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"Breaking Bad", Shakespeare-Style!
Written by Sarah Osman
I have a confession to make: I’m a huge Shakespeare nerd. I have always been a huge fan of the Bard’s work, ever since I first read (and starred in!) Much ado About Nothing at 13. I attribute my love of Shakespeare and his work to some truly great teachers (particularly Professor Donovan, a creative writing professor of mine who probably could pull of playing a Shakespearean character himself). For those of you who have trouble understanding Shakespeare, I recommend a series called No Fear Shakespeare, which breaks down the plays into modern day English for you.
Since I am such a Shakespeare nerd, I have been noticing that “Breaking Bad” has become even more Shakespearean than usual lately. The show has always had inklings of Shakespearean themes throughout, but it seems as though, this season, creator Vince Gilligan and his team of writers really decided to borrow from the Bard. Upon noticing this, I found myself comparing the different characters of “Breaking Bad” to Shakespeare’s -- and have indeed noticed quite a few parallels. So without much further ado (about nothing), I present to you my list of “Breaking Bad” characters if they existed in the world of Shakespeare plays (Warning: Spoilers Ahead!):
Walter White (Heisenberg) = Richard III (Richard III)
Think about it. Both of these characters are complete psychopaths that you can’t take your eyes off of. They will do anything, and I mean anything, to gain power. They have both killed numerous people, happily manipulated those around them, and delivered two of the greatest monologues ever written (Walter’s “I’m the one who knocks” speech is the modern-day equivalent to Richard III’s opening “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech). While some may argue that Walter has some redeemable qualities, I would disagree -- by this point, he has gone full-blown Richard III on us. And it could even be argued that the two both have physical conditions (Walt has cancer, Richard III is a hideous hunchback) that help drive their ambitions. In fact, both characters even state this. Richard III, whose venomous anger over being a hunchback help fuels his thirst for power, states this in his opening monologue, while Walt begins making meth in the beginning because of his cancer (he needs to find a way to support his family). While Walt’s reasoning may come across as more noble, it’s pretty obvious that he’s a psychopath from the very first episode when he beats up his son’s bullies. While you can’t blame him for doing this, it’s not exactly a normal reaction, and even his son and wife are alarmed by his actions. Richard III and Walter White are two men who decided they didn’t want to be walked all over anymore, and their reign of terror is the result. However, I can say with certainty that Walter White will fall. Will it be as far as Richard III’s great fall? (“A Horse! A Horse! A kingdom for my horse!”) We will have to wait and see.
Jesse Pinkman = Hamlet (Hamlet)
I think that Hamlet may be one of the most tragic characters ever written, and I feel that Jesse Pinkman is as well. Jesse’s sanity is easily as questionable as Hamlet’s, both of whom have severe hallucinations and struggle with making the “right decision”. Hamlet believes that his dead father is telling him to avenge him; while Jesse is on so many drugs it can be difficult to tell how coherent he is. Both of their true loves have died and gone mad (Ophelia drowns; Jesse’s love Jane dies of an overdose), and both characters are constantly manipulated by others. Interestingly, Jesse and Hamlet are related to their main antagonist in some way (Hamlet is Claudius’s nephew/stepson; Jesse is Walt’s “adopted son”), and their main antagonist is what causes the most strife in their lives. Walt’s atrocities against Jesse are really quite endless at this point (he inadvertently killed Jane, and he poisoned Jesse's latest girlfriend’s son to get him to help kill their boss), and Claudius single-handedly ruins Hamlet’s life (he kills his father and marries his mother). Finally, both characters sincerely debate suicide (that’s what “to be or not to be” is about!), while Jesse’s is in a more subtle way (it’s kind of amazing that he hasn’t died, considering how many drugs he’s done). Sadly, I fear for Jesse -- Hamlet does die at the end of Hamlet,and I’m not entirely sure Jesse is going to survive to the end of “Breaking Bad”...
Skyler White = Kate "The Shrew" Minola (The Taming of the Shrew)
I know that many of you are going to be surprised that I did not compare Skyler to Lady Macbeth. However, I see Skyler as more of a tragic character rather than a psychopath. Although The Taming of the Shrew is meant to be a romantic comedy, it actually reads as more of a disturbing domestic drama. Kate, deemed a “shrew”, marries Petruchio, who proceeds to “tame” his wife -- by criticizing her, presenting her with gifts only to take them away, scaring her, and forcing her to agree with everything he says. Kate goes from being a wildly fierce character to a submissive mouse, one who merely goes along with what her husband says without fighting back. As “Breaking Bad” goes on, Skyler loses some of her feistiness and succumbs to many of Walt’s demands (although, unlike Kate, she does have children to think of). She loses her spirit, and it’s quite tragic to watch. Skyler does attempt to leave Walt -- only to have him trap her, time and time again. I don’t believe that many of Skyler’s actions are out of malice; they are out of fear for what Walt will do to her and her children. Skyler is literally Walt’s prisoner, just as Kate becomes Petruchio’s. I do feel that both of these strong heroines buckle under the abuse of their men. Kate and Skyler both try to fight back but are eventually beaten down by their men. I could also compare Skyler to Queen Elizabeth (Richard III), who is Richard’s enemy throughout the play, because she is strong-willed. I say that we not judge Skyler too harshly; she is just doing what she has to do to survive.
Hank Schrader = Brutus (Julius Caesar)
Hank really does try to do good. He tries to do what’s best for the people of Albuquerque, just as Brutus does for the people of Rome. Both of these characters are in high positions of power, and both get sucked into some truly nasty situations. Brutus knows that Caesar must fall in order to protect Rome, just as Hank knows that Walt must fall in order to protect Albuquerque (and himself). While Brutus is manipulated by everyone around him (particularly his friend, Cassius), Hank is manipulated by Walt, who, in this case, could double as both Caesar and Cassius. It takes Hank five seasons to figure out that Walt is Heisenberg, despite the fact that there may have been a few more obvious signs that Hank ignored because Walt is his brother-in-law. However, once Hank knows who Walt is, the gloves come off, and Hank decides to not tread so lightly, just like Brutus. In the end, Brutus does reconcile with Cassius, but it’s fairly obvious that Hank was hell-bent on catching Walt. Julius Caesar is essentially a play about a bunch of men backstabbing one another, which is not really that far off from parts of “Breaking Bad”. Unfortuately, in this case, Hank was the one who ended up with a bullet in him.
Marie Schrader = The Nurse (Romeo and Juliet)
Marie is a rather unique character because, while she does have a very ambitious side (more on that in a minute), she has a softer quality that is seen throughout the series. Like Juliet’s nurse in Romeo & Juliet,Marie is funny -- both characters easily have some of the best lines and have provided much needed comic relief. Marie is also loyal; she really does care about Skyler and her children and has gone to great lengths to protect them, just as Juliet’s nurse does. It’s rather clear that Marie does not quite understand why Skyler stays with Walt nor Skyler’s definition of love. Marie is more interested in having a successful husband, just as the nurse wants Juliet to marry a nice looking man. In the end, you would want Marie or Juliet’s nurse fighting for you; they’re not only loyal, but if you cross them and you might get slapped!
While I see Marie as a much softer character, it could be argued that she does exhibit some rather nasty tendencies. Marie is extremely ambitious -- she is constantly pushing her husband to succeed and is often bored (she is a kleptomaniac, after all). If she were a darker character, I would actually compare Marie to Lady Macbeth. However, Marie has never actually pushed Hank to murder anyone, nor has she participated in any acts of vengeance herself.
Walt Jr. White (aka Flynn) = Claudio (Much Ado about Nothing)
I really had a difficult time coming up with a character for the sweet Walt Jr. First of all, Flynn (I prefer Flynn, so from here on out he will be referred to as Flynn) is the one character who has managed to retain some of his innocence on the show. Claudio, who deeply pines for sweet Hero in the romantic comedy Much Ado About Nothing, is an extremely passionate character who generally remains innocent. He doesn’t just like Hero, he loves Hero. He teases Benedict mercilessly and at times borders on being a smartass (much like Flynn). And like Flynn, Claudio is extremely gullible and easily manipulated. Flynn is pretty much the last character on “Breaking Bad” to find out about Walt's secret life, and he’s quickly reached his breaking point. By the end of Much Ado About Nothing, Claudio really hasn’t learned a whole lot nor evolved much as a character; he does manage to marry Hero, even though the first time around he accuses her of having an affair (because he was manipulated to believe this was true). He doesn’t entirely show signs that he’s really learned all that much. Like sweet, innocent Claudio, Flynn really doesn’t seem to realize just how much he’s been lied to and manipulated by everyone around him. He would have been happy to remain innocent, eat his breakfast, and marvel at Saul wandering into his car wash (I can see Claudio doing pretty much these exact same things). The only difference between the two is that alas, Flynn does not seem to have found his Hero yet. There is still a chance he will, but considering the fact that “Breaking Bad” follows the tropes of a Shakespearean tragedy, I’m not sure Flynn will escape unscathed. Shakespeare tends to slaughter all innocence in his tragedies, which means there’s a chance Flynn won’t survive.
Saul Goodman = Shylock (The Merchant of Venice)
Technically, Shylock can be read in two different ways: as either a villain or a sympathetic character. I see both Shylock and Saul as being more on the sympathetic side. There’s no denying that they’re both a bit sleazy -- Saul’s catchphrase is “Better Call Saul!” and he advertises his services on billboards; Shylock is a shady moneylender who demands a pound of flesh (literally) from one of his clients who cheated him. But I see them both as two people who have had to do what they do in order to survive. Shylock’s trial at the end of the play is really a mockery of justice, and he doesn’t get what he deserves. It’s important to remember that Shylock was created during a time when anti-Semitism was high, so it is very viable that Shakespeare created Shylock (and wrote his famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech) as a plea for tolerance. While Saul is not linked to anti-Semitism, he does not usually get what he deserves. He is so manipulated and controlled by Walt that he hardly has any freedom of his own. It’s almost as though Walt has forgotten that Saul still has eyes (see what I did there?). Having said this though, it could be argued that both Shylock and Saul get what they deserve, and they are nothing more than devious, brilliant, sordid individuals. This would be up to you. We will get to explore this question in further detail as Saul is getting his own TV show that will serve as a prequel to “Breaking Bad”...
Gustavo Fring = Claudius (Hamlet)
There are a couple differences between Gus and Claudius. For one, Gus’s death may be one of the greatest deaths ever written, and Gus doesn’t attempt to marry anyone for power in “Breaking Bad”. However, both characters are extremely cool, calm, and collected. Gus manages to convince an entire city that he’s a well-respected gentleman who just runs a chain of chicken restaurants, while Claudius manages to convince an entire kingdom that he really didn’t want to marry his dead brother’s wife but the kingdom needed him too. Claudius is actually quite a good ruler (he manages to diplomatically avoid war with Norway), just as Gus is very adept at running a successful meth empire. But you do not want to mess with either Claudius or Gus. Claudius pours poison in his brother’s ear to take over his kingdom, while Gus picks a perfect assistant (poor Gale) to take over for Walt, whom he plots to kill. To show Walt and Jesse who’s boss, he calmly slices open the neck of one of his minions. If that’s not a Claudius move, I’m not sure what is. In the end, these two both meet rather nasty ends: Gus is blown to smithereens set up by Walter and executed by one of his enemies, while Claudius gets stabbed by Hamlet. The only other difference I can think of is that Claudius shows some remorse for his actions (he is actually disturbed by Hamlet’s play), while Gus does not.
Lydia Rodarte-Quayle = Tamora (Titus Andronicus)
Many of you may not have heard of Tamora, Queen of the Goths, who may be one of the nastiest villains Shakespeare ever wrote. She was understandably mad at Titus for sacrificing one of her sons, so she enlisted her lover (Aaron the Moor) to cook up a revenge against Titus, which involved the raping of his own daughter and the cutting of her tongue and hands so she can’t reveal what happened, and the slaughtering of his two sons. While Lydia hasn’t enlisted the help of a lover, she has done some pretty messed up things on “Breaking Bad” thus far. She orders a full-on massacre of meth cooks because their product isn’t up to the quality she seeks, and she delicately steps over them with a hand over her eyes as Todd leads her. While Lydia may seem nervous and snobbish, she knows exactly what she’s doing. She gives Walt a list of names to murder in exchange for her own safety and goes on to inherit the entire meth business from Walt and Gus. Lydia is one powerful woman; don’t be fooled by her black Manolos! Anyone who can get away with ordering a massacre is pretty darn evil in my opinion. In the end, Tamora’s sons are killed by Titus and fed to her in a pie. While I’m not sure Lydia’s fate will be this bloody, I’m not sure she’s going to be “safe”.
Todd Alquist = Aaron the Moor (Titus Andronicus)
It may come as a shock that I decided to compare Todd to what may be the greatest villain Shakespeare ever wrote. Aaron the Moor truly fits the definition of the word “psychopath”. Urged by his lover, Tamora, Aaron the Moor convinces Tamora’s son to rape and mutilate Titus’s daughter, as well as chop the heads off of Titus’s sons. It’s difficult to tell exactly what prompts Aaron the Moor to do this besides “love for Tamora”, although it is highly more likely that he’s batsh** insane. Todd truly embodies the soul of a psychopath on “Breaking Bad”. He mercilessly kills a child simply because Walt told him there could be “no witnesses” and has no problem assisting his uncle in a massacre of meth cooks ordered by Lydia. He also happily goes along with attempting to kill Jesse, who could be interpreted as his rival, and he ruthlessly shoots Jesse's girlfriend Andrea in the head simply to make a point. It could be argued that Todd does all of this because he is trying to win the respect of Walt, but I honestly think the man was born without a soul. Todd shows no emotion when he kills; in fact it seems as though he enjoys it. He also appears to have a very creepy crush on Lydia, which may be why he’s so eager to do her bidding. I actually find Todd to be the most disturbing character on “Breaking Bad” and fear what he may do next. In Titus Andronicus,Aaron the Moor is eventually buried in the middle of the desert without any food or water. Will Todd meet this same nasty end?
Badger and Skinny Pete = Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Hamlet)
They’re both friends of Jesse/Hamlet. They are both fairly interchangeable. They both fail at what they’re supposed to. Hopefully Badger and Skinny Pete don’t meet the same fate as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
You may have noticed that I left one rather important character out: Mike Ehrmantraut. I leave you with this challenge: which Shakespeare character would YOU compare Mike to? There are quite a few other side characters I did not write a description for, but I am very curious to hear which character you think Mike represents!
And don't forget to tune in to the SERIES FINALE of "Breaking Bad" tomorrow night (September 29) on AMC!
- Sarah Osman, YH Staff