Tony Soprano – A Shakespearean Homage

Macbeth, King Lear, Tony Soprano; what do they all have in common? are they the same beast? are they cut from the same cloth? You would be a fool not to think so. From  the theatre to the TV screen, I want to take a look at The Sopranos and appreciate it for the Shakespearean masterpiece it really is, specifically focusing on the big man.

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My time watching The Sopranos opened up a new world of appreciation. The sheer magnificence of the writing alone is a spectacle to behold. David Chase, the director and lead writer of the show, instantly hooks and reels you in like a fisherman with an array of complex characters and story-lines. The more you fight the urge to binge-watch, the harder it becomes. However; these binge-watching sessions are more than rewarding. The more I watched, the more I became exposed to a plethora of Shakespearean characters, themes and story-lines; and it isn’t just in Tony we see this, throughout, the resemblance is uncanny.  The sopranos is more than just a TV show, it is the greatest show in the history of television. It focuses on the complexities of one man’s life as he juggles both of his fragmented and corrupt “families”. I found that the more the Sopranos progressed as a series, the richer the tapestry of Shakespearean similarities unfolds and reveals itself. We see fathers fight with fathers, brothers killing brothers and friends betraying friends. The Sopranos might just be even more of a masterpiece than we initially thought.

Like the classical plays of Shakespeare, The Sopranos is riddled with great themes. The show’s themes act as the mold which defines every drama’s story; in the case of The Sopranos, the themes are the first point of connection between the writing of Chase and that of Shakespeare. We see the mutual themes of loyalty, love, guilt, revenge and greed scattered throughout the show. For anyone who has dabbled in the works of Shakespeare, they will be more than aware of such themes running throughout his works. The connection between the two is indisputable as the show’s themes coincide with that of the historic literature. An extra special connection between the two are the inter-family feuds. The Sopranos puts a heavy onus on father-children battles throughout it’s six-series span. Conflicts between parents and children are also a pivotal part of such Shakespeare plays as Hamlet, King Lear and Henry IV in which we see children attempt to defy, usurp and fight with their larger-than-life, patriarchal fathers.

Another similarity between the two writers is the way that they focus on gender. It is stereotypical of Shakespearean male characters to be obsessively vulgar, frequently stressed and manically protective…ring any bells Sopranos fans? As for the female characters, they all tend to be the most powerful and influential individuals throughout the show. This isn’t only something we experience only through Shakespeare however, female dominance has been one of the more popular themes to dominate literature over the last few hundred years. However, David Chase doesn’t let history stand in his way when it comes to powerful male figures and in Tony, we see an all too familiar beast.

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I don’t feel that there is a stronger connection between the works of William Shakespeare and David Chase lies within it’s lead role, Tony Soprano. Arguably one of the greatest characters of all time, and, the first ever major anti-hero of a television series. Anti heroes are a necessary requirement for all of Shakespeare’s best plays and now, thanks to the introduction of big Tony Soprano, a necessary requirement for all of the best shows on television. The traditional definition of an anti hero is the narrative’s protagonist who doesn’t conform to the stereotypical attributes of a ‘hero’. So, in other words, that main character who is a complete and utter bastard but you just can’t help but love. Majority of the time they tend to outdo even the villains in terms of their actions; however, they are the character we just cant help but come crawling back to. A few examples in modern television include Breaking Bad’s Walter White and Peaky Blinders’ Tommy Shelby; These are both lead roles which are marred with an array of obsessive tragic flaws that define their characters, however when compared with Tony, they seem somewhat minuscule.

One of the stronger connections between a Shakespearean anti-hero and Tony Soprano can be found in a comparison with Macbeth. Soprano, like Macbeth, acts like a king ruling his own miniature kingdom of  madmen and fanatic females. Also similar to Macbeth is the way that David Chase chooses to expose Soprano. Many of Shakespeare’s great anti-heroes struggle to express themselves in front of their loved ones and associates. They are often found expressing themselves either on their own in soliloquies and monologues or with random characters who are completely detached from the character’s inner-circle. The way Chase chooses to portray Tony in this light is somewhat reminiscent of this Shakespearean style. On the outside, Soprano seems like he has everything he could ever need; however, his one-on-one psychiatry sessions with Dr Melfi expose the sensitive side to the thick skinned mobster and appear to mirror passages from Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth.

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In fact, Tony’s sessions with Dr Melfi reveal more than one Shakespearean comparison. If we look at Tony as a demanding father figure, expecting only the utmost from his children then like in King Lear, Melfi acts the jester or ‘fool’, a character that tells Tony the truths he simply cannot bear to hear. This is not the first time we have seen a Shakespearean-Mafia comparison however; in Baz Lurhmann’s portrayal of Romeo and Juliet we see the Montague and Capulet families portrayed as gun-wielding gangsters; a portrayal we see mirrored in the deteriorating relationship between the families of Jersey and New York once Johnny Sach’s death leaves a power void. Often referred to as the ‘Italian-American Hamlet’, Tony, like most of Shakespeare’s greats, floats through these conflicts and feuds, unscathed and confused.

Like all great anti heroes, he is the character who you struggle to like but is impossible not to love. Having a character a great anti-hero that leaves you between a rock and a hard place is a fantastic writing ploy that always acts as a proud example of the author’s capacity. When The Sopranos ended, in my opinion, the show left the normal realm of pop culture and was greeted at the pearly gates of high-culture entertainment. From start to finish, you are pummeled with only the highest standard of characters and the most paramount of narratives. In a way, Tony’s character himself acts as the leitmotif of the show. He is such an important character that his personality and behavior can be seen as a theme within itself. Like such plays as King Lear and Macbeth, the show is realistically an homage and a tribute to its lead role; with the other character’s just floating around in their world like pawns in a game of chess; ultimately working to die for their king.

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There is no doubting that Tony Soprano is one of the greatest anti-heroes in history. His tenacity, his passion and his ambition are rivaled by none and, his king-like presence ensures that he would have slotted right into one of the many great plays of Shakespeare with ease. However, I want to go as far as saying that big Ton is greater than them all. The one factor that separates Tony and puts him above all other great anti-heroes is his ending. Chase ensures that Tony’s demise is not certain. Although some believe dead, no one will ever know the real fate of the larger-than-life Mafiosa boss. This element of ambiguity takes Soprano up and beyond the elite; beyond the realm of kings and into the realm of the unknown, the realm of immortal characters. Unlike Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear, Tony Soprano’s fate is unknown. Although James Gandolfini ceases to exist in our world, he lives on through the omnipresence of Tony Soprano, the ultimate Shakespearean anti-hero.

He might not be as eloquent as Hamlet, as infatuated as King Lear or as benevolent as Macbeth, but he certainly wouldn’t hesitate to whack them all…

Sam Creedon.

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