Discover more from Gideon's Substack
Early Modern Anti-Heroes
From Marlowe and Shakespeare to David Chase
John Douglas Thompson as the title character in Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great in 2014
Freddie deBoer posted a piece a couple of days ago about antiheroes, with particular reference to Tony Soprano of the eponymous series, The Sopranos. It’s a moralizing piece—which I say, ironically, as a matter of description, not as a negative or positive judgment—interested in the moral effect of works of art. Do depictions of charismatic antiheroes like Tony Soprano inevitably glamorize them and cause us to fail in our moral judgments? And should we, in turn, judge them by whether they have that effect, regardless of authorial intent?
Initially, I wanted to get into the mix about deBoer’s core question, but if I can distance myself from the word “judgment” then I basically agree with him. That is to say: the right way to think about a work of art is to ask what it’s doing, whether it is worth doing, and whether it, in fact, does it. The author can say whatever he or she likes; the question for us is what it does for and to us. And I’m inclined to say that both the “for” and the “to” are to a considerable degree under our control, based on what we bring to the table, but that there are some inherent tradeoffs involved in exercising that control. If we work hard to make sure that a work of art doesn’t do anything negative “to” us, in terms of either an unpleasant emotional experience or a disturbance of our moral orientation, it’s probably not going to do much “for” us either, in terms of an emotional experience that could deepen our understanding. That’s why great art requires reflection upon experience: we allow it to do things to us, even things we don’t like, so it can do things for us, and then part of the process of restoring our own equilibrium—emotional and moral—is analyzing what just happened and making sense of it in the context of our larger vision of life.
But what I wound up doing was thinking about anti-heroes as such. Where do they come from, and what do they do, in general, to and for us?
With respect to English drama, and possibly in drama generally for all I know, Kit Marlowe invented the anti-hero, and in so doing I think he was being a genuine immoralist. That is to say: I think he was making a case for an alternative set of values, what we’d now call Nietzschean ones, based on self-assertion above all. Tamburlaine, Faust, Barabas—they’re all nominally villains, but we’re drawn to them on purpose, because Marlowe made them more interesting and attractive than anybody else on stage. And I think that’s deliberate: Marlowe is actually on their side, and beyond morality. Yes, his antiheroes generally come to a bad end—but the journey is more important than the destination, and the journey these anti-heroes take us on reveals to us the hollowness and hypocrisy of conventional morality. I think that’s what most of us experience, and I think that’s what Marlowe intended us to experience.
When I put it that way, it sounds like I’m evaluating the art based on the author’s intent, but in fact I’m doing the opposite: I’m determining the “true” intent based on the effect. Consider Quentin Tarantino, who is an heir to Marlowe in being extremely expert at creating characters who are cool, and in his attraction to violence and the revenge plot. Tarantino will say he’s a moralist when he makes his vengeance figures “good guys” in the sense of fighting on the side we want to support (fighting slavery, fighting Nazis), but that’s an infantile notion of what morality is. What he’s really doing is saying that vengeance is cool and you wish you had the balls his heroes do to operate entirely outside of conventional moral strictures and pursue vengeance to the end.
Tarantino’s last film, Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood is his most sophisticated attempt at a moral case for the art of cinema as he sees it, one that turns his preferred antiheroes into straight-up heroes. That movie’s ethos is expressed well in the final line of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the Western masterpiece by John Ford (who Tarantino has excoriated for making the “wrong” people heroes and villains): “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Except Tarantino also cheerfully invents his facts: in his film, the stunt man is the real hero, not the matinee idol, but in actual reality the stunt man didn’t kill the bad guys either. In reality, the bad guys killed Sharon Tate, and the age of legends passed away. We’re printing legends, in other words, not because they have become facts, but in bold-face contradiction of the facts as everybody knows them. Is that supposed to be an irony? Somehow, I don’t think so.
Notwithstanding Tarantino, the antihero has progressed a good long way since Marlowe’s day, and Shakespeare is responsible for much of that development. Aaron the Moor from Titus Andronicus is a very Marlovian figure, and he can be a lot of fun to play and watch. He operates in a world governed by monstrosity and chaos, so even though he’s an over-the-top villain, and the play does anything but lionize him, it’s easy to structure a production where he’s the point of audience identification. (You can even make him a Tarantinoesque anti-hero by conceiving of his comprehensive villainy as some kind of Black power revolt against Romans and Goths alike.)
Richard III is an even more engaging Marlovian figure, with a more developed psychology. But he’s also embedded in a providential structure of the tetralogy of which Richard III is the final installment, and that structures his meaning for us and moralizes it. Richard III is a magnetic, attractive figure in spite of his deformity (which the Elizabethans would have seen as a sign of evil). We know he’s a villain but we like him anyway—not primarily because of humanizing touches like the fact that his mother never loved him, but substantially because he exposes the villainy and hypocrisy in others, and thereby destroys them, just like a good Marlovian anti-hero is supposed to do. But as Shakespeare depicts it, this is his providential role in history. Richard III is the scourge of God, sent to wipe out to both sides in the War of the Roses, murdering everyone who was corrupted since Richard II’s deposition two generations earlier. That cleansing will pave the way for Henry VII to reconcile White and Red, and restore peace, harmony and legitimate government.
It’s political propaganda, but on a narrative level it helps us understand why a figure like Richard could exist in a divinely-ordered world: because he’s an instrument of divine vengeance on a sinful people. Our attraction to him ought to be thereby tempered by the realization that, were we alive in his day, God would have scourged us too.
Building on what Shakespeare did with Richard III, Milton created arguably the greatest anti-hero of all time: Satan himself. Satan is unquestionably charismatic, but he’s more than that: he’s noble. He stands for individual integrity, refusing to bow and kneel to authority. He is evil, yes, but in the world of Milton’s God, heroism as classically understood is evil. The hero defies the stars to claim his own place among them, rather than humbling himself and recognizing his utter dependence on divine grace. The fact that we see Satan as heroic just proves that we are fallen, and are still prey to the fallen values he represents. Indeed, my understanding of how Paradise Lost works is that we are supposed to be seduced by Satan, and thereby experience the Fall ourselves. We’re not supposed to “see through” him—his seduction is supposed to be fully effective. Then we’re supposed to experience the shock of realizing, after the fact, that we’ve wound up on Satan's side, and be horrified as we come to understand that this is how sin and death entered the world in the first place. Whether we, as post-Romantic readers, can experience the story that way is another matter—clearly it didn’t work on Blake — but my understanding is that’s the idea.
To a considerable degree, I think that’s how the best anti-hero films are supposed to work as well. I certainly think it’s how The Sopranos is supposed to work. The scene that deBoer highlights as being so good—where the Jewish shrink, Dr. Krakower, tells Tony’s wife, Carmela, that she must leave Tony—isn’t there because it helps the audience judge her behavior and orient ourselves morally with respect to the rest of the series. On the contrary: it’s there because we won’t remember to stay oriented that way. The shrink is talking to us, telling us: you have no excuses either. If you fall for Tony, you can’t say you weren’t warned of precisely who he is. When Dr. Melfi finally abandons her sociopathic client, that’s when we should remember that scene with Dr. Krakower and say: yes, we were told. So why didn’t we listen? What does that say about us, how little different we are from Carmela and Tony’s other enablers?
Is that what actually happens though? I’m not sure—and I don’t just mean because some people become “bad fans” of an anti-hero like Tony. Even the good bourgeois viewers don’t have the experience they are “supposed” to most of the time. The arc of the typical gangster film, for example, charts the rise and fall of an outlaw. Formally, the story says that crime doesn’t pay. Scarface might say that first you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the women — but in the end you have to kill your own sister and then get machine-gunned by your enemies in your own home. Don’t you feel bad that you found him so cool at the beginning? But what the audience experiences, I think, is often not shame at that identification but a kind of having your cake and eating it too. You enjoy, vicariously, the freedom and the carnal pleasures of the gangster in his ascent, and then you feel the moral reward of seeing him punished, which makes you feel ok about not having his heroism. It’s sublimation, nothing more. “Bad fans” take this further, and identify wholly with the immoral protagonists of these films, but a lot of us do it to a lesser degree, because we compartmentalize.
I think Scorsese’s gangster films generally—not just The Wolf of Wall Street (which has the structure of a gangster film) but also Mean Streets and Goodfellas and Casino—are extremely vulnerable to this kind of reading. Even though the bad guys do bad things, and even though their lives are tawdry and shallow, man, they sure seem alive. I think that has much more impact, ultimately, than whatever moral structure is built around them, because that moral structure is ultimately aimed at reassuring someone already moral. Under the hood, Scorsese is showing us that the life force really is stronger among these wise guys than it is among you or me, even though or perhaps because they are evil, shallow, tawdry and unhealthy. I don’t think it’s surprising that a lot of people emotionally side with the life force, and feel a little bad that their heads choose bourgeois health and safety instead.
Heck, a lot of people side with cool anti-hero protagonists even when they are loathsome and there’s nothing especially attractive about their lives. Travis Bickel’s life objectively sucks; he’s a complete loser. Tyler Durden is a figment of the narrator’s imagination, and the narrator himself is just a king over other losers. Walter White gets the money and, to some extent, the power, but never gets the women, actually or metaphorically—which is to say, he seems to take no joy in his accomplishments at all. Heath Leger’s Joker just wants to watch the world burn. Tony Soprano—a far more complex and interesting character than your typical anti-hero—gets his share of fleeting pleasures, but he not only is hollow inside but is aware of his hollowness. That’s precisely what raises him above the typical gangster film protagonist, what gives him his pathos. But he is still an anti-hero, still a purely destructive force. Why do we—and not only “bad fans”—get sucked into their worlds? It’s not just that they’re cool, but that they are wise in the sense of being wise to how things really are. They are at home in the universe as we see it through their eyes. And unlike in Paradise Lost, there’s no voice of God to tell us that the universe isn’t really like that, just a judgmental Jewish shrink telling us what we must and must not do.
That’s why, for me, I remain so impressed by what Shakespeare did with King Lear, which has a Marlovian antihero—Edmund—in a world in which he is at home, a world ruled by his conception of nature.. Edmund is not only charismatic and smarter than the people around him, he’s apparently right about the nature of the world he is in; there’s no providential scaffolding at all like you have in Richard III. Yet we still don’t wind up rallying to Edmund’s banner. On the contrary: we’re drawn to the “good” characters even though they are losers, in part because they’re actually more complex than Edmund’s charismatic evil. It’s an extraordinary achievement, and I don’t think it’s ever been surpassed.
It certainly isn’t in The Sopranos—which I think is a brilliant work of art, to be clear. That scene that Freddie highlighted is a crucial one, but it’s also crucial that Carmela doesn’t take Dr. Krakower’s advice. She doesn’t leave Tony. She doesn’t change. But we also don’t see what the costs of such a change would actually be. Dr. Krakower never reckons with that question, so we don’t have to either. We’re free to imagine, comfortably, that they would be lower than she fears, which lets the audience off the hook, morally, allowing us to imagine we are superior to her. Or we can empathize with her because we know we aren’t superior, and be grateful that we aren’t faced with such a stark choice ourselves—and avoid acknowledging that, in fact, we are, every day, and rarely if ever even try to calculate the costs of the choices we avoid making.
In the world of King Lear, Carmela would leave Tony, and she’d be destroyed for it, because Tony would be right about the world, just as Edmund is. But the audience’s response would be to make her the hero of the story.