Hark wretches! How I mean to martyr you.
This one hand yet is left to cut your throats,
Whiles that Lavinia ‘tween her stumps doth hold
The basin that receives your guilty blood…
[He cuts their throats]
William Shakespeare – Titus Andronicus, V ii
The other night we were in a restaurant and the TV was tuned into a WWE match. I don’t think I’ve seen professional wrestling since I was in high school. But I was amazed by what I saw.
Lindsay looked at me and said, “Holy crap, this is Shakespeare!” She was right. I am convinced that if Shakespeare were writing today, he’d be writing for something like the WWE.
Nowadays we like to put Shakespeare up on a pedestal, in the domain of the upper-classes, the wealthy and educated. But in his day, nothing could be further from the truth.
Shakespeare was a businessman. He was part-owner of his theatre, and every soul that came through the theatre door meant more money for him. Same goes for Vince McMahon.
Shakespeare’s audience was blood-thirsty. One of the most popular entertainments of the day was bear baiting – an event in which a bear was tied to a pole and set upon by hunting dogs. This was popular with not only the unwashed masses, but with nobility:
Henry VIII was a fan and had a pit constructed at Whitehall. Elizabeth I was also fond of the entertainment; it featured regularly in her tours. When an attempt was made to ban bear-baiting on Sundays, she overruled Parliament.
This is what Shakespeare was competing with. And in his day, his plays could be gruesome. Actors would conceal bladders of pig’s blood beneath their costumes and when they were ‘stabbed’ the blood would flow. The crowds loved it. You don’t even want to know how they staged Gloucester’s eye being plucked out in King Lear.
Not much has changed. We like to think we’re more sophisticated, more genteel, but the popular films of our day are disaster/action epics.
As for live theatre? Crowds in the tens of thousands flock to live WWE events while much of our other theatre struggles.
Yes, wrestling is staged, yes, it’s fake, but so is Shakespeare. They’re both theatre.