Right now, the genre folks have taken to calling “Grimdark” is all the literary and popular rage. One need look no further than Cable TV. As people the world over continuously decry the gore, guts, and sexual violence inherent in programs like Hannibal, True Detective, and the televised adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series—“Game of Thrones”—(yet continue to watch it unrepentantly, in numbers yearly growing), and the awards roll out, the global lust for the more, shall we say, “gritty realist” tones to fiction and fantasy has never been more apparent.
Romanticism? Eat your heart out.
Sorry about that one, Hannibal.
Yet even as people boldly proclaim the genre as a rebuttal of the age-old idealism of more classic fiction, a boy that loves a bard must take a moment to turn these modern cross bearers to the classics as well. See, Grimdark is, in truth, nothing new. Writers like Joe Abercrombie, George R.R. Martin and R. Scott Bakker might be heaping fuel on the flames, but the darkness has been broached before, by an age old master. We don’t tend to associate him with the term, but I can assure: William Shakespeare—poet, playwright, bane of many a high schooler’s days—was bringing darkness to fiction well before any dragons were lighting up a TV screen.
Writer Genevieve Valentine has called the Grimdark phenomenon “shorthand for a subgenre of fantasy fiction that claims to trade on the psychology of those sword-toting heroes, and the dark realism behind all those kingdom politics.”
The Bard is often remembered for his flowery speeches and sharp wit. Why, many are those who can turn to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, and bawdily recall such gems as: “Though she be but little, she is fierce!” There’s no denying it was an amusing, fairy filled and silly little play, utterly ridiculous by even modern standards. Yet if one looks at a few of the events even in this comedy of yore, I think those focusing on feistiness would be a little offset.
A handful of characters are essentially drugged and made to fall in love with others against their will. Another character, by the name of Hermia, is not only threatened with death for failure to marry the character Demetrius, but threatened with rape for following the fellow in the woods over the course of the play. It kind of gets lost in all the silliness, but that’s pretty dark, wouldn’t you say?
Then there is the case of Hamlet. Madness, mistaken stabbings, poisoning, suicide, and an ending that can only be described as a bloodbath of epic proportions are not only the order of the day, they’re the very things which drive the plot. In King Lear? The Earl of Gloucester is blinded on stage, and I don’t mean by sudden, painless, divine inspiration.
Yet if one really wishes to prove the case of the Grimdark to a modern enthusiast, one need look no further than one of Shakespeare’s presently most overlooked and least understood plays: The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus. I say “presently” because Titus Andronicus was actually quite the hit back in Shakespeare’s day.
In true bardic fashion, allow me to build the hype a bit. People like to read juicy reviews, right? Think of these as the back cover blurbs. The writer Samuel Johnson, about 250 years ago, denounced the play as being little more than a “barbarity of spectacles and the general massacre which are exhibited can scarcely be conceived.” Following in his shoes 100 years later, German poet and translator August Wilhelm Schlegel labeled it “framed according to a false idea of the tragic, which by an accumulation of cruelties and enormities, degenerated into the horrible.” Both meant their labels in terms of scathing rebukes, but it does give one a feel for the level of depravity they were dealing with therein.
Titus Andronicus is, truly, darkness for darkness’s sake. Politics and revenge drive the beast onward. Set in Rome, and being entirely fantasy—no, really, the Bard may have liked to draw from historical sources for many of his works, but this one was off the rails—it follows the namesake general in his triumphant return to Rome, Goths defeated and all the world at his fingertips. Which is to say: the beginning was the high point of the whole piece. From there, Titus makes the error in judgement of bringing the Queen of the Goths back to Rome in chains, sacrificing many of her sons along the way, and in turn, deciding to get himself involved in the drama of imperial politics, choosing one brother over another for the august spot at the helm of the Empire. Unfortunately, that brother also becomes besotted with Tamora, that captive Queen of the Goths, and marries her, while she thirsts for nothing but revenge against Titus.
Did I mention the brother that wasn’t picked also happens to be in love with Titus’s daughter? Silly me.
It’s a downward spiral from start to finish. The level of anarchy and bloodshed this play reaches is in excess—at times, one might even call it downright absurd. Fighting is a fairly standard facet of Shakespearean plays, but nobody’s just biting thumbs at anyone in this piece. At one point, two of Tamora’s sons not only rape Titus’s daughter, they then cut off her hands and tongue so she can’t reveal who did it to her. If that doesn’t sound like a Game of Thrones scene, or something from 13 Assassins, then I don’t think we’re on the same page of darkness. Throughout this play murder, mutilation, and people being baked into pies (ala Sweeney Todd) are all legitimate and commonplace grotesqueries abundantly inflicted upon the plot. There is not an act in the play in which someone is not introduced to the afterlife. It’s so commonplace one could be forgiven for mistaking the play for an American slasher film. One becomes dulled to the violence, because it starts to feel like gore for gore’s sake. It becomes a set piece.
Shakespeare was never one to shy from violence in his works, but for most, the piece stirred the violence, rather than violence necessarily stirring the piece. Titus Andronicus was at once an offspring of bloody history and a forebear to another age, a sort of degenerate toss to the days of the Coliseum, when folk liked to indulge in nothing more than pure, unadulterated violence. It dispensed with the grand oratory for which many often recognize the Bard, the philosophy, the black comedy, and drove itself forward largely on action. In other words, it removed itself utterly from the romanticism we more often associate with Shakespeare’s name, surrendering to what he no doubt hoped would be an appealing grab at a more worldly public opinion. Bear in mind, bear baiting and public executions were the order of the day in his time.
Of course, between now and then, that public attitude has gone through a few shifts. Elizabethan became Victorian, Free Love turned to Cold War and the Lost Generation twisted and turned into the Millennial Generation, and so on and so forth. What might be taken for crude in one generation becomes simple reality in another, and comical in still another; what was, is forgotten over time, cast aside, only to be revived and renewed in another age. So it is with so many motifs of life, so it is with literary trends.
Romantic chivalry is not the state of the modern world. Rather, we live in a period where aggression and violence has once more come under scrutiny. No longer hidden under a rug, with folk pretending it simply does not exist in any meaningful sense, it is met head on. Thus the resurrection of Grimdark, albeit under the rather shadowy new title. As reviewer Liz Bourke noted, Grimdark is essentially “a retreat into the valorisation of darkness for darkness’s sake, into a kind of nihilism that portrays right action…as either impossible or futile.” Grimdark, then, is an answer to the desensitized, and were plays like Titus Andronicus truly any different? Crank up the CGI, make liberal with the acting bug, and it would fit right in with the modern aesthetic of media.
Cue Frank Underwood slapping the desk with his “FU” rings.