Guest Post: On Shakespeare and Wrestling by Barry F. Hess

Artwork courtesy of Punkrockbigmouth (punkrockbigmouth.tumblr.com)

Another wonderful wrestling writer has stepped up to help me keep Spectacle of Excess afloat while I grind away on the novel I’m translating. Barry F. Hess offers an insightful look at the relationship between wrestling and Shakespeare here, touching on a number of concepts about the bard and the business that I never noticed before:

Two of my most favorite pastimes in life are reading William Shakespeare and watching pro wrestling. I’ve been captivated by the narratives of the greatest dramatist in the history of the western world since first reading The Tragedy of Julius Cesar as an eighth grader. As for pro wrestling, it’s been one of the few constants in my life for close to three decades. Outwardly the two may appear to occupy opposite ends of the storytelling spectrum, but a closer examination of the two reveals just how similar they really are. Shakespeare and pro wrestling rely on unique characters, dramatic language, compelling plot twists and progressive story advancement to create a tangible emotional investment in the outcome. That investment allows both Shakespeare and pro wrestling bookers the opportunity to manipulate the audience using savvy devices like the breaking of the fourth wall to further harness that all important investment.

In many ways, Shakespeare could be considered the greatest booker that ever lived. At the very least he’s locked in a three-way tie with Paul Heyman and the late great Dusty Rhodes. After all, Shakespeare was a businessman first and foremost and stories, like a booker, were his business. As part owner of the Globe Theater, he wrote stories designed to fill his theater and, in turn, make money. Stories that immediately set a hook and kept the audience engaged through the use of themes like: ambition, revenge, love and redemption. These themes are also the foundation of most pro wrestling storylines.

An examination of many of the most successful angles throughout pro wrestling’s long and storied history exposes the length of Shakespeare’s influential reach. The explosion of The Mega Powers is one of the most popular stories in the history of WWE. The seemingly unstoppable alliance of Hulk-a-Mania and the Macho Madness was brought to a crashing halt in 1989 when Randy Savage’s jealousy and paranoia over the relationship between his wife, Miss Elizabeth, and Hulk Hogan led to the visceral feud that culminated at WrestleMania V. Shakespeare’s version of a similar story is called, Othello. Two great heroes and close friends, Othello and Iago, transformed into adversaries over Iago’s unfounded suspicion that Othello bedded his wife, Emilia. Bret Hart’s shocking heel turn at the dawn of the Attitude Era draws subtle inspiration from The Tragedy of Coriolanus. Coriolanus was an admired general, war hero and the ultimate defender of the people of Rome. When convinced to run for higher office, Coriolanus’ inexperience in the political game leaves him vulnerable to a trap designed to place him out of favor with the electorate. Like Hart, who returned to find himself out of place within the drastic shift created by the Attitude Era, Coriolanus lashed out and became a hated enemy of the state and the very people who once loved him. Booker T’s King of the Ring program in the mid 2000s was virtually a modern day adaptation of Macbeth. Both Macbeth and Booker T were manipulated by their power-hungry wives, which led to their ultimate downfall.

The list goes on and on.

The presence of strong heel characters is probably the strongest and most consistent element linking Shakespeare and pro wrestling. Richard III is not only the most treacherous heel to ever grace the pages of a Shakespearian manuscript, but in all of literature – at least in my estimation. Fueled by a dangerous combination of unbridled ambition and lust for power, no act proved too treacherous, too heinous, too unthinkable for the bloodthirsty monarch, so long as he was in prime position to reap the benefits once the proverbial smoke cleared. Like any good heel, the ends most certainly justified the means. Manipulating his dying father. Arranging the murder of his brother. Preying on the vulnerability of a grieving widow, made so by his hand… and that is just Act One.

Take that Mr. McMahon!

His villainous actions notwithstanding, what ultimately sets Richard III apart from most of his literary counterparts is his relationship with us, the audience. As the play progresses Richard projects himself as many things to many people, spreading a web of lies designed to divide and conquer his enemies. Only through a series of eloquent soliloquies are his true intensions revealed.

A soliloquy, by definition, is the act of voicing one’s inner thoughts aloud with no regard for listeners in the context of a scene. Few literary devices allow a writer to expose the very soul of a character the way a well written, well timed soliloquy can.

Reading The Tragedy of Richard III on paper, we are provided an intimate look at Richard’s impure heart, something he successful disguises from everyone else around him. Conversely, watching the play performed, those very same words, when brought to life, create a riveting ambiguity. Is Richard really talking to himself, or is he actually talking to us when he explains:

I am determined to prove a villain,
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other…

Later, upon seducing Lady Anne, is he marveling at his own villainous proficiency or arrogantly instigating us for his own amusement:

Was ever woman in this humour woo’d?
Was ever woman in this humour won…

And yet to win her, all the world to nothing!
Ha!

Scene by scene Richard executes his devious plot with deadly precision, explaining exactly what he plans to do and how he plans to do it, each soliloquy generating more heat than the last. All the while, we in the audience are powerless to do anything but watch as those around Richard fall into his deadly trap one by one.

McMahon’s epic battles with Steve Austin are undoubtedly the easiest link to the Richard III character. Week after week McMahon plotted to eliminate the Texas rattlesnake from the championship picture, each scheme more evil than the last. That said, McMahon’s use of language to subtly break the fourth wall was most brilliant over the course of multiple segments during an episode of Smackdown that aired on January 14, 2002. Unwilling to share power with newly established co-owner, Ric Flair, McMahon delivered a series of promos in which he appeared to be speaking directly to the audience. He explained with great passion how he created the WWF (not yet WWE) and would rather kill that which he created than allow someone else to garner control. Only during the final promo is it revealed that McMahon was actually talking to his own reflection in a mirror as opposed to the audience, instantly transforming the scene into a frightening harbinger of things to come, namely the NWO.

Whether or not Shakespeare truly intended for Richard to break the fourth wall, as McMahon clearly did, is inconsequential. The primal emotion evoked by Richard’s words brilliantly dissolved the invisible wall separating the fantasy world on stage from the world of reality occupied by the audience. By the time we approach the final act, we become so invested in Richard’s defeat that we very nearly become as bloodthirsty as him. Likewise, when the NWO arrived, its presence in the WWF posed a genuine threat to the continued existence of the promotion rather than serving as just another surprise appearance by popular wrestlers.

The Tragedy of Richard III is, by far, my favorite of all Shakespeare’s plays. Notorious for its degree of difficulty, it was the last of the great plays I undertook on my personal quest to conquer Shakespeare’s entire catalog of work. Only after studying the text for nearly a year was I able to begin to derive satisfaction from the compelling drama hidden within the exquisite dialog.

The vexing iambic pentameter aside, I’ve always found the story of Richard III particularly compelling because of the play’s ability to elicit a powerful emotional response while, at the same time, disintegrating the barrier between fantasy and reality. It is no coincidence that many of my personal favorite pro wrestling angles share the same ability. In the early stages of the NWO/WCW invasion angle, prior to Hulk Hogan’s involvement, the story was presented in a manner that suggested Scott Hall and Kevin Nash were sent by McMahon to actually sabotage WCW. This narrative successfully blurred the lines between reality and fiction unlike any story to come before it. Some 15 years later, CM Punk’s infamous ‘pipe bomb promo’ would recapture the essence of that blurred reality, an accomplishment I once believed impossible as a result of the information age we currently live in. Similarly, Shakespeare’s version of Richard III often contradicts the real-life version of the hunchbacked king. I know this to be fact, yet the compelling nature of his storytelling allows me to willingly disregard that information in favor of the narrative he so eloquently portrays.

The suspension of disbelief is the proverbial glue that binds fiction to our consciousness. Whether it’s a movie or television program, Shakespeare or pro wrestling, we enter the engagement with the basic understanding that what we’re about to experience isn’t real. We consciously ignore that truth in the name of entertainment or enlightenment.

Only after a writer creates an environment where it becomes possible for his or her audience to let its guard down does the true magic of fiction take hold. The moment when we can’t help but weep as we watch Jack’s lifeless body sink into the Atlantic Ocean in the final moments of the film Titanic. The moment when we immediately hearken back to the emotional and psychological trauma that comes with being a teenager upon hearing Hamlet’s penetrating ‘To be or not to be’ monologue. The moment when we leap from ou seats and demand Bayley refuse to surrender as Sasha Banks attempts to break her in two in the final moments of their epic Iron Man Match.

Whether it is the subtle destruction of the fourth wall, the use of relatable themes, compelling dialogue or some combination of all three, fiction is at its very best when we no longer view it as such. The ultimate brilliance of Shakespeare is his repeated ability to achieve that difficult task. While pro wrestling’s success rate may be considerably lower than Shakespeare’s (I know, I know, tell Bill to provide five hours of original content every week and then we’ll talk), the medium is always at its best when kayfabe becomes the only reality that matters. Hamlet had it right after all; the play is truly the thing.

 

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Barry F. Hess has been a wrestling fan since age six and has been writing since about age ten. He is a veteran of the US Navy having served in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. He’s been a sports writer for various papers in the Philadelphia area, as well as a boxing and NASCAR columnist. He currently writes a weekly wrestling blog on Cageside Seats. He loves writing about the history of pro wrestling, and loves to notice the relationships between wrestling and the narrative arts. Read his blog post Anatomy of a Wrestling Fan: My Story to get an idea of what wrestling means to him, and follow him on Twitter: @BFHess171

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