What do Shakespeare and Michael Bay have in common?

Michael Bay, “the mere mention of his name is enough to make movie critics hiss and groan. Their feeling is shared by many serious film buffs, who argue his style of filmmaking is antithetical to the primal pleasure of movies” (Rodriguez para.1). It seems that Bay’s reputation “in the pop culture arena is of a stereotypically slick, hotshot director whose movies are all assaultive flash and vacuous thrills — a perfect filmmaker, in other words, for the Xbox generation” (para. 6). On the other end of the spectrum, and going back into the annals of history, you have the beloved bard, Shakespeare, whose plays “both deserve and demand not only careful reading but continued re-reading” (Kastan 28). Bay’s critics find his films full of action but lacking substance, while Shakespeare’s plays – especially gems like Hamlet – are analyzed line by line to discover every minute fragment of meaning. So, I’m sure you’re asking at this point, what exactly does Shakespeare have in common with modern action film directors like Michael Bay? I have two words for you: Titus Andronicus.

As Rene Rodriguez points out in her article, Michael Bay is often criticized because his films focus on action scenes and explosions rather than plot and character development. Is that true? Watch any of his films from Bad Boys to Transformers and you will find that is definitely the case. If you are looking for deep, thought-provoking films you need to go elsewhere. If you want intense car chase scenes with tons of explosions then you can’t go wrong with a Michael Bay film. Rodriguez was very astute in calling him a “perfect filmmaker … for the Xbox generation.” Anyone who has spent any amount of time playing first person shooters like Call of Duty can understand and appreciate a Michael Bay film. What this fact demonstrates more than anything else is that Bay knows his target audience very well. That is why his films have, according to Rodriguez, “grossed more than $1.7 billion around the world,” and that figure is not counting anything he’s made after The Island. Bay knows what his audience wants. So did Shakespeare in his day.

Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience had “particularly bloody tastes” and competing with the theater at that time were “blood sports such as public bear-baiting” (Milner 219). Titus Andronicus was written in the early 1590s and was the first of Shakespeare’s tragedies, so it was created well before he made a name for himself and was in direct competition with entertainments like bear-baiting and dog-fighting. In the introduction to the play in The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, Russ McDonald states, “Its keynote is extravagance, as if the novice hoped to seize the attention of the London theatrical public by adopting and exaggerating the sensational form of revenge tragedy popularized by Thomas Kyd. Within the first five minutes of stage time, Shakespeare’s title character mercilessly executes the son of his military enemy and then in a fit of rage stabs his own son” (1211). Later, Titus’ daughter gets raped and mutilated. Titus brutally murders the sons of his enemy, cooks their flesh into a pie, and feeds it to their mother. Eventually, he even kills his own daughter, the same one that already suffered rape and mutilation. Titus Andronicus is easily the bloodiest and most gruesome of any of Shakespeare’s plays. And “the play was a huge favorite when it opened” (Milner 219). Shakespeare’s first tragedy “is clearly a melodrama, best described as Elizabethan revenge tragedy, a genre defined by a hero who doggedly and bloodily pursues vengeance and perishes at his moment of success” (221).

Titus Andronicus is not often cited as anyone’s favorite Shakespearian play. Scholars throughout history have tried to spare Shakespeare’s good name by saying it either wasn’t written by him, or, more likely, that it was a parody of revenge plays – a sort of social commentary on the excessive bloodshed in the entertainment of the day (219). Even more likely is that Shakespeare wrote it simply to try out writing a tragedy all while attracting the blood thirsty Elizabethan theater goers. According to McDonald, “It may be that Shakespeare wrote the play not to express deeply held convictions about the iniquities of the world or to probe the nature of tragic passion, but simply to try his hand at tragedy, to give his company a vehicle for attracting customers to serious drama” (1213). Regardless, Titus Andronicus is an example of Shakespeare’s earliest tragedy, and as such it is somewhat less polished than what you would expect coming from the playwright who penned Hamlet and The Tempest. It also seems to capitalize on the bloodlust of the audiences of that period. Which brings me back around to what Shakespeare has in common with Michael Bay: both men knew their respective audience.

A great majority of modern audiences love to see films full of elaborate action sequences complete with explosions, car chases, gunfights, and the like even if it means sacrificing the film’s plot and character development. Bay knows this. He caters to his audience. Obviously it works as he has made a lot of money in following this formula. Likewise, Shakespeare, in his first attempt at bringing a tragedy to the stage, knew his audience wanted bloodshed and gore in abundance, and so he gave it to them. Shakespeare catered to his audience and gained success and renown which later allowed him to write the brilliant masterpieces we have all come to know and love. While I don’t think Bay is likely to turn into a modern day Shakespeare, I do know that he and The Bard both realized early on that the key to success in the entertainment industry is knowing what your audience wants and giving it to them. Whether or not the audience should want something different is a completely different conversation.

Works Cited

Kastan, David Scott. “Words, Words, Words: Understanding Shakespeare’s Language.” Hamlet.

By William Shakespeare. Ed. Jeff Dolven. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2007. Print.

McDonald, Russ. Introduction to Titus Andronicus. The Complete Pelican Shakespeare. Ed.

Stephen Orgel and A.R. Braunmuller. New York: Penguin, 2002. Print.

Milner, Cork. The Everything Shakespeare Book. 2nd ed. Avon: F&W, 2008. Print.

Rodriguez, Rene. “The Mere Mention of His Name is Enough to Make Movie Critics Hiss and

Groan.” MichaelBay.com. 2015. Web. 2 July 2015.

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