Finding Shakespeare and Trauma in a Post-9/11 Punisher

A/N: This piece was written in November 2017.

As I watched the most recent season of Daredevil for the second time, I was struck by something vaguely familiar that I hadn’t noticed when the season premiered (which isn’t surprising given the way we have to binge our shows these days). I had been intrigued by Jon Bernthal’s performance as the Punisher from the first time I watched the second season, but I had been struggling to determine a specific reason as to why. Bernthal is a terrific actor for sure, and the intense, uniquely human quality of his narrative arc in contrast to the other characters would be reason enough to say that it was one of the stronger parts of the second season. Regardless, I knew that there was something else I was missing, and luckily, during my second viewing, as I picked apart every little detail, I found it: Shakespeare.

In order for this argument to remotely make sense, we need to go back a few years to when I watched Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 film, Coriolanus, for the first time. I wasn’t always a huge Shakespeare fan, but I was a fan of Fiennes and Gerard Butler, and the film looked culturally relevant and well-written. And ultimately, I did find it to be enjoyable regardless of its Shakespearean associations. However, I wasn’t totally sold on its value until I was assigned the actual play, The Tragedy of Coriolanus, a few years later. In addition to reading the play, we had group projects slated for the end of the semester asking us to write a paper about a film adaptation of a Shakespeare play on our syllabus. For reasons that will soon become obvious, I chose Fiennes’ Coriolanus. Over the course of the semester I watched the film at least 3 times, and read the play more than once (which was brutal, I’ll be honest). Shakespeare’s final tragedy, while brilliantly written, is his longest play, and the title character, Caius Martius Coriolanus, is exceptionally unlikable. Fiennes’ interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s more unpopular plays does an exceptional job of finding worth in a story and a character that casual readers might struggle to detect on a first or even a second reading. So, what exactly does this have to do with Marvel’s Daredevil and the upcoming Punisher series? I’m getting there, I promise.

For those who might be unfamiliar, Shakespeare’s play, The Tragedy of Coriolanus, revolves around Caius Martius Coriolanus (portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in the film adaptation), a brutal warrior whose deeds in battle earn him a place on the political stage. Despite his deep discomfort with having to exist in a servile capacity to the public at large, a number of scheming individuals acting in accordance with their own ambitions, push him towards a powerful role in government. At the same time, Coriolanus exists in a perpetual state of contention with Rome’s enemy, a general by the name of Aufidius (played by Gerard Butler). The play follows Coriolanus’ publicly unpopular rise to power, his fall from grace, and ultimately his gruesome death at the hands of Aufidius. While I wouldn’t be as quick to say that Marvel’s Punisher shares certain similarities with the written play, I would have to insist that there are several important points of comparison within Fiennes’ 2011 film, which is the crux of my current argument about this particular version of Frank Castle.

The film adaptation ingeniously followed the template of a genre referred to as the “Iraq War movie,” other examples being The Hurt Locker or HBO’s Generation Kill. The film is set in “Rome,” but all the characters are decked out in modern military regalia, they use automatic weapons, and they have a pertinacious news media, all of which should look relatively familiar to a post-9/11 audience. The characters trade barbs in Shakespearean English, but thanks to the performances of the actors; Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave, and Jessica Chastain, the film still manages to relay a coherent and complex narrative about war, masculinity, and trauma within a contemporary context. In my initial argument for this adaptation, I spent a great deal of time discussing Fiennes’ focus on Coriolanus as a traumatized soldier instead of the usual emphasis on the character’s inarguably divisive, and potentially fascist, personality. Fiennes includes a number of scenes and electric performances that give audiences a clearer path towards understanding the character and the larger themes of the play beyond the immediacy of his unlikability.

Is any of this starting to sound familiar? I hope so, because I swear, we’re getting closer to my point. Any day now. Frank Castle (at least how he appears in the newest iteration) might seem similar to the character of Caius Martius Coriolanus because he is a difficult character to get to know. I’m not certain he’s unlikable in the same way as Shakespeare’s protagonist, but I think they’re analogous in terms of the way in which they confront the audience with uncomfortable truths about our relationship with violence, masculinity, and heroism within our current cultural moment. Despite his shady introduction in Daredevil, eventually the audience learns (and this is if you haven’t been reading the comics, which I will admit to in full disclosure, I have not) that Frank Castle was a commemorated soldier who had fought in Afghanistan. Not only had he fought in the war, but he had served with distinction, risking his life to save his men from the poor tactical decisions of a commanding officer. Despite Frank’s heroism, his antics committed as the vigilante known as “The Punisher,” are condemned by many civilians and law enforcement officials. The moment in which my Shakespeare radar went off was during episode 8, “Guilty as Sin,” after Colonel Schoonover takes the stand in order to testify on Frank’s behalf.

Castle looks deeply uncomfortable during the entire testimony, which isn’t particularly surprising after expressing his own aversion to using the PTSD defense. Similarly, in Fiennes’ adaptation, Coriolanus is praised in a room full of people (although not on trial), and also appears deeply discomfited at the notion of being rewarded or valorized for his feats in war.

Helpfully, and preceding this scene, Coriolanus (2011) includes an incredibly realistic, chaotic, and violent battle scene in which many of Coriolanus’ men are shot, civilians are murdered, and an entire town is destroyed by Rome’s military might.

The implication that Frank Castle might be uncomfortable when confronted with his own violent behavior is critical to understanding the nuances of this particular adaptation of an otherwise straightforward antihero. I’ve always gotten the sense that The Punisher is very much written as a hyper-masculine character. His obsession with guns, violence, and revenge are frequently used to entice male audiences (and speaking as an active member of multiple fandoms, there’s usually nary a man in sight, which could not similarly be said of The Punisher fandom, at least until recently), and the oft-seen image of The Punisher’s long, eerie white skull stuck on the back of a jeep, often associated with the military or the police, feels incredibly wrong in the context of Frank’s courtroom scene in Daredevil. I’ve never had any interest in The Punisher before this series, and I think that a large reason for that is this performance, these writing and directorial decisions that suggest a Punisher in a post-9/11 world might be radically different from what we’ve come to expect in earlier comic, film, or television portrayals.

In my research of the Shakespeare play and Fiennes’ film, I read a lot of articles concerned with heroism and masculinity, research topics that explored the dissolution of Coriolanus’ overtly masculine personality and how Roman standards of gender and power were inexplicably linked with violence and arrogance. In a paper by Joo Young Dittmann, he discusses the “fiction of self-sufficient masculinity,” and how the manner of Coriolanus’ death and dismemberment at the hands of his enemies “disintegrates the fragile boundaries which the masculine subject and culture have fabricated in order to maintain the illusion of coherence.” In other words, the physical dismantling of a powerful male body that has always acted as a symbol of might, becomes a metaphor for the culturally fabricated suggestion that the male is an indestructible, unquestioned force in the world. While Frank Castle is not killed or dismembered, he is visually and stunningly damaged in nearly every moment that he appears on screen.

The Punisher could easily be seen as an immovable object running on a seemingly infinite well of testosterone. And while he does brutally dispatch the majority of the enemies he encounters, he never makes it through without a scratch or evidence of being physically exhausted in some way. He is almost always bruised, bloody, swollen — fragile. His body is not immune to the innate dangers of being human, and much in the same way Coriolanus’ own physical dismantling is used as a means of subverting dangerous codes of masculinity, so too does the creative decision to keep Frank permanently damaged in nearly every moment on screen as a harsh reminder of his fragility regardless of media distortion of his character.

The Tragedy of Coriolanus is a masterclass in examining political rhetoric. One of the reasons the play is indeed a tragedy, is because the protagonist has failed to adapt to an “advanced” society that values language over violence (at least in public). On the battlefield, Coriolanus is a sight to behold, a hero that the public will worship for defending their way of life. When he opens his mouth however, his ego and disdain for the common people often comes tumbling out at the dismay of his political advisors. While Coriolanus is often at odds with his chattier peers, his wife, Virgilia, is a source of comfort. In both the play and the film, but especially in Fiennes’ adaptation, the character of Virgilia (played by Jessica Chastain), whom Coriolanus refers to as his “gracious silence,” is an observant character that does not mince her words. She makes no attempt to exploit language in the same way many of the other characters do, and she acts as a balm to Coriolanus’ obviously fragile mental state. I would argue that the unexpectedly profound relationship between Karen Page and Frank Castle to act in a similar way, although I would gratefully admit that Page is a far more agent and aggressive female counterpart to Frank’s often overwhelming personality. Karen and Frank’s relationship is one largely built on truth — like Virgilia, Karen does not attempt to manipulate Frank, rather she confronts him with difficult truths and can see past Frank’s vigilantism in order to see the human being beneath the world’s perceptions of him. The surprising inclusion of Karen Page to Frank’s narrative is yet another way in which this Punisher has begun to morph into an altogether different character.

Pornographically violent media usually makes me uncomfortable. If a gun is obviously being used as a metaphor for a penis, I’m probably not going to keep watching. The Punisher comics never interested me, and aside from knowing that Bernthal is a talented actor, I wasn’t particularly excited about his inclusion in Daredevil at first. Daredevil is a pretty violent show, and The Punisher looks to be about the same, but as I’ve discussed above, there’s a critical contextual awareness to Bernthal’s Castle and this creative vision that gives the violence a weightier, emotional resonance. Obviously, I don’t know precisely how the first season of The Punisher will turn out, and perhaps I’ll have been wrong to draw such conclusions as I’ve done so here, but I feel pretty confident in my assertion that in a post-9/11 New York City, this character cannot be precisely what it was. Bernthal’s skillful back-and-forth between snarling dog and traumatized soldier; his genuine displays of emotional reflection, his careful relationship with Karen Page, these are all unique and interconnected pieces of character that ask us to consider the reality of the modern soldier as well as the modern man. As Fiennes brought one of Shakespeare’s most unlikable protagonists into a post-9/11 world in startling clarity, so too does Marvel’s most recent adaptation of The Punisher treat our most violent heroes as our society’s greatest wounds. I feel as if this series, and indeed, even this particular version of Frank Castle asks us a crucial question: Do we heal the wounds that we’ve allowed to fester, or, like the tragic fate of Coriolanus, do we put it out of its misery?

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Alana R. Sawchuk

Alana R. Sawchuk

There’s absolutely nothing for it—guess I’ve gotta write it down.

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