Art Imitates Shakespeare

by: Douglas Grant

Centuries have passed, yet the greatest creative minds still borrow from The Master…..

It is fairly common knowledge that classical works of literature, and enduring stories of yore, still resonate in the tales being told today. Unbeknownst to many, the anecdotes “conceived” by the current entertainment industry have their roots in notable works by Shakespeare, the Bible, and in the folklore and mythology of Greece and Ancient Rome. But you might be surprised to learn just how inundated Western Culture is by these timeless tales. To demonstrate the gargantuan hold that Shakespeare’s words still posses, the best of the best in this era of the Golden Age of Television are dissected and exposed, as Art imitates Shakespeare…

Jax Teller (Sons of Anarchy) as Hamlet

Like the prince who is heir to the throne of Denmark, Jackson Teller is next in line for the presidency of his beloved motorcycle club, SAMCRO ((Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, Redwood Original)). But a man Jax loves like an Uncle has not only taken what rightfully belongs to him, but has also married his widowed mother. The circumstances of Jax’s father’s death are mysterious, but his passing has been ruled an accident. Like the serpent that allegedly stung Hamlet’s father, a motorcycle crash is what the Sons believe was the cause of John Teller’s death. But John’s ghost, in the form of a recovered journal, speaks to Jax from beyond the grave, fingering his long time friend and former partner, Clay Morrow, as his murderer. And paralleling Claudius, who was the king’s brother, Clay has indeed committed the ultimate act of betrayal in order to attain the crown, in this case a gavel. Jax—when confronted with the truth about his father’s death—suffers from the same tragic flaw that Hamlet does: indecision regarding how to take revenge. Like the play, a lot of people on Sons of Anarchy have to die before the hero receives justice.

“Now whether it be,

Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple,

of thinking too precisely on th’ event –

A thought which, quarter’d, hath but one part wisdom

And ever three parts coward – I do not know

Why yet I live to say this thing’s to do,

Sith I have cause, and will and strength, and means

To do’t. “

Don Draper (Mad Men) as Othello

Don Draper is the charismatic leader who offers guidance to his loyal underlings much in the same way the Moorish general of the Venetian army does, but ultimately both men are outsiders because of where they come from. Whereas Othello stands apart because of his ethnic origin, Don is a man with a secret identity, a fact that is exploited by the very Iago-like character of Pete Campbell. Don’s better judgment is impaired by the women in his life, women who have the power to break down his cool and collected demeanor. A dream sequence where Don strangles to death a former lover who threatens his marriage echoes Othello’s brutal murdering of his own wife, Desdemona. 

Don is crafty and opportune. The deeply rooted tragedies which have afflicted him are also the source of his strength. Like Othello he is a capable leader because of his diligence and his refusal to accept half measures. Both men are cunning and can be ruthless in the execution of their duties; only the audience is allowed to see inside their heads, at how fragile their emotional stability is. Both are easily led to rash action in matters of love, with results that are disastrous for those closest to them.

“I have done the state some service, and they know’t.

No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,

When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,

Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,

Nor set down aught in malice. Then, must you speak

Of one that loved not wisely but too well.”

Stringer Bell (The Wire) as Macbeth

Calm and calculating, and looking to legitimize his business interests, Stringer Bell is a number two with his sights set on the throne. Trying to actualize a different path for the Barksdale crew, his self-fulfilling prophecy may have come from his macroeconomics professor rather than three witches. Mirroring the overly ambitious general who murders his way to the Scottish throne, Stringer will kill anyone who stands in the way of his ascendancy, even those he is supposed to love like family. Stringer is “constantly machinating his next move,” endeavoring to always remain two steps ahead of the game.

The illusion he creates of being in control disintegrates over time up until his death at the hands of Omar Little and Brother Mouzone. And much in the way Macbeth’s decapitated head symbolizes retribution and a restoration of order, Stringer’s death serves as a warning to all of those whose reach would exceed their grasp.

I have no spur

To prick the sides of my intent, but only

Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself

And falls on the other.

Claire Underwood (House of Cards) as Lady Macbeth

“Trying’s not enough, Francis. I’ve done what I had to do. Now you do what you have to do. Seduce him. Give him your heart. Cut it out and put it in his fucking hands.”

The woman behind the man in this political drama is every bit as dangerous as her driven husband, a democratic congressman who’s manipulated his way to the vice presidency of the United States. We, the audience, can see that she is the only one Frank can turn to for guidance regarding his malevolent machinations, and she in turn is in no way “intended to be a sympathetic character . . . she is supposed to be right up there with Frank in terms of ruthless, self-serving, amoral ambition.”

The audience suspects that she knows just how bloody her husband’s hands are; she recognizes the heavy sacrifices that must be made as Frank rises to even more power. And she is unapologetic for her harsh actions: coldly laying off her entire staff under the guise of pragmatism, or threatening to let a former employee’s unborn baby die unless she returns to work. What is apparent is that Macbeth’s play for the Scottish throne would not have been possible without his wife’s counsel, and neither would Frank Underwood have attained the right hand of the president without the support of his circumspect wife, Claire.

I have given suck, and know

How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:

I would, while it was smiling in my face,

Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,

And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you

Have done to this.

Nucky Thompson (Boardwalk Empire) as Julius Caesar

Five of Atlantic City’s most influential men—Jimmy Darmody, Eli Thompson, The Commodore, Leander Whitlock, and Jim Neary—conspire to bring about the downfall of a man they had all once sworn fealty to in one way or another: city treasurer and bootlegger kingpin Enoch Thompson. And like the Roman Senate that unites in collusion to murder their sworn leader Caesar, the inner circle elite that are working behind the scenes to assassinate Nucky are doing so for no other reason than they consider him to be overly ambitious. They want what Nucky has.  

Jimmy Darmody is Brutus here, being cajoled into the murderous plot against his better judgment. Not wanting to appear weak by being indecisive, he allows Nucky’s brother Eli—the Cassius character—to convince everyone involved to go through with the deed.  Eli brings the tumultuous clandestine meeting to a screeching halt when he interjects, “Jesus Christ, just kill him. What is he, King fuckin’ Neptune? Put a bullet in his head—get it over with!”

It can be argued that Eli is more like Brutus, as may be evident when Nucky references Julius Caesar when the assassination attempt fails and Nucky confronts his brother about being complicit in the plot. When Nucky says “Et tu, Eli,” he is alluding to Caesar’s own line to Brutus when facing his betrayer. Eli doesn’t catch the reference, but he does pay the price for his traitorous actions in the form of a prison sentence.

Anyone having seen the end of the second season knows that Nucky will not be swayed from meting out justice on Jimmy for signing off on the assassination plot. He is not one to compromise his principles, even when those principles lead to further bloodshed.

“I am as constant as the northern star.”

Walter White (Breaking Bad) as Richard III

A man dissatisfied with his station in life envisions himself as the head of an empire, and plots his way to the top by manipulating those closest to him and forcibly removing anyone who stands in his way. He eventually achieves the throne, losing all friends in the process, and then finds that he is unable to hold onto it. This man suffers from an affliction that often serves to dictate—and in turn justify—his actions. He is extremely prideful, which leads to rash action. He excels at playing his enemies against each other. His wife is conflicted regarding what her role in his designs should be. As he moves toward his ultimate goal, he not only loses sympathy from his loved ones, but from the audience as well. His despicable acts invite open rebellion. He meets his end in battle, not as a general from afar, but as a soldier on the field.

The lights burn blue. It is now dead midnight.

Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.

What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by.

Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.

Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am.”

Tony Soprano (The Sopranos) as King Lear

Tony Soprano is the man who keeps everyone in his orbit in line. “Sheer force of personality, brutality, dry-bone ruthlessness were what it took to maintain this crime empire and to maintain a social hierarchy in which everyone—Christopher, Paulie, Silvio, Carmella—has an agenda they would pursue to disaster had the wrath of Tony not been their shared constraint.”

Tony, like the king of Britain, finds that his hold on his subjects is a very tenuous one. Suffering from self-doubt, his mental state deteriorates, and the world he’s been so good at maintaining control over begins to fall apart. In the play King Lear is not after power for power’s sake, but rather chooses to shoulder the weight of his tremendous responsibilities because he fears that no one else can. He eventually does give up his power to unburden himself. At times Tony too feels like abdicating, but like Lear he feels that he and he alone can maintain order, even if at times it comes at a great cost, such as the love of his family.  More problematic for the protagonists than any external conflict, both King Lear and Tony Soprano are at war with themselves.

O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars

Are in the poorest thing superfluous.

Allow not nature more than nature needs,

Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s . . .


  1. William Stubblefield, The Moor of Madison Avenue:
  2. Tom French, The Wire’s Top  7 Characters:
  3. Eric Sasson, Is Claire on ‘House of Cards’ a “Feminist Warrior”? Jezebel Wrongly Thinks So:
  4. Peter Travers, The Worst Acts of Betrayal on ‘Boardwalk Empire’:
  5. Luuk Keijser, All Hail the King:
  6. Ted Burke, Tony Soprano Becomes King Lear?:

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