By Alex Agausti
The literary detective story is more than an author’s flair for wordplay. It’s a long way of explaining where Shakespeare’s life might have taken him.
To understand how Elizabethan England might have made its way under the iron thumb of political, economic and military uncertainties, the biographical approach is important. Consider the journey of the Self-Help Manual, written by Quasimodo’s friend Hunchback.
The pygmy’s “benefit books” contain “so many false words [that] ‘[m]ess women alone with the many little pains’ that they would ‘say in any case that my name is Hunchback, or make you speak it also.’” In English slang, this sentence means, “Say my name is hogge.”
Hunchback disguises himself as a she, disguises her as a man, disguises her as a man, protects her from her attackers by disguising her as a he.
Dee, a double of Hunchback’s, would crawl out from under the furniture and attack Hunchback from under his own bed to knock him out—but Hunchback could see that this was “night. and would add a wonderful insight.”
In short, it’s a story about Hunchback’s way of using language to covertly obtain resources from his colleagues. But with its shift in focus to the domestic level, to a relationship built from a conflict of interest and trust, its twist became more moving.
Consider Othello, Othello’s complex relationship with Desdemona, his future wife. Having committed a serious crime, Othello is easily convicted of treason. Desdemona, the former friend of Desdemona’s husband’s new love interest, saves Othello’s life, so he could start anew, rebuilding their friendship. When Desdemona confides in Othello that her husband was cheating on her, Othello’s quick, skillful thinking and skillful covert conniving set up Desdemona to be the unwitting victim of a trap Othello can’t see.
Characters with fulls lives and layered relationships provide a particular context that makes a detective story more revealing. Leonardo Da Vinci, who gave us the da Vinci Code, would appreciate this approach.
James Franco, who directed the remake of “The Disaster Artist,” shares the character name, as well as a shared love of James Franco. He believed these qualities fit together to create a specific kind of actor.
What exactly that actor would do remained a mystery to Franco.
“I really wanted to create a character who was compelling but vague,” he said.
Franco referred to one of Anton Chekhov’s most famous characters, the struggling Moscow playwright Ivan Turgenev. He drew inspiration from a dialogue from Ivan’s play Life with Father: “I’m creating art, not reporting facts.”
Ivan is expected to be able to write a play about his father’s death. But when he gets home, he and his wife stay up all night, working on the play to keep their emotions alive. Ivan’s pain is too great to let anybody know it.
Franco found a source for his teacher, the untrustworthy psychiatrist Dr. Steve in “The Disaster Artist,” which is a fictional account of a film production of the film The Room. Those filmmakers create an “evil genius” character to sabotage the film.
We should be most astonished that this character exists at all. These films often depict chaotic, revolting, grossly immoral individuals, from Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson to Sidney Poitier’s character in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.
As we watch a mob of devotees in “The Raid,” clap their hands and cheer, “Boom! bust them in the ass, don’t touch them!” Every lover of Richard Burton at Disneyland would have a blind spot for this menacing buffoon.
The public’s disdain for complex individuals sometimes provides a prism through which to understand Shakespeare’s life, which has been said to be easier to understand than that of the poet Pablo Neruda or the Old Testament author and ethicist, Ezekiel 25:21.
If we gave Shakespeare any indication that we admire and respect people with extraordinary abilities to transform chaos into meaning, to tap into an alternative reality outside our own, we would become astonished by the odds he could defeat—and be frustrated by the possibilities he missed.
Agnusti is professor and