treason, violence and death onstage without consequence from his dishonest royal commissioners. Shagspeare turns the tables on his enemies by doing what he does best – imagining the most grim, gruesome and gory circumstances and exploding them onstage. It is here where Shagspeare (and maybe even Shakespeare) creates arguably his most effective propaganda.
While the malevolent trials of the Gunpowder Plot inspire the dramatic character of Shagspeare, his historical counterpart already had provided a plethora of unfortunate demises for his audiences. Since the evolution of theater in Ancient Rome, Elizabethan playwrights use death and violence as means of appeasing their demanding audience. It is the spectacle that draws the crowd. Whether inspired by revenge, love, lust or greed – these characters met their maker in the very same public manner as the period’s treasonous criminals (whether they were guilty or not). Equivocation uses some of this imagery to not only scare Shagspeare and his troupe but also to remind contemporary audiences of the grisly consequences for daring to oppose those in power. These dramatic deaths provide glimpses of the human being’s evil aspirations to Shakespeare’s audiences.
Shakespeare uses his greatest “hits” to force his audience to reflect on their belief system and choose whether or not they will die following in the footsteps of his most famous heroes and villains. Here’s a roster of the most violent murders, assassinations and executions from Shakespeare’s plays.
Hamlet’s Father – Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, assassinated Hamlet’s father by pouring the “juice of cursed hebenon” in his ear while he slept in his orchard. Shakespeare based this assassination on a real event in 1538 when the Duke of Urbino was poisoned by lotion rubbed into his ears by his barber.
Hamlet and Laertes – After their rapiers are unknowing switched, Hamlet and Laertes scuffle with one another. Hamlet grabs Laertes poisoned rapier and wounds him – causing Laertes to die from his injury. Hamlet soon follows his fallen enemy, when he too feels the cold steel of the poisoned rapier.
Duncan – Scotland’s noble king lies down to sleep, only to meet his demise during his slumber. Macbeth poisons the king while visiting his castle.
Lady Macduff – Macbeth’s henchman chase down Lady Macduff and slaughters her offstage. Shortly after, her son meets the same fate by the same murderers.
Macbeth – Macduff and Macbeth fight viciously in hand-to-hand combat before Macduff reappears onstage. He carries the severed head of Macbeth.
Desdemona – Falsely accused of adultery, Desdemona is smothered to death by her jealous husband, Othello.
Duke of Clarence – The pitiful Clarence is wrongfully arrested and jailed in the Tower of London by his brother, Richard. After waking one evening from a nightmare, Richard sends two henchman to his brother’s cell. Clarence pleads for his life, but one assassin stabs him. To ensure Clarence’s death, the first murderer drowns him in a “malmsey butt” cask of sweet wine that also contains the severed heads of two hogs.
Lavinia – After being raped and mutilated by Queen Tamora’s two sons, Chiron and Demetrius, Lavinia meets her end thanks to her father, Titus. The patriarch does this to spare his daughter from “further shame”.
Titus Andronicus – Titus confesses that he baked Queen Tamora’s two sons in the meat pie Saturninus and Tamora chew. Saturninus promptly kills Titus after his delightful dinner revelation.
Aaron – Aaron, a vengeful and demented Shakespearean character, laughs at his death sentence by newly crowned emperor Lucius. Aaron shall be buried up to his neck in sand and starved to death.
Zack Lynch is a 2011 graduate of Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C., where he received his B.F.A. in theater performance with a concentration in directing. As a director, Zack led and assisted multiple productions, from epic musicals to intimate dramas. His favorites include Bright Lights Big City, The Women, Baby Food and Marble. After graduation, he moved from the beaches of Delaware to Washington to continue his arts career. Currently an artistic and development intern at Washington Ballet, he relishes the opportunity to “bridge the gap” between theater and dance at TWB and Arena Stage, respectively. Zack began volunteering with Arena Stage in August 2011.
Extras & Insights is funded, in part, by a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities.