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Theatre of Blood: Shakespearean Allusions in a 20th Century Horror Comedy (Part 1)

Most classic Shakespeare movies stick closely to the play they are based on, in Theatre of Blood however, director Douglas Hickox follows a different concept of Shakespearean adaptation. In his film notorious horror icon Vincent Price embodies Edward Lionheart, a theatre actor who seeks deadly revenge on those critics who in the protagonist’s opinion do not recognise his talent as a performer of Shakespeare’s plays. Theatre of Blood focuses on the bloody aspects of Shakespeare’s dramas because Lionheart re-enacts several killings which are key scenes in Shakespeare’s original plays. The comical yet horrific presentation of the murders in the tradition of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, Othello, King Lear and others ranks Theatre of Blood among the genre of horror comedy. This article takes a look at these specific scenes of the movie and examines their rendition of the Shakespearean originals.

The plays of William Shakespeare often deal with issues such as betrayal, malevolence and revenge which result in violent outrages. Derek Cohen points out that violence in Shakespeare’s dramas is a product of patriarchal systems. Patriarchal structures are defined by a general rule of men over women and are based on suppression and male dominance. In Shakespeare’s universe violent acts are committed in order to restore social values which predominate patriarchy. Exemplary for this thesis are the tragedies Othello, Titus Andronicus and King Lear because they “are the only plays by Shakespeare in which female protagonists are murdered by men” and thus display the “relations of power and violence within patriarchy” (Cohen, 3). In Othello the male protagonist kills his wife Desdemona because he suspects her of adultery. He considers his status as husband and dominant figure in this relationship in danger and therefore commits a murder not only to punish Desdemona, but also to restore his patriarchal position. This act of violence is hence “produced by a social code which valorizes order as a social value” (Cohen, 1). In Titus Andronicus a Roman general avenges his raped and mutilated daughter. To restore his damaged reputation, however, he needs to kill his child before going after the perpetrators.

In Theatre of Blood it is Edward Lionheart who feels betrayed by the theatre critics who did not grant him the award as best Shakespearean actor. His status as a respected and talented actor is therefore put into question. In order to seek revenge, he stages the murder scenes of several Shakespeare plays in which the critics themselves involuntarily adopt the victim’s role. In the final scene of the movie, for example, Lionheart lures his victim into an old theatre where he threatens to blind him just like the Duke of Gloucester in Shakespeare’s King Lear. During this scene and in his other appearances Lionheart quotes passages from Shakespeare’s works. Hickox’s film thus “draws attention to the violence of Shakespeare on the one hand, and ultimately, resists re-creating Shakespeare’s violence altogether” (Cartmell, 11).

When the pioneers of cinema brought Shakespeare from stage to screen, they paved the way for generations of film makers to follow. Director Douglas Hickox reverses this concept to a certain extent in his horror comedy Theatre of Blood. His movie “is a meeting of high and low cultures, but the incrementally horrific scenes . . . bring to mind the violence so often swept under the carpet in discussions of Shakespeare” (Cartmell, 10). The order in which Lionheart chooses his victims follows his last season of Shakespeare. This concept is typical for the slasher film sub-genre in which the villain stalks and kills his victims one by one. In 1971, only two years before Theatre of Blood was shot, Italian director Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood became the blueprint for modern day slasher movies like the Friday the 13th franchise, which started in 1980, or John Carpenter’s Halloween from 1978. Yet influences of Bava’s work can already be recognised in Theatre of Blood. The detailed display of violent killing scenes in Bay of Blood is a stylistic device which is also prominent in Hickox’s horror comedy. Although Theatre of Blood exhibits bloody murders, a comic relief diverts the viewer from the actual atrocity of such a scene.

Edward Lionheart considers himself the best Shakespearean performer who has ever entered a theatre stage. The British Critics’ Circle however has a different opinion and denies Lionheart the 1970 Critics’ Circle Award. In a flashback scene Lionheart enters the conference room of the critics committee and grabs the award statue. While reciting the famous “to be or not to be” passage of Hamlet Act III, Scene 1 he makes his way onto the balcony and finally dives into the Thames River in a suicide attempt still clenching the award statue. The critics watch his performance from inside the conference room separated by a window from the balcony which functions as Lionheart’s stage. The window’s curtain is drawn aside in order to enable the view on the balcony and completes the impression of a stage performance. Shortly after this scene it is revealed that Lionheart actually survived the fall from the balcony when he is pulled out of the river bed by a gang of down-and-out drunks. Lionheart has as a result descended from the level of high culture, represented by the theatre critics, to the level of low culture which is epitomised by the group of loafers.



Works Cited

Cartmell, Deborah. Interpreting Shakespeare on Film. London: Macmillian, 2000.

Cohen, Derek. Shakespeare’s Culture of Violence. London: Macmillian, 1993.

Theatre of Blood. Dir. Douglas Hickox. Perfs. Vincent Price, Diana Rigg, Diana Dors and Robert Morley. 1973. DVD. Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 2004.

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