What is the connection between Batman and Shakespeare?
Those possessing even a passing familiarity with the Bard’s oeuvre know that his plays fall into three categories: tragedy, comedy, and history. Of these, his tragedies are arguably the most recognizable, having been performed thousands of times in theaters across the globe, appearing in numerous film adaptations, and profoundly impacting pop culture. Hamlet and Macbeth are his two most well-known tragedies, and considering that they were penned by the same author, it’s remarkable just how little they have in common.
Hamlet, in some respects, paved the way for all the plays that were to come after it; despite its medieval setting, the writing has a timeless quality that transcends milieu and examines the genre of theatre itself while simultaneously probing the human mind and teasing madness from its convolutions. Hamlet’s insanity stems from his cowardice and the belief that he has no control over his own destiny. In his famous soliloquy, he considers taking his own life but ultimately balks when he realizes that what might lie on the “other side” could potentially be worse than his current situation.
Macbeth also deals with madness, but it is of a different kind. The titular character’s thirst for power (intensified by his encounter with the Witches and the urging of Lady Macbeth) compels him to murder the king of Scotland so that he can assume the throne. Once he has done it, however, he finds that the deed has wracked him with overpowering guilt. His sanity, and that of his wife, rapidly deteriorates, and things just go downhill from there.
Several years ago I saw a comic strip in Cracked (remember when it was a magazine that tried to steal some of Mad’s audience, rather than a website?) in which Hamlet visits a psychiatrist. Like much of the material in Cracked, it wasn’t very good, really, but it raised an interesting point: It’s possible that Hamlet could have benefited from this; he just needed to face up to his issues instead of running from them. He needed someone to talk to about his problems other than himself. Macbeth, on the other hand, was doomed from the moment he raised the dagger. He had no hope of redemption.
When you consider the fact that Bruce Wayne watched a thug gun down both of his parents, his story can certainly be seen as a tragedy. Some have suggested that he is, likewise, a little crazy. After all, declaring a one-man war on crime isn’t exactly something a person in his right mind would do. Thankfully, though, he understands that revenge is not the right course of action, and while it’s never far from his thoughts, at least he doesn’t have his parents’ murder thrown in his face constantly, unlike Hamlet and Macbeth, who are unable to escape the consequences of the deaths that forever altered their fates.
Could Batman have been “cured” by spending a few hours a week sorting things out while reposed on a shrink’s couch? It’s conceivable.
Getting back to Macbeth, the fact that things go bad so quickly and then just get worse and worse have led many to declare it the most tragic of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Some actors even consider it bad luck to say the title, referring to it instead as the Scottish Play or something like that. Whether or not this superstition holds any water is debatable, but theatre, like everything else, has its own little quirks, and to deny its practitioners the right to be a bit odd runs counter to the spirit of entertainment. (Will I be struck with ill fortune by the very act of typing it? I’ll keep my guard up just in case.)
One of the most famous scenes in Macbeth is the one in which Macbeth encounters the Three Witches. They make reference to the ancient pagan goddess Hecate, which is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, she is fairly obscure in the pantheon of Greek deities (although she might not have been when the play was written); second, the form that she frequently assumes is an amalgam of three women, all standing back to back. This, of course, parallels the Three Witches, but it also, in a strange way, relates to the plot of Detective Comics #425.
The story opens with Batman’s thwarting an attempt on the life of lead actor Barry Johnstone during a performance of Macbeth at Gotham’s outdoor Shakespearian Festival. A killer had tried to take Johnstone out earlier, and Batman, anticipating that he or she would try again, succeeded in preventing the actor’s death a second time.
The Dark Knight pursues the killer through the surrounding woods and finds him, disguised in a ghoulish costume (as seen in the gorgeous cover image by Bernie Wrightson), climbing onto a prop horse-drawn carriage. He leaps onto the vehicle but only manages to pull his mask off before the carriage hits a pipe and throws Batman off. By the time the Caped Crusader regains consciousness, the killer is long gone, and he decides to assume the guise of Wayne and see if he can find any clues by talking to the director and cast.
Over the next few pages we discover that there are three potentially problematic things going on behind the scenes of Macbeth. (And here we have the tripartite image of Hecate as a metaphor, dear readers.) First, there is a love triangle between Johnstone, Del Sartre (the director), and Claire Foster (who plays Lady Macbeth). Second, myopic, seasoned actor Ezra Jimson (who plays the Porter) strongly dislikes Sartre’s contemporary take on the play. Third, Johnstone’s understudy Tod Dunn thinks Johnstone is a “scenery chewer” and that he should be playing the lead role.
At the following night’s performance, Dunn assumes the role of Macbeth because Johnstone had to call in sick. Even though Johnstone is not present, Batman decides to stick around because he has an “uneasy feeling.” One of the highlights of the play is, not surprisingly, the scene with the Witches, during which a small charge causes a harmless but impressive explosion in their cauldron. Remembering the theft of some nitroglycerin the night before, Batman leaps onto the stage and hurls the cauldron into the woods, where it detonates massively.
Batman asks Sartre whether he was with Johnstone during the first shooting attempt, and when Sartre replies that he was, the Dark Knight immediately fingers Jimson as the killer. Having found broken glass in the eyeholes of the mask, Batman realized that the perpetrator had poor vision, which accounted for the fact that Johnstone had been missed by both bullets. Johnstone’s absence during the performance revealed that he was not the actual target.
Jimson was actually trying to murder Sartre for “making a mockery of the theater” with his modern flourishes. He rigged the cauldron with the explosive since he had been unable to successfully shoot Sartre (the deaths of the other actors would have just been collateral damage).