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COMMENT: Shakespearean Heroes, Masculinity and Blockbuster Stars

9th November 2015

Following last month's release of Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender, Inma Sanchez Garcia, a PhD English Literature student at Northumbria, discusses the portrayal of masculinity in film adaptations of Shakespeare.

Half in light, half in shadows: a sober face delineated with mud from top to bottom, projecting a piercing and intense gaze, features in the poster of Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth (2015). It echoes back to the brooding visage of yet another grave face, this time greatly stained with lines of blood, belonging to Ralph Fiennes’ Gaius Martius Coriolanus (2011). Though they are steeped in warfare and bloodshed, the masculinity of these Shakespearean heroes sits uncomfortably alongside the patterns and precepts of the modern military epic.

Beneath the blockbuster battle scenes lurk more troubled depictions of masculinity that often lie dormant within Shakespeare’s texts.  Consider Coriolanus - despite his notoriety as Rome’s greatest general, he struggles politically because of an inability to relate to his people and, for that matter, his wife.  Is Coriolanus dysfunctional in his social bonding because of being raised into a hyper-masculine and heteronormative Rome?  The chinks in his armour show through his relationship with Aufidius, leader of the Volscian army. 

In Fiennes’ 2011 update, Aufidius (played by Gerard Butler) marks the body of Coriolanus with wounds that he then refuses to display - despite these symbols of honour being desired by the people.  Coriolanus represses the wounds which were inflicted through close contact combat with his putatively arch-enemy – a scene which Fiennes’ film depicts as a brutal and erotic knife-assault that reaches its climax with an exhausted embrace. This remarkable 21st-century adaptation furthers its examination of masculinity by looking into the homoerotic love-hate tension of the two warriors, including a puzzling shower scene and a visually stylised opening which features Aufidius ‘sharpening’ his ‘knife’, in a dark room, while gazing at the televised image of Coriolanus.

Fassbender’s movement from manly mutant Magneto in X-Men to Macbeth certainly mirrors Fiennes’ transition from Voldemort to Coriolanus, and a host of other superheroes who have dressed up in Shakespearean male attire.  A scantily clad Christian Bale frolicked among the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999), before squeezing into the armoured codpiece of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008).  Mr Matrix Keanu Reeves not only donned leather pants in his ludicrous portrayal of Don John in Branagh’s Much Ado (1993), but also starred as an updated Prince Hal in 1991’s My Own Private Idaho – alongside River Phoenix’s homosexual ‘Falstaff’.  And 2012 saw Tom Hiddlestone take lead roles in The Avengers and The Hollow Crown trilogy, moving seamlessly from Norse illusionist Loki to the mercurial Prince Hal / Henry V.  Such was the onscreen chemistry between Hiddlestone and ‘Thunder God’ Chris Hemsworth, that Slash fanfiction has enjoyed pairing their roles of Hal/Henry V and Eric the Huntsman in wider social media!

Wielding a sword that cannot repel the angst and demons stirred by his repressed emotions, Michal Fassbender’s Macbeth is, then, the latest addition to a catalogue of blockbusting superhumans turning to Shakespeare.  For the role that must “dare do all that become a man”, we will watch with interest how Fassbender handles the homoerotic tensions inherent to the male Shakespearean hero.


A free screening of Fienne’s Coriolanus will take place on Thursday 12 November at Tyneside Cinema as part of the Being Human Festival – a series of free public lectures and events from Northumbria’s humanities academics. For more information or to book tickets to the screening, click here.




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