In Elizabethan England, the best of all the show houses in England was The Globe Theatre, which opened in the autumn of 1599, in an area of London now known as ‘Bankside’. The other famous theatres of the day were The Swan, The Hope and The Rose, but by far the most uppity of them all was The Globe, which started off as simply ‘The Theatre’.
When it was first built, The Theatre actually had its inaugural troupe employ a young man, a wannabe playwright named William Shakespeare. It is said that Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello and King Lear were first played at The Globe. The guy would turn out to be such a pain in the ass, three centuries years later, in my literature class at middle school. I mean, who the f—k wanted ta know why Burnum Wood would want ta go to Dunsinane?
The Globe had the London elite as its patrons, among them the Queen’s inner circle, who arrived in carriages, all dressed up. The women wore long gowns, collars, ruffs and shoes, their midriffs held back by corsets and underwear, their faces heavily rouged and powdered. The men wore doublets, breeches, cloaks and hats with feathers stuck on them and some had knee high boots. In all, by today’s standards, they looked like a buncha clowns.
Elizabethan audiences loved the shocking drama. The blood and gore had to be realistic and so the theatre management had this small barn at the back where they had sheep, lotsa sheep. Every two consecutive renderings, one was slaughtered and its blood, heart, lungs, liver, etc were used as props for the murders. When the props began ta stink, they just went ahead and killed another goat.
Realism drove the theatre producers to even use actual human beings sometimes, no kidding. In Thomas Kyd’s ‘The Spanish Tragedy’ – a sorta Andrew Lloyd Webber of gore, which had several violent revenge killings – on opening night, they needed an actual human being to be strung up from a tree branch and hanged and they simply got a condemned prisoner from the Tower ta do the act.
The play became a rage and soon they were running outa fresh bodies and the cops began picking up random folks right off the streets who looked even remotely suspicious of any wrongdoing, fast-tracking their trials and sentencing them to death, so they could act in Thomas Kyd’s play, even though it was going ta be a one night stand. Since at least some of the sods were criminals, the law and order situation in and around London improved drastically.
Some of Shakespeare’s most violent plays were by far his most popular during his lifetime. Although modern audiences are often repulsed by its gore and brutality, Titus Andronicus – Willy Shakes’ first and most violent tragedy – was a huge success in The Globe. Touring troupes fell over each other, wanting to play Titus Andronicus. In the play, two of the characters were baked in a pie, literally……
Titus had the Roman emperor-to-be, Saturninus and his wife, Tamora, over for dinner and after the horses of the ovaries had been cleared away, Titus revealed that the meat pie the couple had just devoured was actually what remained of their two sons, Demetrius and Chiron. While they were in a state of shock, Titus butchered Tamora with a carving knife and in return, was killed by Saturninus right after. Titus had to be stupid. If I was going ta tell you I just baked your kids into a pie, I’d make sure I had back-up.
Titus had justification for the pie though. The duo had raped and mutilated his only daughter, Lavinia and he had had to honor-kill her soon as he found out, ‘to spare her the shame’. Boohoo. And then, Titus’s son, Lucius, nabs Tamora’s Moor lover boy, Aaron and has him buried in the desert sand upto his chin and left to starve ta death.
And you thought Friday the 13th was horrifying.
Willy Shakes was particularly gruesome in Hamlet – when King Hamlet (Hamlet’s dad) was napping in his orchard, his treacherous bro Claudius, poured a ‘leperous distillment’ into his ear. The poison curdled his blood and caused his skin to develop horrible sores. The King died in his garden, hideously disfigured, a victim of his brother’s treachery.
I am imagining The Globe issuing a casting notice, a job ad, announcing…. ‘Actor wanted, to play King Hamlet. Must bring his own vial of henbane and dropper and down payment on casket…’
That’s nothing. Lady McDuff was chased across the stage at the Globe and slaughtered when she jumped off and fell into the arms of the ladies in the front row, splattering them with gore. It was so real that….it was real. Even for a million quid nobody wanted ta play Lady McDuff in those days.
And then there was that shmuck, Polonius, Hamlet’s uncle King Claudius’s trusted aide. Acting on the orders of Claudius, Polonius hid behind the drapes in Queen Gertrude’s chambers, to eavesdrop on her conversation with Hamlet, whom Claudius suspected of plotting to overthrow him. Polonius however had this fatal habit of almost all of Willy Shakes’ characters – he constantly talked to himself.
Thus, while Hamlet spoke with his mom, Polonius had this running commentary going with himself, in a sort of a low mumble. Alas, the mumble wasn’t low enough – Hamlet overheard him and drove his sword through the tapestry, killing the shmuck. If you wanted ta play Polonius and at the same time had a desire ta come out of the show alive, you had ta have fast reflexes because you had only a microsecond from the time the sword emerged through the drapes and entered your gut.
And I haven’t even gotten to Julius Caesar. According to Willy Shakes, the killers – Cimber, Trebonius, Cassius, Casca and Brutus – crowded around Caesar and stabbed him repeatedly to death, while the outer ring of conspirators looked on. This is backed up by Plutarch, the 1st century AD Roman historian. It was a bloodbath and must have taken a while for Caesar ta die.
The Globe Theatre continues to stage Shakespearean tragedies but of course it no longer uses real blood and gore as props. Were human beings intrinsically more blood thirsty then, fed on gushing blood by an innately shallow playwright who depended upon extreme violence to sell his version of history?
Today, even though there is a Halloween and Friday the 13th loving constituency, I believe most of us like more subtlety. Horror to us can be horrifying even without the gore. In serious cinema, except for Quentin Tarantino, I haven’t seen spurting blood and burnt flesh much anymore. (Someone told me that there is a Heinz Ketchup rep permanently posted outside Tarantino’s office).
I wish Shakespeare had shown some subtlety in his violence and simply had Macduff slip Macbeth a Mickey Finn, instead of running his sword through him multiple times till Macbeth started resembling a sieve. Willy would have turned out to be a bore and acquire no fame and we wouldn’t have had ta sit through all his crap in high school.
Why, I might have had Lady Chatterley’s Lover for my high school Lit class instead. Now, that is what I call literature. I would have loved ta hear our buxom 20-something lit teacher, Miss Valerie’s lilting wet-dream voice, trying to make our young minds understand nymphomaniac Constance Chatterley’s constant desire to f–k, for the sheer joy of it, anything that moved.
What? No, everything doesn’t have ta end in sex.