Shakespeare and Quentin Tarantino

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By Analicia García Priego, Aberystwyth University

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In terms of plot structure, Inglorious Basterds by Quentin Tarantino shares major similarities with revenge tragedies. When there are questions of injustice and the law’s inability to handle crime and punishment, revenge will appear among the possible answers. This will be done with excess, which is a major component of revenge tragedies. Tarantino tends to show excess in his narratives, which often revolve around revenge. What drives Tarantino’s plots is the “character’s reactions to the violence, not violence itself” (Bouzerau, 88). The Basterds’ and Shosanna’s reactions to the mass-murdering of the European Jewish population are what drives the plot. Revenge tragedies, particularly those of John Webster, Christopher Marlowe, and William Shakespeare are fuelled by the tragic hero’s reaction to injury and violence.

The volume of articles and books comparing Tarantino’s work to Shakespeare’s is relatively small but significant enough to suggest the link between Shakespeare and Tarantino exists and is worth exploring. There are similarities between Tarantino’s films and screenplays and the structure of a play. Inglourious Basterds reads like a play, the directions for camera and scenes are minimal, and the dialogues carry the story. There are a few scenes in the film that, thanks to camera angles and scenography, look as though they were happening on stage. Particularly at the beginning of the film, where Donowitz comes out of a tunnel to kill a Nazi. He appears from the darkness as though he were backstage, while the rest of the action happens out in the open.

Richard Burt and Scott L. Newstok have written a paper on Shakespearean tendencies in Inglorious Basterds entitled ‘Certain Tendencies in Criticism of Shakespeare on Film.’ In it they point out similarities in style, plot structure, and characterization. In their notes, they mention an interview given by Christoph Waltz, who plays Hans Landa, in which he equates Inglorious Basterds to a Shakespearean tragedy. They also quote Tarantino himself in an interview from 2007 saying ‘[…] had a thought maybe that I might have been Shakespeare in another life. I don’t really believe that 100 percent […] but then people are constantly bringing up all these qualities in my work that mirror Shakespearean tragedies and moments and themes’.[1] These statements confirm the presence of a significant Shakespearean influence in Tarantino’s work, or alternatively a culturally embedded tendency to read art in terms of Shakespeare, particularly plays and films. When it comes to Tarantino’s characters there are certain tropes such as the revenger, the tragic hero, and the cunning villain that are common in early modern drama. This discussion will focus on Shakespeare’s approach towards them. These similarities between Shakespeare and Tarantino are particularly prominent in Inglorious Basterd’s heroine, Shosanna Dreyfus and and its villain, Hans Landa, the main subjects of this discussion.

Tamora and Shosanna have both been displaced and dispossessed. In Shosanna’s case, she has been first displaced from her home, a place where she should have been safe and at peace, and forced to hide under Mr. Lapadite’s floorboards. She has been dispossessed of her safety, her role as daughter and sister, and her freedom to exist openly as a Jew. The Nazis, and especially Landa, have stripped her of everything she had, and everyone she loved. It is when she is running away from Mr. Lapadite’s house that her transformation from farm girl to the Face of Jewish Vengeance begins.

Tamora’s displacement is quite literal as well, she has been forcibly taken from her kingdom in chains and brought to Rome. She too experiences her dispossession at different levels. First, she is dispossessed of her safety, her role as queen, her identity as Goth, and finally of her role as a mother. Tamora, like Shosanna, is forced to stop existing as an ‘Other’. Her Gothness is taken away when she marries a Saturninus and becomes a Roman. Shosanna assimilates into the gentile population through forgery of papers. At first glance, it appears as though their situations are very different, but the essence of their dispossession is the same.

Tamora and Shosanna experience a feeling of helplessness in the face of aggression. This helplessness is what first ignites the desire for revenge. In the face of humiliation and trauma, they turn to revenge. They have both experienced wrongdoings at many levels. Their sense of self and identity is hurt, they have witnessed the death of close family members, and are forced to create a new self in order to survive. The injuries happen at personal, familial and cultural levels, and they must be avenged violently, as is the rule for revenge tragedies.[2]

Tamora and Shosanna both embody revenge in a similar way. From the moment Shosanna reveals her plan to Marcel she becomes a looming, almost mythical, force of vengeance in the background of other scenes Shosanna’s plot is in the background of every scene leading up to her final act of revenge with Operation Kino. And when the time comes, she applies makeup like warpaint. She becomes the agent of her own destiny and reclaims the power that had been taken away from her by the Nazi party so many years ago. When Nation’s Pride is interrupted by the film she and Marcel made, it sends out a powerful message: ‘This is the Face of Jewish Vengeance’ (IB Screeenplay,p. 160). Shosanna has finally achieved her transformation into the Face of Jewish Vengeance.

Shosanna is not alive to witness Landa’s escape from death. Even though the revenger is dead, the cycle is incomplete. In other words, ‘Shosanna represents the pause that reminds us of the impossibility of equilibrium’ and of ‘the impossibility of balancing the books of history’ (Schlipphacke, 130). Shosanna has killed the High Command and many Nazis in attendance, including a young soldier who incessantly attempted to flirt with her in various occasions, Fredrick Zoller, but Hans Landa, the person who has injured her deeply and personally is still alive at the end. This leads us to question the ability of revenge to bring justice.

Tamora becomes the physical embodiment of Revenge through a disguise. She says to Titus ‘[Tamora] is thy enemy and I thy friend/ I am Revenge, sent from th’infernal kingdom’ (5.2.29-30). She has gone from a kneeling mother, to an empress, to Revenge. Her transformation is brought about by the pain Titus has inflicted upon her. Like Shosanna, she must change who she is in order to achieve revenge. Stephanie Bahr suggests that when confronting Titus ‘she presents her identity as Tamora and her identity as Revenge as mutually exclusive, [however] these identities do not seem so easily separable.’[3] This is significant because even though Tamora tries to present herself as a separate entity, Revenge is an inextricable part of her. Both Shosanna and Tamora have reclaimed the power they lost through an internal transformation.

According to Keith Oatley ‘people […] were very suspicious of those who deliberately created their own personas. […]’[4] Shakespeare explored this idea in such characters as Richard III and Iago. Often, in order for certain tragedies to be effective, villains will craft their personas according to their circumstances. A villain who has absolute power over the way they define themselves and who is able to alter their personality to suit their needs will prove a worthy opponent to the hero. Their unclassifiability is in itself an element of surprise and an advantage.

While tragic heroes continue to define themselves, tragic villains defy the cage of definitions. Iago is able to claim he hates Othello one second and acts like his friend the next. Richard’s ability to woo Anne and appeal to an emotional reaction contrasts greatly with his deformity and general unlikeability. These two characters and their ability to exist in the realm of the unclassifiable share multiple characteristics with Tarantino’s villain Hans Landa.

Landa is Inglorious Basterds’ major villain, not only because he is present from the very beginning until the very end of the film, but because he does not align himself with anyone. Unlike Shosanna and the Basterds who define themselves by their strong opposition to the Nazis, Landa never directly states his personal hatred of the Jews. Hans Landa constantly adapts his persona according to the situation he is in and to whoever he is interacting with. One of the main similarities between Iago, Richard III and Landa is their ability to manipulate others. Apart from their skills of manipulation, these three men share other traits of their villainy, and in Richard and Landa’s case, of their monstrosity.

Body deformity in Shakespeare is often seen as a physical trait of the monstrous. This is the case for Richard, but not for Iago. Richard has a deformity that he cannot hide and which provokes disgust in those that see him, animal or human alike. He speaks as though his physical deformity marked him for a life of villainy and is “determined to prove a villain” (1.1.30). Richard has decided that all he can do with his deformed self is to prove himself a villain. Physical marks of the monstrous are important in Inglorious Basterds. The Basterds mark every survivor with a swastika in their foreheads in order to be able to identify them easily once they take off their uniforms. By deforming their faces the Basterds are making sure their monstrosity can’t be hidden from those around them nor from themselves when they look in the mirror. Landa looks like a racially pure arian, he is not deformed nor disfigured and his monstrosity is not visible to the naked eye. When Raine marks him, he changes this. Landa has been pardoned and he expects for his sins to be ignored. Through his mark, everyone who looks at Landa will immediately identify him as evil, and that’s better than letting him walk away unharmed. Iago does not share this similarity with Richard and Landa but that does not make him any less of a villain. Iago is proof that a physical difference or deformity does not necessarily make one a monster because monstrosity goes beyond the body.

Shakespeare’s tropes of the revenger, the tragic hero, and the cunning, manipulative villain have clearly influenced the character of Shosanna Dreyfus and Hans Landa. Tarantino has a history of referencing other works of art in his films, so it is possible that he has ‘absorbed’ these tropes to a degree and reconstructed them when imagining Inglourious Basterds. It would be logical to assume he has encountered Shakespeare’s and been inspired by it. Certain stories require certain characters, and by analysing the telling of a revenge tragedy it’s clear that archetypes such as the hero and the villain are necessary for its telling.

Through a reconfiguration of the trope of the villain, Tarantino creates a new hero. Tamora’s Otherness is mirrored in Shosanna’s as well as her wit, her determination, and her reaction to trauma. While Tamora provided enough parallels to Shosanna for this discussion, it’s important to keep in mind that other characters such as Lavinia, Queen Margaret, Lady Macbeth, and Joan la Puzel could also provide further points of discussion not noted here. Hans offered a challenge in that he shares qualities with more than one Shakespearean character. Iago and Richard are both necessary to encompass the whole of Landa’s villainy. If the attempt had been made to compare Landa only to one or the other, certain characteristics, such as Richard’s physical brand of his monstrousness, would have been lacking in the analysis. Other characters that could be compared to Landa include Caliban, Thersites, Apemantus, Lord Edmund, and Coriolanus.

Shakespeare and Tarantino appear to have more in common than the current research has uncovered. Tarantino has the ability to absorb tragic characters already present in literature and reconfigure them to create his own, as is the case for Shosanna and Landa. By ‘absorbing’ Shakespeare’s tropes and mixing them with the historical time period of WWII, Tarantino is indeed creating a mythology of his own. The mythology Srinivasan speaks of is also present in another member of the Basterds, Donny Donowitz, who is transformed into a golem in Hitler’s imagination when he refers to him, as well as Shosanna’s embodiment of Vengeance in a spectral projection. Shakespeare has his own method of constructing mythology and history as well. His representation of Tamora as Revenge makes her almost mythological. He evokes ideas of gruesome monsters in Othello and re-imagines Richard III’s character for the stage. The use and creation of mythology and history is a parallel between Shakespeare and Tarantino that is worth exploring in depth.

There exists a fascination in both their works between the relationships of revenge, female and male characters that has not been explored in depth in this discussion. Both Shakespeare and Tarantino have varied female characters which range from victims to perpetrators of violence. Critics such as Heidi Schlipphacke and Deborah Willis have pointed out some important differences between the male and female revenger. Additionally, Robert von Dassanowsky has referred to the women in Inglourious Basterds as ‘annihilated by and for their connection with male authority.’ This claim could be applied and studied in relation to other Tarantino films such as Kill Bill (1&2), Jackie Brown, Death Proof, and Django Unchained. However, the statement could also be applied to plays such as Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Coriolanus, and Hamlet. At this point in time, the current research has opened the door of opportunity by demonstrating the connections between Tarantino, and Shakespeare. Themes such as gender, violence, stereotypes, masculinity, heroes, villains, and revenge have yet to be studied in depth and may provide a broader understanding of Quentin Tarantino as well as a fresh perspective on modern representations of Shakespeare on film.

 

[1] Richard Burt and Scott L. Newstok, Certain Tendencies in Criticism of Shakespeare on Film, in Shakespeare Studies, ed. by Susan Zimmerman and Garret Sullivan (New York: Rosemont Publishing & Printing Corp, 2010), pp.88-103 (p.101)

[2] Authors such as  Deborah Willis, in “The Gnawing Vulture”: Revenge, Trauma Theory, and “Titus Andronicus”, Shakespeare Quarterly, and Stevie Simkin, in Revenge Tragedy, ed. by Stevie Simkin (England: Red Globe Press, 2001) mention this approach towards revenge after injury.

[3] Stephanie M. Bahr, ‘Titus Andronicus and the Interpretive Violence of the Reformation’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 68.3 (2017), 241-70 (p. 265). Subsequent references to this source are given in the text as ‘Bahr’ followed by the page number.

[4] Keith Oatley, ‘Simulation of Substance and Shadow: Inner Emotions and Outer Behavior in Shakespeare’s Psychology of Character’, College Literature, 33.1 (2006), 15-33 (p.25)

 

The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.

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