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

In a scene of Theatre of Blood which resembles the murder of Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello, Edward Lionheart does not commit the crime himself. Instead his daughter, who is dressed like a man, calls Mr. Psaltery, a member of the Critics’ Circle, and tells him in an altered voice that he “might learn something very interesting about [his] wife” if he comes home early enough (Hickox 65:58). Psaltery follows this advice and observes a bearded man wearing a white coat and a white hat entering his house. This scene is largely along the lines of Othello Act III, Scene 3 in which Iago plots a meeting between Desdemona and Cassio in order to raise Othello’s jealousy. In Theatre of Blood it is Edwina Lionheart who plays the role of Iago because she gives Mr. Psaltery a hint to his wife’s alleged unfaithfulness. The fact she is disguised as a man and speaking in a male voice also emphasises this allusion.

Invited to come upstairs by Mr. Psaltery’s wife, the stranger in white starts to give Mrs. Psaltery a massage while she makes ambiguous comments about their previous meetings. The impression of adultery in progress is created not only by Mrs. Psaltery’s lascivious noises, but is already indicated by an old painting in the stairway which depicts a naked woman who is touched by an angel. Mr. Psaltery has meanwhile followed the couple upstairs and witnesses his wife Maisie moaning in the bedroom. In a rage he breaks the door to the room because he assumes that his wife is cheating on him. When he enters the room he is told by the white dressed stranger that Maisie has already had 20 lovers. In a furious irateness Psaltery then chokes his wife to death with a pillow in her bed just like Othello murders Desdemona in Shakespeare’s original play. Shortly after this event the other members of the Critics’ Circle arrive at the crime scene and assert that only Edward Lionheart can be held responsible for the death of Maisie and therefore Mr. Psaltery’s fate. Although Lionheart did not kill the critic, he “destroyed him just as surely as if he’d murdered him” because Psaltery will spend the rest of his life in prison (Hickox 70:09).

Next on Lionheart’s list is Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare. The humiliated actor begins the scene by reading out a review of his performance in Titus Andronicus which was written by Critics’ Circle member Meredith Merridew. He announces the way he is going to carry out his revenge on Merridew by quoting Act V, Scene 3 of the play: “Hark, villain! I will grind your bones to dust, and make two pasties of your shameful head” (Hickox 77:22). In order to illustrate his plan he smashes an egg in a bowl and stirs it like he is preparing a pasty. In Shakespeare’s play Roman general Titus Andronicus seeks revenge for his raped and mutilated daughter. Therefore he kills the sons of Tamora, Queen of the Goths, and makes a pasty of them which he then serves their mother. In the film it is the theatre critic who unwittingly has his two dogs for dinner.

When Meredith Merridew enters his house he finds himself in the middle of a TV cooking show which appears to be broadcast from his home. Lionheart dressed up as a chef asks Merridew to take a seat and presents him a dish while his daughter and the group of loafers pretend to be part of the film crew. Merridew does not realise what is actually happening around him and asks where his dogs are because he considers them his children as he explains: “My doggies, you know. I always think of them as my babies” (Hickox 82:44). Lionheart reveals their whereabouts by quoting Act V, Scene 3:

Why, there they are both, baked in that pie;
Whereof their mother daintily hath fed,
Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred. (Hickox 82:54)

Force-feeding Merridew with a cone stuck in his mouth Lionheart recites another passage of Shakespeare, but this time it is a quote from Romeo and Juliet Act V, Scene 3 in which Romeo is about to open Juliet’s tomb:

Thou detestable maw,
Gorg’d with the dearest morsel of the earth,
Thus I enforce thy rotten jaws to open,
And, in despite, I’ll cram thee with more food! (Hickox 84:13)

Shakespeare’s original lines are here put into a completely different context. Yet, the quotes match the current action and therefore highlight the movie’s black humour. Lionheart concludes the grotesque image of Merridew choking on a pasty made of his poodles by cynically asserting that the critic “didn’t have the stomach for it” (Hickox 84:50). The representation of Merridew’s bizarre demise is a typical example which defines the film a horror comedy because an actually tragic event is displayed in a humorous manner. Intentional allusions to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus become obvious in Lionheart’s character, who seeks revenge for his damaged reputation like the Roman general does in the original play. Meredith Merridew’s character mimics Tamora. Even though he is male, his appearance features blatant female attributes. He is dressed in a pink suit and wears excessive make-up which makes him look like a drag queen and hence underlines his female traits. He also calls two poodles his babies and therefore puts himself into the role of a mother. Merridew eating his own “children” served by Lionheart in a pasty is thus another reference to Shakespeare’s drama.


Read Part 1 of this article here.

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