The Plays of William Shakespeare

To anyone travelling to the UK, Shakespeare’s birthplace and home in Stratford-Upon-Avon is well worth a visit. Much of the blog post below was learned while visiting this unique historic site.

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Born in 1564, Shakespeare was the third child of eight children of John and Mary Shakespeare. He was given a grammar education, which at the time meant being in school 12 hours a day from 6 am to 6 pm learning English and Latin. The town would have been visited by travelling players from London and William would have performed in school plays throughout his years there.

John Shakespeare, William’s father was a glove maker and businessman, Bailiff [mayor] of the town of Stratford-Upon-Avon and a man who prioritised education for his sons. Years later John would procure a coat of arms for the Shakespeare family for approximately £20, marking him a gentleman and showing his aspirations for social standing. Mary Shakespeare, William’s mother, was a highly intelligent woman who inherited the lands of her father’s estate despite being the youngest child and a girl, perhaps due to her wit and good sense.

William, the child of intelligent parents, was thus born at a time of social ferment and learning, towards the end of the renaissance and the reformation, and during the expansion of the British Empire under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. He was given the best opportunity of his time for a common born youth. His schooling would have immersed him in not only the classics but also the latest and greatest of renaissance literature and thought. He did not have the privilege to go up to Oxford or Cambridge to continue his education, however he developed a rigorous work ethic which propelled him into the theatre world of London.

From the age of 21 William enjoyed a successful career as an actor and playwright in London. Young William it seems carried the discipline of long hours of work into his professional career, writing 39 plays, 154 sonnets, and two long narrative poems over his 30 year career. That is an average of one or two plays per year and nearly a 800,000 words of writing across his lifetime.

Despite achieving fame within his own lifetime and a degree of material wealth, Shakespeare is not known to have traveled outside of England. This is particularly notable since many of his works are set in locations around Europe and the near East. Rather than traveling to hear stories, Shakespeare simply reworked source materials from famous and not so famous works of classical and renaissance authors to form his narratives.

Below is a brief overview of the plays of Shakespeare and a brief note on how he would have been inspired to compose them.

SHAKESPEARE’S PLAYS

The Taming of the Shrew 1590 – 1592, was one of Shakespeare’s earliest works. It is set in a London alehouse and in Padua, in Italy and sources for the story include ‘1001 Arabian Nights‘ which Shakespeare may not have read but heard told, and oral folktale tradition from Europe.

Katherine [Kate] and Bianca are daughters of Baptista, a merchant. Various young men are in love with and wish to woo Bianca but are not permitted to marry her until her older sister Kate is wed. However Kate has a fearsome temper and is scornful of men. Who will tame the shrew Kate?

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is generally believed to be one of Shakespeare’s first plays and was written between 1589-1593 and set in Verona, Italy. Source material for the play include prose romance ‘The Seven Books of the Diana‘ by the Portuguese writer Jorge de Montemayor and the intimate friendship of Titus and Gisippus as told in ‘The Boke Named the Governour‘ in 1531 (and in The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio).

Valentine and Proteus are two friends. Valentine is setting out to travel to Milan but Proteus stays in Verona because of his love for Julia. Julia loves Proteus but does not show her heart passionately. Proteus later follows his friend to Milan and finding Valentine there and in love with Sylvia, also falls in love with the girl. The two friends quarrel. Julia arrives in Milan dressed as a boy to spy on her love Proteus. Will Proteus return to his love Julia? Will the two men save their friendship?

Henry VI – Part I, II and III believed to have been written in 1591 – 1592 are among Shakespeare’s first plays based on English history. They are drawn from source material in historians Hollinshed and Hall. The three plays are often together with Richard III placed in a Wars of the Roses saga, covering the era 1422 to 1485. The success of these history plays early in his career firmly established Shakespeare’s reputation as a playwright.

An England divided under a weak leader spirals from political unrest to all-out civil war. Allegiances are sworn and murderous factions fight for power, but with only one crown for the taking, who will be left standing to lead the country?

Titus Andronicus was written between 1588 and 1593, and is set during the latter days of the Roman Empire. Sources for the gruesome play could include In ‘Metamorphoses‘, Ovid and Seneca’s play ‘Thyestes‘ among others.

Titus, a general in the Roman army, is engaged in a cycle of revenge with Tamora, Queen of the Goths. The story entails human sacrifice, rape, cutting out of tongues, revenge including cooking Tamora’s sons in a pie and feeding them to her and her lover, and the burial of an enemy alive.

Richard III could have been written in 1592-3, shortly before the plague struck, or in 1594 when the theatres reopened post-plague. As with his earlier English history plays, Shakespeare drew on the histories of Holinshead and Hall.

Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is determined to gain the crown of England from his brother, the King Edward IV. He organises the murder of his brother George, whom he has had imprisoned in the Tower of London. When the king is ill, Richard places the young sons of Edward in the Tower and when the king dies Richard has the young princes murdered. Richard is proclaimed king and executes Buckingham who betray him. He is challenged in battle by Henry Tudor, the Plantagenet heir to the throne who defeats him and becomes Henry VII.

The Comedy of Errors was possibly written for Gray’s Inn Christmas festivities in December 1594 and is set in Ephesus, Turkey. The play is a modernized adaptation of ‘Menaechmi‘ by Plautus which was part of the curriculum of grammar school students.

Two sets of identical twins were accidentally separated at birth. Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant, Dromio of Syracuse, arrive in Ephesus, which turns out to be the home of their twin brothers, Antipholus of Ephesus and his servant, Dromio of Ephesus. When the Syracusans encounter the friends and families of their twins, a series of wild mishaps based on mistaken identities lead to wrongful beatings, a near-seduction, the arrest of Antipholus of Ephesus, and false accusations of infidelity, theft, madness, and demonic possession.

Love’s Labour’s Lost was presented before her Highness [Queen Elizabeth] in the Christmas of 1595. Set in Navarre, France, the text has no obvious sources though the four main male characters are all loosely based on historical figures;  Henry of Navarre (who later became King Henry IV of France),  Charles de Gontaut, duc de Biron, Charles, duc de Mayenne and Henri I d’Orléans, duc de Longueville.

The King of Navarre and his three companions attempt to swear off the company of women for three years in order to focus on study and fasting. Their subsequent infatuation with the Princess of France and her ladies makes them forsworn. In an nontraditional ending for a comedy, the play closes with a death and all weddings delayed for a year.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is often dated to 1595-96 and is set in a forest near Athens. Various sources serve as inspiration including Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses‘ and Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale“. The play’s plot of four lovers undergoing a trial in the woods can be a reference to ‘Der Busant’, a Middle High German poem. The play is consistently listed among Shakespeare’s most popular compositions.

Theseus, the Duke of Athens, is marrying Hippolyta (the former queen of the Amazons) and commissions a play. for the wedding feast. Four young Athenian lovers run away to forest where they become entangled with some mischief among the fairies there. A group of six amateur actors (the mechanics) are also controlled and manipulated by the fairies who inhabit the forest as the actors prepare the play for the wedding feast. 

Romeo and Juliet thought to be written around 1595 is among Shakespeare’s also most popular plays during his lifetime. It is set in Verona, Italy. Source material for the story includes Pyramus and Thisbe, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and The Ephesiaca of Xenophon of Ephesus. The plot is mostly based on an Italian tale translated into verse as The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke in 1562 and retold in prose in Palace of Pleasure by William Painter in 1567.

Young Romeo falls instantly in love with Juliet , who is due to marry her father’s choice, Paris. The two lovers belong to feuding families. With the help of Juliet’s nurse, the couple arrange to marry secretly and quickly. Unfortunately Romeo’s attempt to halt a street fight leads to the death of Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt, causing Romeo to be banished. In a desperate attempt to be reunited with Romeo, Juliet fakes her own death. However, the star crosses lovers are not due a happy ending.

Richard II was written in approximately 1595. It is based on the life of King Richard II of England (ruled 1377–1399) and like Shakespeare’s other histories is based on the works of Hollinshed and Hall.

King Richard II banishes Henry Bolingbroke, seizes noble land, and uses the money to fund wars. Henry returns to England to reclaim his land, gathers an army of those opposed to Richard, and deposes him. Now as Henry IV, Henry imprisons Richard, and Richard is murdered in prison.   

King John was written between 1595 and 1597 and dramatises the reign of John, King of England (ruled 1199–1216), it resembles an anonymous history play, The Troublesome Reign of King John (c. 1589), showing that Shakespeare perhaps influenced his contemporaries. Source material is like his other histories, drawn from Hollinshed.

King John goes to war against the French after claims that his nephew should be king instead. John has conflict with the church, orders his nephew’s death, and turns the nobles against himself. In the end, John dies from poison, the French retreat, and his son becomes King.

The Merchant of Venice was written around 1596 or 1597 and set in Venice, Italy. Many elements of the play can be found in the 14th-century tale Il Pecorone by Giovanni Fiorentino in 1558.  

Antonio, a merchant, takes a loan from Shylock, a Jew, to help his friend to court the wealthy heiress Portia. When Antonio can’t repay the loan, without mercy, Shylock demands a pound of his flesh. The heiress Portia, now the wife of Antonio’s friend, dresses as a lawyer and saves Antonio in a dramatic courtroom twist. 

Henry IV Part I and II  were probably written around 1596–98. Both parts are based on Holinshed’s Chronicles and form a series of English history with Richard II and Henry V. The plays were and have been popular with audiences and critics and ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ written to reprise the popular character Falstaff.

While crown Prince Hal spends time in the taverns, King Henry IV argues with his former ally Hotspur. Angry, Hotspur gathers a rebellion, and Henry and Hal go to battle to stop him. Henry’s army wins the battle, while Hal redeems himself from his wild youth and kills Hotspur. King Henry IV suffers from illness, so his youngest son Prince John fights the rebels, while Prince Hal prepares to be king. Meanwhile, Hal’s friend Falstaff causes trouble, recruits, and speaks ill of Hal. Henry dies, and Hal becomes King Henry V. He banishes Falstaff from court, ready to wage war on France.

Much Ado About Nothing was likely written in 1598 and is set in Messina, Italy. Stories of lovers being tricked into believing the other loved them were common at the time in Italy. Various elements of the story can be seen in  Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen and from Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Aristo.

Soldiers return from battle to the villa of Leonato who lives with his daughter Hero and niece Beatrice. A young solider Claudio falls in love with Hero, but Hero’s cousin Beatrice will not be tamed so easily. She trades witty blows with Benedict a soldier who has sworn off love. Leonato, Don Pedro and Claudio conspire to dupe the pair into believing the other is in love with them. Claudio is deceived by a malicious plot by Don Pedro’s wicked brother to believe Hero is unfaithful to him and he rejects her. She faints and is believed dead, but recovers to be proved innocent by a chance discovery. Will Benedict and Beatrice find true love? And will Hero and Claudio be reunited?

Henry V  was written in 1599 and like Shakespeare’s other English history plays is based on the work of Hollinshed and Hall. It tells the story of King Henry V of England, and focuses on the events immediately before and after the Battle of Agincourt (1415) during the Hundred Years’ War.

After an insult from the French Dauphin, King Henry V of England invades France to claim the throne he believes should be his. Henry stops an assassination plot, gives powerful speeches, and wins battles against the odds. In the end, he woos and marries the Princess of France, linking the two nations.

As You Like It is typically dated to late 1599 is set in the forest of Arden, France/ Belgium. The source of As You Like It is Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde, Euphues Golden Legacie, written 1586–87 which in turn is based on “The Tale of Gamelyn”.

Rosalind and her cousin escape into the forest and find Orlando, Rosalind’s love. Disguised as a boy shepherd, Rosalind has Orlando woo her under the guise of “curing” him of his love for Rosalind. Rosalind reveals she is a girl and marries Orlando during a group wedding at the end of the play.  

Julius Caesar was written around 1599 and is set in Rome, Italy in 44 BC. Along with Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra, it is based on true events from Roman history. The main source of the play is Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives.

Conspirators convince Caesar’s friend Brutus to join their assassination plot against Caesar and to stop him from gaining too much power in Rome. Brutus and the conspirators kill him on the Ides of March. Marc Antony, Caesar’s ally, drives the conspirators out of Rome and fights them in a battle and defeats them. Antony then returns to rule in Rome. 

Hamlet was written around 1600 and is set in Denmark. It is Shakespeare’s longest play and was one of his most popular works during his lifetime and still ranks among his most performed. The story was derived from the 13th-century legend of Amleth, by Saxo Grammaticus and retold by the 16th-century scholar François de Belleforest in his Histoires tragiques.  

The ghost of the King of Denmark tells his son Hamlet to avenge his murder by killing the new king, Hamlet’s uncle. Hamlet feigns madness, contemplates life and death, and seeks revenge. His uncle, fearing for his life, also devises plots to kill Hamlet. The play ends with a duel, during which the King, Queen, Hamlet’s opponent and Hamlet himself are all killed. 

The Merry Wives of Windsor was written around 1597 – 1601 and it is set in Windsor, England. It was written at the request of Queen Elizabeth I who much loved the character of John Falstaff the fat knight who featured in Shakespeare’s earlier Henry plays. Source material for the story may have been adapted from Il Pecorone, a collection of stories by Ser Giovanni Fiorentino.

Falstaff decides to fix his financial woe by seducing the wives of two wealthy merchants. The wives find he sent them identical letters and take revenge by playing tricks on Falstaff when he comes calling. With the help of their husbands and friends, the wives play one last trick in the woods to put Falstaff’s mischief to an end.

Twelfth Night was written in 1601 as a Twelfth Night’s entertainment for the close of the Christmas season.  It is set on the island of Illyria in the Adriatic Sea. The “Twelfth Night” is a the last day of Christmas Day in which servants often dressed up as their masters, men as women and so forth thus leading the plot of gender reversals and general silliness. Elements of the story are drawn from the short story “Of Apollonius and Silla” by Barnabe Rich, based on a story by Matteo Bandello.

Viola, separated from her twin Sebastian, dresses as a boy and works for the Duke Orsino, whom she falls in love with. Orsino is in love with the Countess Olivia, and sends Viola to court her for him, but Olivia falls for Viola instead. Sebastian arrives, causing a flood of mistaken identity, and marries Olivia. Viola then reveals she is a girl and marries Orsino. 

Troilus and Cressida is dated to around 1602. It is set in Troy during the Trojan wars in Ancient Greece. It has been described as a problem play due to its mix of genres between comedy and tragedy leaving audiences somewhat confused by it. Sources of the story include Chaucer’s version of the tale, Troilus and Criseyde, and John Lydgate’s Troy Book.

Trojan prince Troilus falls in love with Cressida, as war rages around them. After vowing to be faithful, Cressida is traded to the Greek camp, where she then agrees to see another man. Troilus witnesses Cressida’s unfaithfulness and vows to put more effort into the war. The play ends after further deaths on both sides, and with no resolution in sight.

Othello was written around 1604 and is set in Venice, Italy. It is an adaptation of the Italian writer Cinthio’s tale “Un Capitano Moro” (“A Moorish Captain”)  (1565) which was not available in English meaning Shakespeare read Italian.

Iago is furious about being overlooked for promotion and plots to take revenge against his General; Othello, the Moor of Venice. Iago manipulates Othello into believing his wife Desdemona is unfaithful, stirring Othello’s jealousy. Othello allows jealousy to consume him, murders Desdemona, and then kills himself.

Measure for Measure was performed at court for Christmas 1604, and was probably written earlier the same year. It is set in Vienna, Austria. The source material “The Story of Epitia”, a story from Cinthio’s Hecatommithi, [1565] and the same book as the source story for Othello.

The Duke leaves Angelo in charge of Vienna, where he quickly condemns Claudio to death for immoral behaviour. Angelo offers to pardon Claudio if his sister, Isabella, sleeps with him. Isabella agrees but has Angelo’s fiance switch places with her. The Duke returns to spare Claudio, punish Angelo, and propose to Isabella.

All’s Well That Ends Well is usually dated 1605 is set in Paris, France. The play is based on a tale (tale nine of day three) of Boccaccio’s The Decameron.

Helen heals the King of France, and the King grants her permission to marry Bertram, the man she loves. Bertram rejects her and leaves a list of tasks that she must do to have him acknowledge their marriage. She follows him to Italy, completes all the tasks, and Bertram accepts her as his wife. 

Timon of Athens is estimated to have been written around 1605 -06 and it is set in Athens, Greece. It is likely to be based on a story within  William Painter’s Palace of Pleasure, also the the main source for All’s Well That Ends Well.  He also drew upon Plutarch’s Lives, and perhaps Lucian’s Dialogues.

Wealthy and popular, Timon of Athens helps his friends, gives many gifts, and holds a feast. After ignoring his true friends’ warnings, Timon runs out of money, and none of his “friends” will help him. He runs away to a cave where he curses humanity, finds gold, funds someone to destroy Athens, and dies.

King Lear was written around 1605-06 and is derived from the legend of Leir of Britain, a mythological pre-Roman Celtic king. Shakespeare’s most important source is probably the second edition of The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande by Raphael Holinshed, 

King Lear divides his kingdom among the two daughters who flatter him and banishes the third one who loves him. His eldest daughters both then reject him at their homes, so Lear goes mad and wanders through a storm. His banished daughter returns with an army, but they lose the battle and Lear, all his daughters and more, die.

Macbeth was first performed in 1606 for King James I and Shakespeare’s source for the story is the account of Macbeth, King of Scotland, Macduff, and Duncan in Holinshed’s Chronicles, a history of England, Scotland, and Ireland.  

Three witches tell the Scottish general Macbeth that he will be King of Scotland. Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth kills the king, becomes the new king, and kills more people out of paranoia. Civil war erupts to overthrow Macbeth, resulting in more death.

Antony and Cleopatra which is dated 1606, was performed at court in 1607. The plot is based on Thomas North’s 1579 English translation of Plutarch’s Lives (in Ancient Greek). It is set in Alexandrian Egypt and Rome, Italy during the Roman Republic.  

Mark Antony, one of three rulers of Rome, is in love with Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. Antony is summoned back to Rome, where he clashes with another ruler Octavius before returning to Cleopatra in Egypt. Now in battle with Octavius, Antony and Cleopatra suffer losses and miscommunication, and both eventually commit suicide.

Coriolanus was perhaps written in 1608 and is largely based on the “Life of Coriolanus” in Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. It is set in Ancient Rome.  

Roman general Coriolanus makes his name defeating an enemy army and defending Rome. The Senate nominates him as consul but he cannot win the people’s vote, so he is banished from Rome and allies with his old enemy. He comes to attack Rome, his mother persuades him not to, and his new-found ally kills him for the betrayal.

Pericles  was written around 1608 and is set in Antioch, Turkey and Tyre, Phoenicia. Source material for the play comes from Confessio Amantis (1393) of John Gower, a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer and Lawrence Twine’s prose version of Gower’s tale, The Pattern of Painful Adventures

Pericles, Prince of Tyre leaves home to escape death only to win a jousting contest and marry a princess. Once he can return home, his family sails with him, but a storm separates them, so Pericles returns alone. Years later, Pericles finds his daughter and reunites with the wife he had thought was dead. 

Cymbeline written around 1610 is grounded in the story of the historical British king Cunobeline, which Shakespeare likely found in Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles. The plot and subplots of the play are derived from other sources, namely from story II.9 of Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron.

King Cymbeline of Britain banishes his daughter Innogen’s husband, who then makes a bet on Innogen’s fidelity. Innogen is accused of being unfaithful, runs away, and becomes a page for the Roman army as it invades Britain. In the end, Innogen clears her name, discovers her long-lost brothers and reunites with her husband while Cymbeline makes peace with Rome.

The Winter’s Tale written around 1611 was based on Robert Greene’s pastoral romance Pandosto, published in 1588. It is set in Sicily and the Kingdom of Bohemia which is the modern day Czech Republic.

The jealous King Leontes falsely accuse his wife Hermione of infidelity with his best friend, and she dies. Leontes exiles his newborn daughter Perdita, who is raised by shepherds for sixteen years and falls in love with the son of Leontes’ friend. When Perdita returns home, a statue of Hermione “comes to life”, and everyone is reconciled.

The Tempest written in about 1611 is set on an unknown island in the sea. There is no clear single source for the play but “Naufragium” (“The Shipwreck”), in Erasmus’s Colloquia Familiaria (1518) and Richard Eden’s translation of Peter Martyr’s De orbo novo are considered to be several.

Prospero uses magic to conjure a storm and torment the survivors of a shipwreck, including the King of Naples and Prospero’s treacherous brother, Antonio. Prospero’s slave, Caliban, plots to rid himself of his master, but is thwarted by Prospero’s spirit-servant Ariel. The King’s young son Ferdinand, thought to be dead, falls in love with Prospero’s daughter Miranda. Their celebrations are cut short when Prospero confronts his brother and reveals his identity as the usurped Duke of Milan. The families are reunited and all conflict is resolved. Prospero grants Ariel his freedom and prepares to leave the island.

Henry VIII was written around 1613 and tells of the life of the last Tudor King of England. The first Globe theatre burnt down in a fire that started during a performance of the play when a canon fired for special effect set the thatched roof alight. The reconstructed Globe Theatre on London’s Southbank has a thatched roof and carefully installed sprinkler system since all thatching was outlawed after the great fire of London in 1666 which destroyed nearly one third of the city. As usual in his history plays, Shakespeare relied primarily on Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles and the play avoids many of the sensitivities related to Henry’s reign.

King Henry VIII listens to Cardinal Wolsey too much and gives him power, which the Cardinal uses to convict a duke of treason. Henry meets Anne Boleyn, divorces his wife Katharine, and marries Anne. Anne gives birth to Princess Elizabeth who the Archbishop prophesies will become great.

The Two Noble Kinsmen is a tragicomedy, written around 1613 was Shakespeare’s last plays. Its plot derives from “The Knight’s Tale” in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and is set in Ancient Athens.

Theseus wages war on Creon. Two soldiers, Arcite and Palamon, in Creon’s army fall in love with Princess Emilia, Queen Hippolyta’s sister and Theseus proposes a public tournament between the two for Emilia’s hand. The loser will be executed. Before the tournament, Arcite prays to Mars that he win the battle; Palamon prays to Venus that he marry Emilia; Emilia prays to Diana that she be wed to the one who loves her best. Who will win the fair Emilia’s hand?

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Soon after this final play, Shakespeare retired to Stratford-Upon-Avon where he died three years later in 1616, just before is 53rd birthday.

His literary legacy in unparalleled. Gifted with language and poetry, he is known to have invented over 1700 words and phrases used in the English language today and his works have been translated into every major language. His plays are continuously performed around the world and he is globally acknowledged to be the greatest writer of all time.

The Good Guy/ Bad Guy Myth

This article was written by Marina Benjamin and published in Aeon Magazine on 25th January 2018.

For the original article please click HERE:

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The first time we see Darth Vader doing more than heavy breathing in Star Wars (1977), he’s strangling a man to death. A few scenes later, he’s blowing up a planet. He kills his subordinates, chokes people with his mind, does all kinds of things a good guy would never do. But then the nature of a bad guy is that he does things a good guy would never do.

Darth Vader

Good guys don’t just fight for personal gain: they fight for what’s right – their values.

This moral physics underlies not just Star Wars, but also film series such as The Lord of the Rings (2001-3) and X-Men (2000-), as well as most Disney cartoons. Virtually all our mass-culture narratives based on folklore have the same structure: good guys battle bad guys for the moral future of society. These tropes are all over our movies and comic books, in Narnia and at Hogwarts, and yet they don’t exist in any folktales, myths or ancient epics. In Marvel comics, Thor has to be worthy of his hammer, and he proves his worth with moral qualities. But in ancient myth, Thor is a god with powers and motives beyond any such idea as ‘worthiness’.

In old folktales, no one fights for values. Individual stories might show the virtues of honesty or hospitality, but there’s no agreement among folktales about which actions are good or bad. When characters get their comeuppance for disobeying advice, for example, there is likely another similar story in which the protagonist survives only because he disobeys advice. Defending a consistent set of values is so central to the logic of newer plots that the stories themselves are often reshaped to create values for characters such as Thor and Loki – who in the 16th-century Icelandic Edda had personalities rather than consistent moral orientations.

Edda

Stories from an oral tradition never have anything like a modern good guy or bad guy in them,  despite their reputation for being moralising. In stories such as Jack and the Beanstalk or Sleeping Beauty, just who is the good guy? Jack is the protagonist we’re meant to root for, yet he has no ethical justification for stealing the giant’s things. Does Sleeping Beauty care about goodness? Does anyone fight crime? Even tales that can be made to seem like they are about good versus evil, such as the story of Cinderella, do not hinge on so simple a moral dichotomy. In traditional oral versions, Cinderella merely needs to be beautiful to make the story work. In the Three Little Pigs, neither pigs nor wolf deploy tactics that the other side wouldn’t stoop to. It’s just a question of who gets dinner first, not good versus evil.

The situation is more complex in epics such as The Iliad, which does have two ‘teams’, as well as characters who wrestle with moral meanings. But the teams don’t represent the clash of two sets of values in the same way that modern good guys and bad guys do. Neither Achilles nor Hector stands for values that the other side cannot abide, nor are they fighting to protect the world from the other team. They don’t symbolise anything but themselves and, though they talk about war often, they never cite their values as the reason to fight the good fight. The ostensibly moral face-off between good and evil is a recent invention that evolved in concert with modern nationalism – and, ultimately, it gives voice to a political vision not an ethical one.

Propoganda

Most folklore scholarship since the Second World War has been concerned with archetypes or commonalities among folktales, the implicit drive being that if the myths and stories of all nations had more in common than divided them, then people of all nations could likewise have more in common than divides us. It was a radical idea, when earlier folktales had been published specifically to show how people in one nation were unlike those in another.

In her study of folklore From the Beast to the Blonde (1995), the English author and critic Marina Warner rejects a reading of folktales, popularised by the American child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, as a set of analogies for our psychological and developmental struggles. Warner argues instead that external circumstances make these stories resonate with readers and listeners through the centuries. Still, both scholars want to trace the common tropes of folktales and fairy-tales insofar as they stay the same, or similar, through the centuries.

Princess and Trolls

Novelists and filmmakers who base their work on folklore also seem to focus on commonalities. George Lucas very explicitly based Star Wars on Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), which describes the journey of a figure such as Luke Skywalker as a human universal. J R R Tolkien used his scholarship of Old English epics to recast the stories in an alternative, timeless landscape; and many comic books explicitly or implicitly recycle the ancient myths and legends, keeping alive story threads shared by stories new and old, or that old stories from different societies around the world share with each other.

Less discussed is the historic shift that altered the nature of so many of our modern retellings of folklore, to wit: the idea that people on opposite sides of conflicts have different moral qualities, and fight over their values. That shift lies in the good guy/bad guy dichotomy, where people no longer fight over who gets dinner, or who gets Helen of Troy, but over who gets to change or improve society’s values. Good guys stand up for what they believe in, and are willing to die for a cause. This trope is so omnipresent in our modern stories, movies, books, even our political metaphors, that it is sometimes difficult to see how new it is, or how bizarre it looks, considered in light of either ethics or storytelling.

Grimms Fairy Tales

When the Grimm brothers wrote down their local folktales in the 19th century, their aim was to use them to define the German Volk, and unite the German people into a modern nation. The Grimms were students of the philosophy of Johann Gottfried von Herder, who emphasised the role of language and folk traditions in defining values. In his Treatise on the Origin of Language (1772), von Herder argued that language was ‘a natural organ of the understanding’, and that the German patriotic spirit resided in the way that the nation’s language and history developed over time. Von Herder and the Grimms were proponents of the then-new idea that the citizens of a nation should be bound by a common set of values, not by kinship or land use. For the Grimms, stories such as Godfather Death, or the Knapsack, the Hat and the Horn, revealed the pure form of thought that arose from their language.

The corollary of uniting the Volk through a storified set of essential characteristics and values is that those outside the culture were seen as lacking the values Germans considered their own. Von Herder might have understood the potential for mass violence in this idea, because he praised the wonderful variety of human cultures: specifically, he believed that German Jews should have equal rights to German Christians. Still, the nationalist potential of the Grimm brothers’ project was gradually amplified as its influence spread across Europe, and folklorists began writing books of national folklore specifically to define their own national character. Not least, many modern nations went on to realise the explosive possibilities for abuse in a mode of thinking that casts ‘the other’ as a kind of moral monster.

Slavic Myth

In her book The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales (1987), the American scholar Maria Tatar remarks on the way that Wilhelm Grimm would slip in, say, adages about the importance of keeping promises. She argued that: ‘Rather than coming to terms with the absence of a moral order … he persisted in adding moral pronouncements even where there was no moral.’ Such additions established the idea that it was values (not just dinner) at stake in the conflicts that these stories dramatised. No doubt the Grimms’ additions influenced Bettelheim, Campbell and other folklorists who argued for the inherent morality of folktales, even if they had not always been told as moral fables.

As part of this new nationalist consciousness, other authors started changing the old stories to make a moral distinction between, for example, Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham. Before Joseph Ritson’s 1795 retelling of these legends, earlier written stories about the outlaw mostly showed him carousing in the forest with his merry men. He didn’t rob from the rich to give to the poor until Ritson’s version – written to inspire a British populist uprising after the French Revolution. Ritson’s rendering was so popular that modern retellings of Robin Hood, such as Disney’s 1973 cartoon or the film Prince of Thieves (1991) are more centrally about outlaw moral obligations than outlaw hijinks. The Sheriff of Nottingham was transformed from a simple antagonist to someone who symbolised the abuses of power against the powerless. Even within a single nation (Robin Hood), or a single household (Cinderella), every scale of conflict was restaged as a conflict of values.

IliadThe Iliad

Neither the Greeks nor the Trojans stand for some set of human strengths or frailties

Or consider the legend of King Arthur. In the 12th century, poets writing about him were often French, like Chrétien de Troyes, because King Arthur wasn’t yet closely associated with the soul of Britain. What’s more, his adversaries were often, literally, monsters, rather than people who symbolised moral weaknesses. By the early 19th century, when Tennyson wrote Idylls of the King, King Arthur becomes an ideal of a specifically British manhood, and he battles human characters who represent moral frailties. By the 20th century, the word ‘Camelot’ came to mean a kingdom too idealistic to survive on Earth.

Once the idea of national values entered our storytelling, the peculiar moral physics underlying the phenomenon of good guys versus bad guys has been remarkably consistent. One telling feature is that characters frequently change sides in conflicts: if a character’s identity resides in his values, then when he changes his mind about a moral question, he is essentially swapping sides, or defecting. This is not always acknowledged. For example, when in the PBS series Power of Myth (1988) the journalist Bill Moyers discussed with Campbell how many ancient tropes Star Wars deployed, they didn’t consider how bizarre it would have seemed to the ancient storytellers had Darth Vader changed his mind about anger and hatred, and switched sides in his war with Luke and the Rebels. Contrast this with The Iliad, where Achilles doesn’t become Trojan when he is angry at Agamemnon. Neither the Greeks nor the Trojans stand for some set of human strengths or frailties. Since their conflict is not a metaphor for some internal battle of anger versus love, switching sides because of a transport of feeling would be incoherent. In Star Wars, the opposing teams each represent a set of human properties. What side Darth Vader fights on is therefore absolutely dependent on whether anger or love is foremost in his heart.

Wonder Woman

Bad guys change their minds and become good in exactly the same way in countless, ostensibly folkloric, modern stories: The Lord of the RingsBuffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), the Harry Potter series (1997-2007). When a bad character has a change of heart, it’s always a cathartic emotional moment – since what’s at stake for a character is losing the central part of his identity. Another peculiarity in the moral physics of good guys versus bad is that bad guys have no loyalty and routinely punish their own; whether it’s the Sheriff of Nottingham starving his own people or Darth Vader killing his subordinates, bad guys are cavalier with human life, and they rebuke their allies for petty transgressions. This has been true since the earliest modern bad guys, though it scarcely exists among older adversaries who might be hungry for human flesh, but don’t kill their own.

Good guys, on the other hand, accept all applicants into the fold, and prove their loyalty even when their teammates transgress. Consider Friar Tuck getting drunk on ale while Robin Hood looks the other way. Or Luke Skywalker welcoming the roguish Han Solo on side. Good guys work with rogues, oddballs and ex-bad guys, plus their battles often hinge on someone who was treated badly by the bad guys crossing over and becoming a good guy. Forgiving characters their wicked deeds is an emotional climax in many good guy/bad guy stories. Indeed, it’s essential that the good side is a motley crew that will never, ever reject a fellow footsoldier.

Luke Skywalker

Again, this is a point of pride that seems incoherent in the context of pre-modern storytelling. Not only do people in ancient stories not switch sides in fights but Achilles, say, would never win because his army was composed of the rejects from the Trojans’. In old stories, great warriors aren’t scrappy recruits, there for the moral education: they’re experts.

Stories about good guys and bad guys that are implicitly moral – in the sense that they invest an individual’s entire social identity in him not changing his mind about a moral issue – perversely end up discouraging any moral deliberation. Instead of anguishing over multidimensional characters in conflict – as we find in The Iliad, or the Mahabharata or Hamlet – such stories rigidly categorise people according to the values they symbolise, flattening all the deliberation and imagination of ethical action into a single thumbs up or thumbs down. Either a person is acceptable for Team Good, or he belongs to Team Evil.

Frodo

Good guy/bad guy narratives might not possess any moral sophistication, but they do promote social stability, and they’re useful for getting people to sign up for armies and fight in wars with other nations. Their values feel like morality, and the association with folklore and mythology lends them a patina of legitimacy, but still, they don’t arise from a moral vision. They are rooted instead in a political vision, which is why they don’t help us deliberate, or think more deeply about the meanings of our actions. Like the original Grimm stories, they’re a political tool designed to bind nations together.

The idea that whole categories of people should be locked up made the concentration camps possible

It’s no coincidence that good guy/bad guy movies, comic books and games have large, impassioned and volatile fandoms – even the word ‘fandom’ suggests the idea of a nation, or kingdom. What’s more, the moral physics of these stories about superheroes fighting the good fight, or battling to save the world, does not commend genuine empowerment. The one thing the good guys teach us is that people on the other team aren’t like us. In fact, they’re so bad, and the stakes are so high, that we have to forgive every transgression by our own team in order to win.

Rumplestiltskin

When I talked with Andrea Pitzer, the author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps (2017), about the rise of the idea that people on opposite sides of conflicts have different moral qualities, she told me: ‘Three inventions collided to make concentration camps possible: barbed wire, automatic weapons, and the belief that whole categories of people should be locked up.’ When we read, watch and tell stories of good guys warring against bad guys, we are essentially persuading ourselves that our opponents would not be fighting us, indeed they would not be on the other team at all, if they had any loyalty or valued human life. In short, we are rehearsing the idea that moral qualities belong to categories of people rather than individuals. It is the Grimms’ and von Herder’s vision taken to its logical nationalist conclusion that implies that ‘categories of people should be locked up’.

Watching Wonder Woman at the end of the 2017 movie give a speech about preemptively forgiving ‘humanity’ for all the inevitable offences of the Second World War, I was reminded yet again that stories of good guys and bad guys actively make a virtue of letting the home team in a conflict get away with any expedient atrocity.

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Written by Marina Benjamin,  published on January 25th 2018, you can read the original article, titled “Why is Pop Culture So Obsessed with Battles Between Good and Evil?” in Aeon at https://aeon.co/essays/why-is-pop-culture-obsessed-with-battles-between-good-and-evil.

Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know

Contemporary heroes such as Bruce Wayne from Batman and Edward Cullen from Twilight, as well as more classic romantic leads such as Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, or Mr Rochester from Jane Eyre, each owe many of their features and their popularity to George Gordon Byron.

Lord Byron [1788-1824], was an English poet, well known within the Romantic movement. It was he who created or rather popularised the features of an anti-hero which became known as The Byronic Hero.

Byron 2

An early taste of Rebel Without a Cause, the Byronic hero epitomised the man who stood outside of society unapologetically, expressing the wild and free impulses of masculinity, otherwise caged and buttoned within civilisation.

Byron      episode-from-the-corsair-by-lord-byron-1831(1)

Of course, moody heroes existed earlier, including Hamlet by Shakespeare and Werther by Goethe. This character however, was shaped and styled by Byron’s hand to emerge,

…a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection.

byronic hero

Byron’s first truly famous work, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage [1812], was a striking portrayal of the Byronic hero.  He later wrote of it, 

…I awoke one morning and found myself famous.

Commentators conclude the popularity of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, was that the Byronic hero expressed some of the melancholy and disillusionment felt by a generation weary of the wars of the post-Revolution and Napoleonic eras.

Childe Harold

He achieved notoriety within his own life time for embodying many of the characteristics of his own rebellious hero.

Himself a descendent of Captain John “mad Jack” Byron, Lord Byron described Conrad, the pirate hero of his work The Corsair [1814] thus:

He knew himself a villain—but he deem’d
The rest no better than the thing he seem’d;
And scorn’d the best as hypocrites who hid
Those deeds the bolder spirit plainly did.
He knew himself detested, but he knew
The hearts that loath’d him, crouch’d and dreaded too.
Lone, wild, and strange, he stood alike exempt
From all affection and from all contempt: (I, XI)

There is somewhat an interesting dislocation between the popularity of the Byronic hero, and the interest that followed Byron throughout his lifetime, with the coincident repsonses of critics.

Rumours of his multiple affairs, including an incestuous relationship with his sister Augusta, and a legal separation from his wife made him an outcast who fled England in 1816.

When Don Juan was first published in 1819, the poem was criticised for its “immoral content”, though it was also immensely popular.

Don Juan

Perhaps contradictions follow the Byronic hero just as suffering, independence and rebellion do. Albert Camus wrote in The Stranger [1942],

The Byronic Hero, incapable of love, or capable only of an impossible love, suffers endlessly. He solitary, languid, his condition exhausts him. If he wants to feel alive, it must be in terrible exaltation of a brief and destructive action.

Why do we love to hate or rather, hate and yet love the bad boy?

Loved and loathed himself, Lord Byron was famously described by his lover, Lady Mary Lamb as…

… mad, bad and dangerous to know.