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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Monday, March 23, 2015


Over two years have passed since I created two essays in this series, PART 1 here and PART 2 here. I'm reviving this line of thought because even though I'm very probably the only writer trying to delve into the nature of "the combative mode," I choose to rework the schema I presented in Part 2, as to the ways in which certain narratives with the potential for that mode fail to realize it.

In Part 2 I chose to focus on the plays of William Shakespeare, partly because he is seen today as the epitome of "high culture," but only because most high-culture critics manage to ignore his thoroughgoing bloody-mindedness. I do not say that Shakespeare didn't possess the subtler qualities that have made him famous, but many critics don't appreciate how completely "the subtle" intertwines with "the gross" in the works of the Bard of Avon.

So, in part because Shakespeare is such an elitist icon, I focused on certain of his plays to illustrate my frequently made point that the potential for the combative mode is often undercut by some omission of the necessary elements, usually within the realm of "plot" or "character." The same omissions occur in many other narratives of lesser fame, many of which I've reviewed on my movie-blog, and to which reviews I'll link when applicable.

Repeating my view on Shakespeare's penchant for violence, in Part 2 I said:

Though there’s a great deal of violence and vengeance in Shakespeare, most of it does not pursue the combative mode with respect to either narrative or subjective values. 

CORIOLANUS was my choice for a play that had the potential for the significant combative value, in that its opposed characters Coriolanus and Aufidius were both portrayed as exceptional warriors seen lusting to kill each other at the play's outset.  However, because the play's plot does not end with a combat between these two well-matched characters, CORIOLANUS is not combative in the narrative sense.

Among some of the works I've reviewed on my blogs, those that lack the narrative, plot-based combative value, even though they do have the significant, character-based combative value include Rider Haggard's SHE, both H.G. Wells' novel THE WAR OF THE WORLDS and its 1953 adaptation, the 2002 adaptation of Philip Dick's MINORITY REPORT, and SON OF KONG, the sequel to the very combative 1933 film.

The exact opposite to this formulation is one in which there is potential in the plot but not in the characters. In MYTHOS AND MODE PART 2 I used MACBETH as an example of this situation. While I still believe my logic regarding that play holds, I think HAMLET makes a better illustration, in part because I've more recently examined that play in this essay, responding to a critic's observation that Hamlet's negativity almost made him "infectious" in his evil-thinking manner. Further, HAMLET, unlike many Bard-plays, is derived from a folklore-like story of a prince named Amlethus whose quest for vengeance is considerably less complicated than that of the melancholy Dane.

I realize that to elitist ears, even a mere reminder that HAMLET has its origin in a murderous spectacle-tale will sound like a betrayal of the play's high-minded themes. But of course, HAMLET is no less bloody for all its philosophy, and it does end with a sword-fight, even though the duel is supposed to be no more than a formal, non-fatal combat. When Hamlet agrees to duel Laertes as a mere courtly diversion, he does not know that his nemesis Claudius has conspired with Laertes to poison the latter's sword, as well as keeping a cup of poisoned wine on hand as a backup plan.

So, from a narrative, plot-based standpoint, HAMLET fulfills the combative mode. However, as I've repeatedly said, the combative mode applies only to two or more figures that possess exceptional dynamicity. Coriolanus and Aufidius certainly possess this dynamicity. But do Hamlet and Laertes? I see nothing definite to indicate that either nobleman is exceptional in his sword-fighting skills. In Act IV, scene VII, Claudius flatters Laertes by telling him that a sword-trainer named "Lamond" esteemed Laertes as a great bladesman, but the King may be shining Laertes on, trying to convince him that he's such a good fighter that it makes no difference whether or not they use poison on him. Later, in Act V Scene II, the duel has progressed to a point that Hamlet's mother Gertrude remarks of Hamlet that "he's fat [sweaty] and scant of breath." This suggess that even if Laertes might be exceptional, Hamlet may not be, and indeed he ends up killing both Claudius and Laertes through the use of Claudius' poison, not through sword-skill as such.

This lack of the significant, character-based combative value is also presented in such films as 1986's MANHUNTER, 1991's THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, 2005's THE BROTHERS GRIMM, 1987's JANE AND THE LOST CITY, 1959's THE ANGRY RED PLANET, and 1961's THE WONDERS OF ALADDIN.

Finally, I've sometimes observed that even a given narrative posseeses two or more characters of exceptional dynamicity, and seems to bring them into a conflict that *might* assume a combative form, the author chooses to diffuse the confrontation in some way. My Bard-example here is TITUS ANDRONICUS. This play, a little like CORIOLANUS, deals with a conflict between a Roman nobleman, the titular Titus, and a tribal leader whose forces he has vanquished, Tamora Queen of the Goths. However, after Titus brings the captive queen back to Rome, the emperor Saturninus takes a fancy to her and makes her his queen. This gives Tamora the chance to execute a revenge-plot against Titus by having her sons rape Titus's daughter. Titus later tops her revenge-plot with his own, by killing her sons, cooking them into a pie and luring Tamora into eating it.

Now, I should add here that I'm aware that Tamora and Titus could never have dueled one another as Aufidius and Coriolanus could have. Nevertheless, had Shakespeare cared to provide such a duel, he might have arranged for a flat-out duel, say, between Titus and Saturninus. Instead, the playwright eschews combat for slaughter: after Titus reveals his one-upmanship, he stabs Tamora, Saturninus stabs Titus, and Titus's son stabs the emperor. This is more "conflictive" than the rather anti-climactic ending of CORIOLANUS, where Aufidius simply orders the Roman general to be executed. In both plays, the rejections of "combative potential" is based in plot rather than character; however, TITUS serves to illustrate the type of plot in which violence does erupt between the high-dynamicity characters at the climax, but it is violence that still does not enhance the combative value.

Examples of narratives in this subcombative mode include Philip Dick's DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP, the less than bracing "battle" of Dracula and the Wolf Man in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, and such giant monster-flicks as KONGA and THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS.

More on these matters in Part 4.

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