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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.


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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