drama, early modern, hamlet, literature, SAMCRO, shakespeare, sons of anarchy, TV
I’m currently teaching on a course called “Screen Shakespeares”, and many of the most intriguing discussions take place around works which don’t exactly translate the language of drama into the language of film, but use Shakespeare as a jumping-off point – what Tony Howard calls “cinematic off-shoots”. This week we’re discussing the western Broken Lance, which riffs on King Lear in intriguing ways, and I’ve been thinking for a while lot about the TV show Sons of Anarchy. The show clearly evokes Hamlet in its basic set-up, though it soon leaves the basic map of character relationships which that provides. I’d argue that it does so in ways which actually bring it more in line with another of Shakespeare’s works: The Rape of Lucrece, which opens up a whole different set of engagement with Shakespearean narrative and themes. For the moment, though, I’m interested in how Sons of Anarchy evokes Hamlet, via thematic concerns as well as parallels between characters. And since every adaptation is itself a reading of the source material, how the motorcycle club of Charming reflects back onto the murderous and melancholy court of Elsinore. What does SAMCRO have to say about Shakespeare?
The most obvious influence from Shakespeare comes in the central relationships in the drama, revealed in the first episodes. The hero of Sons of Anarchy is Jackson “Jax” Teller, the vice-president of the motorcycle club. The president is Clay, who co-founded the club with Jax’s father (John) and is now married to his mother (Gemma). Jax is uncertain about the direction the club has taken, a feeling which becomes stronger and finds a focus when he clears out some of his father’s old belongings in the garage and discovers a book written years ago by John. The book sets out what he claimed was the group’s original ideal: a “Harley commune” of peaceful anarchist outlaws, which contrasts starkly with the criminality, casual violence and turf wars of the club under Clay. So with a few broad strokes the show has sketched in a malcontent prince, a corrupt stepfather and a morally superior dead father whose disembodied voice speaks to the son as the society he ran falls into vice and turmoil. Jax takes the book up onto the roof of the clubhouse to read it at night, in the same spot we later see being used at battlements by armed look-outs during a gang war. Clay even refers to Jax as “the prince” at moments of irritations. These three characters provide the initial situation and the tension which drives the show’s plot to begin with. Jax’s discovery of the book acts as an inciting incident, producing a narrative from that situation and a moment when we as audience are dropped into the town of Charming.
The character parallels are matched by some thematic concerns which join the two works. The anxiety over the relationship between external symbols and internal truth is one of the dominant notes of Hamlet, exemplified by his distrust of the ghost, the hero’s mourning black which has become synonymous with the character in art, and the famous speech in reply to Gertrude:
“Seems,” madam? Nay, it is. I know not “seems.”
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly. These indeed “seem,”
For they are actions that a man might play.
But I have that within which passeth show,
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.
The bikers of Charming display a similar obsession with keeping the clothes they wear a reliable indicator about the person wearing them. The gang colours worn on a jacket (known as a “cut”) are one of the show’s central symbols. One member is mocked by another gang for allowing his to be taken off him, another refuses at gunpoint to yield his cut to a rival leader, and the process of leaving the club involves the patches being ripped off with a knife. The violent policing of who may or may not wear the cut display an anxiety about the ability of such symbols to accurately represent the people who wear them, the stability of the “seems”.
This anxiety is taken one stage further than Hamlet’s suiting of his garments to his woe, with the gang crest being tattooed on the back of each member, so they literally cannot take them off. When Kyle, renegade member, is seen at a party still sporting the tattoo (having failed to have it blanked out by more ink), the Sons of Anarchy chain him to a mechanic’s rig and give him a stark choice: “Fire or knife?” He chooses the former and blacks out in agony as the club’s enforcer burns the markings off him with a blowtorch. The plot echoes stories told of 1960s bikers who got around laws against displaying gang colours by wearing the crest on their skin, but it also speaks to the paranoia which both Hamlet and Sons of Anarchy display around the stability of symbols and the potential slippage of identity.
In fact, the club’s insignia also seems to be subject to a rather different encroachment. Jax’s Generation Y costumes differ from Clay and his biker contemporaries: fewer open-necked shirts and boots, more hoodies, sneakers and baggy jeans. It’s a neat way of setting up the clash between their outlooks, echoed in his whole physical habitus. But Jax also seems to possess a certain quantity of stash, such as SAMCRO hoodies and t-shirts with REAPER CREW emblazoned on them. The symbols of the club, so violently defended, seem at risk of being hollowed out by their commercial iterability. Like college hoodies worn by sports fans who never set foot on campus, or Marine Corps T-shirts sold to patriotic Americans, the consonance between the person and the customary suit is weakened. Has the outlaw motorcycle gang ended up, in Thomas Frank’s term, “commodifying their dissent”? Just as the fad for melancholy amongst comfortable young men in the Early Modern period calls Hamlet’s existential angst into question, the marketability of “outlaw chic” undermines SAMCRO’s sense of themselves. In both cases it results in violence which seeks to establish epistemological certainty, by branding or cutting secure identities into the bodies of people around the main characters. Sons of Anarchy might shed light back onto Hamlet, bringing this function of its violence into perspective.
The creative reworking of the traces of Hamlet provide differences as well as similarities, of course. This is a definitely post-Freudian Jax, who has no problem with Gemma saying his dead father was “a great lay”, and is apparently at ease with her sexuality. The sexual threat posed by Clay is diverted elsewhere, into his assertion of a biker droit de seigneur, sleeping with a girl whom a wannabe club members is romantically interested in, mostly to discipline the aspirant in question. Sex is definitely an issue (particularly, as I will explore later, as part of a violent solution to social problems), but this iteration of the Hamlet has no patience with the Freudian triangle. Nor is there any doubt that John Teller is genuinely speaking to Jax through his book, particularly as another copy turns up later in the series, providing a more stable textual ghost than the Early Modern stage. The son’s attempt to reject the message, throwing the book into a burning grave in an echo of Hamlet’s fear that his father is in hell, is soon reversed.
These divergences close off areas of speculation in the motives and psychology of the main characters, replacing it with a more political Hamlet than the English-speaking stage might be used to. The gang warfare, council strife and worries about the club’s cohesion frame the characters’ interpersonal relationships as genuinely political questions. The closest I’ve come to seeing a Hamlet which brought home this aspect of the play was David Tennant’s performance at Stratford. His astonishing rapport with Patrick Stewart turned the whole latter part of the play into a political thriller for me, to the extent that Laertes’ entrance made me think for one split-second “Shit, stop him, that will ruin the entire operation.” The court setting of Shakespeare’s play has tended to be considered a convention of tragic drama and swamped by the psychological and personal elements, so that (with some honourable exceptions) Hamlet is more often produced as a study of an existential state or a psychological dilemma than as an investigation of political murder.
By blockading certain avenues of interpretation in the way it appropriates the play and its myth, Sons of Anarchy channels us towards the political aspects. Again, this reflects back upon the earlier work, and the readings which have been overlooked in many mainstream production traditions. As I mentioned, this is part of an on-going piece of research, and I’m interested in the way this political slant eventually leads to the show “solving” Hamlet’s dilemma via an unconscious appropriation of The Rape of Lucrece. But I would be interested to hear people’s opinions on this way of putting Sons of Anarchy and Hamlet next to each other.
Helen Duffy said:
Loved your piece, Assume you have seen this:
It contains some silliness, but also some interesting observations.