Horror, homosexuality, and homiciphilia in McKellen's Richard III and Jarman's Edward II.
Loncraine's handling of the voyeuristic conventions of filmic sexuality ... is always complicated by our being able to read in them the signs of Richard's particular obsession with death.... The scene of the murder of Rivers at the moment of ejaculation during fellation, followed by a cut to a child's train and then to a steam engine entering a tunnel, also enacts such a double displacement, whereby screen voyeurism is refrained as necrophiha. (254n)
While it is legitimate to employ the term "necrophilia" to refer to "Richard's particular obsession with death," Donaldson elsewhere uses a form of the word in its more commonly understood denotation: "sexual attraction to, or intercourse with, dead bodies" (OED). Recalling a particularly macabre moment from Richard Eyre's 1990 stage version, which first transported the action to an imaginary Fascist England of the 1930s, Donaldson writes,
The National Theatre production from which the film derives even contained explicitly necrophiliac scenes: after Hastings's death his head was brought to Richard in a fire bucket. Alone on the huge stage, he savored the moment, glanced about (no one there; only us), and reached lovingly into the bucket in a kind of erotic ecstasy. (252)
Although this episode in Eyre's production clearly exhibits Richard's necrophilia, no such scene appears in Loncraine's film (1995), which never brings Richard into direct physical contact with the corpses of any of his victims. In the film, Ian McKellen as Richard experiences erotic arousal, not from the mere contemplation of death or from touching dead bodies, but from the thought of having caused those deaths himself. (1) To describe the sexual pleasure that McKellen's Richard appears to derive from homicide, I have coined the term "homiciphilia."
Since Richard's homiciphilia may be fed only by murder, the film brands Richard's erotic desire as an evil perversion, and the king's ultimate defeat by the virtuous Richmond, whose licit heterosexual orientation is stressed, therefore represents the triumph of married sexuality over depraved sexual deviance. This conservative, even reactionary treatment of deviant sexuality seems startling in a film based on a screenplay by, and starring, Ian McKellen, one of the most prominent openly gay actors working in modern cinema. Such a paradox appears even more puzzling when one considers that Richard III also occasionally hints at Richard's homosexual attraction to his henchman Tyrell and contains images that evoke the gay bathhouses associated with early outbreaks of AIDS. By combining these dual markers of Richard's/McKellen's transgressive sexuality, the film leaves itself dangerously vulnerable to a reading, characteristic of the backlash against homosexuality in the late 1980s and 1990s, whereby gay men are demonized for deriving sexual pleasure from passing along a deadly disease to their partners, and through them, to the rest of society.
In its paradoxical treatment of homosexuality, McKellen's movie resembles the classic Hollywood horror films of the 1930s, particularly those directed by homosexual filmmaker James Whale during the same decade in which the action of Richard III is set: Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). As Harry M. Benshoff illustrates in Monsters in the Closet, "the figure of the monster throughout the history of the English-language horror film can in some way be understood as a metaphoric construct standing in for the figure of the homosexual" (4). Shakespeare's depiction of Richard makes him an ideal candidate to star in a horror film because he is already a monster: not only an "individual with a gross congenital malformation" (OED 3a), but also a "person of repulsively unnatural character ... exhibiting such extreme cruelty or wickedness as to appear inhuman" (OED 4). However, McKellen also modifies Shakespeare's play both by adding hints of Richard's sexual transgressiveness and by enhancing the roles of Richmond and King Edward's daughter Elizabeth until they become the heterosexual foils to Richard's "monstrous" homosexuality. Benshoff regards "the presence of an assertively 'normal' heterosexualized couple" as a key element in the horror film genre:
One or both members of this "normal" couple become involved in the villain's plot: the queer villain's desire for one or both members of the couple is one of the main thematic imperatives of the genre. However, by the end of the film, the villain and/or monster is destroyed by a public mob or its patriarchal representatives, and the "normal" couple are reinstated after safely passing through their queer experience. (36-37)
In McKellen's film, immediately after Richard informs the elder Elizabeth of his desire to marry her daughter, we receive news of Richmond's return from France, at which time he weds young Elizabeth and his forces defeat Richard in battle. As in the horror film, the monster is destroyed by a public uprising and the "normal" couple (who do not appear as a couple in Shakespeare's play) are reunited.
Benshoff tries to account for the defeat of the homosexual monster, even in classic horror films directed by homosexuals like Whale, with reference to a "strategy of selective and carefully chosen identificatory practices" that are "a facet of how non-straight people negotiate popular media texts." While the homosexual spectator (and presumably the filmmaker as well) may "identify with a monster" and enjoy its transgressive "exploits for the majority of the film's running time," such a spectator may ultimately discount "the patented narrative resolution and its concomitant reinstatement of heterosexual norms." Or, as Benshoff speculates, the censorship initiated by the Hollywood Production Code of 1930 made directors feel "obliged to punish their sexual transgressors, even as the pleasures of the [film] for homosexual [viewers] were deeply connected to the exercising of such transgressive possibilities in the first place" (37). Thus, although McKellen may, on some level, identify with the monstrous Richard, he does not change the play's conclusion to match his well-known support for gay rights. To gratify his primarily heterosexual audience, McKellen kills off his homosexual protagonist and allows a "normal" straight couple to regain control of England. The accommodationist political stance evident in such a choice is thrown into relief when one compares McKellen's Richard III to another film of a Renaissance history play released earlier in the same decade, Derek Jarman's Edward II (1991). Jarman's radical political position, which concedes nothing to the straight establishment, impels him to celebrate his protagonist's queer sexuality and to rewrite the ending of Marlowe's play to dramatize the victory of queer resistance over heterosexual oppression. (2)
In McKellen's Richard III, the future king's homiciphilia surfaces after the first murder ordered by Gloucester is carried out by his henchmen. Tyrell and a non-commissioned officer accost Richard's brother Clarence, soaking in a bathtub, and they slit his throat, then push their victim's head under the bathwater, which substitutes for the "malmsey butt" mentioned in the play (1.4.157-58, 273). (3) As Clarence's blood turns the water the color of wine, a hard cut takes us to a medium shot of Richard, his eyes closed and face contorted in a combination of pain and ecstasy as the hands of an unseen figure, later revealed to be Ratcliffe, massage Richard's twisted left arm. The effect of this abrupt transition is to associate what appears to be Gloucester's arousal with the murder we have just witnessed, as if Richard receives sexual pleasure from the contemplation of his brother's killing at his own command. Indeed, a moment later, the massage is interrupted by a messenger, who brings in a parcel containing Clarence's spectacles as proof that Richard's homicidal orders have been carried out. Richard looks around to make sure that no one is observing him, then he savors the deadly significance of the eyeglasses, which cements the link between his earlier ecstatic grimace and the thought of Clarence's commissioned death.
After Richard orders the execution of Hastings later in the film, Richard and Buckingham show photographs of the hanged man to the Lord Mayor as part of their justification for Hastings' sudden dispatch. These photos, like Clarence's spectacles, provoke Richard to reflect, in an eroticized manner, upon the death that he has inflicted upon his former associate. Putting a record on the record player, Richard sends his confederates out of the room and settles down on a love seat, lying on his back with his left side facing the camera, to scrutinize the photographs piled on his chest. In this shot, the sleeve containing Richard's withered left arm is tucked into his pocket, which makes it appear as if his hand is thrust into his pants, and the jiggling motion of Richard's leg in time with the music gives the impression that he is masturbating over the photos of his latest prey. Alone, Richard languidly indulges his homiciphilia, using mementos of his murderous deeds for erotic inspiration. (4)
Perhaps the most shocking confluence of sexuality and homicide in the film is the scene, described earlier by Donaldson, of Rivers's assassination in a hotel room while he is being serviced by an off-duty flight attendant. As the woman kisses down Rivers's body, she moves out of the frame and the camera concentrates on the queen's brother's frenzied expression as he relishes the physical attentions of the stewardess. Also, as Kathy Howlett observes, Richard's presence is evoked by a hint of bondage in Rivers's lovemaking:
Rivers's right arm is tied to the bed as he passively enjoys erotic pleasures in non-diegetic space, while the camera remains focused upon his face and naked torso. Rivers shares similarities with Richard at this moment, in that the outward sign of Richard's erotic proclivities--his useless arm--is replicated in Rivers's representation, and reminds the viewer, at least subliminally, of Richard's deformity. (142)
As a man with one useless arm receiving ecstatic delight from an offscreen figure, Rivers merges, momentarily, with his enemy Richard, but as a knife blade unexpectedly slices up through his chest, Rivers ends his life as Richard's latest victim. In a bizarre instant, Rivers's body becomes both the spur to and the site where Richard's homiciphilic pleasure is witnessed by the film's spectators.
The news of Rivers's murder is delivered to his sister the queen by Richmond, whose role is expanded in McKellen's screenplay to the point that he and his love interest, Princess Elizabeth, become two of Richard's primary "antagonists" throughout the film (Ford 63). We first observe the young couple dancing together at the victory ball that celebrates the end of the war, and before we can even identify them, we can sense a strong romantic attachment. McKellen's annotations to the ball sequence in his screenplay make evident that the erotic charge between these two conventional lovers is intended to contrast with Richard's unfitness for orthodox amorous relationships: "Princess Elizabeth does not appear in the play and Richmond has to wait until act 5 scene 2 for his first entrance. Here the future king and queen clearly fancy each other--the sort of wholesomely sexy couple who make Richard feel inadequate" (56). (5) Although Richmond and Elizabeth speak relatively few lines in the film, (6) they are a constant visual presence: Elizabeth appears as a silent listener in most of the scenes involving her family, and Richmond turns up, for example, at the train station to welcome Prince Edward to London after his father's death and at the fascist rally at which Richard accepts the throne.
During the rally, McKellen inserts a brief segment in which the Archbishop and Lord Stanley send Richmond across the seas, and upon Richmond's return with his forces, McKellen interpolates a longer scene in which the Archbishop marries the future King Henry VII to Princess Elizabeth. In Shakespeare's play, this union is merely announced by Richmond in his concluding speech, but the wedding itself is crucial to McKellen's contrast between Richard's deviant sexuality and Richmond and Elizabeth's wholesome erotic attraction. As a counterpoint to Richard's nightmare on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth, McKellen presents a glimpse of the newly-married couple awakening, like Romeo and Juliet, on the morning after their wedding night. Both are nude yet wrapped in their bed sheets, suggesting that they have consummated their union. As Elizabeth gently strokes her husband's cheek and they embrace, they appear as the quintessential heterosexual couple, reveling in their conjugal relations. Richmond's eventual defeat of the king at the end of the film therefore symbolizes the victory of conventional sexuality over the perversity that has infected the realm through Richard's homiciphilia.
The conservative sexual politics of Richard III seem particularly surprising given the extent to which McKellen has accumulated a track record of support for alternative sexual practices. Even before he emerged from the closet in 1988, McKellen had already received accolades for his portrayals of homosexual characters, such as Marlowe's Edward II and Max in Martin Sherman's play Bent, as well as for his support of Gay Sweatshop, Britain's national lesbian and gay theatre company. The controversy over Clause 28, a piece of legislation that forbid local authorities from "promoting" homosexuality, led McKellen and others to form Stonewall, a gay rights lobbying group. In 1991, he became the first openly gay man to receive a knighthood, and as a prominent member of the gay community, McKellen was invited later that year to tea with Prime Minister John Major at 10 Downing Street to discuss gay issues. Since revealing his sexual orientation, McKellen has been so vocal in his defense of gay rights that one can be reasonably sure that the majority of people, especially in Britain, who have seen Richard III are aware of his sexual preference. This fact alone makes it likely that viewers who perceive the film's emphasis on Richard's deviant sexuality will not separate it entirely from the homosexual practices with which McKellen is so closely associated. (7)
However, the film goes even further in its evocation of gay sexuality by including two segments that insinuate homosexual tendencies in Richard himself. The first occurs after the murder of Clarence, when Richard's solitary gratification at receiving his brother's spectacles is interrupted by the appearance of his new wife Anne, standing at the bottom of a staircase, clad in a particularly alluring negligee. Richard rises and walks toward her, as if to give her the passionate embrace that her pose so clearly invites, but as he arrives at the spot where she awaits, he merely reaches past her to turn out the fight and strides off in a different direction. Anne, disappointed by this rebuff, sadly ascends the stairs. Richard, unlike his counterpart Richmond, plainly has no interest in heterosexual relations with his wife, and the fact that he would turn down this opportunity to make love to a willing, beautiful woman suggests that he may have no sexual attraction to females at all. (8)
On the contrary, the only living person who seems to arouse genuine romantic fascination in Richard is James Tyrell, whom McKellen refashions into Richard's primary assassin. When Buckingham is reluctant to assent to the murder of the Princes, Richard summons Tyrell, who readily agrees to perform the heinous deed:
RICHARD: Say it is done, and I will love you for it.
TYRELL: It is done, Your Majesty. (McKellen and Loncraine 223) (9)
In the screenplay, McKellen annotates this passage as follows: "Unlike Buckingham, Tyrell does not seem to hesitate at the suggestion of infanticide. He is rewarded with the promise of Richard's 'love'--a rare commodity, only otherwise mentioned when Richard seduces Lady Anne" (222). Richard's "love" for Tyrell, here played off against the king's pretended affection for his wife, manifests itself in the film as a type of flirtatiousness with the ruthless young officer. When Richard first broaches the subject of the Princes' deaths, he offers Tyrell his selection from a box of chocolates. As he accepts the assignment, Tyrell playfully takes a piece of candy and pops it in his mouth, which prompts Richard, breathless, to turn toward the camera with his tongue caressing the bottom of his front teeth. He then closes his eyes and sinks back into his chair, and as Deborah Mitchell discerns, the "look on Richard's face is orgasmic" (141). This arousal may stem either from Richard's contemplation of his power to command the death of the Princes or from the memory of his flirtation with Tyrell--or from both--in which case, it represents a blending of McKellen's homosexuality with Richard's homiciphilia.
Another segment in the film that evokes a historically specific reference to homosexuality involves the unusual site for Clarence's murder. As Donaldson remarks, the scene begins with a "wide-angle shot of a large bathhouse in the prison with steam billowing up through the slats of the flooring" (251). Instead of a private bathing area, McKellen opts for a communal bathhouse with a row of identical white tubs, all unoccupied save for the one containing the doomed man. Donaldson concentrates on the ways in which this setting brings to mind the gas chamber at Auschwitz, but he concludes his description by suggesting another more contemporary resonance for this location: "Clarence is killed in a setting that reprises elements of this [concentration camp] scenario (grates above, the naked body in the bath, steam rising from the floor), deepened, perhaps, by the associations bathhouses have acquired in the era of the AIDS epidemic" (251). If the scene's bathhouse setting does indeed conjure up associations with promiscuous homosexual activity, often blamed for the rapid proliferation of the deadly HIV virus in the mid-1980s, then the juxtaposition of Richard's homiciphilia with McKellen's homosexuality acquires a sinister connotation that leaves the film susceptible to a homophobic interpretation.
McKellen's unauthorized biographer, Mark Barratt, contends that his subject's revelation of his sexual orientation and subsequent political activity, such as the formation of the lobbying group Stonewall, were a direct result of mounting prejudice against gay men in Britain for their alleged role in the spread of AIDS:
Specifically brought into being by Clause 28, Stonewall and other gay rights organizations which followed were also a reaction to a perceived heightening of homophobia in British society. HIV and AIDS infection rates were steadily mounting in the UK through the late 80s and 90s, and the disease was still being called "the gay plague." In August 1989 George Gale, a columnist in the Daily Mail, suggested all homosexuals were likely to spread AIDS and were therefore incipient murderers. (143)
Although McKellen has labored tirelessly in support of gay causes, the film based upon his screenplay for Richard III plays into a stream of homophobia, still active when the film was released in 1995, which casts homosexuals as murderers for their role in the AIDS crisis. The movie can be said to portray Richard as a man with homosexual tendencies who derives perverse erotic pleasure from causing the deaths of others, just as some contemporary homosexual men, through their irresponsible promiscuity, receive deviant sexual pleasure while killing their partners. This threat to the health of society must be eradicated, the film seems to argue, and replaced with a wholesome heterosexuality, embodied by Richmond and Elizabeth, that expresses itself safely and exclusively within marriage.
Although convincing support for this homophobic reading may be found in McKellen's screenplay and the film Richard III itself, it is difficult to reconcile this interpretation with Sir Ian's well documented views on sexual politics. This paradox may be resolved if one posits that McKellen expects viewers to associate the homiciphilic Richard, not primarily with himself, but with radical activists similar to Derek Jarman, whose film Edward II argues an aggressively queer, anti-heterosexual position more threatening to mainstream spectators than McKellen's own accomodationist politics. McKellen's and Jarman's approaches to filming history plays reflect their very different attitudes toward the struggle for gay rights. Whereas McKellen has tended to work within the system, using Stonewall to lobby political leaders behind the scenes for individual legislative changes, Jarman, until his death from AIDS in 1994, shared the aims of OutRage!, a rival activist organization, which fights against homophobia in a confrontational way, employing vociferous protests, civil disobedience, and resistance to assimilation into heterosexist society (Peake 463). Thus, while Jarman utilizes Marlowe's play to juxtapose the vilification of Edward II's queer love affair with the homophobia spawned by the AIDS crisis, McKellen, in his film of Richard III, steers clear of contemporary debates about gay issues, but portrays the king as a monstrous version of "the queer activist," whose refusal to curb his sexual promiscuity despite his AIDS status threatens the health of society.
The lives and artistic careers of McKellen and Jarman intersect at many points. In 1969, McKellen played Edward II in the "most celebrated production of the decade" (Forker 107): Toby Robertson's Prospect Theatre Company staging at the Edinburgh Festival, revived later that year in London at the Mermaid Theatre (Geckle 84). As Charles Forker notes, Robertson's production was one of the first modern revivals that physically dramatized the homosexual relationship between the king and his minions:
The Prospect Edward II was conceived after the lifting of theatrical censorship in the United Kingdom and also after the decriminalization of homosexual acts between consenting adults in private. Perhaps for this reason, physical homoeroticism was deliberately stressed, Edward kissing Gaveston, Spencer, and Baldock full on the tips; this emphasis was then carefully replicated in the murder scene where Lightborn ... first washed, then kissed his victim before penetrating him with the heated iron, and, after being stabbed, fell suggestively upon the corpse of the king. (109)
Although McKellen's "flamboyantly homosexual characterization" of Edward was condemned by the Edinburgh City Counselors (Forker 135n), another London revival the following year at the Piccadilly Theatre was filmed by the BBC (Geckle 88) and broadcast to the entire nation in August of 1970, marking "the first time homosexual kissing had been seen on British television" (Wiggins and Lindsey xvii). While McKellen's portrayal of the king as an active homosexual broke new ground in the play's theatrical history, reviewers do not record any attempt by the production to draw parallels between Marlowe's version of medieval history and the modern gay rights movement, which began with the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village, also in 1969.
Conversely, when Derek Jarman filmed Edward II in 1991, he insistently connected the plight of the king (whose love for his boyhood companion, Piers Gaveston, is opposed by the powerful nobles), with the oppression endured by contemporary gay men. Jarman's screenplay, entitled Queer Edward II, is dedicated to "the repeal of all anti-gay laws, particularly Section 28." Like McKellen, Jarman campaigns against his government's attempts to demonize homosexuality, but Jarman alone sees fit to incorporate this critique into his film of a Renaissance history play. Indeed, as the running commentary in Queer Edward II illustrates, Jarman is comparing himself to McKellen as he shoots his film, perhaps because of McKellen's well-known association with the play, but more likely because of the political differences between the two revealed by McKellen's acceptance of a knighthood from the same conservative government that had instituted Section 28 in the first place:
McKellen's knighthood is more shocking; wining and dining in the erroneous belief that his honour improves our situation. There are many gay men with Tory hearts who believe in this honour. I don't. It was brave of Ian to come out--but that is all he had to do. (106)
Soon after the knighthood was announced, Jarman angrily expressed his dismay at what he perceived as McKellen allowing himself to be co-opted by the Tories in a letter published in the Guardian, which concluded with the accusatory question, "Why did you accept this award, Ian? It has diminished you" ("An honour" 34). Jarman's biographer Tony Peake recounts that, in response to this attack, McKellen chose "to maintain a dignified silence," but eighteen gay artists, many of them previously closeted, signed a rejoinder to Jarman published in the same newspaper five days later, in which they distanced themselves from Jarman's indignation and announced their support for McKellen's acceptance of the honor as "a significant landmark in the history of the British Gay Movement." The eighteen signatories (including actors Simon Callow, Michael Cashman, and Antony Sher), argued that McKellen's knighthood would prove to closeted homosexuals that coming out would not necessarily damage their careers, but Jarman replied that it was naive to think that homosexuals outside the relatively gay-friendly theatre world would be greeted with the same level of acceptance if they were to reveal their sexual orientation (465).
The bad blood between McKellen and Jarman generated by this controversy resurfaced when Jarman received word later in the same year of McKellen's visit with Tory Prime Minister John Major to discuss gay concerns. McKellen's newly minted knighthood had granted him access to powerful government figures, but Jarman strongly objected to McKellen, through his connection with Stonewall, acting as a representative of all gay men and women (Barratt 151). Jarman "lambasted" the editor of the Guardian for the paper's lack of coverage of this event, noting that, "for those gays who were not members of Stonewall, this meeting represented their exclusion from a partisan and assimilationist group" (Peake 481). In a personal journal entry from 1991, Jarman records his disdain for McKellen's dealings with conservative politicians:
Great waves of unease swamping my best efforts to smile, hate mail saying I was a "disgrace".... Meanwhile Ian McKellen has tea with the Prime Minister. Must keep my head up and at the risk of more hate, put the case against the airless Stonewall. We cleared a few briars and they set up camp and announced that they spoke for us. Why kowtow to the enemy? Why not demand what is right rather than beg? (Smiling 52)
Rejecting McKellen's accommodationist tactics, Jarman refuses to "kowtow to the enemy" and instead expresses his determination to "demand what is right" through political action, a strategy to defend gay rights that carries over into his radical approach to the filming of Edward II. (10)
The contrast between Jarman's and McKellen's stances toward the proper use of the Renaissance history play as source material for a contemporary movie is evident in their remarks about the original texts in the introductory material to their published screenplays. Although both men defend their occasional need to cut and modernize the plays' archaic language, McKellen displays a reverential attitude toward the authority of the playwright:
Mixing words and pictures, the screen has its own language. So, in adapting Richard III I was translating. Translation is an inexact art, carrying responsibilities to respect the author's ends, even as you wilfully tamper with the means. I hadn't asked for Shakespeare's permission to fashion a film from his play. The least I could do was, change by change, cut by cut, ask myself whether he would have approved. (15)
McKellen also extends his duty to "respect the author's ends" to his relocation of the events of the play in time. Recalling his early discussions of the stage version of Richard III with director Richard Eyre, McKellen writes,
As so often happens with a classic play, we talked about it in the near-present tense and imagined it taking place yesterday rather than yesteryear. This, I suppose, was what Shakespeare intended.... Nor could we expect our audience to imagine Richard III happening in present-day England: that would have only parodied current affairs. (10, 12)
For McKellen, Shakespeare intends Richard III to take place "yesterday," not today, and any attempt to link the action of the play to contemporary events would result in a mere travesty. One could envision, I believe, within the 1930s fascist setting of McKellen's film, the possibility of visual references to Nazi atrocities against homosexuals, (11) which might reverberate with the anti-gay policies of Margaret Thatcher's government in something more than a parodic way. McKellen, however, elects to separate his cinematic efforts from his political lobbying and therefore subordinates his activism to Shakespeare's intentions as he understands them.
Jarman, on the other hand, declares his lack of allegiance to Marlowe and his text as early as the dedication page of Queer Edward II:
How to make a film of a gay love affair and get it commissioned. Find a dusty old play and violate it.... Marlowe outs the past--why don't we out the present? That's really the only message this play has. Fuck poetry. The best lines in Marlowe sound like pop songs and the worst, well, we've tried to spare you them....
Jarman openly elects to "violate" Marlowe's play by employing it to "out the present": to launch a critique against the homophobia that lurks barely concealed beneath the surface of modern-day British society. Although Jarman claims to scorn Marlowe's poetry, his alterations to the text generally preserve Marlowe's language while transforming his intentions:
The crafty subversion of Edward II in its filmic version is to tie itself scrupulously to the sixteenth-century dialogue ... but to change the order of its delivery, feed its lines into the mouths of different characters, and cut whatever it pleases not to use. Extra-textual ideas and occurrences are transmitted wordlessly, through commanding images and inventive staging. This of course yields a vastly different interpretation, but Jarman reconstructs Marlowe with the voice of Marlowe himself. (Talvacchia 112)
Jarman's "commanding images," composed using contemporary costumes and props in a chronologically indeterminate setting, allow an audience to perceive the action of Edward II as if it is occurring simultaneously in the medieval period and the present day. Thus, Jarman's film comments on current political events in a way that McKellen's film resolutely avoids doing.
For example, Jarman visually conceives of the earls who oppose the king's homosexual love affair in Marlowe's play as representatives of the New Right: the men are dressed in conservative twentieth-century business suits, while the women "wear the stern outfits favored by former Prime Minister Thatcher" (Pencak 64). This "Chorus of Nobility" is led by Edward's primary antagonist, Mortimer, who appears most often clothed in the uniform of a Special Forces officer. The nobles are closely aligned with the Anglican Church, and a gauntlet of collared priests spit at Gaveston as he is expelled from England. The Bishop of York, a principal member of the Chorus of Nobility, presents to Edward for his signature the document ordaining Gaveston's exile, and as Susan Bennett observes, Jarman links this order with contemporary anti-gay legislation:
When Edward is persuaded to sign the order which effects Gaveston's deportation from England, the close-up shot reveals not any royal insignia but the logo of Britain's present-day rulers, the House of Commons, and the charter is visibly dated 1991. In this social index, Jarman deftly draws into frame the recent signing of Britain's pernicious Section 28 of the Local Government Act, which denies public money to any project that might be identified with what is defined by that Section as the promotion of homosexuality. (112)
According to Jarman, Britain's bishops, generals, business leaders, and government officials are united in a conspiracy to preserve a homophobic status quo that depends upon compulsory heterosexuality for its continued existence.
As a radical counterforce to the conservative establishment, Jarman casts in his film, as Edward's supporters, members of the queer direct-action group OutRage!. Scenes of military conflict between Mortimer's forces and the armies of the king are represented on the screen as clashes between policemen equipped with riot gear and unarmed but belligerent protesters carrying placards containing OutRage! slogans such as "GAY DESIRE IS NOT A CRIME" AND "GET YOUR FILTHY LAWS OFF OUR BODIES." Similar slogans comprise an even more prominent feature of Queer Edward II, where catchphrases "aggressively assert the virtues of homosexuality and the deviance of heterosexuality" on every other page (Prasch 1165). The anti-heterosexuality evident in mottoes like "straights lie queers die" (72) and "may you Rot in your hetero heaven" (86) extends from the screenplay into the film in the form of several bold changes, omissions, and additions that Jarman makes to Marlowe's play. (12)
Jarman's characterization of Mortimer, Queen Isabella, and their illicit relationship carries the expressive burden of Edward lies heterophobia. Early in the film, Jarman portrays Mortimer's "rampant heterosexuality" (O'Pray 116) by placing him in bed with a pair of "wild girls," who are later joined by a third, and all three play out a sadomasochistic scene with a dog-collared Mortimer, tugging on his leash and trampling his back with stiletto heels. As Jonathan Romney points out, this "image of heterosexual perversity" functions as "British cinema shorthand for Establishment hypocrisy" (42); while Mortimer and his straight associates fulminate over Edward's supposed sexual deviance, their own heterosexual practices are corrupted by power relations. (13) Jarman also endows Mortimer with a violent homophobia that contradicts the more lenient attitude toward Edward's relationship with his lover that Mortimer displays in Marlowe's text. In the original play, in response to his uncle's observation that "The mightiest Kings have had their minions" (1.4.390), Mortimer replies, "Uncle, his wanton humour grieves not me, / But this I scorn--that one so basely born / Should by his sovereigns favour grow so pert" (1.4.401-3). (14) Here, Mortimer reveals that his objection to Gaveston's relationship with the king is based upon his favorite's base birth, but Jarman's film replaces Mortimer's tolerance for Edward's "wanton humour" with a rabid abhorrence for homosexuals. In an entirely interpolated scene, Mortimer brutally murders Spencer, one of the king's supporters, then "indulges in one final insult, taunting the lifeless enemy with the designation 'girlboy,'" which "underscores the film's position that Spencer was killed for being a homosexual" (Talvacchia 118). Jarman implies, through Mortimer's violent characterization, that male heterosexual desire goes hand in hand with vicious homophobia, a position that might be described as heterophobic.
Female heterosexual desire fares little better in Jarman's Edward II. As J. Horger notices, Queen Isabella "is portrayed as a sex-starved temptress temporarily consumed by Gaveston's mocking advances and later attracted to Lightborn while asking him to kill Edward. In the context of Jarman's film, the decision to have Isabella, instead of Mortimer, seal the contract for Edward's death transforms her into a bitter, scorned female" (38). Once Isabella seduces Mortimer into joining forces with her against the king, the initial passion of their heterosexual alliance quickly deteriorates into the tedium of the dull, stale, tired marriage bed:
Mortimer becomes domesticated when his union with Isabella promises to lead to power. The new arrangement is envisioned in the couple's sarcastically unsexual scene in a double bed, with hubby contentedly reading, glasses posed down on nose, while the missus lies with a towel wrapped around her head, face obscured by an eerie blue cosmetic mask. Here are the rewards of respectable heterosexuality. (Talvacchia 125)
In contrast to this dreary picture of heterosexual love, the film's many romantic encounters between Edward and Gaveston are charged with delight, tenderness, and mutual affection, free from the lust for power that contaminates Isabella and Mortimer's straight relationship. Early in the film, Jarman also inserts what the screenplay calls an "unsatisfactory bedroom scene" between the king and his wife, described here in Jarman's screenplay's stage directions:
Edward lies on his back, dressed in white pyjama trousers; Isabella astride him.... She leans forward to kiss the King's mouth. He turns his head away. She lies on her side and looks at him for a long time. Then she lies on her back, and they both gaze into the dark, holding their breath. Edward gets out of bed, he pauses for a moment, then leaves. In a corner of the room he hits his head against the wall till it bleeds. (20)
Jarman intends this sequence to illustrate "Edward's affections forced by the demands of Kingship into the heterosexual marriage bed" (Queer 22). According to Jarman's film, straight sexuality is artificially imposed upon men like Edward for the sake of perpetuating a dynastic and homophobic heterosexual regime. In this "critique of compulsory heterosexuality," the movie supports a queer perspective that "does not understand sexuality as the by-product of gender" (Jagose 57).
Part of Jarman's strategy in praising same-sex love between men is to denigrate sexual attraction to women. As Niall Richardson notes,
Gay novels, films and plays often delight in representing grotesque, abject women; female monsters who are wedged into the narrative for no other reason than to strengthen the subjectivity of the text's gay heroes. These monstrous, heterosexual women ... provide a defining other. The female grotesque, juxtaposed with gay lovers, prettifies or exalts gay love. The gay lovers are beautiful, sexy, and vibrant while the female monster--emblematic of heterosexuality--is dour, ugly and often downright repulsive. (427-28) (15)
As played by Tilda Swinton, Isabella is by no means "dour" or "ugly," but after an initially sympathetic portrayal, the Queen becomes suddenly and unexpectedly repulsive when she murders the king's brother:
In fact, it is when she becomes sexually active with Mortimer that she becomes truly monstrous ... a vampire, killing Kent by sucking at his jugular. This moment of misogynistic horror is in fact part of a more general heterophobia. Indeed, making a heterophobic film to counter an entire history of homophobic ones seems a fair polemical strategy, the logical result of reversing the terms of reference that have often been imposed on Marlowe's play. (Romney 42)
Whereas McKellen, following the conventions of the classical Hollywood horror film, applies characteristics of the monstrous to his homosexual villain, Jarman, the radical queer activist, deflects those qualities onto a "female monster--emblematic of heterosexuality" and thereby condemns the homophobia of straight society. (16)
Critics who defend Jarman against charges of heterophobia often argue that he is merely "reversing the terms of reference," using a rhetorical strategy that puts heterosexuals into the abject position usually occupied by homosexuals in order to reveal to straights their prejudices. As Kate Chedgzoy asserts,
Jarman ... has repeatedly stated that he considers the carnivalesque use of strategic inversion to be a useful way of prompting people to reconsider assumptions which are normally so taken-for granted that they effectively become invisible, and that in adopting this tactic his aim is precisely to shock and provoke. (208)
In some cases, the provocative slogans in Queer Edward II clearly serve this functon--sayings like "if you must be heterosexual, please try to be discreet" (104) or "Don't cry. Maybe you're just going through a straight phase" (148) turn naive beliefs about homosexuality inside-out and potentially force readers to rethink their preconceptions. However, Jarman's "private" writings from the same period sometimes display heterophobic sentiments unalleviated by carnivalesque inversion. In another journal entry from 1991, published posthumously, he asserts,
The onus is on heterosexuals to explain themselves, their behaviour and the evil they have brought us. They need to come out, not us, and face the prosecution. It's they who have warped sexuality, who have murdered and driven innocents to suicide, they who should ask for forgiveness. (Smiling 42)
From time to time, the anti-heterosexuality of Jarman's film resembles what Deborah Willis calls "gay rage": a seething resentment against straight society "that is the predictable consequence of a history of exclusion and violent oppression" suffered by homosexuals (616-17).
By taking a heterophobic stance in Edward II, Jarman risks alienating those heterosexual viewers whose minds he ostensibly wants to change through his employment of carnivalesque inversion. One such spectator, reveiwer Harriet Waugh, attributes her inability to enjoy Edward II to her own sexual orientation, since the film "does not ... make for easy viewing if you are heterosexual" (48). Although Jarman himself once claimed in an interview, "I've never thought of the audience in my life.... I just made the films and hoped someone would come" (Lippard 168), most critics assume that Jarman's films are "aimed at a self-selecting gay audience" (Chedgzoy 211). In fact, there is reason to believe Jarman conceived of his viewership in even narrower terms. On October 17, 1991, Jarman recorded in his journal his response to watching one of the eighteen signers of the letter supporting McKellen's knighthood speak about Edward II: "Back home the dour Simon Callow on television--pronouncing on the film 'as a gay man'--I didn't make it for 'gay men,' I made it for queers" (Smiling 59). Such a distinction suggests that Jarman aims his film not primarily at heterosexuals, who might be persuaded to re-examine their homophobia, or at "gay men" like McKellen and his colleagues, who are willing to make compromises with the straight establishment, but rather at "queers" like himself who derive satisfaction not only from the film's homoeroticism, but also from its anti-heterosexuality. (17)
The heterophobia of Jarman's film may have appeared intimidating to those relatively few members of the straight community who witnessed it, but far more menacing must have seemed the details of Jarman's own personal life, which were widely trumpeted in the British press. As "the best-known 'out' HIV+ man in Britain," (Chedgzoy 193), Jarman not only campaigned vigorously for increased AIDS funding, but also spoke out against what he viewed as misguided governmental attempts to regulate the sex lives of HIV positive individuals. (18) In a memoir entitled At Your Own Risk, he revels in the publicity that accrued to one of his most notorious public displays of queer sexuality in the face of his disease:
I am the man who kissed in that Guardian photograph which was captioned "Kiss of death?" If that was the way that paper saw me, what hope had I in the tabloids?
I kissed him. He said: "Suck my cock--you have the dick of death."
"Let me fuck you"
Death Fuck--What a great splash for the tabloids. (6)
The Guardian's caption "Kiss of death?" on its photograph of a homosexual embrace blatantly taps into the homophobia prompted by the AIDS epidemic. Jarman, however, refuses to accept shame or guilt; instead, he reveals that this kiss led to a "Death Fuck," a liaison that voluntarily risked the transfer of the deadly AIDS virus. In fact, this risk of causing death seems to be an essential element in the thrill of the sexual encounter. By deliberately assuming the persona of the contagious homosexual "murderer" evoked in George Gale's tabloid column, Jarman closely resembles the homiciphilic Gloucester in McKellen's Richard III.
Jarman's Edward II concludes with a surprise happy ending: instead of a fiery poker shoved into the king's anus (which Jarman provides only in a nightmare sequence), Edward receives a romantic kiss from his jailer Lightborn, who tosses the poker away. (19) Against severe social opposition, and in accord with Jarman's radical political views, queer sexuality triumphs over heterosexist homophobia. Staking out a more moderate position, McKellen's Richard III allows gay viewers to identify with the monstrous and sexually transgressive king, but in a nod to straight audience members, the threatening villain (who resembles the queer activist) dies a horrible death, falling off a building into the hellish flames below, and the heterosexual couple Richmond and Elizabeth emerge unscathed. In this way, McKellen recasts Richard III as a classic Hollywood horror film, in which the homosexually-tinged monster disrupts but does not topple the norms of heterosexual society. Three years after filming his screenplay, McKellen went on to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in his role as the homosexual horror movie director James Whale in Gods and Monsters.
Barratt, Mark. Ian McKellen: An Unauthorised Biography. London: Virgin, 2005.
Bennett, Susan. Performing Nostalgia: Shifting Shakespeare and the Contemporary Past. London: Routledge, 1996.
Benshoff, Harry M. Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film. Manchester:Manchester UP, 1997.
Cardullo, Bert. "Outing' Edward, Outfitting Marlowe: Derek Jarman's Film of Edward II." Literature/Film Quarterly 37 (2009): 86-96.
Chedgzoy, Kate. Shakespeare's Queer Children: Sexual Politics and Contemporary Culture. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1995.
Donaldson, Peter S. "Cinema and the Kingdom of Death: Loncraine's Richard III." Shakespeare Quarterly 53 (2002): 241-59.
Ford, John R. "Pursuing the Story: Piecing out Conventions in Loncraine's Richard III, Luhrmann's Romeo & Juliet, and Pacino's Looking for Richard." Shakespeare and the Classroom 6.1 (1998): 62-69.
Forker, Charles, ed. Edward II. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1994.
Geckle, George L. Tamburlaine and Edward II: Text and Performance. Houndmills: Macmillan, 1988.
Hawkes, David. "'The shadow of this time': The Renaissance Cinema of Derek Jarman." By Angels Driven: The Films of Derek Jarman. Ed. Chris Lippard. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1996. 103-16.
Hodgdon, Barbara. "Replicating Richard: Body Doubles, Body Politics." Theatre Journal 50 (1998): 207-25.
Hopkins, Lisa. "How very like the home fife of our own dear queen': Ian McKellens Richard III." Spectacular Shakespeare: Critical Theory and Popular Cinema. Ed. Courtney Lehmann and Lisa S. Starks. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2002. 47-61.
Horger, J. "Derek Jarman's Film Adaptation of Marlowe's Edward II." Shakespeare Bulletin 11.4 (1993): 37-40.
Howlett, Kathy M. Framing Shakespeare on Film. Athens: Ohio UP, 2000.
Jagose, Annamarie. Queer Theory: An Introduction. New York: New York UP, 1996.
Jarman, Derek. "An honour Sir Ian was honour bound to refuse?" Guardian 4 Jan. 1991: 34.
--. At Your Own Risk: A Saint's Testament. Ed. Michael Christie. Woodstock, NY: Overlook, 1992.
--. Queer Edward II. London: BFI, 1991.
--. Smiling in Slow Motion. Ed. Keith Collins. Century: London, 2000.
Johnson, Jared Scott. "The Propaganda Imperative: Challenging Mass Media Representations in McKellen's Richard III." College Literature 31.4 (2004): 44-59.
Kossak, Saskia. "Frame My Face to All Occasions": Shakespeare's Richard III on Screen. Vienna: Braumuller, 2005.
Lippard, Chris. "Interview with Derek Jarman." By Angels Driven: The Films of Derek Jarman. Ed. Chris Lippard. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1996. 161-69.
McKellen, Ian, and Richard Loncraine. William Shakespeare's Richard III: A Screenplay. Woodstock, NY: Overlook, 1996.
Mitchell, Deborah. "Richard III: Tonypandy in the Twentieth Century." Literature/Film Quarterly 25 (1997): 133-45.
Normand, Lawrence. "Edward II, Derek Jarman, and the State of England." Constructing Christopher Marlowe. Ed. J. A. Downie and J. T. Parnell. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. 177-93.
O'Pray, Mike. "'Damning Desire': Mike O'Pray talks with Derek Jarman about Edward II." Film/Literature/Heritage.. A Sight and Sound Reader. Ed. Ginette Vincendeau. London: BFI, 2001. 115-20.
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MICHAEL D. FRIEDMAN
University of Scranton
I would like to thank Rebecca Beal, Charles Conaway, Jody DeRitter, Toni Glover, Joe Kraus, Sharon Meagher, Jessica Slights, and Stephen Whittaker for their comments on earlier drafts of this essay.
(1) For this insight, I am indebted to my student Natali Fusilo, who did an honors tutorial entitled "Shakespeare on Film" with me in 2002.
(2) Although the adjectives "homosexual," "gay," and "queer" are commonly used as rough synonyms, there are important distinctions between the terms. As Annamarie Jagose points out, "homosexuality" describes "sexual attraction [to] those of one's own sex" (7), so the word "homosexual" may be used most appropriately in connection with same-sex erotic behavior; it is "seldom used nowadays as a term of serf-identification" (72). By contrast, the term "gay" arose precisely out of the impulse to create a "distinctly gay identity" based on pride in being homosexual and feeling connected to a nascent gay community (31-32). While gay liberation was originally dedicated to the revolutionary overthrow of anti-homosexual social institutions (37), over time, it began to pursue the more conservative goal of "securing equality for a homosexual population defined in terms of same-sex object choice" (58). In response to what some marginalized members of the gay community perceived as a "slide from oppositional to assimilationist politics" (59), the queer movement arose in the late 1980s as a radical and more inclusive alternative to "the identity politics of 'gay'" (77). Although "there is no agreement on the exact definition of queer" (76), it is widely perceived as "calling into question conventional understandings of sexual identity by deconstructing the categories, oppositions and equations that sustain them" (97). Therefore, although "queer" remains primarily associated with gay and lesbian subjects, it may also include bisexuals, transvestites, transsexuals, hermaphrodites, sex workers, people with AIDS, and anyone whose sexuality challenges the divisions dictated by striaght society (3, 94, 97). As Jagose concludes, "By refusing to crystallize in any specific form, queer maintains a relation of resistance to whatever constitutes the normal" (98). While the authors I quote in this essay do not always maintain the distinctions between homosexual," "gay," and "queer," I will attempt to preserve them in my own
(3) Quotations from Shakespeare's Richard III refer to Bevington's Complete Works and will be noted parenthetically in the text.
(4) Jared Scott Johnson observes that, in Loncraine's film, "photography is harnessed by Richard to satisfy his need for morbid entertainment, a need that closely resembles a craving for pornography" (52).
(5) The published screenplay gives joint authorial credit to McKellen and Loncraine, but its introduction clarifies that McKellen was responsible for the lion's share of the authorship.
(6) Benshoff observes of horror movies that "the heterosexualized couple in these films is invariably banal and underdeveloped in relation to the sadomasochistic villain(s), whose outrageous exploits are, after all, the raison d'etre of the genre" (11).
(7) Barbara Hodgdon investigates the ways in which McKellen's signifying body "disrupts the conventional iconicity that laminates body to character" in the film (219). In reference to the "Richard/McKellen body put on offer in the urinal soliloquy" near the beginning of the movie, she notes, "Because the space itself, the gents' urinal, is a place for other men and carries stereotypical connotations as a site for cruising gays, a spectator's fascination for and desire to perform along with Richard turns slyly, wryly, 'perverse.' And that, in turn, raises other questions. Is this body McKellen's or Richard's? Is he or isn't he?" (220).
(8) Other critics who perceive an implication of homosexuality in Richard's rejection of Lady Anne include Hopkins (49), Johnson (57n), and Kossak (137n, 170).
(9) In Shakespeare's text, the passage reads,
RICHARD: Say it is done, And I will love thee and prefer thee for it.
TYRELL: I will dispatch it straight. (4.2.80-82)
(10) Noting that the first spoken words of Loncraine's film quote Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love," Lisa Hopkins suggests that viewers may be reminded of "Derek Jarman's 1991 film version of Edward II, his swansong before his death from AIDS, where, as in Richard III, the enemies are church and army, who are opposed not only to homosexuality but to the arts in general (a viewpoint McKellen would surely share as much as he does Jarman's sexuality)" (54). Although Hopkins is correct that McKellen and Jarman both resist the institutional persecution of homosexuals, it is an oversimplification to assert that the two men share the same viewpoint on this topic (or even the same sense of their own sexuality).
(11) Martin Sherman's Bent, in which McKellen starred in 1979, graphically dramatized the Nazi persecution of homosexuals.
(12) For a recent contrary view, see Bert Cardullo, who argues that "The idea that [Jarman] is pursuing a singular, biased, and heterophobic agenda on behalf of the minority homosexual population inside, as well as outside, Edward II ... is ... grossly misguided. The film's vision of all sexuality, all human relationships, is equally dark and deadly" (91).
(13) In Queer Edward II, the slogan opposite the page featuring a photograph of Mortimer's S&M scene with the wild girls reads, "Heterosexuality isn't normal, it's just common" (98). Elsewhere in the screenplay, one discovers the phrase "heterosexuality is cruel & kinky" (30).
(14) Quotations from Marlowe's Edward II refer to Forker's edition.
(15) Richardson contends that Tilda Swinton's "camp, excessive" performance as Isabella renders the character more queer than monstrous (428), but the majority of critics seem to respond to the film's portrayal of the queen as an instance of gay male misogyny. See, for example, Bennett (110), Forker (116), Hawkes (111), and Normand (182). Even Richardson admits that "the accusations of misogyny are understandable" (437).
(16) Cardullo concurs that the murder of Kent constitutes an "extreme manifestation of this characterization of Isabella-as-monster" (91).
(17) At least one member of the "gay" press found Jarman's film "mean-spirited." Bob Satuloff's review in Christopher Street inquires, "Does he want to kill the heterosexuals, lock them away, or merely separate us from them in some kind of sexual/affectional apartheid? Is that the purpose of the gay struggle? If it is, count me out" (qtd. in Bennett 113).
(18) On behalf of those infected with HIV, Jarman once wrote, "Understand that if we decide to have sex whether safe, safer, or unsafe, it is our decision and you have no rights in our lovemaking" (At Your Own 6).
(19) Jarman justifies his conclusion on the basis of tenuous historical evidence. As he writes in Queer Edward II, "We've adopted the conspiracy theory for the end of the film. Manuel Fieschi, writing to Edward III, told him that his father had escaped from Berkeley Castle, to Corfe, and from there to Avignon, where he was received by Pope Urban XXII, and from there he made his way to North Italy, to become a hermit living a life of prayer" (158). McKellen, in his screenplay's introduction, considers a similar "conspiracy theory" related to his protagonist: "Of late, investigators have tried to prove that the real Richard was not after all the child murderer of popular history and that the two princes had survived and even escaped to live out their natural lives with adopted identities" (11). Although such a proof might make Richard appear somewhat less monstrous, McKellen elects to maintain allegiance to Shakespeare's play and preserve the full extent of Richard's monstrosity.
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|Title Annotation:||Ian McKellen, Derek Jarman|
|Author:||Friedman, Michael D.|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2009|
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