Breaking Bad does Shakespeare

While watching Sunday’s episode of Breaking Bad I had a rather uncanny experience brought about by my unconscious. At one point of the show Skylar reminded me a lot of Lady Macbeth. Although Lady Macbeth’s agenda is rather more devious than Skylar’s as she strives for fame and riches rather than her family’s protection, the two are very similar in their attempt to convince their husbands to commit evil deeds.

After the episode I immediately went on the internet to see what other people thought about the episode and look what I stumbled across:

OsLtXgBSo it was not my Shakespeare contaminated mind that made me think of that comparison but in fact other people noticed the similarities as well. Of course that made me think whether there were more Shakespearean allusions that I missed? How much “Shakespeare” is in Breaking Bad’s protagonists?

Walter White a.k.a. Heisenberg a.k.a. Richard III

Walter White starts off as an innocent chemistry teacher whose uncomfortable circumstances put him into the role of a criminal. This plot is actually fairly close to Shakespeare’s Richard III. Shakespeare’s evil genius claims that it is his physical deformity which leaves him no other choice: “And since I cannot be a lover (…) I am determined to be a villain”. Both characters start their criminal quest with an excuse: They do not want to be villains, it is their body’s failures which make them commit crimes.

However – and now the drama is unfolding – in both cases this doesn’t seem to be the whole truth. In an AMA on AskReddit, Bryan Cranson was asked which scene he thought was crucial in his character’s development. He said that it was when Walt decided to keep shaving his head although he finished chemo and his hair was growing back. Even after his illness, Walt keeps breaking bad (excuse the pun!). In Richard’s case his statement appears to be not quite truthful either. I mean, he can convince Anne, whose husband he had just killed, to marry him? In just one conversation? Not even Ryan Gosling in a wet white t-shirt with a kitten in his arms could achieve that!

Shakespeare Spoiler: In the end, Richard III ends up killing pretty much his whole family. Let’s see how much of Richard is really in Walt as the show approaches its last 4 episodes.

Jesse Pinkman a.k.a. Othello

Jesse – just like Othello – are by nature good guys. However, they have two problems: They feel misunderstood and pigeonholed and they trust too easily. Because of his dark skin Othello never really finds his place in the Venetian society and his self-understanding is too much shaped by what others think of him: He feels he cannot be enough for Desdemona which is why he trusts every lie that Iago tells him. The same is true for Jesse. He underestimates his own kindness and abilities as he is marked by society as the useless drughead. It is only when Walt discovers his abilities that he finally seems to gain some self-confidence. Yet again, Walt takes over Iago’s role in this scenario. Jesse believes him too easily and is constantly manipulated by Walt. Both Othello and Jesse become puppets that are played by their masters which ultimately ends in a catastrophe.

Shakespearean Trivia: Iago is Shakespeare’s only villain who is allowed to survive the play. Whether Walt-Iago will make it out of there alive?

No matter who Shakespearean Breaking Bad’s end will finally be. It is a drama in 5 acts that Shakespeare would have been proud of.


3 thoughts on “Breaking Bad does Shakespeare

  1. WW’s pinnacle Richard III moment (so far!) is when, also as Ozmandias pushing his own “legless trunk” through the desert, Walter desperately purchases an old pickup truck at the close of a lost battle — “my kingdom for a horse!” This homage is straight out of the play.

    • That’s right! Never spotted that. I also think that this week’s little “Tomorrow, tomorrow”-speech by Walt was very reminiscent of MacBeth. He knows he has lost everything and MacBeth’s speech really fit in there.

      • This is why BB really is the best show that’s ever been on tv. One extended scene ties together all the allegory and pathos of “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (show us your badges!), Ozmandias (complete with King Ozmandias himself condemned to push his own fallen monument through the desert), and Richard III.

        If anyone told me before BB that a tv show would combine Treasure, Richard III, Macbeth, Scarface, and on and on and on, I would have scoffed. I’m going to have to watch the whole thing again and reread Macbeth and RIII to see what I’ve missed.

        Here’s a good Atlantic article on BB and Macbeth.

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