Pitiable Modern Sensibilities and Thus the Limitations Placed Upon Twenty-First Century Analysis of Shakespeare;
or, How Batman and Robin Enter Into Four Plays by The Master
Irrepressibly, irresistibly, to consider in any context the phrase “sidekick,” I must do so through the sum of my experiences. In a general sense, of course, the timeless function of a secondary sidekick to a primary character remains the same: the sidekick aides, shapes, assists, and “has the back,” as modern parlance puts it, of the primary character. Modern parlance indeed, for it is the modern world that has shaped the understanding of sidekicks to not only myself but to generations. For this modern and lost world I cannot apologize, for I did not make it; I am simply the small product of its indifferent values. Alas then, my notion of the ideal sidekick aiding the ideal chief must then be that of the Boy Wonder supporting the Dark Knight. How awful indeed that I must be bound by a culture so dead that pulpy paperbacks might have so skewed what once was a pure and promising mind. Having no other route to take, I must then try and find a heady (which is to say “of the mind,” not capricious or giddy) route by which two Caped Crusaders might lead me to something larger, stuff of proper intellectual reflection. How then does my ideal sidekick act? First one must acknowledge who these two really are. By this, I mean not to explore some silly back story about a murder of a millionaire and his wife, a murder that leaves a vengeful boy to grow into a man and fight crime under cape and cowl aided by a young orphaned trapeze artist; no, instead, I mean to delve into the larger facet of life that these two, in circumstances that we can understand, operate in. By virtue of the fact that the elder has taken custodianship of the younger, both are now of the same social and economic class. If any worthwhile side to the Dynamic Duo can be pondered, it is that their evolution by many hands has allowed for a shaping that higher, nay, better works do not experience. Envisioned to initially be a simple arrangement that would allow for the senior detective to wonder aloud, explain, and elucidate, the presence of a sidekick has evolved into a relationship that, as pitiable and trite popular culture, has so flowed with that culture. From a mere “boss and sidekick” situation, the two have been shown to include the junior being hot-headed to his detriment (indeed, to his shocking death), disagreement concerning personal versus professional directions, and even the dispelling of dubious airs of homosexuality. (This last part came as an issue as the text, pulpy as it may be, made the sorry and sadly obligatory popular-culture jump to television; the addition of an elderly aunt character to the household was meant to divert thoughts that the detective and his charge were close beyond what age and, at the time, social barriers might permit.)
Finally then, the question must be asked: is there any value in this sidekick arrangement by which those that should know better dress up as flying mammals and use their wits and lovely gadgets to sidestep the law enforcement processes and fight law-breaking through vigilantism? Perhaps, and the key just might be the many hands that have crafted these flash-in-the-pan heroes. With so many minds having had small impacts in the direction of the myth, if one might dare compliment the Dynamic Duo by calling their collective stories “myth,” it might be assumed that some cultural tendencies have been imprinted. Further, looking back to the true and lasting pillars of culture, cultural tendencies might emerge that would allow this meager writer a means to take the chaff so as to find the true and golden wheat. Timorously then, I turn to Shakespeare, that his works might give me guidance.
It seems to me to be a logical stepping stone to move from pulp publications so often to be thought the stuff of teenagers to Shakespeare’s tragedy about teenagers, Romeo and Juliet. (Indeed, I would argue that for all of its conventional flaws, creative missteps, and lackluster critical acclaim, it is because Shakespeare captures the universality of that age that the play finds itself beloved in the heart above the mind.) Romeo and his sidekick Mercutio have, for all intents and purposes, a traditional “boss and sidekick” relationship. Never is there any question that Romeo is the superior in rank, social status, wealth, prestige, power, and the like. Thus, being in his circle a leader (and logically supposed to be the future leader of his family after his father’s passing), Mercutio acts as his attack dog that is a station beneath his master. This is not to suggest that where Romeo might be nobility, Mercutio is middle-class; rather, within the same larger class setting, one is superior to the other (rather like the arrangement that our caped friends from above have). Where some hypothetical romance-free Romeo surely is a man of action, a man who can do battle, as well as a man of thoughts, Mercutio is more so a brother-in-arms, a rowdy manly-man whose testosteronic thoughts of action come before acts of contemplation. This is immediately evident when, in the fourth scene of the second act Mercutio says that Tybalt is “the / courageous captain of compliments” who fights not just with studied stiffness (20-21) but with the airy conceit of one who is “antic, lisping, [and] affecting” (28). In short, as the “attack dog” for the presumably normally somewhat-intellectual Romeo, Mercutio despises Tybalt not only along lines of conflict (previous wrongs, age-old familial differences, and so forth), but along lines of intellect: Mercutio, the loyal sidekick, hates everything about his master’s enemy. This line of thinking continues in act III scene i when Tybalt et al confront (and eventually fight) Romeo, Mercutio, et al. Tybalt respectfully and elegantly states “Gentlemen, good den, a word with one of you” (38) to which Mercutio bitingly responds “And but one word with one of us? Couple it / with something, make it a word and a blow” (39-40). Yet Mercutio’s role is not merely one of us-versus-them aggression: he exists also to reinforce his superior when Romeo falters in the role of being himself. Seeing Romeo’s heartbrokenness having been fixed (albeit by hidden romance), Mercutio cordially reinforces Romeo’s stolid masculinity by saying “why, is not this better now than groaning / for love? Now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo” (emphasis mine, 88-90). Lastly, it is Mercutio’s role as sidekick to be the “point man” concerning access to his master. When the Nurse comes to speak with Romeo, clearly bearing neither ill will nor weapons, Mercutio begins by verbally attacking her once she asks for her fan to cool her face, saying “hide her face, for her fan’s / the fairer face” (II.iv.107-108); similarly, as she is leaving he further insults her by announcing her “a bawd, a bawd, a bawd!” (129) before continuing the thought in song. The very great sense that one gets concerning Mercutio is that without Romeo, the former would hardly be a substantial person; certainly, there is little to make the character palatable without the star of the play.
Perhaps the same could be said for the substance that makes up Celia in As You Like It. To my mind, while much is interesting concerning Celia as sidekick to Rosalind, the former is again a character that might do poorly if given her own spin-off venue. Theirs is a relationship which is clearly Rosalind-centered, as opposed to a balanced relationship. (Here is as good a place as any to note the common thread that romantic and/or sexual pairings between Rosalind and Celia, and Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, have be leveled; logic and close readings of intent naturally show these concerns to be unfounded). What places Rosalind as superior is, in fact, nature itself. She is the daughter of the deposed Duke Senior; Celia is the daughter of the self-imposed Duke Frederick. In keeping with the notions of the time, such a deposition was contrary to the plans of God (specifically divine placement of royalty) and thus nature. There are whole scenes where I feel sympathetic for any actress who might play Celia, for she spends so much time on stage to deliver so few lines. Yet it is her presence, indeed her lack of lines relative to Rosalind, which makes her such a wonderful sidekick. Despite the aggressive and terrible state of homeland politics, Rosalind’s dominant personality which so outshines her cousin shows Celia’s dedication to the natural way of things; despite usurpations, Celia seems to nonetheless sense that she is still second fiddle to her cousin. Her devotion is further shown by the masquerade that the two undertake, Rosalind as the male Ganymed and Celia as the female companion Aliena. Though, from a scriptwriting point of view, it can be argued that two have two women disguised as men might become unwieldy, or unwise, if one looks at the play as more or less a functioning reality then it seems Celia is missing out on a great deal of fun. But she does not protest, for as the ardent sidekick she seems more than happy to follow the lead of her superior. By protecting the natural order of things, Celia is perhaps the most manageable sidekick in the four works here explored, for she does her job quietly and happily.
Of course, for one to be a sidekick one must know one’s role--it simply goes with the territory. Such is true of York as the sidekick to the title character in Richard II, yet York’s role is slightly different than those who have been previously explored here. York’s role in many ways is to serve England, despite in some general, lackey-like way of being King Richard’s compatriot. Perhaps, in some greater sense, York’s dedication to “underprop [Richard’s] land” (II.ii.83) is a dedication to that which Richard would have wanted, or perhaps dedication the memory of the ideal Richard, before the darker times. Yet to my mind, such is not the case. Richard, sidekick though he may be, is one of those who we might call “the man behind the man,” the type of person who behind closed doors oils the creaky gears of an outwardly well-working leader. Modern words might term him a “career politician” in the best sense, if such words can fit such aged nobility. I do not mean to suggest that York is a heartless minion; it should not be forgotten that the king is his nephew. York is certainly not heartless to the changes that are transforming around him. When Northumberland calls the king merely “Richard” (III.iii.6), for the reason (which I do not particularly question) that he did it “only to be brief” (III.iii.10), York is quick to chastise the mistake despite the present and future power advantage that Northumberland enjoys:
“It would beseem the Lord Northumberland / To say King Richard.
Alack the heavy day / When such a sacred king should hide his
head!” (III.iii.7-9) for all to recently, Northumberland is told,
“the time hath been,
Would you have been so brief with him, he would
Have been so brief with you to shorten you,
for taking so the head, your whole head’s length.” (III.iii.11-14)
Yet, despite such spirited and touching dedication, York is ultimately dedicated to the kingly institution over the specific king. Richard, despite all of his lyrical reasoning, asks the question “To do what service am I sent for hither” (IV.i.176), and it is York, his cousin, viceroy, friend, and, on some level, sidekick who tells him:
To do that office of thine won good will
Which tired majest did make thee offer:
The resignation of thy state and crown
To Henry Bullingbrook. (IV.i.177-180)
Here, he is cool, crisp, and to the point. Surely some, no dobt tainted by modern pulpish melodrama, would prefer York to stand as Mercutio and throw his arms around his beloved king and act the perfect sidekick. Yet Shakespeare, in infinite wisdom (and, no doubt, historic interests), makes York not of the stuff of comic maidens or tragic teenagers; no, he is a man who, after an age as “sidekick to the king” turns out to be a real and well-shaped man.
Alas that all of Shakespeare’s wonderful sidekicks cannot be men, which is to say human. Indeed, the argument which follows might be criticized by righteous minds as being inauthentic from the start, but, alas, as stated before I can do no better than the pitiable comic circumstances that I was inundated in as a boy. To say that, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck is the sidekick to Oberon seems, on the surface, a flawed premise. Surely one might say that it cannot be supposed that the lowly and bumbling Puck is of the same class as Oberon! Yet to me, they are; being all fairies with powers beyond those of mortal men, the difference between, presumably, the latter born into privilege and the former being chosen to work at his side, seems minimal. (Indeed, I am reminded how the Caped Crusader was born into privilege and how the Boy Wonder was chosen to work at his side.) Differently, while if we took Oberon and Puck and made them human they clearly would be of different classes, can the wonders of the ether-world really stand to the reason of mere humans? At any rate, the sum of my words grows long. Puck is a very different kind of sidekick, one who exists to “jest to Oberon and make him smile” (II.i.44). He knows his place; he is not one to shout out and make judgments concerning his master, as Mercutio did to Romeo’s face and York did out of earshot of his king. Take as an example the very end of act II scene ii (indeed, this example is typical of many scenes shared by Puck and Oberon). The stage directions between lines 246 and 247 read “Enter Puck,” who answers a question put to him by saying “Ay, there it is” (248). Then he is silent for nearly twenty lines as Oberon talks; Puck responds “fear not, my lord! Your servant shall do so” (268), upon which the scene ends. Such is not class different, for such magical folk are so very different from us; instead, this is a sidekick in the vein of Celia, a sidekick spending time being silent around the naturally superior superior. Bumbling though he may be (his comic “negligence” (III.ii.345) and “knaveries” (III.ii.346) are without question), he is as loyal and caring as any other sidekick here explored.
To some, the relation between Batman and Robin to these four plays might seem daring, a cunning feat of bravery against all odds, and a risky move. Yet the relation is merely the fact of decay in a spoiled culture. Apologize though I wish I could for the limitations placed upon me, I am what I am and this wordy work stands as it does, a testament to the commonalities of culture across hundreds of years. That Shakespeare and his plays are the infinite superior of Bob Kane et al and their comic books is not questioned; that the two are hardly connected is not questioned; yet my attempt has been to show a mere shadow of connection, and “if [these] shadows have offended / Think but this, and all is mended” for “this weak and idle theme, / no more yielding but a dream, / Gentles, do not reprehend” (Midsummer Night’s Dream, V.i.424-425,427-429).