There's been a great deal of talk about violence in media (meaning film and video-games), painting all fictional violence with a damning brush. It’s an important conversation, and one I’d like to have. But I’m not for toning down the violence in film. I’m for making it better. By which I mean, making it matter.
The trouble is not the violence. The trouble is violence without consequence.
There are a lot of talented writers out there, writing brilliant stories. But a lot of what I see in the Action-Adventure movie world has no weight, because violence has no cost. A guy fires off a million rounds of ammo, mowing down faceless badguys. It can be visually awesome, and it’s fun to watch, and you forget it ten minutes later. It has no weight.
For me, all violence should tell a story. That story should never be easy, never comfortable. It can be enjoyable, sure. Even better, it can be inspiring, heart-pounding, and cathartic.
I’m a fan of Shakespeare. I love his plays. And Shakespeare learned the rules of his craft from Aristotle, including the importance of catharsis, the cleansing that happens through a shared trial. As an audience, we share the hero’s trial. The greater the trial, the deeper the catharsis. That’s the theory.
Unlike Aristotle, Shakespeare never wrote down rules, or at least he didn’t pass them along to us. But reading his plays, there are some very definite rules at work:
- Instigate an act of violence, and you will receive a violent end
- There is no justification for murder. Ever.
- Justice is for the authority of King, Prince, or God, not the average man
None of this is to say that Shakespeare doesn’t have his characters flout these rules. Nor do these rules apply to warfare, where armies meet. But he is absolute in his rules for personal violence. If you commit violence, or if you take the law into your own hands, you are sowing the seeds for your own destruction.
A few examples:
- Romeo attacks Tybalt for murdering his friend, Mercutio. Though in our eyes he’s justified, he is taking the law into his own hands. And by killing Tybalt, he is dooming himself and Juliet.
- Titus Andronicus, whose sons have been murdered and his daughter raped, kills the rapists and cooks them into meat dishes to serve to their mother. Revenge is achieved, and perhaps some form of justice, but he is again placing himself in the place of authority, and dies. Unlike Romeo, he accepts this as the cost of his revenge.
- Laertes agrees to kill Hamlet in revenge for the Danish Prince murdering his father Polonius behind the arras. Laertes, of course, is cut with the same poisoned blade he used to cut Hamlet, a lovely ironic touch, mirroring the old phrase ‘when setting out for revenge, first dig two graves.’
- Brutus, the best example of all. He tries to save Rome from monarchy by killing his friend and mentor Caesar. He is clearly portrayed as a good and honorable man doing a very bad deed for the best of reasons. It is still a bad deed, and he pays the ultimate price for it.
Then there are those who are not even trying to justify their violent deeds – Macbeth, Iago, Richard – who commit acts of violence to satisfy their ambitions, their jealousies, and their rage at life. None of them live. In Shakespeare, the instigators of violence are always, always, consumed by violence.
In short, there is never violence without consequence.
Next time - a look at violence done well in entertainment today.