Uncategorized

“What more does the Traveler want of Me?”: Destiny 2, Ghaul, and the Sci-Fi Villain

[7-10 minute read]

As its title screen fades to black, Destiny 2 (2017) sets itself up to follow the familiar science fiction trope of moral disambiguation. After destroying the last vestiges of human society on the planet, the new villain of the series – the not so subtly named Ghaul – has just thrown your player avatar off a hovering space craft to plummet toward earth. His final words to you hang in the air, a sinister snarl: “I am Ghaul, and your light…is mine.”

This “light” references the power bestowed on your character by a roving god-like entity known as The Traveler. In the first game, guardians chosen by this entity have the power of light bestowed upon them, granting them exceptional abilities. These powers are granted to them in order to facilitate their fight against the enemy of The Traveler – again, the not subtly named, “The Darkness.” Destiny is not aiming for subtlety in the moral lines that it draws. This idea of clear cut sides, of a “right” side and a “wrong side,” serves to anchor Destiny not only within the genre of science fiction, but within the medium of video games.

Science fiction has a long history of “black and white” narratives. Both Star Wars and Star Trek, arguably the two most popular science fiction texts in 20th and 21st century American culture, utilize a rather simplistic moral framework. Star Wars relies on “The Force” with characters falling to either the “light” side or the “dark side.” While the occasional “grey” character may emerge,[1] on the whole, Star Wars falls back on characters that are motivated either by selfish interests (the dark side, the Sith) or general good will and honor (the light side, the Jedi). “Light” side characters in the franchise films (the most widely and frequently consumed Star Wars texts) often receive ample development time on screen, leading to what Murray Smith calls “alignment,” a form of audience identification with a character that results from our exposure to information about that character within the film.[2] The motivations of the texts’ central heroes are made fairly explicit; for example: Luke wants off his home planet, wants to help the mysterious and beautiful Leia from his droid’s recordings, and wants to escape the Empire who murdered his aunt and uncle. However, the major villains of the franchise receive little-to-no attention: Emperor Palpatine is evil because of “reasons,” or simply because he’s Sith.

Img1The Poster for the most recent installment makes the split between good and evil readily apparent. (Lucasfilm/Disney)

Star Trek carries this same tradition: The Borg are defined by their inhumanity, the Klingons and Romulans are aligned with their cultures of violence, imperialism, and war; all alien species that fight against the United Federation of Planets quickly become coded as vicious, violent, and evil. Even when the series investigates the motivations behind its antagonists, there is no question about who we view as villain and hero: Khan’s devotion to slaughter in Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) is reprehensible and unforgivable, even if he is responding to manipulation on the part of the Federation. Struggle between a righteous, noble humanity and a violent alien “other” quintessentially characterizes much of the science fiction that populates our popular culture.

This convention rings even more true for video game narratives where the developers must establish not only the moral framework of the world, but do so in such a manner that motivates the player by interpolating them into this struggle. The Halo (2001-2017) series utilizes humanity vs. The Covenant, and the Mass Effect (2007-2017) series explores the fight between humanity and “the Reapers.” In both cases, the player knows immediately which side they should root for – that is, which side is the victim in need of a hero – because it is the side their avatar fights for within the world of the game. Even in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003), which allows players to choose a side in Jedi vs. Sith battles, the Jedi are still coded explicitly as good, and the Sith as evil.

This overwhelming generic convention has followed gamers down the pipeline to their first encounter with the world of Destiny in 2014. The presence of this science fiction trope for moral disambiguation made it easy to buy into the clearly delineated light vs. darkness world of good vs. evil present in the first game. Immediately, within the game’s opening cinematic, players know they are in the right, aligned with the Traveler and his Light against the forces of The Darkness, and justified in the goals of the first-person shooter/ MMO-hybrid: shooting and killing everyone who shoots at you. Narrative turns act in concert with these game mechanics to structure your behavior and pit you against alien “others.” The initial player encounter with aliens in the game, creatures known as The Fallen, is introduced by your robot guide stating that he “needs to find you a gun before the Fallen find you.” From this point forward, information about the various aliens species encountered in the game comes filtered to the player through their robot guide and the various leaders of the human resistance on Earth. Cut scenes within the game focus on the player’s hero, or on members of the human resistance, but never on the aliens. Again, they are evil simply because they are pitted against the hero, and bent on the same goal as the player: to kill rather than be killed. Their motivations remain vague, clothed in the language of “domination” (The Imperial Cabal), “dark ritual” (The Hive), “resource theft” (the scavenging Fallen), and “technological superiority to non-robots” (The Vex). In all cases, the aliens act as violent aggressors, while the humans simply attempt to defend the remaining human population.

With this framework from the first game, our return to the Earth of Destiny feels familiar in the opening moments of Destiny 2. The surprise comes not from a new alien threat, but from the success of this threat to obliterate the majority of humanity’s last bastion on Earth, and to cripple the heretofore invincible character avatar, the guardian. Destiny 2 opens by insisting that the “good” guys might not win this time.

Img2Ghaul prepares to boot the player’s guardian off the Cabal command ship. (Bungie/Activision)

The narrative continues this insistence on mortality in the following scene, reducing the heroic guardian from the first game to a limping, weaponless shell that must navigate the ruins of the Earth outpost. Mechanics force the player to experience this powerlessness alongside their character: stripped of all the powers and abilities that made their guardians super-human, as well as the ability to jump or run, the player instead can only control the direction of their guardian as the figure limps through burning rubble at a crawling pace that stretches the moment out interminably.

Something else is different in this opening sequence as well, a change whose significance becomes clear as the game’s cut scenes begin to unfold. In the beginning cinematic, Ghaul, the player’s new alien enemy, is presented to us with a recognizable face. Up until this point in the series, members of the alien species of The Cabal enemies faced by the guardians have all been helmeted, with a single exception encountered if the player seeks out lore hidden throughout the worlds of the game.

Img3The usual Cabal suspect. (destiny.wikia.com)

In contrast to this, Ghaul’s face is open to us, or at least his eyes and head:

Img4Dominus Ghaul (destiny.wikia.com)

The impact of seeing his face, and of the eye contact made with the camera (and therefore the gaze of the audience) startles the player. In no small part, this rises from the forces of abjection functioning in this moment of reveal.[3] Here, the face of the other, scarred, mangled, red-eyed, and trapped behind a breathing apparatus, nevertheless still looks human in shape. Ghaul still has eyes which gaze at the player the player gazes at him. The barrier of helmet that helped to define the Cabal as “other” more easily for players is torn away, causing an encounter with an abject other that may be closer to the self than the helmet allowed.

This almost “humanizing” moment in the opening of the game serves as prelude to the function of the rest of the narrative. Where the first Destiny centered cut-scenes almost exclusively on characterization for the player-guardian and their companions, Destiny 2 instead focuses half of its cut-scenes on Ghaul and his ongoing dialogue with The Speaker, a human who serves as a sort of voice for The Traveler. During these scenes we discover that Ghaul is motivated toward his conquest of The Traveler’s light not by some abstract evil, but by victimization he suffered as a child coupled with manipulation wrought by his mentor, The Consul, a disgraced Cabal scholar. Born a runt and albino in a culture that prizes physical domination and strength, Ghaul was abandoned to die. Though The Consul saved him, it was only so he could mold him into a tool to use for conquest and destruction. Ghaul’s childhood abandonment clearly still impacts him, regardless of his accumulated power and prestige as the leader of the Red Legion. His continuous plea to The Speaker and The Traveler rises from the insecurity of his childhood trauma, as he calls for them to “see” him: “Do you see, Traveler, all that I have done? Grace me with your light.”

As the game progresses, Ghaul’s desire to be worthy becomes more and more desperate. He begs the Speaker to “help [him] understand,” to reveal to him why the Traveler will not bestow its light on him. Even though he could simply tear the light out of the Traveler and claim it for himself, he insists that the Traveler must recognize him and what he has accomplished, and gift to him the light instead. When The Consul insists that taking the light by force is the only way, Ghaul retorts, “Not for me.” At the surface level, he is driven by selfish thirst for glory and power that we have come to expect from villains, but beneath that, he is an abandoned child seeking to repay his mentor for rescuing him by raining revenge on “an empire that failed him” – and the game makes sure that we, the players, know this. Unlike past Destiny villains, we know what drives Ghaul: not an abstract concept, but a relatable need for acceptance that feels all too human. His final demand of The Speaker reiterates his desire toward worthiness: “Tell me, Speaker. What more does the Traveler want of me?” It is only after this moment that The Consul leverages his power over Ghaul, and questions his loyalty and the value of his word. In the face of failing the man who raised him, the man who “chose” him, Ghaul consents to take the Traveler’s light.

While the end of the video game’s narrative resolves to place Ghaul squarely in the role of the evil villain in order to generate the medium’s essential boss battle and clean narrative closure, this expository work throughout the bulk of the game’s campaign serves a significant purpose. In our current political environment of creeping fascism and nationalism that relies so heavily on rhetoric of “us vs. them,” a genre that bends conventions to serve up a complicated and pitiable villain creates a bold political statement. Ghaul, ostensibly the enemy, reveals his motivations as hubris and a need for vengeance against those who hurt him. He asks us to question our notions of a black and white world. He presents a narrative of moral ambiguity that reflects back on our reality of human experience. He causes us to question our easy moral binaries, and the lines we draw between others and ourselves.


[1] Han Solo and Anakin Skywalker both exemplify these “grey-area” characters: Han due to his questionable motivations of wealth rather than honor, and Anakin due to his slaughter of the entire sand tribe rising out of a uncontrolled rage over the violence done to his mother

[2] For an easily accessible overview of Murray Smith’s theories on audience identification see Greg Smith’s chapter, “How do we identify with characters,” from his book What Media Classes Really Want to Discuss, Routledge, 2011.

[3] The term abjection and the theory surrounding it is pulled from Julia Kristeva’s book Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Columbia UP, 1982.

Hillarie Curtis is a second year Ph.D. student in English at Syracuse University where they study masculinity, monstrosity, censorship, and queer representations in Classic Hollywood films and Popular Culture texts.

Advertisements

Special Edition: How I Misplaced my Faith

[5 minute read]

Last month, when teaching a Metathesis post I previously wrote about being a Catholic scholar, I felt like a bit of a fraud. My intention in using this post was to give my students a look at my research on a rare book they had examined for class. However, when one of my students immediately remarked that the book smelled “you know, like when you’re at Easter Mass, and the priest is using incense”, my response was one of disconnect, rather than recognition. Between submitting my syllabus for approval in April and teaching the content in September, I had misplaced my faith somewhere.

Somewhere, I say, but I know exactly where I misplaced it. I left it in the run-down Amtrak station in Schenectady, New York: a tiny room with a manual train schedule, a contaminated drinking fountain, and an air freshener that whined every quarter hour. I know I left it there because I spent my layover from Syracuse to Montréal in an airport-style seat bank, squished between my piles of luggage, reading Kaya Oakes’s The Nones Are Alright.

AshleyOct1

My unglamorous road from Damascus

Oakes, a freelance writer and lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, who will be giving the annual Borgognoni lecture on Monday, compiled this collection of first-hand narratives to represent the faith processes of those who belong to (as the subtitle describes) “A New Generation of Believers, Seekers, and Those in Between.” The book finds its premise in the 2012 Pew report on American religion, which identified that over a third of Americans have no religious affiliation. Some are “nones” — spiritual but not religious, they might be seeking a religion where they feel at home, or they might not. Some are “dones” — spiritually burned by their previous religious affiliation, they seek no association with formal religion. Some have never had religious affiliation; some had it, but found themselves unable to believe anymore. Whatever their motivations, a large population of Americans do not identify with religion as an institution, or as we previously knew it.

Image2An updated version of the Pew Research Center’s findings from 2014.

With her book, Oakes looks beyond the numbers of the report to compile and showcase the stories of these “nones.” The pages are populated by lifelong nonbelievers, sudden converts to atheism, and exploratory practitioners of multiple faiths, as well as exiled divorcees, gay ex-Jesuits, and women scalded by institutional sexism. But as I sat in the chilly station, one story about a Jewish seminarian-turned-Jewish atheist almost seemed to be talking about me. This man had built his life and his career around institutional Judaism. But although he was able to negotiate a personal agreement whereby he would teach nontraditional classes in Hebrew school and observe Jewish holidays, after reflection, he discovered that he could not bring himself to worship a being in whose existence he could no longer believe.

TitleCoverKaya Oakes’s The Nones are Alright (Orbis Books, 2015)

Although I started my degree as a (technically) non-practicing Catholic and described myself to colleagues as more intellectually than spiritually interested in Catholicism, within a year I was fully embedded in my research on Early Modern Catholicism, both academically and personally. I felt like I’d finally embraced — with a few provisos and quid pro quos — the faith I’d grown up in for my own. I was a Catholic scholar writing about Catholicism with aspirations of tenure at a hippie Catholic college. Sometimes it all seemed a little excessive; the other Catholic scholars I interacted with (who weren’t Jesuits) led much more diverse lives. But I had a brand, a kind of a fandom, and the symmetry made so much sense.

Yet here I was, beneath the dingy fluorescent lights of the train station, where the phrase “agnostic Catholic” struck me with such a resonance that I felt as if the text had directly addressed me. I’d never been able to completely buy into large chunks of the catechism. In the meanwhile, I practiced. The rites and rituals, but also the leadership positions and committee work — I practiced and participated in these because they seemed meaningful, because I could, and because I should. I’d always just assumed, or hoped, that someday, someone would explain it all to me in a way that I could believe in. I realized now that I’d confused faith with trust: and the more I distrusted the systems of oppression embedded in the Church (or that the Church was in bed with), the less I could truly believe that it all was true. I didn’t know what I believed anymore. And so I found myself in a little city, in a tiny Amtrak station, in a kind of long-distance communion with these “nones” — these people with whom I’d sympathized, but never empathized with before – now, my new fellow travelers.

I say I’ve misplaced my faith, because I wonder if it’s still around here somewhere. Like the Winnie-the-Pooh headband I’d misplaced as a child, that I had known must have been in my childhood bedroom somewhere, and which I’m still half-convinced is in one of the boxes my family never unpacked after our big move nineteen years ago. Maybe someday I’ll find that headband; maybe one day I’ll stop feeling like an imposter when I go to mass, or write for religious magazines.

newstationLet me know if you see my faith in the lost-and-found.

Schenectady tore down its Amtrak station a few weeks after I passed through. An artist’s rendering of the future new station depicted an elegant, white, modern building, ostensibly with computerized schedules and clean drinking water. Maybe I’ll find my faith still there when I next pass through. Maybe I’ll be a believer again. Or maybe I won’t: maybe I’ll always be a seeker. Or, maybe, I’ll be somewhere in between.


Kaya Oakes will be leading a discussion for graduate students about her work on Monday, October 9, 10:30 AM – 12:30 PM in Hall of Languages 504, Syracuse University. RSVP to Ashley O’Mara (amomara@syr.edu) for readings.

Ashley O’Mara is a PhD student and teaching associate in the Syracuse University English program. She studies asexuality, celibacy, and the queer politics of Catholicism after the Reformation in Early Modern English literature. In her down time, she writes creative nonfiction and listens to Mashrou’ Leila. She has very strong opinions about hummus.

Seduction and Devastation

[10 minute read]

In my final foray into Hannibal, I will examine the final season and its tragedy and seduction. After the violence of “Mizumono,” the season two finale, Hannibal escapes to Italy, his pursuers scattered and recovering from their injuries. Driven by vivid hallucinations and a grisly murder, Will sails the Atlantic to seek Hannibal out. Will’s obsession with Hannibal lures him into a deep web of seduction, mirroring, and finally, unity through violence.

Before we are able to fully understand the tragedy of the reunion between Hannibal and Will, it is important to explore the extent of Hannibal’s trauma in “Mizumono.” Rather than anger, Hannibal responds as if he has been hurt, acting as the betrayed party. In a flashback, Hannibal discusses forgiveness with his therapist-confidante, Dr. Du Maurier. “Betrayal and forgiveness are… best seen as something akin to falling in love,” she explains. However, Hannibal counters this, saying “You cannot control with respect to whom you fall in love.” The framing of this conversation makes it clear they are both speaking of Will. In Hannibal’s grief, he reaches out to Will in his typical fashion.

Sept1

Will finds Hannibal’s broken heart 

Impersonating a museum curator, Hannibal befriends a young, attractive man, Anthony Dimmond.[1] When he is invited to the home Hannibal and du Maurier share (playing the role of husband and wife), Dimmond casually and flirtatiously proposes a threesome. After looking to du Maurier for guidance, Hannibal admits “it’s not that kind of party.” Rebuked but intrigued, Dimmond falls right into Hannibal’s trap: he beats Dimmond with a decorative statue and savagely breaks his neck. Hannibal then transports the body cross-country, mutilating it to form the shape of a human heart which he leaves in a church for Will to find. It’s a gruesome Valentine, and one with a clear message: Hannibal’s heart is broken. Italian detective Pazzi observes “Is Will Graham here because of the body, or is the body here because of Will Graham?” The aftershocks of Hannibal and Will’s mutual betrayal are felt as distantly as Europe, placing them in a difficult and peculiar position of forgiveness.

Will’s response to Hannibal’s hurt is not a pursuit, but a seduction. Upon tracking Hannibal to a maze of church catacombs, Will calls into the darkness “I forgive you.” The exceptionally painful nature of the relationship between these two men muddies the scene. In their previous moments together (in the season two finale) Hannibal guts Will and murders Abigail, a young woman that Will had begun to view as a surrogate daughter. And yet, despite this pain, there is no uncertainty or disingenuousness in Will’s voice.[2] Rather, it is Will’s method of signaling the start of their web of seduction and violence. After Will makes this statement, he leaves immediately. He does not pursue Hannibal aggressively, but instead invites him to give chase by retreating back to Hannibal’s childhood home.

Sept2

Will leaves Hannibal a Valentine of his own

In an attempt to better understand Hannibal’s history and trauma, Will seeks out Hannibal’s birthplace in Lithuania. There, he begins to understand Hannibal’s genesis as a killer, starting with Hannibal’s forced cannibalization of his young sister Mischa. With new insights, Will leaves to reconnect with Hannibal, but not before leaving behind a gift of his own: a body presented in a remarkable fashion, reaching out to Hannibal through the man’s own art form.

When Will finally returns to Hannibal, it is from a place of understanding and confidence. Although the nature of Hannibal as a character makes it impossible to fully understand him, Will’s revelations about Hannibal’s past offer clarity into their relationship. Will admits that he already defines his life in terms of his relationship with Hannibal, but understands that Hannibal’s own expression of his past is blurrier. However, their paths forward are linked; they are led inescapably to each other.

Sept3

Will and Hannibal reunite in the latter’s favorite art gallery

Despite the inevitable weight of the past, the long-awaited reunion of Hannibal and Will is powerful moment of brightness and pleasure. “If I saw you every day, forever, Will, I would remember this time,” Hannibal remarks, gazing at Will with adoration and open affection. There is a sense of palpable relief as the two men come together. Surrounded by the beauty of the art gallery and the symmetry of the shot, it is easy for us to forget the trauma that Will has experienced at Hannibal’s hands. We can almost believe forgiveness. Remarking upon the twisting intimacy of their relationship, Will explains “We’re conjoined. I’m curious whether either of us can survive separation.” This comment speaks frankly to the relationship between Will and Hannibal. They remain obsessed with each other to the point that they are all the other can think about, all the other longs for.

Sept4

An image from the show’s opening credits shows Hannibal and Will’s edges blurring together

The tender moment in the museum is shattered as the two men walk out side by side. In a moment painfully resonant with “Mizumono,” Will attempts to stab and kill Hannibal. This attempt is thwarted by Hannibal’s childhood caretaker, Chiyoh, who shoots Will through the shoulder, saving Hannibal. True to Will’s prediction, he cannot be separated from Hannibal, attempts to do so only bring them closer. Once Hannibal has dragged Will to safety, he disrobes him, embraces him, and tends to his wounds. The intimacy of the scene is gentle, but unsteady. The camera lingers over Will’s delicately arched neck and vulnerable form. Even when Hannibal literally places the knife back into Will’s hand, it is to emphasize his weakness. “You dropped your forgiveness, Will,” Hannibal says, seeming more intrigued than hurt. He is fascinated by Will, and by their inability to fully separate.

Sept5

Will and Hannibal in their final moment of unity

Will and Hannibal’s link reaches its crescendo in the season three finale “The Wrath of the Lamb.” Having chased and been chased by serial killer Francis Dolarhyde, Will and Hannibal are finally united in their violence. In a final and bloody confrontation, the two men kill Dolarhyde with knives and teeth, each giving themselves over fully to the fervor of the fight. With Dolarhyde slain, Will and Hannibal fall into each other’s arms, coated in each other’s blood and exhausted from the fight. “This is all I ever wanted for you,” Hannibal finally says to Will. Hannibal is delighted by Will’s violence, the joy he has taken in killing. “It’s beautiful,” Will admits, before pitching them both over the cliff’s edge and into the turbulent waters below.

Will and Hannibal are unable to survive separation. Like a rubber band, attempts to pull away only send them back together until the only option left is to break.. Their trauma and torment is so wrapped up in the other’s existence that even living is impossible while the other still breathes. Will’s final act of murder-suicide allows the only modicum of agency in his relationship to Hannibal: choosing when it will happen. By taking responsibility for Hannibal’s destruction, Will accepts their unity, but is unable to allow Hannibal his freedom. His victory is bittersweet, but it is ultimately heroic.


[1] In many ways, Dimmond resembles Will: the same dark, curly hair and scruffy jaw.

[2] This is especially important as Will’s character is shown to have difficulty lying.

Molly is an MA student pursuing her degree in English Literature with a focus on Game Studies and New Media. She uses these fields to explore her additional interests of race, gender, sexuality, and LGBT representation. She has also studied Victorian literature, the Gothic, and 19th century American literature. Her teaching interests include film, graphic novels, and popular culture.

 

The Erotics of Evil

Among the harmful tropes of Hollywood, the figure of the Sissy Villain is one tainting LGBT representation in film and television. Despite the improvements of LGBT rights outside of film, the image of men in women’s clothing is one that pervades the genre of horror in particular. Such figures at Buffalo Bill, Cillian Murphy’s John/Emma of Peacock, or James McAvoy’s multiple-identity’d character of the controversial Split perpetuate this notion of dangerous men being made all the more terrifying by their eschewing of gender norms by dressing in women’s clothing. The argument made by these films is clear — men in dresses are dangerous, perhaps even more dangerous than brilliant psychologist-cannibals.

hannibal-wallpaper70664Promotional image for NBC’s Hannibal

Because of this, a second, more subtle argument is made by Hannibal’s narrative about the “right” way to be a killer. The pop-culture juggernaut of Silence of the Lambs isn’t the terrifying Buffalo Bill, or even the feminist darling Clarice Starling, but rather the slick and seductive Hannibal Lecter, whose presence in psychological thrillers spans three books, four films, a television series, and endless fanworks. The audience — casual viewers and “Fannibals” alike — is charmed by Lecter, largely due to the way he departs from other popular fictional killers. Lecter is not a brute: he does not resemble the slasher-killers of the gory teen film franchises; he is no Freddy Kruegar or Michael Meyers. Nor is he the pure psychological villain such as those made popular by the Saw franchise. Instead, Hannibal performs a meeting of the two, all of their strengths and seemingly none of their weaknesses.

Though he is never seen working out, Hannibal is physically fit, shown to be extremely strong and agile; he is able to easily overpower police officers and threatening patients, and, like any proper serial killer, he shakes off injuries that would cripple anyone else. Despite this strength, Hannibal is lean; his bone structure is that of a dancer. His physical presence is catlike and easily predatory. This effortless strength is the kind of appealing danger that typically befits the slender femme fatale, but Hannibal subverts this by having its hero-villain emulate these traits. His graceful-killer performance is further emphasized by the raw, calculating intelligence he displays. When his cannibalistic secret is revealed to Jack, Lecter attempts to fight his way out.  When FBI agent Jack Crawford puts him in a stranglehold, Hannibal goes limp, playing dead. In Jack’s moment of ensuing confusion and hesitation, Hannibal takes up a piece of broken glass, stabbing Jack in the side of the throat. As Crawford bleeds out in Hannibal’s pantry, Lecter is able to make his escape.

hannibal-clip-1Hannibal uses an improvised weapon in his fight with Jack Crawford

Logically, Hannibal should not be able to overpower a highly trained federal agent, but his combination of strength and wit allow him to move beyond the killer roles his gender suggests. He deliberately avoids the highly-phallic, hypermasculine killer forms, seen in Michael Meyers, Jason Voorhees, Pyramid Head, and many others, as does he avoid the physical frailty of the feminized mastermind. Although Hannibal embodies the sissy killer, his success[1] in the television series speaks to his performance of this trope. He navigates between men and women’s worlds with ease, and confidence. This confidence is what is most critical. Hannibal is never shown to struggle. His acts are effortless. Those that struggle to express themselves, fashionably, romantically, sexually, or otherwise, are portrayed as desperate, fawning, trying too hard. Hannibal paints a clear image of its wannabe villains — either you’ve got it, or you don’t. And Hannibal has “it” in spades.

This charm is instinct, intuition. Hannibal is a natural leader, drawing moths to his flame. It is predatory power. He is described by a childhood acquaintance as “charming, like a cub is charming before it’s learned to be one of the big cats.” His therapist describes him as wearing “a well-tailored person-suit.” His danger is magnetic, sensuous. Even in his most threatening moments, the men and women surrounding Hannibal are drawn to him. He works a cobra-dance, expertly weaving aesthetic, philosophy, and manipulation together to entangle his victims. And yet, they are glad to be wound in his web. The violence (and resulting cannibalism) is filmed like sex: lush, lingering shots of stolen breath and trembling bodies.

hannibal-182Hannibal experiencing a completely innocuous projector malfunction

Though Hannibal’s victims are male and female in similar ratios, his only (onscreen) sexual relationship is with a woman, whom he later attempts to murder. However, he engages in his erotic, sensual seduction with men and women alike. In an interview  with Entertainment Weekly, director Brian Fuller opened up on his view of Hannibal’s sexual preferences. “I think Hannibal is a very broadly spectrumed human being/fallen angel, who probably is capable and interested in everything humanity has to offer.” This interpretation of Hannibal positions him in a unique position of the sissy villain. Being presented as a figure with attractions all over the gender spectrum both embroils Hannibal in gender and distances him from it. He never indicates a preference for men or women in particular, but in this lack of preference, Hannibal is presented as a man who samples from any and all areas of the spectrums of gender and sexuality.

When not trying to kill and eat his paramours, Hannibal performs the role of an attentive lover, acting with sensitivity and romance. He remembers food and drink preferences, washes his lover’s hair, teaches them to play instruments. He draws beautiful European landscapes, plays the harpsichord, and, of course, cooks. Although it is often used as a way of disposing of his victims, Hannibal’s love of cooking also expresses a departure from gender norms. He delights in feeding his friends (and, on more than one occasion, feeding his friends to his friends). He uses food for care-taking, for seduction, for friendship, and for art. Such expertise furthers his aura of effortless skill, and the appeal of his power to those around him. He works with precision and tenderness — many shots see him lingering lovingly over smells and tastes, clearly impressed by his own work. (And with Hannibal, we know that’s the only opinion he truly values.) This delicate care is a humanizing moment of tenderness, one that allows him to embrace his gentler side.

tumblr_n384sbtQkJ1tx4u06o3_1280Hannibal enjoying the fruits of his labors

Hannibal is the true Renaissance man, an exquisite dandy in bespoke suits. Alongside the cannibalism and culinary skill, Hannibal is known for his stunning fashion sense. His suits are finely tailored, the colors and patterns unique, precise, and often mirroring the color scheme of the episode. Dedicated fans have compiled a list of images for a complete look at Hannibal’s wardrobe over the television series. Hannibal’s suits tend to depart from traditional male attire, often featuring colors and patterns most would not attempt. Hannibal wears them with confidence, embracing a look that is not traditionally masculine. He also wears ascots and unironic bowties, many articles of clothing that are reminiscent of queer menswear. And yet, his unique style is celebrated among straight and cisgender male fans. Men’s fashion websites even offer instruction on “How to Dress Like Hannibal Lecter”.[2] Through fashion, Hannibal is shown to thread a delicate dance through gender expression that is very often lauded by those who would never describe themselves as queer.

hannibal_3Promotional image featuring Hannibal Lecter for the NBC television series

In Hannibal’s nuanced performance of gender, he embodies the danger of the Sissy Villain while also working to appeal to an audience across the entire spectrum of gender and sexuality. However, rather than a Buffalo Bill-esque performance that disturbs both audience and characters, Hannibal is deeply appealing to both. This suggests that there is a correct amount of sissiness to be played to still remain attractive and desirable, even when the subject in question is a serial killer and cannibal. For Hannibal, his effortless performance allows him to glide through gender in the “fallen angel” manner his creator intended.


[1] Here, success is defined as Hannibal’s ability to escape danger and pursue his sadistic goals.

[2] The how-to guide is prefaced not by a disclaimer that emulating serial killers is wrong, but that Hannibal was canceled due to the fact that “most people would rather the quality of McDonald’s over the quality of a 5-star restaurant.” Hannibal would approve of such haughtiness

 

 

The Queer Response to Trauma in Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal

The representation of queer figures in cinema is politically fraught, with the anxieties of difference manifesting in portrayals of queer figures. These anxieties are particularly keen in the horror genre where the other is demonized. This other represents the danger of the unknown: race, religion, sexual orientation, and gender presentation. Within horror, these characteristics of the other are representative of perceived cultural threats, dangers to our ideologies. Following the trends of villainy in horror films can create a fascinating map of American anxieties throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. For this week, I shall be focusing exclusively on the representations of queer figures in Jonathan Demme’s 1991 thriller Silence of the Lambs and Bryan Fuller’s 2013 television series Hannibal, both adapted from Thomas Harris’ popular novels. I believe that the vital differences in the queer audience’s reception of these two works illustrates the key difference between the queer-coded figures in Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal.

Due to the genre-typical violence involved in Harris’ works, extremes are to be expected, particularly in the others who fill the roles of antagonists. For Harris, it is not enough to have Buffalo Bill be a serial killer, not when he’ll be forced to act as a foil to the legendary killer-cannibal Hannibal Lecter. Therefore, Buffalo Bill embodies all extremes. Not only is he exceptionally violent, he is also sexually deviant; viewers are shaken by the shock of his perversity. When recalling images of the film, it is not the cannibalism that shocks viewers, but the memory of Buffalo Bill’s dance. Draped in gauzy fabric, wearing the scalp of one of his victims, Bill makes love to his reflection, admiring his nipple rings. “I’d fuck me,” he concludes, posing nude with his penis tucked between his legs. With the camera in the position of the mirror, the scene is deeply uncomfortable, voyeuristic.

Amid the extreme gore and violence of the films, this scene stands out as somewhat more explicit, more difficult to watch. While Bill is clearly wearing the scalp of one of his victims, it is his atypical nudity that disturbs the viewer (such that I didn’t notice the tucking in the scene until rewatching the film several years after the first time I saw it – I always looked away in embarrassment). The othering here is that of alternate gender presentation, displaying it as deviant. The scene is clearly understood – men who dress in women’s clothing are to be feared as figures of sexual deviance. Buffalo Bill takes this a horrifying step further by dressing literally in the body of a woman, her scalp and ultimately her skin.

BB1

Buffalo Bill’s (in)famous dance.

There is some minimal effort made within Silence of the Lambs to suggest that Bill is not trans.[1] While profiling the killer, Hannibal states “Billy hates his own identity, you see, and he thinks that makes him a transsexual, but his pathology is a thousand times more savage and more terrifying.” Indelicate language aside, Hannibal suggests here that “Buffalo Bill” believes he trans as a result of trauma – that his own self-hatred is enough to alter his gender. However, Hannibal states that this trauma alone is not enough for Bill to be authentically trans, that Bill does not perform trans-ness correctly. Even Clarice Starling agrees that Bill does not fit her understanding, citing that “transsexuals are very passive.” Buffalo Bill does not, evidently, perform “trans-ness” correctly. The film suggests, rather, that it is Bill’s own psychosis that leads to his desire to play dress-up with women’s clothing, hair, and skin. His goals are grotesque, skinning women to make a flesh-suit from their bodies, but Bill’s gender presentation and homosexual relationships are treated as a symptom of his monstrosity, rather than a facet of his identity.

BB2

Buffalo Bill as the queer-coded villain.

In emphatic objection to this characterization, LGBT activists protested the 1992 Academy Awards. While there are a few transgender women who have adopted Buffalo Bill as a trans icon (some even mirroring the character’s tattoos), most regard the film as a harmful continuation of the queer killer trope. Without adequate representation in the media, characters like the effeminate, queer-coded Buffalo Bill are reluctant sources of queer media.

MV1

Margot is introduced through her implied sexual assault.

Within the novels that Hannibal is loosely based off, the character of Margot Verger is another queer icon of questionable origin. The Margot Verger of Harris’ text is exceptionally masculine in her gender presentation. Margot is heavily muscled, and Starling even wonders to herself if Margot “tapes down her clitoris.” Again, this fixation on altered genitalia shows how both the straight-coded characters and the viewers are troubled by nonbinary gender presentation (or, in the case of Margot Verger, even the thought of nonbinary presentation). To further her masculine appearance, Margot also heavily abuses steroids and hormones, pumping up her muscles to the point that she has rendered herself infertile. Margot’s chemical use is difficult to read. Some read the character as trans in the same disbelieved vein as Buffalo Bill. Others view her as a lesbian, as her canonical romantic and sexual relationship is with another woman. The exact nature of her identity is left deliberately ambiguous. What is more clearly suggested is that this queerness is the result of sexual trauma sustained at a young age, from her brother. Rather than being “aggressively” queer, Margot is defensively queer, eliminating the parts of herself that were most subject to abuse. This refusal to accept bodily vulnerability is relatable for many queer viewers, and yet it also posits an extremely harmful view of queerness, suggesting that Margot is queer due to her trauma, rather than her queerness existing as another facet of her identity.

MV2

A much more femme Margot.

In Hannibal, Fuller worked to change Margot’s presentation to make it clear to the viewer that her queerness was inherent, not a product of trauma. In lieu of her masculine book appearance, Margot is a china-doll femme fatale in riding pants and lush lipstick. Despite the tortures of her brother, Margot remains a collected, intelligent, dry-humored force in the narrative. Her power is in her rationality, her ability to manipulate her brother through her knowledge of his sadism. This change was Fuller’s attempt to restore a queer voice in the narrative. In a 2014 interview with Collider, Fuller states:

In the book, Margot is a lesbian character, but it’s not clear if she is transgendered, or if she is just so pumped full of steroids and hormones that she’s become more masculine in her appearance. So, what I didn’t want to do is say that being transgendered or being gay is a direct result of horrific sexual trauma, because it’s not. I think being transgendered and being homosexual are natural things that occur in the creation of biological beings.

In Hannibal, Margot is presented as a deeply traumatized individual. After the death of her tycoon father, Margot is trapped living with her sadistic brother – the sole recipient of her father’s enormous fortune. Per their father’s will, the Verger fortune will go only to a male heir, or else the entire estate will be transferred to the show’s tongue-in-cheek homage to Westboro Baptist Church. This puts Margot in a difficult position. As she states, she “has the wrong parts, and the wrong proclivities for parts” to ever hope for escape from her brother. (When she attempts to overcome her “proclivities” long enough to allow Will Graham to impregnate her, her brother immediately drugs her and performs a violent hysterectomy.)

MV3

Despite Margot’s extensive traumatic history, there is never any indication given that her queerness is due to her trauma; rather, her queerness flourishes despite it. Together with Hannibal’s defenestrated lover, Alana, a passionate and fulfilling romance blooms between the two women, seemingly in defiance of the trauma they experienced. While many female romances on-screen are either fetishistic or overtly chaste, Margot and Alana’s sex scene is both beautiful and bizarre. Their nude bodies kaleidoscope into each other, the shot a twisting tangle of ecstatic limbs. And, due to the necessary censorship in television, all genitals, binary or otherwise, are obscured. This allows the viewer to embrace the emotional component to the scene rather than wholly on the physical.

MV4

Margot and Alana’s relationship is introduced with this hypnotic scene

Together, Alana and Margot manipulate and overcome their captors, escaping from the mansion with a baby of their own. (In a violent off-screen moment, Margot harvests her brother’s sperm by sodomizing him with a cattle prod, and uses that sperm to impregnate Alana, effectively finding a loophole in her father’s will.) With queer female character deaths at an all-time high, Alana and Margot’s escape marked a welcome shift, and queer fans rejoiced. The happy ending to a queer couple on a deeply unhappy show was a victory, and yet there is still enormous ground to tread. In a perfect world, Margot will be allowed to present in any gender she chooses, rather than being feminized for an easier narrative. Buffalo Bill’s gender dysphoria would be treated as a serious facet of his character, and the trauma implied to create queerness will be understood as queerness alongside trauma.

Next week: Exploring the Erotics of Evil: The Seduction of Hannibal Lecter

[1] “Trans” here refers to the broad spectrum of nonbinary gender identities.


Molly is an MA student pursuing her degree in English Literature with a focus on Game Studies and New Media. She uses these fields to explore her additional interests of race, gender, sexuality, and LGBT representation. She has also studied Victorian literature, the Gothic, and 19th century American literature. Her teaching interests include film, graphic novels, and popular culture.

Ruminations

I’m driving a two-door 2001 gold grand am. The air conditioning no longer works after the transmission broke, wooden clothes pins and duct tape secure the windows. It must be August because I’m heading towards the city public library to flip through stacks of CD cases for a Canadian indie pop album. Is a locality with less than 10,000 residents a city? A town, maybe.

We had spent the summer in South-West Michigan working on the shores of a lake, teaching children about ecology. Cold mornings on the peninsula gave us the perfect excuse to have the kids make fire; transformation of endless consummation. A taurus, I don’t remember if I knew at the time. People thought we were dating, but that would be too simple of an explanation for how close we became. Over the years I would make trips to see you, and you’ll be the one to come find me when I move to New York.

As the disc sinks into the dashboard I imagine that the oncoming sounds will ease your absence.

Reading Disc

00:01

When there is nothing left to burn you have to set yourself on fire

The story is about two ex-lovers who smile as they are reintroduced by a distant friend. They share a taxi without saying a word – he can’t remember her name. The listener learns that it has been awhile since they’ve seen each other as the song progresses. There seems to have a been an inarticulable gap in their relationship when they were close. They fail to tell the same story of what they were; eithers experience of the relationship too excessive, or strikingly absent.

The melody belies the confidence that the two try to assert at the end of the song. Listeners know that something has been lost here, although neither persona can+ name it. The continual repetition of “I’m not sorry there’s nothing to say,” in face of the untranslatability of that which they lost, fills the space between them.

Freud says that melancholia differs from mourning in that it involves the loss of an ideal – a love object. The problem for the melancholic, Freud continues, is that they understand whom has been lost, but not what has gone missing; outside of their conscious awareness. Actually, what the object-loss has been eclipsed; the melancholic experiences the sense of ego-loss as libidinal energy withdraws into the ego once it’s severed from the love object; through insistent communication the melancholic becomes self-deprecating.

 

You asked me to move to New Jersey to take care of the house and I felt myself turn into a statue as the ground gave way beneath my feet.

 

Is this the nothing left, that prompts [us] to set [ourselves] on fire?

I am reminded of Donne:

But O, it must be burnt ; alas ! the fire

Of lust and envy burnt it heretofore

And made it fouler ; let their flames retire,

And burn me, O Lord, with a fiery zeal

Of Thee and Thy house, which doth in eating heal

  • Holy Sonnets V.

One of the competing beliefs on melancholia in the Early Modern was that it was both a physical and spiritual disease. Already Freud’s obsessive fear and sorrow can be read. Gallenic tradition tells us that the melancholic has an excess of black bile; this could either be addressed by balancing the humors or through correcting the thought of the melancholic. Donne tells us that it is the ‘black sin’ that has lead the speaker wish to ‘drown [their] world with [their] weeping earnestly.’ Tears are not enough to cleanse the wound for the speaker – a husk calling to be burnt.

Is that what happens to our desire?

Firewood destroyed the same instant our passions realize.

 

You gifted me stones forged de la tierra, and a lantern that has never held a light.

 

Baudrillard says that objects provide an access point for understanding the inner life of a person; objects as external structuring devices of the psyche. They mediate a historical narrative of the relations between the owner, their ideologies, and other bodies.

 

What do you see when you look around your room?

I’m left with languid memories of late mornings when I still listened to the old fool.

The planets that I take note of this week are Saturn and Venus – Kronos and Aphrodite. While Venus resumed its direct progression on April 15th, we will have almost one-hundred and thirty more days of Saturn retrograde. Mediated reflections on the love that we’ve known and now is gone – the sharp crash of reality that we try to prevent.


Tyler Smart, an MA student in English at Syracuse University,  is primarily interested how space produces certain subjectivities, locally and transculturally, in literary and cultural imagination. Other research interests include cross-cultural influences, queer theory and the history of sexuality, subjectivity, phenomenology, eco-criticism, and post-humanism.

“Report Me and My Cause Aright:” Hamlet and the Political Power of Dramatic Narrative

During the final scene of Hamlet, the titular prince makes use of his dying breaths to command two things of Horatio.  First, he commands Horatio to affirm that Fortinbras “has his dying voice” (5.2.393) thus giving him legitimacy to take the throne of Denmark.  Second, he orders Horatio to tell Fortinbras the story of Hamlet’s actions that have led up to this point in the play.  Horatio obliges and the final fifty lines serve to wrap up the political loose ends of the text and casually confirm that Fortinbras will be the new king of Denmark, signaling the cleansing of Danish politics in the wake of Claudius’s death.

Death_of_Hamlet_-_Henry_Selous.jpg

Hamlet is far from unique in the way that it concludes with a significant regime change signifying the exorcizing of a dangerous political force that has brought ruin upon the state.  Richard III, King Lear, and Macbeth all end with the destruction of a familial line and the flourishing possibility that something better will take its place.[1]  These plays, despite their tragic conclusions, at the very least offer up the possibility of a hopeful future, one in which a new regime can cleanse the state of the problems created by that which was there previously.  However, in Hamlet this requires the figure of Horatio to dramatize the events of the play to Fortinbras, both to validate Hamlet’s actions as well as affirm the legitimacy of the new monarchy.  While Horatio may be commanded to speak the truth, the language of his final speech is decidedly a language which seeks to paint Hamlet in a positive light and affirm the moral and political validity of his act of regicide, suggesting that the full version of his recollection will emphasis Claudius’s schemes and the moral punishment that he has justifiably received.  It is, in part, Horatio’s story and its valorization of Hamlet’s actions which will assist in smoothing the transition from a Danish monarch to a Norwegian monarch.

The language of these final fifty lines has a decidedly meta-theatrical tone, treating the bloody court as a stage that must be cleared for a new audience of nobles who will hear Horatio’s tale.  In the conclusion of Hamlet, the power of theatrical narrative is deeply connected to the authorization of a new political regime in Denmark.  A bloody and chaotic act of revenge and regicide, concluding with the destruction of the former Danish monarchy, can be understood by the surviving nobles and their anxiety surrounding the future of Danish politics can be eased with the power of Horatio’s telling of Hamlet’s narrative, which will ideally give the nobles cause to welcome Fortinbras and acknowledge his “rights of memory in this kingdom” (5.2.433).  It is not a triumphant ending, yet it is one which leverages the capacity of storytelling to make sense of what appears to be a senseless shift in political power, occurring almost at random.

I bring up this commentary on the role of narrative story telling at the conclusion of Hamlet as it seems to speak to the main thrust of my commentary during this month of blog posts.   While we may not be as explicit as Shakespeare makes Horatio, I have been examining ways in which we utilize and manipulate the form of dramatic narrative as a way of understanding the political reality in which we live.  Horatio does this rather transparently, using his privileged voice as a recorder of the events of Hamlet to justify and validate the actions of Hamlet, thus soothing the anxiety of a foreign takeover that would be felt by the fictional audience of nobles as well as the literal London audience watching the fictional state of Denmark’s fall.  Further, Horatio has the luxury of an actual audience having witnessed the events that preceded the final moments of the play.  However, the examples I have looked at this month seem to function in a similar capacity, interpreting and rewriting Shakespeare’s texts in order to make sense of the text and provide a clear and understandable narrative which will ease, or at the very least explain, an anxiety that the audience is feeling about their political moment.   We may never see Horatio explain Hamlet to Fortinbras, but his final lines imply that he will be both figuratively and literally reinterpreting the text of Hamlet in order to make sense of a moment of political disorder and potential unrest.  In this way, Horatio becomes a representative of the kinds of narrative reinterpretations that I have been looking at this month, as he seems to literalize the act of using a theatrical text to understand and justify a particular political problem (here, the question of what will become of the Danish monarchy).

My work as a scholar primarily focuses upon these moments in which the theater served as a site for negotiating political anxieties and it is fascinating to see the early modern theater still being mobilized as a site that affords audiences a space to work through their concerns regarding the state of the political landscape.  In pieces such as the Stephen Greenblatt op-ed that inspired this topic, there remains a sense that dramatic narrative offers up the possibility for easing political anxiety.  If we are worried about how a tyrant might come to power, we need only read Richard III to understand how to arm ourselves against him.  While this is neither unique to Shakespeare, nor is it as powerful of a site as it once was, the idea that a careful enough examination of theatrical texts can lead to a deeper understanding of political problems and their solutions seems to remain strong.

Owing to his privileged place within our cultural imaginations, there seems to be a conscious desire to make Shakespeare relevant to our contemporary political tribulations.[2]  As an educator who plans on having to teach the political elements of Shakespeare’s works, this desire carries with it a sense that narrative offers something unique for teaching students about thinking through current anxieties.  Many universities still require some level of exposure to Shakespeare’s works, so there is a strong impulse to communicate a sense of contemporary relevance for the cluster of students who might not be particularly interested in the political affairs of 16th century monarchs; one of the ways in which we do this is precisely through the constant reimagining of Shakespeare’s works in order to make them more immediately relevant to our own political moment, and this is not an impulse that I would imagine will become less relevant as time passes.  Ideally, this series of blog posts has shed some new light on the difficulties that must be overcome if we are to utilize Shakespeare and other writers to understand contemporary political problems without completely abandoning the idea that there is some merit to turning towards past narrative to help us understand present day politics.

[1] In Macbeth and Richard III that something new takes the form of a family line which legitimized the then ruling monarch.  Another example of how difficult it can be to disconnect Shakespeare’s plays from his own political reality.

[2] This is by no means only true of political concerns, as Shakespeare is often mobilized in this vein to help us understand any number of contemporary issues.


Evan Hixon is a second year PhD student in the English Department.  His studies focus on Early Modern British theater with an emphasis on Shakespeare, political theory and Anglo-Italian relations.  His current research work examines the rise of English Machiavellian political thought during the reign of Elizabeth I.

Machiavelli’s “Small Volume”: The Legacy of the Stage Machiavel (29 April 2016)

“Bearing in mind all the matters previously discussed, I ask myself whether the present time is appropriate for welcoming a new ruler in Italy, and whether there is matter that provides an opportunity for a few-seeing and able man to mold it into a form that will bring honour to him and its inhabitants.”

-Machiavelli

As we’ve been considering the seemingly timeless quality of the figure of the stage Machiavel, it is worth remembering that the archetype is drawn from a series of highly specific moments in history.   The quote at the top of the page reminds us that Machiavelli is writing during a period of intense civil unrest in Italy, following a major foreign invasion and the dissolution of a number of seemingly stable governments and it was written as a gift for a single man—Lorenzo de’ Medici.[1]  Even so, while English audiences found themselves largely disinterested with Machiavelli’s specific appeals to Italian cultural history or his interest in the maintenance of armies and auxiliaries, there was something about the Florentine that caught fire in the cultural imagination of England.  Through stage representations, his political ideas were spread to a population that would have otherwise had little access to them,[2] and the staging tropes that helped to disseminate a basic overview of Machiavellian thought have remained with us ever since.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been looking at popular representations of Machiavellian politics with an eye turned towards the ways in which contemporary audiences share the same fascination with Machiavelli that defined early modern representations.  For the last 400 years, Anglophonic audiences have been fascinated by attempts to understand Machiavelli’s political beliefs, and I have only touched upon a small sample of the most popular contemporary representations.  The goal here has been less to say anything about Machiavelli’s actual politics than to examine the process by which cultural understandings of those politics end up in our popular fiction.  The stage Machiavel offers an interesting case study for examining the ways in which popular representations of political philosophy can make those theories more accessible and the ways in which those same representations can participate in shaping public discourse concerning those theories.   While printers would eventually receive license to legally print The Prince in England, decades of being represented as a ruthless stage villain certainly colored the reading practices of English audiences.

This in turned has dramatically impacted our cultural perception of virtually everything connected to Machiavelli.  Period fiction set during the early 16th century frequently turns to him as a ready-made villain in the same way that Christopher Marlowe utilized Machiavelli to introduce The Jew of Malta.[3]  He has appeared as a character in texts ranging from Showtime’s The Borgias to Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed II.

Machaivelli%2c The Borgias

Machiavelli in The Borgias

Just as his name became shorthand for a duplicitous schemer, his person has entered into the stable of stock historical villains.  Just as stage representations of Machiavellianism would brand any act that was remotely morally questionable as Machiavellian, modern pop culture representations label any act of political scheming as inherently connected to Machiavellian thought.  Even though the characters that I examined in the last few weeks of posts frequently display a number of profoundly non-Machiavellian beliefs,[4] the image of the stage Machiavel still informs the way in which we understand those characters.

In closing up my month of blog posts, I hope to have demonstrated the ways in which the tropes of the early modern stage have remained with us throughout the past five centuries.  In the wake of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, it becomes worth considering the ways in which it isn’t simply the texts of the early modern theatre that have stuck in our imaginations.  While we certainly imagine Machiavellianism differently than audiences did in the 16th century, many of the same questions and concerns still exist in the fiction that we create.  We may not be interested in the complex history of English kingship that exists in The History of Henry IV part 1, but we do still have an investment in the questions that the play asks about how a ruler should act.  While representations of Machiavellianism are not the only entry point into understanding the continuities that exist between early modern and contemporary practices of representation, the stage Machiavel does provide a fairly clear example of an early modern stage trope that continues to capture our imagination well into the 21st century.

[1] The Prince was not published until 1532, five years after Machiavelli’s death.

[2] The Prince could not be legally published in England during the 16th century and literacy rates were fairly low.

[3] This habit of making Machiavelli a central character in narratives about 16th century Florence dates back to the mid-19th century at the latest, as George Eliot’s Romola features extended cameos by a pre-Prince Machiavelli.

[4] I noted last week that Machiavelli would likely have hated Frank Underwood for being a self-invested conspirator.  Beyond this, Cersei Lannister would likely be chided for her absolute disregard for the opinions of the populace and the fact that so few people actual trust Peytr Baelish suggests that he lacks the fox-like qualities that Machiavelli lauds in his schemers.


Evan Hixon is a first year PhD student in the English Department.  His studies focus on Early Modern British theater with an emphasis on Shakespeare, political theory and Anglo-Italian relations.  His current research work examines the rise of English Machiavellian political thought during the reign of Elizabeth I.

Privileged Positions: House of Cards and Frank Underwood’s Machiavellian Monologues (22 April 2016)

“Since a ruler, then, must know how to act like a beast, he should imitate both the fox and the lion, for the lion is liable to be trapped, whereas the fox cannot ward off wolves…[b]ut foxiness should be well concealed: one must be a great feigner and dissembler.  And men are so naïve…that a skillful deceiver always finds plenty of people who will let themselves be deceived.”

-Machiavelli

At the conclusion of Act 4, Scene 3 of Hamlet, after convincing Hamlet to sail to England, the stage is cleared for Claudius to address the audience.  Though not marked as an aside, Claudius uses these 11 lines to announce that he has sealed letters “conjuring to that effect/The present death of Hamlet” (4.3.62-63).  By this point in the play, audiences have little reason to trust the words of Claudius, but at this moment, he utilizes the empty stage as an opportunity to pull back the curtain of his deception to reveal to the audience the machinations of his plot.  This was a common theatrical device on the early modern stage, in which the soliloquy or the aside would offer characters a chance to directly address the audience.  In this particular example, Claudius drops the façade of the Machiavellian liar to reveal his true intentions.  In doing so, he reveals truths about himself to the audience that he had kept hidden from the rest of the characters within the play, confirming what they already knew—that Claudius could not be trusted.

Turning to modern representations of Machiavellian villains, this is a device employed with frequency by Frank Underwood in Netflix’s House of Cards, a political thriller that owes a great deal to the tradition of the stage Machiavel.

House of Cards

Machiavellianism, American style

Frank Underwood, the Democratic House Majority whip, is introduced to audiences as a ruthless pragmatist, directly addressing his audience to explain the principles that guide his philosophy. In this moment of revelation, it is not only important that audiences witness Underwood’s actions, but also that he shows himself capable of pulling back the veil that is assumed to exist between his character and his viewing audience.

Here, he, like Claudius, is revealing truths about himself to which only his audience will have access.  Through the later use of these asides, Underwood is presented as a consummate liar, a man capable of sabotaging the administration in which works from within and he is often heralded as a prime example of a modern Machiavel.[1]  He represents what modern writers understand to be an idealized form of Machiavelli’s Fox-Lion politician, capable of crushing those he feels have wronged him while deceiving the world into believing that he remains loyal to their cause.

Frank Underwood, like Claudius, participates in affirming for audiences what they already believe to be true.  In Hamlet, the moments in which Claudius reveals himself to be a treacherous usurper affirm that which audiences could only speculate upon prior to his confession.  In a similar vein, Underwood’s casual asides become revelatory for audiences, but what they reveal is political rather than personal. These tiny acts of revelation say a great deal about how House of Cards conceptualizes the modern political landscape.  Underwood is able to speak truths to the audience as if he were a kind of omniscient chorus, well versed in the inner workings of Washington politics and able to speak with an authority which other characters lack.  As the Machiavellian fox, capable of lying to and manipulating those around him, Underwood’s monologues seem to remove the veil of calculated dissimulation and therefore come as unfiltered truths about the political system, and in a sense they simply affirm what audiences already believe about the operation of power.  Even though we may know that they are presented through the voice of a liar, by framing them as asides directly to the audience, they are granted a significant measure of authority.  In these brief asides, the figure of the liar takes off his mask, but instead of revealing guilt, he reveals how easily he is able take the reins of the political system to his own advantage.

Similarly, this device places audiences in a privileged position of knowing what other characters do not.  In Hamlet, the titular character is never given the clarity of truth concerning his uncle that audiences receive thanks to the decision to stage Claudius’s confessions as spoken upon an empty stage.  Likewise, none of Underwood’s victims are given the privileged knowledge that we as spectators enjoy thanks to our frequent glimpses into Underwood’s rationale for his actions.   In essence, by revealing his status as a Machiavellian dissimulator, Underwood affirms the value of Machiavellian dissimulation.  By announcing himself as Machiavelli’s fox and granting audiences a privileged glimpse into the rationale of the fox, we affirm the maxim that a man must be like a fox if he is to succeed in the world of politics.  House of Cards, like Game of Thrones, utilizes Machiavellian thought to demonstrate the ruthlessness and dissimulation that these programs believe underscore successful politicking.  While certainly not an affirmation of the political beliefs of its characters, our introduction to Frank Underwood in House of Cards breaks the 4th wall to convince audiences of what they already believed to be true:  Washington politics is a game of deception and ambition where ruthlessness trumps idealism.

[1] It is worth noting that Machiavelli would likely despise men like Frank Underwood.  Much of The Prince is presented as a guidebook for ways in which a ruling prince can avoid being undermined by duplicitous schemers like Underwood.


Evan Hixon is a first year PhD student in the English Department.  His studies focus on Early Modern British theater with an emphasis on Shakespeare, political theory and Anglo-Italian relations.  His current research work examines the rise of English Machiavellian political thought during the reign of Elizabeth I.

“You win or You Die”: Game of Thrones and Machiavellian Amorality (15 April 2016)

“However, how men live is so different from how they should live that a ruler who does not do what is generally done, but persists in doing what ought to be done, will undermine his power rather than maintain it.”

-Machiavelli

Note:  Spoilers for the first four seasons of Game of Thrones and for Richard III

One of the major reasons that early modern audiences reacted so negatively to Machiavelli’s political philosophy stemmed from the idea that he advocated for amorality in both politics and in life.  Treating politics as a science, Machiavelli urged rulers to focus their attention on preserving themselves and their state, even if this meant doing things that were traditionally understood to be immoral.  This was not an altogether unfair reading, as Machiavelli did suggest that rulers should be more concerned with appearing noble and moral than with actually being noble and moral.[1] However, this translated into the popular consciousness as Machiavelli advocating for a total discarding of traditional morality in the name of personal gain.  As a result, stage Machiavels—a term used to describe theatrical characters meant to be associated with Machiavellian politics—were not only framed as amoral, but they tended to treat this amorality as something that offered them greater insight into how the world actually functioned.

This language of embracing the material reality of the world against an idealized vision of how we would like the world to operate became a key topos of many of the well-remembered early modern Machiavels.  Richard III argued that morality and social decorum were merely niceties that could be overlooked if one were powerful or ambitious enough.  In arguing for his right to use whatever means necessary to seize power, he famously suggested that “[c]onscience is a but a word that cowards use, /Devis’d at first to keep the strong in awe:/ Our strong arms be our conscience,” (V.iii.309-311).  Here, Richard expresses the belief that structures of idealism and morality, things like conscience, honor or love exist only to discourage the strong from seeking power.  In essence, the early modern Machiavel articulates a belief that social conventions are arbitrary constructions designed to keep men in line.

As I mentioned last week, a good case study for examining modern interest in Machiavellian politics can be glimpsed in HBO’s Game of Thrones.[2]  Much of the early series focuses on the political aftermath of the death of king Robert Baratheon and the ensuing series of civil wars and back-room politicking that occurs as a result.   Central to this conflict is the complicated political maneuvering undertaken by courtly figures such as Petyr Baelish and Cersei Lannister who, among others, frequently articulate the idea that the only way that power can be maintained is by acknowledging that one must be willing to engage in wrongdoing in order to secure oneself in an a disorganized and chaotic political environment.

Cersei Lannister and Petyr Baelish discussing what truly makes one ‘powerful’.

If Game of Thrones has a central thesis, it is a conscious rejection of idealism and a desire to ground high fantasy in a ‘veneer of reality’ that often slides into cynicism. Characters like Cersei and Petyr are drawn in direct contrast against figures such as Eddard Stark and his son Robb, who stand in as representatives of a kind of idealized heroism aligned with more traditional fantasy heroics.  Following the Machiavellian injunction to focus on “how things are generally done” rather than how “they ought to be done,” Game of Thrones constructs for itself a universe in which conventional ideas of morality and heroism fail.

evanw2g2

Eddard Stark’s Execution.  Such is the fate of idealistic men in Game of Thrones.

In this environment, good men die, because in the world of G.R.R. Martin’s Westeros, good men are frequently being undermined by individuals who better understand how the world works.[3]  The series embraces a decidedly Machiavellian logic concerning what makes a successful politician and through five seasons, the series shows little sign of subversion.

Petyr Baelish may as well be echoing Richard III when he comments that, “Chaos isn’t a pit.  Chaos is a ladder.  Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again.  The fall breaks them.  And some, are given a chance to climb.   They refuse, they cling to the realm or the gods or love.  Illusions.  Only the ladder is real.  The climb is all there is.”[4]  For pop culture Machiavels like Baelish, nothing matters except the acquisition of power.  Everything else is immaterial.  Thus, as one of the most successful Machiavels in Westeros, Baelish’s words seem to ring true throughout the series, as ideals like love, family and trust constantly fall short when those who embrace them are forced to confront the ‘realists’ of the series, who tend towards dissimulation, deceit and violence.[5]  Game of Thrones may not consciously be invoking the rhetoric of Machiavelli, but the series seems to affirm the Machiavellian idea that those who understand how power operates (in this case amorally) succeed where others fail.

The major difference to draw out between how early moderns thought about this aspect of Machiavellianism and how modern audiences think about it stems mostly from how much credit we are willing to give the Machiavellian position regarding the nature of men.  Game of Thrones is often praised for its more ‘realistic’ depiction of fantasy topos and for its rejection of an idealistic image of medieval fantasy.  While Baelish and Richard III are both the villains of their respective series, Richard III ends with the Machiavellian usurper defeated in righteous combat by the divinely ordained King Henry VII.  In the world of the early modern, the just order is preserved and the good, righteous ruler replaces the amoral Machiavel.[6]  In contemporary fiction such as Game of Thrones, even when it seems clear that the villainous Machiavel is a character we are meant to revile, the show seems to still affirm that they do simply have a better understanding of how the world works than the characters they manage to out maneuver.  While figures like Cersei Lannister and Petyr Baelish may not be the heroes of our fiction, in a series such as Game of Thrones, they certainly seem to have a better understanding of the amoral, calculating political environments in which they traffic.  In moments such as these, modern audiences seem much more willing to accept Machiavelli’s argument that how the world works and how we would like it to work rarely align.

[1] “[A ruler] must be prepared to vary his conduct as the winds of fortune and changing circumstances constrain him…not deviate from the right conduct if possible, but be capable of entering upon the path of wrongdoing when this becomes necessary.”

[2] Game of Thrones remains incredibly popular through its 5th season, drawing in over 8 million viewers for its season finale:  http://variety.com/2015/tv/news/game-of-thrones-finale-ratings-jon-snow-cersei-1201519719/

[3] Petyr Baelish betrays Eddard Stark:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VdmnL1lY-UM

[4] For a more detailed examination of what Baelish’s politics can teach us about history, see:  https://metathesisblog.com/2015/01/13/game-of-thrones-theory-of-history-nasty-brutish-but-definitely-not-short/

[5] In some cases, as with Eddard and Robb Stark, the ideals of loyalty and love prove to be actively detrimental, as a belief in the importance of those concepts result in the deaths of those characters.

[6] Also, Henry VII was the grandfather of Elizabeth I, so this ending worked to affirm the authority of the Tudor monarchy.


Evan Hixon is a first year PhD student in the English Department.  His studies focus on Early Modern British theater with an emphasis on Shakespeare, political theory and Anglo-Italian relations.  His current research work examines the rise of English Machiavellian political thought during the reign of Elizabeth I.