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Soundtracking Shakespeare: It's more fun than you think

Shakespeare....too cool for school
Literary Tourist

The average person on the street doesn’t hear the name “Shakespeare” and think of young lust, brutal violence, or the occult – but they very well should. If Shakespeare were alive today he would be hanging out with Quentin Tarantino or hosting “Saturday Night Live” as well as putting garbage such as “50 Shades of Grey” to shame. In Shakespeare’s time, the late 1500s, he had some live musical accompaniment, but he didn’t have a composer like John Williams to write a score to help him capture the mood of the story or to introduce a character. He didn’t have “Layla” to set a montage of dead bodies to like Martin Scorsese did at the end of “Goodfellas.” He had to do it the hard way. He did it through writing alone, and it was written beautifully. Who else can make a brutal murder so poetic that it is emotionally touching? One thing is for certain, nothing in the Oprah Book Club will ever come close. But what if Shakespeare had the access to all of the music modern writers now have to help tell their stories? I wonder what he would use. Let’s speculate.

Everyone knows “Julius Caesar.” I was made to study it inside and out in high school. It’s a good old-fashioned violent story about an assassination followed by a cover-up. To me, the climax of “Julius Caesar” isn’t the act of murder, but the darkness and utter sarcasm of Antony’s monologue at the funeral. You know the one, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears….” As Antony stands before the very conspirators that assassinated Caesar, he delivers the very condescending and sarcastic speech that we all studied in school. Throughout the piece of dialogue, Antony makes statements quoting Brutus (one of the conspirators), and finishing the thought with “And Brutus is an honorable man.” For example:
“Here, under the leave of Brutus and the rest, for Brutus in an honorable man. So are they all, all honorable men-come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral. He was my friend, faithful and just to me: But Brutus says he was ambitious; and Brutus is an honorable man.”
Did Antony just teach us all how to be smart-asses? Yes, I think he did. Now imagine that scene with “Something I Can Never Have” by Nine Inch Nails brooding its haunting melody in the background. It’s a great backdrop to a funeral scene in which the departed is not only being honored, but his friends are also seeking justice for his death.

There are ways to commit suicide, and there are ways to end your life in a way that will live in infamy. In “Antony and Cleopatra,” Cleopatra was not going to take the easy route to death. She wasn’t just going to jump off a cliff to end her life. If she was going to do it, she was going to do it right. Shakespeare masterfully built the character of Cleopatra up so that the audience, whether or not they loved her or hated her, would be fully vested emotionally in her demise. Nothing short of tragic grandeur would do in this case. The characters in “Antony and Cleopatra” are more obsessed with the honor of suicide than Islamic Jihadists or Branch Davidians. The chain of events goes like this: Cleopatra, in order to win back Antony’s love, fakes suicide. In turn, Antony then wants to die, so he has asks a buddy to help him. His buddy, Eros, can’t take the thought of it so he kills himself. Now that he has no help, Antony tries to kills himself on his own, but just ends up wounding himself. He finds out Cleopatra is still alive and goes to die by her side. Cleopatra, saddened and not wanting to face scorn from the people of Rome decides to then off herself by taking shots of asp venom. Yep, poisonous snake venom. Try ordering that at the bar. After this happened, all of her maids and servants killed themselves as well. Octavian eventually discovers the parade of dead bodies. This is how it was done in the old days. Today, women just use fake pregnancies to win back a dude. Now imagine all of this suicide and body count happening underneath of “The Unforgiven” by Metallica. It is a perfect symphony of self-loathing and eventual death.

There is a scene in “The Kentucky Fried Movie” where the evil Dr. Klan beheads a man, then exclaims “Now take him to be tortured!” Strangely enough, this reminds me of “Hamlet.” Shakespeare was a master of good old-fashioned diabolically carried out brutal murder, and “Hamlet” was chock full of it. Hamlet offed a few people in the play bearing his name such as stabbing an eavesdropper hiding behind a curtain once he notices he is there. However, my favorite is the sadistic murder of Claudius at the hands of Hamlet. Claudius was no angel though. He had it coming. Let’s first establish Hamlet’s motive for murder: Claudius tried to kill him in the past, killed his father, whored out his mother, and directly stands in the way from a big promotion at work (the crown of Denmark). I think it’s safe to say these guys aren’t the best of buddies that are going to go on a vacation together. When this clash of the titans finally arrives to the audience, they are treated to a scene in which Hamlet stabs Claudius with a dagger. That just doesn’t seem dramatic enough does it? A simple stabbing? These guys have more beef than the east coast/west coast rap game. Something is missing. Not to worry. After the stabbing, Hamlet forces him to drinking a goblet of poisoned wine just to make his death a little more painful. Why not shut down a guy’s nervous system with poison at the same time he is bleeding out? Hamlet seemed to think it was a great idea. Now imagine this fight scene accompanied by Hamlet’s final solution to Claudius set to “Long Hard Road Out of Hell” by Marilyn Manson. It’s angry, it’s vengeful, and it’s just creepy enough to set the mood of a grisly murder scene.

The only thing the average guy knows today about “The Merchant” of Venice” probably came from the movie “Seven” when a murder victim is forced to remove a pound of flesh from his body as his punishment for greed. “The Merchant of Venice” contains both characteristics of a tragedy as well as a comedy. I like to think of it as a comedy. The reason being is that in this play, Shakespeare pretty much invented the courtroom technicality. I’m sure OJ appreciates it. The gist of the situation is this. One man owes another man, therefore putting him in debt. Rather than just PayPal-ing him, the debtor asks for a pound of his flesh for payment. Aside from what kind of sick person would ask for this, it poses a huge problem. First off, that is really going to be painful. Secondly, the debtor is pretty much asking for the guy’s life because there is little chance he will survive this ordeal if he goes through with it. So, they do what anyone would do – they take it to court. The courtroom scene is the climax of the piece. As justice is demanded, Portia says: “And you must cut his flesh from off his breast. The law allows it, and the court awards it. Tary a little. There is something else. This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood. The words expressly are ‘pound of flesh.’ Take then my bond, take thou thy pound of flesh, by in the cutting it if thou dost shed one drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods are by the laws of Venice confiscate unto the state of Venice. Thyself shall see the act. For as thou urgest justice, be assured thou shalt have justice more than thou desirest.” So in a nutshell, the judge decrees that a pound of flesh can be taken, however it is against the law to shed blood. So there is no way for the flesh to be cut without bloodshed. If blood is shed, then the government will take your home and land from you under the law. In the end, he got more justice than he bargained for and the case was changed by a technicality. Now imagine that quote above being accompanied by the opening notes of “Today” by the Smashing Pumpkins and the song kicking in perfectly at the end of the last sentence. It’s a sarcastically uplifting song that oozes comic resolution.

“Romeo and Juliet” to me seems like a perpetual bar fight. Bar Fights normally transpire over some girl. “Rome and Juliet” was no different. The lust of a young man and woman spurred a series of dead bodies from two families already struggling with tension. It’s like ‘when keeping it real goes wrong.’ I mean horribly wrong. Aside from two star-crossed lovers committing suicide because they can’t be together without their parents and family nagging them and disowning them, there were some brutal and cold-blooded beat-downs in “Romeo and Juliet.” Nobody got stabbed by a trident like that fight in “Anchorman,” but these two families rivaled like street gangs. Here’s how the character named Tybalt wound up dead. Tybalt was Juliet’s cousin and he had it in for Romeo. Romeo, attempting to be a lover and not a fighter, refused to fight Tybalt because he didn’t want to make life any harder for him trying to maintain a relationship with Juliet than it already was. I mean come on, it’s forbidden love. Romeo’s friend, Mercutio, becomes enraged by Romeo’s refusal to fight, so he decides he is going to do it for him. So Mercutio picks a fight with Tybalt to prove his alpha-male status. Tybalt accepts the challenge. Romeo attempts to step in and break it up, but in the process Mercutio gets fatally wounded by Tybalt. So now, Mercutio is dead just because he wanted to keep it real. Because they were cousins, Romeo is as enraged by this as Rocky was when Ivan Drago killed Apollo Creed. Romeo quickly stands up to Tybalt and takes him down without hesitation and with force. He leaves his bloody body and the ground and walks away. This series of ups and down, combining intense dialogue with action kept audiences in the Globe Theater on the edge of their seats. Now imagine this series of events being timed with the crescendos of “Bullet in the Head” by Rage Against the Machine. The song goes from a stern calm, to outright chaos, and then back again just like the Romeo and Tybalt altercation in “Romeo and Juliet.”

If you’re a music lover, pick up a copy of my novel, “A Fire That Wouldn’t Go Out,” on Amazon and the Apple iBookstore.

Dustin M Pardue
@dustinmpardue