This weekend, by a curious coincidence, I happened to see two movies (or parts of movies) that are almost polar opposites of each other: Kill Bill, Quentin Tarantino’s epic, two-part, and unbelievably bloody homage to kung fu and mobster movies; and The Tempest, Shakespeare’s comedy about a wronged duke who exacts vengeance but then grants forgiveness to his enemies. (Find a synopsis of Kill Bill, Volume 1 here and a synopsis of Kill Bill, Volume 2 here). I admit I only watched bits and pieces of Kill Bill because I was so appalled at the level of violence in the clips I saw that I feared watching the whole movie would be absolutely unbearable. In between, still feeling a bit queasy from the virtually nonstop gore-fest that is Kill Bill, I happened to catch Shakespeare in Love,the brilliant little fantasia that imagines Romeo and Juliet was inspired by a doomed love affair in the young Bard’s own life. Indeed, I think it was seeing Shakespeare in Love that motivated me to seek out some of The Bard’s actual work as a kind of antidote to the mindless cruelty of Tarantino’s films. The Tempest, as it turned out, provided some particularly excellent counterpoint.
As near as I can figure, Kill Bill is simply a gigantic bloody revenge story. Shakespeare was no stranger to bloody revenge stories (Titus Andronicus being the most gruesome and Hamlet being the most famous), but Kill Bill is so blood-soaked that it makes these latter two plays look like episodes of the Teletubbies in comparison. A female assassin known as The Bride (Uma Thurman), finding she is pregnant, decides to get married, go straight, and make a new life for herself and her daughter to be. The day of the wedding rehearsal, however, the entire wedding party is massacred by a team of hitmen dispatched by The Bride’s former boss and sometime lover, the crime boss known simply as Bill (David Carradine). The Bride is left for dead, but wakes up from a coma years later, bent on revenge. She trains with a martial arts master to take her homicidal skills to the next level, and, armed with a samurai sword, sets out to chop, kick, smash, slice, and dice her way through what seems to be thousands of Bill’s friends, associates, rivals, and minions, all in an effort to get to the man himself.
When she finally succeeds in locating Bill, their final confrontation seems strangely anticlimactic, and she weeps over his dead body. Has her single-minded quest for revenge truly made her happier? She finds the daughter she carried has survived and is actually Bill’s child (the cherubic B. B., played by Perla Haney-Jardine). The last shots of the film are of The Bride and B. B. enjoying quality mother-daughter bonding time in a hotel and driving away joyously looking forward to their new life together. The message seems to be that once the Bride has taken revenge on the bastard who hurt her so cruelly, she can finally begin to live.
Contrast this with the plot of The Tempest. Prospero, the Duke of Milan, was wrongly exiled by his treacherous brother Antonio, who was in league with Alonso, the King of Naples, Prospero’s enemy. Prospero causes the title tempest to bring all of his enemies together on the island, but explains to Miranda that he prevented anyone from being killed in the storm (Act I, Sc. ii, 30-38). The Bride doesn’t seem to care whom she slaughters in her effort to get to Bill. Prospero, by contrast, when he has all of his enemies before him, demands only that his dukedom, that which was rightfully his, be restored to him. He does not punish Antonio any further, but instead forgives him. Would The Bride have said anything like this to Bill?
Flesh and blood,
You, brother mine, that entertained ambition,
Expelled remorse and nature; whom, with Sebastian—
Whose inward pinches therefore are most strong,—
Would here have killed your king; I do forgive thee,
Unnatural though thou art.
(Act V, Sc. i, 81-86)
Somehow, I don’t think so. Prospero keeps his promise to release Ariel and even releases Caliban, who had attempted to assault Miranda before the play began (Act I, Sc. ii, 410-416). Caliban comes to recognize the error of his ways and berates himself for plotting against Prospero and forming an alliance with the drunken and venial Stephano and Trinculo:
I’ll be wise hereafter,
And seek for grace. What a thrice-double ass
Was I to take this drunkard for a god,
And worship this dull fool!
(Act V, Sc. i, 341-344)
Stephano and Trinculo are likewise forgiven. When he realizes Prospero has saved his son Ferdinand’s life, King Alonso begs forgiveness for his part in Prospero’s exile. Prospero willingly grants this forgiveness. It struck me while watching the film that The Tempest is practically a meditation on the importance and power of forgiveness. Nobody in Kill Bill, to my knowledge, asks for, receives, or grants forgiveness or the enlightenment that can come with it.
Kill Bill? If it’s Bill Shakespeare, no. I think Shakespeare’s plays will be read, acted and discussed long after the films of Quentin Tarantinoespecially dreck like Kill Billare consigned to the cinematic trash heap where they belong.