Sympathy for the Devil
12 Jul 2017
THE COUNTDOWN OF BADDIE DADDIES CONCLUDES, AS OUR EXPERT PANELISTS NAME THE FIVE SHAKESPEARE CHARACTERS LEAST DESERVING OF A CARD ON FATHER’S DAY.
Compiled by Andy McLean
See the list of infamous fathers numbers 10, 9, 8, 7 and 6 here.
5. HENRY IV (Henry IV parts I and II)
Dads the world over can sympathise with the dilemma facing King Henry IV. It’s not easy having a wayward son who neglects his duties in favour of partying with miscreants like Falstaff and Bardolf. So we can understand why the King tries to pull Harry into line.
But the reason Henry IV rates so high on our list of infamous fathers is because of the appalling advice he gives his son. On his deathbed, Henry says the trick to a successful kingship is to: “…busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne out, May waste memory of the former days.” In other words, distract people from your shortcomings as a ruler by stirring up xenophobia and uniting your people by waging wars against other nations. (Remind you of anyone?)
4. SHYLOCK (The Merchant Of Venice)
Actor Mitchell Butel is delighted to be playing one of Shakespeare’s most infamous fathers on stages across Australia right now: “Shylock is on the bucket list for all middle-aged character actors with a bit of European heritage, like me!” says Butel. In The Merchant Of Venice, we certainly see Shylock at his worst. His obsession with money and revenge propel him towards a traumatic showdown in court, as he seeks to take the life of his nemesis Antonio.
However, Butel has some sympathy for the Shylock, and its rooted in his role as a father: “He’s lost his wife. His whole world revolves around his daughter Jessica. So, I think that the loss and the betrayal of Jessica, who’s stolen all this money from him and fled in the middle of the night with a Christian – it’s very messy. In many ways, I think Antonio becomes the target of Shylock’s anger after that loss. Shylock doesn’t like Antonio, that’s set up at the start, but it escalates when Jessica elopes (in a plot that Shylock thinks Antonio is involved in). That is the primary motivator for revenge, as Shylock says: ‘The pound of flesh which I demand of him is dearly bought’”.
3. LORD CAPULET (Romeo And Juliet)
Oh Lord Capulet, where did it all go wrong? Juliet’s dad seems to do the right thing early in the play, when he tells Count Paris that his daughter is too young to marry. Capulet even says he would prefer Juliet marry for love, rather than for status or money.
Soon after though, Capulet ruins any hopes for a happy Father’s Day. He gives in to the overtures of Count Paris and tells Juliet she must marry him. When Juliet protests, Capulet flies off the handle and fast tracks the wedding.
Capulet’s fatherly fury unwittingly forces Juliet into a desperate position, where she and Romeo must risk everything to be together. Yet despite his stupidity, we cannot help but feel for this infamous father when his only daughter dies. Sady for him, his tender words are too little, too late: “Death lies on her like an untimely frost / Upon the sweetest flower of all the field”.
COMING TO A STAGE NEAR YOU…
Some of theatre’s most infamous characters are coming to life in Bell Shakespeare’s current and future productions. Shylock is stalking across Australia right now, in The Merchant Of Venice. Octavius Caesar will be waging war in Antony And Cleopatra in 2018. Moliere’s Alceste will be breaking hearts (including his own) in The Misanthrope in 2018. And other infamous villains are also waiting in the wings, in a yet-be-announced 2018 production. Sign up to the Bell Shakespeare newsletter for updates.
2. PROSPERO (The Tempest)
Any parent would struggle if they spent years stranded on a desert island with their daughter, but Prospero still makes some questionable fatherly choices. He waits more than a decade to tell Miranda about her heritage and the circumstances that led to their plight and, throughout the play, he uses magic to monitor and control Miranda.
Author Jane Caro was one of several panelists to nominate Prospero as the most infamous father in Shakespeare, because of: “the way he infantilises poor Miranda on that island, keeping her from knowing anything about the outside world. Prospero is the living embodiment of the harm benevolent sexism can do.”
Cruciverbalist and word nerd David Astle agrees: “Prospero is the first dad to cut off wifi privileges. Rather than offering the wide world, the sorcerer spellbinds Miranda in exile, misguided by love, nourishing his daughter on fantasia.”
Brendan P Kelso, author of the Shakespeare For Kids book series, says part of Prospero’s infamy lies in his ingenuity too: “He masterminded bringing his enemies to him without having to kill anyone. Sure, it’s easy enough to hire a murderer [as other Shakespeare villains do] but to get mother nature to bend to your will – that takes some real cunning.” Prospero also shows some mercy to give The Tempest a happy ending, says Kelso: “He could have easily made this a tragedy if he so desired”.
1. KING LEAR (King Lear)
When we asked our expert panel to name the most infamous father in Shakespeare, there was one name that kept cropping up again and again: King Lear.
“He’s a prime example of a parent who never actually does any actual parenting,” says Shakespeare Magazine editor Pat Reid. “It has become fashionable to describe King Lear as a play about dementia – which is a bit like describing Othello as a play about handkerchiefs. And yet, Lear knows exactly what he’s doing at the start of the play, when he willfully sets in motion all the misery and death to follow.”
Alice Grundy, associate publisher at Brio and editor of Seizure, also picks Lear as the most infamous father in Shakespeare: “He’s so marvelously flawed. Shakespeare shows us some of the best characters are the most broken. And Lear’s soliloquies are some of my all-time favourites, especially ‘O reason not the need’ which is utterly timeless.”
Shakespeare academic Dr Will Sharpe also pointed to language when naming King Lear as the most infamous of father in Shakespeare: “The greatest use in the canon of trochaic inversion in a single verse line, of form moulding function, is to be found in Lear’s litany of ‘nevers’ as he contemplates the fact of Cordelia’s death: ‘Thou’lt come no more. / Never, never, never, never, never.’ In the voice and body it mimics the sound of sobbing…. ‘Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, / And thou no breath at all?’ If he can only give Cordelia her life again…’
Actor and writer Jada Alberts expands upon Lear: “A childish and arrogant father, whose blindness necessitates his misfortunes. What he needs from his daughters is at first simple – embellished public flattery, is that too much to ask? The answer doesn’t matter, as it’s Lear’s true nature that is revealed in his response to Cordelia, who dares to be honest. Lear’s fall from greatness is sharp; the price he pays, heavy.”
Part of the appeal of Lear is that we pity him, says Alberts: “We become witness to the madness of his mind and it is there we recognise ourselves. And we are devastated for him and for his daughter, Cordelia. Because the truth he failed to see in this case, is love.”
In conclusion, Sharpe sums up the views of many of our panelists in four words: “Terrible dad, great play”.
INFAMOUS FATHER ON STAGE
Bell Shakespeare is currently touring The Merchant Of Venice nationally, featuring the infamous father Shylock. View all our forthcoming productions here.