On Torture

     This past semester, I took a class covering four of Shakespeare’s best works, one from each of the play genres (comedy, tragedy, history, and romance).  By far, I enjoyed our last play, The Tempest, the most, but it was clear to all of the students which play our teacher preferred: HamletOur teacher could get very passionate at times about it, storming around and shouting and waving his arms like a man possessed, which, I suppose, was appropriate given the source material.  Despite his clear devotion to the play, or perhaps because of it, he complained that there was not in all of film history a “reasonable” movie rendition of Hamlet

     “Not Branagh,” he’d say.  “There is no way on earth Branagh can pull off Hamlet!  He’s not muscular enough, not tough enough.  But the casting’s good.”

     “NEVER Mel Gibson!”  This was his favorite.  “He’s ALL wrong for the part.  He can’t act, he can’t show emotion, he cannot possibly portray Hamlet’s hyperconsciousness adequately.”

     “You know what?” is how he’d always finish his tirades.  “There is not, I bet, a single actor alive who could pull off Hamlet.  Not one.  Maybe a few dead ones, but not one in messed-up Hollywood today who could do it.”

     But, of course, since he couldn’t leave a topic like this without challenging his students, he gave us a day off from reading to work on an unusual assignment: if we were the cast directors for a film production of Hamlet, who would we choose?  We had to fill the entire main cast, and some of the minor characters, with who we thought could accurately portray the complex personalities of what is likely Shakespeare’s greatest work.  I was thrilled with this assignment.  I knew exactly who I wanted for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who would knock Claudius out of the park, who would make a perfect OpheliaGertrude was a little tougher, and I didn’t have enough time to choose a good Horatio, but the one character I could not pin down correctly was, naturally, Hamlet.  He was just too complex for any single actor to be all the way right for him…he was too real.  Defeated, I jotted down a few names and hoped for the best. 

     When class came around, we were all eager to share our picks.  Our teacher went around the room asking for each casting choice and why.  He thought my Claudius was the best, but that my choices for Gertrude were completely off.  Nobody had a great Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but, of course, who could?  He saved the best for last, starting this time in the back of the room to ask after Hamlet.  He seemed unimpressed with the first ten or so people, but when he asked the girl who sat behind me, she said triumphantly, “Jonathan Rhys Meyers.  He’s perfect.  He’s handsome and clever, and on top of that he’s tortured, he does drugs and drinks and stuff, so he’s perfect for Hamlet.”

     My teacher was thrilled.  He didn’t need any more names, that was enough.  Class continued normally, but the girl’s claim stuck in my head.  Tortured?  Drugs and drinking?  That makes a good actor?  Really? 

     Here’s the definition of torture, courtesy of Dictionary.com:

     Tawr-cher: noun

     1. the act of inflicting excruciating pain, as punishment or revenge, as a means of getting a confession or information, or for sheer cruelty.
     4. extreme anguish of body or mind; agony.
     5. a cause of severe pain or anguish. 
 
     Torture…it’s an ugly word.  It sounds ugly, it looks ugly, and worse, it has an ugly meaning.  It’s synonymous with pain, despair, and anguish, none of which are positive things.  So why did it sound so positive to my teacher when applied to Meyers?  Like many words in the English language, changing times means changing meanings, and in our turbulent modern culture, “tortured” as an adjective falls more along the lines of “has mental issues” than “is in excruciating physical pain.”  This strong, ugly word has, in modern use, been reduced to representing a frustrated emotional state. 
 
     So what tortures Meyers?  Depression?  Career troubles?  According to my fellow student, drugs and alcohol are his solution to his torture, not the devices of it.  But talk to any doctor and he’ll tell you that the physical effects of drug addiction and alcoholism are devastating.  They destroy the body from the inside, and although they may not cause the physical pain typical torture would, the harmful results are comparable.  Depression and other emotional issues may be the reason for Meyers’ poor recreational habits, but they are not his real devices of torture: his solutions are. 
 
     Perhaps my fellow student saw Meyers’ habits, realized that they were indicative of his emotional state, and believed that that “tortured” state was similar enough to Hamlet’s that Meyers could successfully play him.  On the contrary, based on the above analysis, Meyers’ tortures are nothing like Hamlet’s.  That doesn’t mean that Meyers may not be able to portray Hamlet, but the comparison of tortures is misguided.  Hamlet is tortured by his mother’s betrayal, his father’s murder, and his own inability to act.  His mind is wracked with the pains of loss, despair, and frustration, and never once is this torture portrayed positively.  In fact, it is the source of his eventual doom.  Meyers’ torture, on the other hand, was seen as indicative of a talent for portraying troubled characters.  It didn’t matter that this man was destroying himself physically: in the minds of my teacher and fellow student, Meyers’ abuse of drugs and alcohol made him a better actor.
 
     Torture has another definition (also courtesy of Dictionary.com):  to twist, force, or bring into some unnatural position or form; to distort or pervert. 
 
     There seems to be a lot of twisting and distorting going on in this situation.  Torture’s definition is being distorted, and my fellow student distorted the truth about Meyers’ “torture.”  Why is this happening?  In this last sense of the word, our culture’s understanding of successful, but abusive celebrities is tortured: twisted, distorted, unnatural.  Being celebrities somehow makes these people above reproach: yes, they do bad things, but it’s OK because they’re celebrities.  They’re under pressure, they can do what they want, it helps them…we always seem to come up with reasonable excuses for our rich and famous.  Why do we make such excuses?  Perhaps it’s because so few people in America, comparatively, are rich and famous.  This elite class is representative of who we consider the “best” among us.  And it’s easy to make excuses when our “best” doesn’t act like it.
 
So maybe it’s not they who are tortured…maybe it’s our culture.
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