“Plenty of blood. That’s the only writing”: (mis)representing Jacobean tragedy in turn-of-the-century cinema

Par Gordon McMullan
Publication en ligne le 28 janvier 2010


There have been many film versions of Shakespeare plays, but almost none of plays by Shakespeare's contemporaries – until, that is, three independent film directors at the turn of the twenty-first century created versions of non-Shakespearean Jacobean tragedies: Marcus Thompson's Middleton's Changeling (1998), Mike Figgis's Hotel (2002) and Alex Cox's Revengers Tragedy (2003). I argue that these films embody a conscious turn away from the governing aesthetic of Shakespeare films in the late twentieth century – attacked by a character in Hotel as “the Merchant Ivory version: sweet, pungent smell of rose meadows, Earl Grey, and a wet saddle on the back of a horse, that sort of thing” – offering an alternative version of spectacle – postmodern, tasteless, excessive – which nonetheless, despite the self-consciously radical stance adopted by the directors, paradoxically re-entrenches the polarised understanding of the differences between Shakespeare and Jacobean drama established in early twentieth-century criticism and reinscribes a longstanding misrepresentation of the Jacobean as “decadent”.

Texte intégral

1There was a moment in Shakespeare in Love which, when the film was shown in British cinemas, appeared to mark out the educational experience of a certain proportion of the audience1. They had just seen Shakespeare, in a flurry of inspiration, write not Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter, as promised to Henslowe, but Romeo and Juliet. During rehearsal, Shakespeare – having already met the mysterious Master Thomas Kent (Gwyneth Paltrow’s Viola de Lesseps in disguise), who has impressed him both by “his” acting ability and by expressing particular fondness for Shakespeare’s plays – spots a boy sitting at the side of the theatre and asks him who he is. “I’m Ethel, the pirate’s daughter”, says the boy. “I’ll be damned if you are”, cries Shakespeare, and throws him out. A little later, Shakespeare leaves the theatre and, seeing the boy, stops, a little embarrassed, to wish him well:

Shakespeare: Better fortune, boy.
Boy [sitting playing with pet mouse]: I was in a play. They cut my head off in Titus Andronicus. When I write plays, they’ll be like Titus.
Shakespeare [pleased with himself]: You admire it.
Boy: I liked it when they cut heads off. And the daughter, mutilated with knives
Shakespeare: What’s your name?
Boy: John Webster. Here, kitty, kitty. [Picks mouse up and holds it towards cat; Shakespeare turns away]. Plenty of blood. That’s the only writing.
Shakespeare [walking hastily away]: I have to get back.

2Its seemed clear (or, at least, a fair conjecture), from the laughter in some rows and the blank looks in others when the boy announced his name, which members of the audience happened to have done A-level English Literature – and had therefore read, as one of their set texts, one or other of two Webster plays, The White Devil or The Duchess of Malfi – and which had not. Both have been standard sixth-form texts for decades, along with Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling, a couple of Marlowe plays and, slightly less often, The Revenger’s Tragedy (as authored, in my A-level days anyway, by Cyril Tourneur, though now established as part of the Middleton canon). Anyone who has done the fabulously excessive and violent Duchess for A-level (or its equivalents elsewhere) will recognise the boy Webster’s fondness for gory spectacle. “Plenty of blood”, he muses, when Shakespeare’s back is turned: “That’s the only writing”. In the film, the young Webster embodies a clear distinction between Shakespeare’s fresh, inspired, uplifting, positive theatre and the very different drama – violent, perverse, sadistic, depressing – to come in the next generation, a drama that appears to return, in its emphasis on “plenty of blood”, to Shakespeare’s ferocious early tragedy, Titus Andronicus, a play that the film suggests was already a slight embarrassment to the playwright. Moreover, the young Webster’s presence on screen serves as a reminder that cinema, so keen for decades to create celluloid (or digital) Shakespeares, has tended to overlook, in the main, the plays of his contemporaries.

3Things have in fact changed a little in the decade since Shakespeare in Love. In fact, they were already changing when that film was being made. Pascale Aebischer (in a fascinating paper that prompted me to turn to these films) has noted the choice of three independent film directors at the turn of the twenty-first century to create cinematic versions of non-Shakespearean tragedies: Marcus Thompson’s film Middleton’s Changeling, which was released, like Shakespeare in Love, in 1998; Mike Figgis’s Hotelof 2001 (general release 2002), which in part represents the rehearsal process for an imagined film of The Duchess of Malfi and which was memorably described by one critic as “an achingly pretentious slab of total nonsense2”; andAlex Cox's Liverpool-set Revengers Tragedy of 2002 (general release 2003)3. So it is no longer true that cinema ignores Jacobean drama. On the contrary, these three films – each in its different way postmodern, spectacular, decadent, tasteless and excessive – suggest that Jacobean revenge tragedy provides filmmakers with a radical alternative to the available norms of cinematic Shakespeare. I want in this essay – implicitly invoking the work of Mark Thornton Burnett and Ramona Wray – to suggest that these films embody a conscious fin-de-siècle shift away from the governing aesthetic of Shakespeare-on-film: I will do this by assessing the moves the films make in seeking to carve out a postmodern version of Jacobean theatrical spectacle and by considering their impact on the cinemagoer – an impact already embodied in Shakespeare in Love’s boy Webster – which is, I want to argue, a reinstatement of a conservative understanding of history that belies the “radical” approach the directors appear to be taking to the plays4. Paradoxically, underlying the apparently anarchic social politics expressed in and by these films is an outdated, anti-democratic reading of the first half of the seventeenth century – which I will return to a little later in the essay – that historians and critics long ago rejected as a flagrant distortion of the past.

4The three films share a self-conscious fin-de-siècle ethos, a deliberately decadent aesthetic embodied in spectacular scenes of strange sex and casual violence. Cox’s Revengers Tragedy is set in a post-nuclear-holocaust world of low-budget squalor; Figgis’s Hotel throws in vampirism and cannibalism as contemporary genre-film versions of Ferdinand’s lycanthropy in Duchess; both are consciously postmodern-apocalyptic. Thompson’s Changeling doesn’t quite fit this model – yes, it deploys consciously postmodern spectacle, wilfully blending genres and periods, its characters dressing in Spanish Golden Age style yet with Converse All-Stars on their feet as they step in and out of stretch limos; but it lacks the sustained apocalypticism of the other two, partly because the director’s vision is extremely limited and partly because it took such a long time to make, its conception predating the end of the century by over a decade. There were obstacles all along the way to the making of Middleton’s Changeling, as potential funders backed away and promises dematerialised: even Thompson’s plan for a soundtrack of nothing but the music of Jimi Hendrix fell apart due to rights issues (the fact that the film eventually appeared with music by Gary Moore, many notches below Hendrix on the scale of guitar heroes, is indicative of the range of ways in which it fell short of the director’s dreams)5. The film’s cameos – all three films rely on the more-or-less fleeting appearance of well-known “alternative” actors and musicians in order to establish a wry relationship with mainstream cinema, serving (intentionally or otherwise) as a kind of parody of the “straight” namedropping casting choices made right from the start by Kenneth Branagh in his Shakespeare films – give away the lengthy duration of the film’s making (the “alternative” culture they represent is that of the nineteen-eighties and early nineties, no later) just as they make clear both Thompson’s age and his taste in popular culture: Ian Dury (of the band, The Blockheads) as a disabled De Flores, the comedian Billy Connolly cast pointlessly and unfunnily as Alibius – even a guest appearance from veteran English pop eccentric Vivian Stanshall, who died before the film was released.

5The film follows the usual path of Changeling productions in chopping down the asylum subplot to the point of incomprehensibility and then goes further, largely obliterating the verse and hacking away at the main plot too until the action is barely comprehensible: the spectacular potential of the plot is foregrounded at the expense of the quality of the verse or the subtlety of the play’s social, political or theological engagements. The scene is Alicante castle and we are treated to a series of travelogue views over vineyards and olive groves; much is made, from the outset, of early-modern/postmodern visual juxtaposition: Jacobean costumes, motorcycle outriders, a pink stretch Volkswagen Beetle. The ending is particularly spectacular: we see De Flores and Beatrice-Joanna riding in a coach-and-four as the film cuts between De Flores stabbing Beatrice, Beatrice stabbing herself, and the two of them having sex – Beatrice clearly enjoying it a good deal – until the coach finally arrives at the castle, at which point our perspective becomes that of the awaiting group at the castle: Alsemero, Vermandero, Tomazo de Piracquo. The coach draws up. We see Beatrice’s leg dangling from the side, covered in (rather obviously fake) blood. Blood pours down the carriage door and drips onto the ground. “Come forth, you twins of mischief!” cried Alsemero, emotionlessly. De Flores pulls Beatrice out of the carriage and drags her, at length, grunting, across the road, leaving a trail of blood. Nothing is said. Middleton and Rowley’s text is almost entirely cut, the bloody visuals obliterating the play’s verbal and psychological subtleties.

6Alex Cox’s Revengers Tragedy had, in a certain way, also been brewing for years, though the actual process between conception and release was much briefer than in the case of Middleton’s Changeling. Cox seems to have studied The Duchess of Malfi at school or university: actor Philip Franks, who was an undergraduate at Oxford with Cox, noted in an interview that Cox “was always very keen on Jacobean tragedy and once showed me some designs he’d done for a production of The Duchess of Malfi that was set in a post-holocaust world with people slithering around in the ruins6”. This production never materialised, but Cox’s fondness for Jacobean tragedy had already found outlets prior to Revengers Tragedy, outlets which suggest the convergence of genres that would facilitate the directorial turn to Jacobean tragedy. After his success with the two movies that established Cox as an alternative Hollywood “name”, Repo Man and Sid and Nancy, he was offered the chance to direct a mainstream comedy, but chose rather to make a film of his own, Straight to Hell, a spoof spaghetti Western featuring, amongst others, Joe Strummer of The Clash and a very young Courtney Love. The critics generally panned it, but Cox claimed not to care. “My film”, he said,

was a genre-mixer and was slightly odd and before the cynical violence-fests of the Nineties, so maybe I should have made the film later on. If Straight to Hell had been released in the wake of films like Reservoir Dogs or El Mariachi, when critics were comfortable with that mixture of bloodthirsty violence and humour, then it might have been more popular7.

7One thing, at least, made Cox happy, which was that the film won a prize at the 1987 Madrid Festival, chosen by a jury that included Sergio Leone: “It’s great to think”, Cox said, “that the old master really did see Straight to Hell!8”.

8The generic strands that would lead Cox and his peers to Jacobean revenge tragedy – through which, in Cox’s case, he found a way to return to his student vision of directing a revenge play set in a post-apocalyptic world – are very different from those that converge in, say, a Branagh film of a Shakespeare play. In his comments on Straight to Hell, Cox names two generically significant films both from the same year – 1992 – that are cited or implicitly drawn upon by each of Thompson, Figgis and himself: firstly, Reservoir Dogs – Adrian Noble, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, is reported to have thanked Quentin Tarantino “for the revival of Shakespearean cinema” – and, secondly, El Mariachi, the first in the Robert Rodriguez “Mexico Trilogy”, the second instalment of which, the 1995 film Desperado (the first to star Antonio Banderas) also features Salma Hayek, who is carefully redeployed against type by Figgis six years later in Hotel9. The influence of the spaghetti western is clear enough in the opening sequence of Middleton’s Changeling, when we repeatedly see a church bell tolling in a manner that, as filmgoers, we are more likely to associate with cinematic late nineteenth-century Mexico than early seventeenth-century Spain (and the clichéd, vaguely Latino electric guitar soundtrack reinforces this impression). The contemporary revenge genre is thus juxtaposed with other cinematic influences – western, Dogme, Gothic and horror films (especially, in the case of Hotel, Italian Gothic horror), plus cult films such as From Dusk till Dawn (Tarantino again) that themselves offer jarring generic marriages: road movie with vampire film, for instance. Cox emphasises the influence of Sam Peckinpah, whose movies – notably The Wild Bunch – were a powerful influence on Tarantino. And it seems fair to assume that another influence on these fin-de-siècle revenge tragedies is Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover of 1989 – especially in the scenes of cannibalism in Hotel and despite the very different effect created by that film’s simultaneous spoofing and deployment of Dogme techniques.

9Figgis’s Hotel is a deliberately shocking film that runs the basic outline of the plot of The Duchess alongside, and intertwines it with, a contemporary murder/horror-film plot. It follows the fortunes of a group of movie actors, a mix of Italian, British and American, as they attempt to rehearse and film a radical version of The Duchess of Malfi and it introduces vampires, cannibalism and an array of cameos from well-known actors. Like Thompson and Cox – only more so – Figgis relies on appearances by more or less “cult” figures in order to manipulate the audience’s expectations. Hotel is a montage of cameos and a wilfully bewildering one at that, as actors are deliberately deployed both in and out of their associated roles. Salma Hayek plays a role as unlike her Desperado identity as is imaginable. Heathcote Williams, on the other hand, who had a hand in the script, brings to the role of Bosola his dual history of Shakespearean acting (he was a brooding, mumbling Prospero in Derek Jarman’s 1979 film of The Tempest) and repeatedly self-proclaimed socially-disillusioned “outsider” status. Reversing this, David Schwimmer’s role as a murderously calculating producer both uses and rejects his vacuous comic persona in Friends, while the appearance, inter alia, of Chiara Mastroianni, daughter of Marcello Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve, as one of the cannibalistic hotel staff and of John Malkovich as an eccentric, soft-voiced hotel guest in the opening scenes (after which he is missing, presumed eaten) both establish and undercut the film’s relationship to the mainstream.

10Cameos are not the only form of intertextuality on offer. Cox’s film postdates that of Figgis by a year, yet the more you read about Cox as a director, the more tempting it is to see him in Rhys Ifans’s character, Trent Stoken, the histrionic, bullying director of the Duchess of Malfi film-within-a-film. Take this account of life during the making of a Cox film by actor Eric Fellner:

He’s an intense director and used to refer to actors as “talking props”, so you can imagine what many actors thought of him. There were times when he pushed them further than they wanted to be pushed. Sometimes that created brilliance and other times it created resentment. He’s smart and a very forceful character, but sometimes I think he dazzles himself and, as a result, loses his vision10.

11The paralysis that afflicts Rhys Ifans’s character when he is shot in the spine – which means that the only part of him that can move is his eyes – is a fantasy of revenge to which Cox’s casts might well relate. Yet Ifans’s outbursts frequently serve to highlight the practical obstacles to modernising a Jacobean play, problems of duration, of naturalism and of language, issues voiced with worldweary irony by Heathcote Williams as Bosola:

Ah, thanks, Gavin. While you were on the telephone to Los Angeles for five and a half hours, we came to a group decision to cut the iambic pentameters, heptameters, archaisms, in order to try and create a fast food McMalfi, as it were, that would be very easily digestible and accessible even to aspiring Hollywood stars.

12Ifans’s character, meanwhile, makes it entirely clear that the heritage-movie aesthetic of mainstream period-pieces is one he rejects wholesale. The actors playing Antonio and the Duchess are rehearsing, trying out a much more classical, naturalistic approach than we have so far seen in the course of the film. Stoken, the director, appears and closes in on them menacingly:

Antonio [to Duchess, as Stoken comes nearer]: Ambition, madam, is a great man’s madness. I would not be so stupid not to aim where your favours tend, but… [Nervously, to Stoken, who is circling ominously]We’re just having a pop at it different ways.
Stoken [gentle, unctuous voice]: Of course, you must try all different ways – and I love the Merchant Ivory version you’re doing at the moment. Sweet, pungent smell of rose meadows, Earl Grey, and a wet saddle on the back of a horse – that sort of thing…[shouts] It’s fucking shit.

13So much for heritage-industry versions of writing by the main canonical figures of English Literature: Shakespeare, Hardy, Austen. Figgis turns instead to Webster for something commensurate with postmodern filmmaking.

14Of course the status The Changeling and The Duchess of Malfi both have for modern theatregoers is in part the product of the way they offset their more overtly stylised moments – the madhouse scenes or the virginity test in The Changeling, the dead hand or the dummy children in The Duchess – with scenes of profound and moving naturalism: the Duchess’s instructions to Cariola about the children’s welfare; perhaps above all the rape scene in The Changeling. Cox’s choice of The Revenger’s Tragedy as subject is therefore an interesting move, since Middleton’s play is far more consistently stylised than either The Duchess or The Changeling and therefore requires a sustained commitment from the director to updated versions of Jacobean alienation effects. Christopher Eccleston plays Vindice as a Scouse hard man, and the Liverpool setting is significant, since it provides a geographical foregrounding of Cox’s apocalyptic vision (reworked from his student plan for a post-holocaust Duchess) – one in which an unspecified catastrophe has divided the United Kingdom in an abrupt and King-Lear-like manner by shearing off the south-east of England. Momentarily, at the start of the film, we see a map of Britain in which the new south coast runs in a rough straight line from Southampton to Hull and there is a good deal of postmodern game-playing with British geography – at one point, we hear an announcement for a train from Clatterbridge to Parkgate (Cox comes from the Wirral peninsula between Liverpool and Chester and knows that these are near-non-existent places – a hospital site and a silted-up former fishing village – with no connecting railway line). Of more significance is the resonance of the opening moments in which Eccleston is confronted by young thugs with strong Liverpool accents wanting to know “Are youse a Cockney?”, making it clear that anyone from London can expect to be beaten up as a matter of course. This is arguably the Liverpudlian director’s rejection of decades of London-accented revenge films stretching from Get Carter! (set in Newcastle, but starring Michael Caine as a displaced London gangster) to the vacuous reinvention in films of the Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels type of Sixties counterculture (and, for that matter, to Ian Dury as a very Cockney De Flores in Middleton’s Changeling). This reshaped, castrated Britain is decadent and oppressive – the Duke, played by veteran Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi, a botoxed, over-made-up roué; his eldest son, Lussurioso, played by Eddie Izzard, known in the UK for camp television rather than classical theatre – and therefore, for Cox, quintessentially Jacobean.

15Each of these films thus both treats the Jacobean as an early precursor of the postmodern and reads the postmodern as intrinsically decadent, using the opportunity provided by Jacobean revenge tragedy – that is, by not-Shakespeare – to present an alternative vision of society. In so doing, I want to argue, the directors – seeking radical spectacle – in fact reinstate a conservative understanding of the Jacobean and therefore unwittingly echo rather than confront the mainstream portrayal offered by Shakespeare in Love – which surely represents in all sorts of ways exactly the kind of movie all three were trying hard not to create – sustaining that film’s portrayal of Jacobean dramatists, by way of the boy Webster, as psychologically-disturbed, voyeuristic figures, writing violent, warped plays which betray Shakespeare’s achievement. The attitude these films reiterate, I want to suggest, is that apparent in most critics of Jacobean drama in the early-to-mid twentieth century, one best expressed by a phrase repeated ad nauseam in the criticism – the “decadence of the drama”.

16The “decadence of the drama” was the literary-critical counterpart or corollary of nineteenth-century historiography, of an understanding of the first half of the seventeenth century as a period of political decline, beginning at the moment of the death of Elizabeth I, that would lead inexorably to the abyss of the English Civil War. Critics in the first half of the twentieth century saw in the savagery of Webster and Middleton not the energetic, iconoclastic violence of a Tamburlaine or a Titus (the boy Webster’s Titus comparison in Shakespeare in Love is, in a certain way, a kind of blood-red herring) but rather the degraded, cynical destructiveness that results from material comfort, political stability and undue deference to the monarch. The death of Elizabeth marked the end of the Golden Age of English theatre, these critics believed; the careless, pacific, homosexual James VI and I lacked the dead queen’s moral fibre, and the playwrights followed suit. Jacobean drama almost instantly loses the energy and restless humanist optimism of the Elizabethan stage – so critics would contrast the (alleged) innocence and uplift of, say, The Shoemaker’s Holiday with cynical Jacobean city comedy such as A Chaste Maid in Cheapside or the aspirational Dr Faustus with the crushing grimness of The Revenger’s Tragedy or The Changeling – and the dramatists focussed on entertaining the court and gentry and shrugged off the drive towards modern consciousness intrinsic to the work of Marlowe or Shakespeare – a reading, of course, which positions Shakespeare, despite his actual chronology straddling both reigns, as a strictly “Elizabethan” playwright. “Decadence”, in the end – and therefore “Jacobean” – is equivalent to “un-” or “post-Shakespearean”, though critics who admit that Shakespeare also wrote plays in James’s reign find worrying signs of the Jacobean in the late plays in particular – thus the fuss that surrounded Ashley Thorndike’s fin-de-siècle argument that the late plays were directly influenced by the supposed arch-decadents Beaumont and Fletcher, an argument that outraged critics who were determined to proclaim Shakespeare’s superiority to, not dependence upon, Jacobean playwrights11.

17Not that there is a uniform understanding of “decadence” among the critics. James Knowles, in a helpful survey, reads the charge of decadence primarily as the critics’ response to evidence for the interrelations of court and theatre under James and of the increased subordination – so alleged – of playwrights and playing companies to the requirements and preferences of the monarch12. T.B. Tomlinson, however, writing in 1964, seems to have understood “decadence” as primarily a question of genre, of the failure or degradation of tragedy, and thus tragicomedy is central to his sense of decline, with decadence defined as “a growing uneasiness in Jacobean attempts to relate the comic and the tragic13”. This allows him to distinguish between, on the one hand, Middleton and Webster, who were commenting on the decadence of the times, and, on the other, those playwrights – Beaumont and Fletcher, by implication – who wilfully embodied in their work the collapse in moral fibre of the Jacobean theatre: “Sentimentality, melodrama, unrelated comic ‘relief’, twisting of plots with a careless indifference to issues raised earlier in the plays – there are clear signs of these things as early as you like to look in Jacobean [. . .] drama14”. These signs, he proceeds,

take on real significance only when a reader has discovered for himself what Webster, Tourneur, Middleton have to say about a decadent society, and turns then to the minor figures. For many of these, decadence is not merely a threat but a commanding principle. If their touch is light enough, they turn, sometimes successfully, to one or other of the infinite degrees of tragi-comedy; if not, they struggle, more or less in vain, against encroaching instability, and so they appear soft and yielding, melodramatic or sentimental, precisely where Tourneur, Middleton and (at his best) Webster were toughly resistant. Decadence, more often than not, is simply an avoidance of issues that, in terms of the plays, demand to be faced15.

18This attitude was sustained right into the nineteen eighties – with what might seem, looking back, to be surprisingly uncritical continuity – in self-consciously alternative criticism such as Jonathan Dollimore’s Radical Tragedy, a book that implicitly accepts Tomlinson’s thesis, seeing in the resistance to “decadence” of writers such as Middleton and Webster a proleptic outcropping of the revolutionary urge and thereby sustaining rather than questioning the underlying historiographical premise it inherited. It has in fact been not the post-Althusserian arguments of Dollimore and others in the mid-eighties but the more nuanced work of the subsequent critical phase – work on the shifting sands of court pluralism, on the political engagement (rather than apolitical evasion) of the genre of tragicomedy – which has enabled critics to move on from the arguments of Tomlinson and his peers and develop a subtler, more open understanding of the range of theatrical production in James’s reign, one which understands blanket assertions of “decadence” to be at odds with the evidence16.

19Critical developments, however, especially if they are revisionist and not easily stated as slogan, take decades to disseminate beyond academic debate. And it is clearly the idea of the “decadence of the drama” that underpins the brief cameo of the boy Webster in Shakespeare in Love, as the film looks forward with trepidation to perverse post-Shakespearean theatre. More to the point, it is also, I want to suggest, the “decadence of the drama” – a highly persistent notion – that underpins the choice by Thompson, Figgis and Cox of Jacobean revenge tragedy as the basis for their spectacular, cynical, apocalyptic, postmodern films. This is most apparent in Revengers Tragedy at the moment of the massacre of Vindice and his crew, when we see, at the head of the stairs on which they are shot down, a full-length portrait of Elizabeth II, who (the film seems to imply) died when London and the south-east were obliterated by the nuclear catastrophe shown to us in the film’s final seconds. The rebels, descending the staircase, seem to be in charge, but they find a range of figures in clichéd British authority costumes (Beefeaters, judges, soldiers, policemen, schoolteachers in cap and gown, plus, incongruously, knights in shining armour) all pointing automatics at them. “We die after a nest of dukes”, says Vindice in a plausible Liverpool accent and squeezes the trigger of his revolver, which is pointing at Antonio but which turns out to be a trick pistol, producing only a little flag with the word “Bang!” written on it. “Shit!”, cries Vindice and turns to his friends: “Adieu”. The soldiers, Beefeaters, and the rest all shoot and the camera pans hastily up the stairs to the portrait of Elizabeth, which evolves into a photo-negative of itself and then becomes a nuclear mushroom cloud, with Vindice’s voice, multiplied and made comically high in its register, screaming “Revenge! Revenge!”. In its iconography, this moment – the portrait of Elizabeth reversed, followed immediately by annihilation, with more than a hint of punk aesthetic in the photo-negative transformation of the portrait, citing the sleeve design of the Sex Pistols’ most iconoclastic single, “God Save the Queen (The Fascist Regime)” (and this from the director of Sid and Nancy) – unexpectedly turns out to represent a perverse version of the closing scene of Shakespeare in Love in which we discover that Elizabeth I (Judi Dench) has been in the theatre throughout the performance of Romeo and Juliet – in effect playing that quintessentially Jacobean role the disguised ruler (the duke or prince in plays such as Measure for Measure and Middleton’s Phoenix who ostensibly leaves the realm but in fact travels incognito in order to see the problems he has become aware of without the barriers of office) – and comes down onto the stage at the end, as a good disguised ruler should, to sort out others’ errors. Turning to the boy Webster, she asks him if he liked the play, to which he replies “I liked it when she stabbed herself, your majesty”. She just smiles at him, indulgently, knowing that, by definition, she will be dead and gone before he can reshape the stage in his own, warped image.

20In the end, I would suggest, the three turn-of-the-century “Jacobean” films, despite their self-conscious stance in opposition to the visual aesthetic of Branagh’s Shakespeares or of Shakespeare in Love – the “Merchant Ivory” approach so vehemently rejected by the director figure in Figgis’s Hotel – share a basic premise with Shakespeare in Love: that “Jacobean” equals “decadent”, that Jacobean revenge tragedy was a degraded, unhealthy successor to the vigorous splendours of Shakespeare. The generic difficulties Cox addressed in discussing Straight to Hell – the problem of tone, of the mixing of humour, violence and verbosity that made little sense to audiences until Tarantino monumentalised the blend in Reservoir Dogs – suggest that these films are, in their way, Hollywood’s version of the difficulties in the understanding of tragicomedy exemplified by Tomlinson. The appearance of the boy Webster in Shakespeare in Love is thus significant in several ways. It serves as a reminder of a lack, the absence of cinema films based on non-Shakespearean drama, a lack briefly, but hardly adequately, redressed at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It also serves as a reminder that Shakespeare is still seen as standing out from his fellow playwrights as a bright, founding genius followed by far lesser writers, intent only on perverse spectacle, a reminder, simply, that, after Shakespeare, things went very seriously wrong. Commendably rejecting the bright, shiny, normalising “Elizabethan Golden Age” vision embodied in mainstream Shakespeare films, whatever their actual period setting – in, for instance, the opening moments of Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing, when the star and his friends run giggling down a perfect Tuscan hill dressed in pristine white – these self-consciously “radical” directors turn, as a vehicle for their visions of postmodern social decadence, to Jacobean revenge tragedy. In so doing, however, they unwittingly reinstate the conservative equation of “Jacobean” and “decadence” that criticism and historiography have in recent years rejected as a misrepresentation of the past.

216  Steven Paul Davies, Alex Cox: Film Anarchist, with a foreword by Dennis Hopper, London, B.T. Batsford, 2000, p. 14.

2213  T.B. Tomlinson, A Study of Elizabethan and Jacobean Tragedy, Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1964, 215.



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THOMPSON, Marcus, Middleton’s Changeling, High Time Pictures, 1998.

FIGGIS, Mike, Hotel, Moonstone Entertainment/Hotel Productions, 2001.

COX, Alex, Revengers Tragedy, Bard Entertainments, 2002.


ADAMS, S. L., “Early Stuart Politics: Revisionism and After”, in J.R. Mulryne et Margaret Shewring (dir.), Theatre and Government under the Early Stuarts, Cambridge, CUP, 1993, p. 29-56.

BURNETT, Mark Thornton, et WRAY, Ramona (dir.), Shakespeare, Film, Fin-de-Siècle, Basingstoke, Macmillan, 2000.

COGSWELL, Thomas, The Blessed Revolution: English Politics and the Coming of War, 1621-1624, Cambridge, CUP, 1989.

COGSWELL, Thomas, Home Divisions: Aristocracy, the State and Provincial Conflict, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1998.

DAVIES, Steven Paul, Alex Cox: Film Anarchist, Avant-propos de Dennis Hopper, London, B.T. Batsford, 2000.

JENKINS, Milly, “Hot new writing talent hits Hollywood”, The Independent, 1 December 1996.

KNOWLES, James, “‘Tied to Rules of Flattery’: Court Drama and the Masque”, in Michael Hattaway (dir.), A Companion to English Renaissance Literature and Culture, Oxford, Blackwell, 2000, p.525-544.

MULRYNE, J.R., et SHEWRING, Margaret (dir.), Theatre and Government under the Early Stuarts, Cambridge, CUP, 1993.

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< http://www.alexcox.com/dir_revengerstragedy.htm >



1  John Madden (dir.), Shakespeare in Love, Universal Pictures/Miramax/Bedford Falls Productions, 1998.

2  Michael Rechtshaffen, review of Hotel, Hollywood Reporter, 17 September 2001.

3  Middleton’s Changeling, dir. Marcus Thompson, High Time Pictures, 1998; Hotel, dir. Mike Figgis, Moonstone Entertainment/Hotel Productions, 2001; Revengers Tragedy, dir. Alex Cox, Bard Entertainments, 2002. The omission of the usual apostrophe in Revenger’s/Revengers’ is Cox’s choice, based on the lack of an apostrophe in the 1607 Quarto: “I'm tired of the apostrophe. Nobody knows what to do with them any more […]. There wasn't one on the title page of THE REVENGERS TRAGEDIE and what's good enough for Tom M is good enough for me” (see < http://www.alexcox.com/dir_revengerstragedy.htm >). I am grateful to Pascale Aebischer for introducing me to these films; I am grateful too to Gill Plain (who knows far more about the movies than I do) for conversations about all the other kinds of film mentioned in the course of this essay.

4  My reference here is to Mark Thornton Burnett and Ramona Wray (eds), Shakespeare, Film, Fin-de-Siècle, Basingstoke, Macmillan, 2000.

5  The process of making the film is described at some length (though no critical distance) at <http://www.marcusthompson.com/Changeling_-_7th_page.html>.

7  Ibid., p. 81.

8  Ibid.

9  “Adrian Noble of the Royal Shakespeare Company, whose Midsummer Night’s Dream has just come out, has said it’s Quentin Tarantino that we should be thanking for this rebirth: ‘Pre-Tarantino, the average cinema speech lasted eight to 10 words. Now it's trendy for characters to deliver lengthy monologues’”: see Milly Jenkins, “Hot new writing talent hits Hollywood”, The Independent, 1 December 1996.

10  Steven Paul Davies, op. cit., p. 78.

11  Ashley Thorndike, The Influence of Beaumont and Fletcher on Shakespeare, Worcester, MA, Wood, 1901.

12  James Knowles, “‘Tied to Rules of Flattery’: Court Drama and the Masque”, in Michael Hattaway (ed.), A Companion to English Renaissance Literature and Culture, Oxford, Blackwell, 2000,p. 525-544.

14  Ibid.

15  Ibid., p. 215-216.

16  A useful collection of essays for rebalancing accounts of Jacobean “decadence” is J.R. Mulryne and Margaret Shewring (eds), Theatre and Government under the Early Stuarts,Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993, esp. S.L. Adams’s essay, “Early Stuart Politics: Revisionism and After”, p. 29-56. Post-revisionist accounts of the period have subsequently questioned the emphasis on nuance and consensus in revisionist work without necessarily returning to imputations of decadence: see, for instance, the work of Thomas Cogswell, notably The Blessed Revolution: English Politics and the Coming of War, 1621-1624, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989, and Home Divisions: Aristocracy, the State and Provincial Conflict, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1998.

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Par Gordon McMullan, «“Plenty of blood. That’s the only writing”: (mis)representing Jacobean tragedy in turn-of-the-century cinema», Shakespeare en devenir [En ligne], Shakespeare en devenir, N°2 - 2008, mis à jour le : 28/01/2010, URL : https://shakespeare.edel.univ-poitiers.fr:443/shakespeare/index.php?id=146.

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Gordon McMullan is Professor of English at King’s College London. His book, Shakespeare and the Idea of Late Writing: Authorship in the Proximity of Death, was published by Cambridge at the end of 2007. He has also written The Politics of Unease in the Plays of John Fletcher (1994) and edited Henry VIII for the Arden Shakespeare series (2000) and 1 Henry IV for Norton Critical Editions. In addition, he has edited or co-edited four collections of essays, the most recent of which is Reading the Me ...