Human vs. Hero
By Farrell Parker
SHAG: Armor won’t make you noble. A robe won’t make him royal. Better jokes won’t make him more or less of a fool than he already is. You already contain everything that’s noble, foolish, royal. Have the courage to be what you already are! The thing itself.
SHARPE: Which is?
In Equivocation and You, Nero, we get a sneak peek into lives and legacies of two less-than-perfect and beloved rulers: King James I of 17th-century England and ancient Roman Emperor Nero. Both leaders commission playwrights to write them into their plays as heroes, in hopes of actually turning themselves, in the eyes of the public and of history, from tyrant to champion. Playwrights Bill Cain (Equivocation) and Amy Freed (You, Nero) both toy with two different definitions of the word “hero.” One definition carries vernacular connotations of praiseworthiness; the other, the Aristotelian definition, is a bit more tragic – stating that a true hero always possesses a fatal flaw.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines hero as “a person, typically a man, who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities; the chief male character in a book, play, or movie, who is typically identified with good qualities, and with whom the reader is expected to sympathize.” This definition is presumably what King James and Nero hope for when they command playwrights Shagspeare and Scribonius to theatricalize their life stories. They are searching for sympathy and admiration.
The Aristotelian definition of “hero,” laid out in Aristotle’s Poetics in the fourth century B.C.E., is more about misfortune. As well-versed tragedians, Shagspeare and Scribonius (not to mention Cain and Freed) know how to write this kind of hero. The Aristotelian hero is one “who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty.” Such a hero inspires fear but also pity in the audience with his ultimate downfall. The goal of the Aristotelian hero is catharsis for the audience, but it requires the hero to fall far and fall hard. When James and Nero imagine themselves as heroes onstage, they are certainly not looking for those consequences.
As such, the playwrights must stay one step ahead of their patrons, since their integrity and their lives depend on it. The task of Shagspeare and Scribonius is to craft plays that show King James and Nero in a positive light (to save their lives), while subversively conveying the truth (to maintain their integrity). It is a perilous task. As Shagspeare says in Equivocation, a good reason not to write “histories of the present.”
Though the playwrights are under the control of tyrants, theyhave great power in wielding the mirror and are charged with revealing to King James and Nero their true identities. This anagnorisis, the Aristotelian goal of providing their “heroes” with discovery and recognition of their flaws, is necessary for James and Nero to understand their stories. The irony for King James and Nero is that tasking the playwright to write them as heroes could lead to their ruin; it is only when a hero witnesses his downfall that he recognizes his flaw. The Aristotelian hero encounters this recognition too late. The result is a glimpse at our humanity.
Think about the role of the hero in contemporary society. Who are our everyday heroes? Who are our tragic heroes? Do those who we witness in their fall still inspire pity and fear? Is seeing their downfall enough to prevent us from making those same mistakes? Do we in fact need these cultural tragic heroes to maintain civilization? How does today’s media take on the role of the playwright in terms of holding a mirror up to our leaders? Both Equivocation and You, Nero inspire all these questions and many more.
Born and raised in northern New Jersey, Farrell is a graduate of Boston Univ. and a recent D.C. transplant. An event planner and actress, she is an advocate for good food and good theater. Farrell has been volunteering with Arena Stage since 2011.
Extras & Insights is funded, in part, by a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities.