Family Isn’t A Word … It’s A Blank Verse

Comparing Broken Family In King Lear And The Royal Tenenbaums

If King Lear were set in a manicured shoebox set and filmed in a series of whip pans and slow motion montages, it could quite easily be Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. In fact, if King Lear were staged as a playbook within a film narrated by Alec Baldwin – it would be The Royal Tenenbaums.

T R A I L E R

The Royal Tenenbaums was Wes Anderson’s third film, and established his cinematic style as a integral to the modern cinematographic cannon. His previous two films, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore maintained a sense of obscurity and quaintness. Although later garnering a ‘cult classic’ (particularly Rushmore) reputation, The Royal Tenenbaums marked Anderson’s mainstream debut. The film was nominated for an Oscar in ‘best screenplay,’ and Gene Hackman’s tragic, Lear-like performance scored him a Golden Globe as Best Performance of an Actor.

The Royal Tenenbaums was Wes Anderson’s third film, and established his cinematic style as a integral to the modern cinematographic cannon. His previous two films, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore maintained a sense of obscurity and quaintness. Although later garnering a ‘cult classic’ (particularly Rushmore) reputation, The Royal Tenenbaums marked Anderson’s mainstream debut. The film was nominated for an Oscar in ‘best screenplay,’ and Gene Hackman’s tragic, Lear-like performance scored him a Golden Globe as Best Performance of an Actor.

The Royal Tenenbaums chronicle the comical tragedy of the Tenenbaum family’s downfall (and eventual redemption). Dysfunctionality, disappointment, and disaster plague Anderson’s whimsical, fictional Tenenbaum family and Lear’s family. In fact the archetypes within each story almost perfectly mirror each other.

Image result for pagoda royal tenenbaums

Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) as King Lear: The dysfunctional father
Chas Tenenbaum (Ben Stiller) as Goneril: The bitter eldest child
Margot Tenenbaum (Gwyneth Paltrow) as Reagan: The neglected middle child
Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray) as Duke of Cornwall: The neglected middle child’s husband
Richie Tenenbaum as Cordelia: The favored, spoiled youngest child who least resents the dysfunctional father
Eli Cash as Fool: The comic relief and honest confidant
Pagoda as Kent: The dysfunctional father’s loyal servant

In Wes Anderson’s twee and warmly tinted world, a malingering Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) desperately seeks familial redemption after abandoning his wife and children. His three children: Chas (Ben Stiller), Richie (Luke Wilson), and Margot (Gwenyth Paltrow) Tenenbaum were all once child prodigies who quickly fall into a post fame depression fueled by their fractured family. Familial complications run deep amongst the Tenenbaums, but Royal is clearly the primary antagonist and catalyst of the family’s demise. Similar to Lear, he drives his children away with his bluntness, insensitivity, and pompousness. Detached from his children for nearly two decades, Royal Tenenbaum plans on redeeming himself as a father and husband after finding out that his wife, Etheline Tenenbaum (Anjelica Huston) is engaged to Henry Sherman (Danny Glover). In a desperate attempt to insert himself into their lives, Royal fakes a terminal illness to garner their sympathy. Comparable to the filial rejection Lear faces, Royal’s children initially reject his apologizes and offer him little sympathy. Like Cordelia, Chas is preferentially treated over his other siblings (who were left to the wayside), and is therefore the most eager to forgive and accept his rejected father. Royal is particularly hurt by this, one could even venture to say that “[it is] sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is/to have a thankless [Chas]” (1.4.301-302). Furthermore, the eldest children in both Lear and Royal’s families are the most resentful and first to denounce their father. The two stories end in bittersweet loss, inevitably anticipated by the audience. Though Royal initially fakes his malignant illness, he dies at the age of 68 from a heart attack proceeding Richie’s traumatic suicide attempt. Comparably, Lear ultimately meets his demise after mourning the death of his youngest, most prized daughter, Cordelia. In a way, the two tragic patriarchs both die realizing they came back to their families all too late.

The Royal Tenenbaums and King Lear both use ironic humor to enhance the tragic complexity of their characters. Uncoincidentally, both King Lear and The Royal Tenenbaums have been referred to as great ‘tragicomedies.’ They both strategically balance the devastating with the comical, adding to the bittersweetness of each piece. Anderson and Shakespeare succeed in intermingling this dry and crooked humor with gory tragedy. Richie’s bloody suicide attempt set to Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay” dramatically contrasts his trickling blood with the cold, blue atmosphere of the family bathroom. This parallels the macabre of Goneril’s bloody suicide and Gloucester’s gruesome blinding.

The clear difference between The Royal Tenenbaums and King Lear is their characterization of ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ The original Shakespearean play draws a clear distinction between purity and wickedness. The Royal Tenenbaums blurs this division, rendering each Tenenbaum family member as heart wrenching, yet lovable in their flaws. This isn’t to say that the characters in King Lear aren’t complex or layered. Edmund as an antagonist evokes a particular empathy from the audience, similar to the way viewers warm to see past Royal’s brash callousness. Despite Edmund’s suffering and slight redemption, he can still be easily distinguished as evil. Goneril and Reagan embody evil, yet Chas and Margot are in no way overtly cruel. Their distance and frustration clearly stems from childhood trauma, and although they are distrustful of their father they don’t actively seek to harm him (except for Chas’ snide verbal jabs). Although Chas is the kindest of the three Tenenbaum children, he is in no way a perfect embodiment of goodness like Cordelia. Though King Lear effectively develops complex villains, it ultimately dramatically exaggerates the line between good and bad. The Royal Tenenbaums is a more realistic portrayal of familial dysfunction, and the ending is significantly less theatrical. Royal achieves a palpable and heartwarming level of redemption with his entire family, dying with less remorse than Lear. Royal certainly “[spoke] what [he] [felt]/not what [he] ought to say” (5.3.393).

2 thoughts on “Family Isn’t A Word … It’s A Blank Verse

  1. Jasmine W

    One word: wow. I absolutely loved reading your blog post because it was unique and enjoyable, but also super complex. I had never even heard of The Royal Tenenbaums prior to reading this, and yet I have a great understanding of its similarities to King Lear just from reading your writing. I particular liked how you took the time to explain the differences between the two ‘tragicomedies’ and how the character development in the film might be a little more relatable to a general audience.

    Like

  2. I had never really thought about this comparison, even though I love the Royal Tenenbaums. It is really interesting this distinction between good and evil. Shakespeare is quick to call characters evil and coerce us into supporting some characters over others. The Royal Tenenbaums manages to create nuanced characters with flaws, but also enough heart to have us sympathize with them.

    Like

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