"Though This Be Madness": Hamlet, Sons of Anarchy, and Shakespeare's Legacy in the 21st Century
Don’t worry, guys – NO SPOILERS!
"There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." - William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Thank You IT Department!!!
Last week, I was having a casual conversation with some coworkers about our favorite television shows when I unknowingly committed an office faux pas by lambasting the advertisements for FX’s Sons of Anarchy. I’d never actually seen an episode, but, based solely on the commercials, the program looked crass, clichéd, and contrived, and I made these feelings known. In response to my vitriolic statements, my awe-struck coworkers looked at me as if I had blasphemed, and one individual even went so far as to suggest I remove myself from his office! Little did I know that these men were so passionate about their biker dramas, or that I was soon to join them.
First, the horrible commercials need to be addressed. I admit that I was guilty of judging this show by its “cover” so to speak, but I stand behind my initial objections. Set to hillbilly jock rock, the ads feature an exorbitant amount of engine revving, lusty women, and exaggerated gun fighting occurring in an undefined locale in Southern California. To build the tension and increase viewer anticipation, there are always a few ridiculously macho one-liners tossed in alongside copious matronly tears being shed as the matriarchs unsuccessfully plead with their stoic men to abandon their dangerous ways. Translation: Men are inherently violent creatures magnanimously providing for our ungrateful and helpless women-folk by any means possible. The ads imply that the show is a soap opera for men designed as a way of channeling and satiating our more base instincts via the small screen. In short, they make the show appear unwatchable.
Boredom and Pouting Breed Entertainment Bliss
This brings me to this past weekend. Based on the show’s promotional material, I always assumed that SOA was simply a fictionalized delusion of the nobility of biker gangs (which it totally is), but, wallowing in agony after my Wolverines failed to pull out the win against Ohio State on Saturday, I thought I would watch an episode, if for no other reason than to arm myself against my work colleagues. Thanks to my Netflix subscription, I proceeded to blaze through the first five episodes of the series, and I’m already hopelessly addicted to the drama played out by the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club.
It’s not the mob mentality or the gratuitous violence and near pornographic sexuality of SOA that propel the show, but rather the dysfunctional family dynamics of the principal characters. The show follows an ageless script of familial deceit that was perfected by William Shakespeare over 400 years ago in a play about a mentally disturbed Danish prince.
Hamlet is the story of a young nobleman whose father, the King of Denmark, has been murdered by his Uncle Claudius, who then promptly turned around and married Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, while assuming the throne vacated by his brother. Hamlet's father returns in spiritual form, relates the true details of his death by poisoning at the hands of Claudius, and implores his son to exact revenge in his name. Ostensibly, the play is about vengeance, but the true brilliance of Hamlet is found in the mental anguish of the royal protagonist as he struggles to grasp his sanity and self-actualize by avenging his father’s murder.
Sons of Anarchy
Fast forward to 2008 and the first season of SOA. The show’s protagonist is Jax, the handsome and principled, yet reckless Vice President of the Sons of Anarchy who closely resembles Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Before his untimely death, Jax’s father, John Teller, was the leader of the gang, but, at the beginning of the show, he’s been dead for some time. After discovering his deceased father’s journal detailing his ‘70s-influenced counter-culture ambition for the motorcycle gang, Jax begins to question the leadership and direction of the club now run by his father’s closest friend, Clay. As it relates to Hamlet, the journal serves as a narrating device in place of the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Further, SAMCRO itself is a modern representation of the noble kingdom of Denmark which marks the setting of Hamlet.
In the context of the show, Clay is the murderous, self-serving Claudius. Over the years, Clay has shifted the focus of the gang from a peacefully non-conformist subset of society intent on achieving free love through communal living to a nefarious underworld of criminal enterprise. It’s difficult to say for certain, but based on John’s journal, it seems as though Clay was somehow involved in Jax’s father’s death (I won’t know for sure until I watch more episodes, but overarching plot development seems to depend on this). Not only was he probably involved in the murder, but Clay is now married to John’s widow and Jax’s mother, Gemma (Gertrude).
After just a handful of episodes, this is all the information I have, but it’s refreshing to see a modern television show relying on Shakespeare’s masterpiece to establish and advance their narrative. I’m eager to see if the show’s writers are willing to dig below the superficialities of strip clubs and shootouts to investigate the emotional torment that Jax must inevitably experience if he ever learns the true nature of his father’s death. Once they begin to do so, the true genius of Shakespeare can be resurrected for a modern audience.
Is Shakespeare Culturally Relevant?
Sons of Anarchy, while excellent cable programming in its own right, points toward a larger question: Are the plays and sonnets of William Shakespeare still relevant in the 21st century? Only Shakespeare comprehended human fragility and fallibility so perfectly as to create a world that resonates with the same emotional turbulence and vitality today as it did in his own time. He understood that no conflict can hold a literary candle to good old-fashioned domestic strife.
However, while the ratings and commercial success of SOA may suggest that his work transcends time, space, and social fluctuation, this might have just as much to do with the rampant boob close-ups and curse words as it does with the stock material. Therefore, it’s up to the writers to continue the analogy and properly align their reinterpretation of Hamlet with that of the Bard’s original framework.
100% of college English professors will answer the question above in the affirmative, but the majority of American high-schoolers probably couldn’t name a single Shakespearean work (with the possible exception of Romeo and Juliet). I can’t begin to properly express what a shameful reflection on our education system this is, but that is a topic for another day. So, while I applaud the creators, cast, and writers of SOA, I implore fans of the show to do some light brushing up on everyone’s favorite 17th century playwright to gain a more meaningful understanding of the underlying themes at play within the show.