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The “Milk” of Orson Welles: Citizen Kane As Shakespearean Tragedy

I believe I may have mentioned this concept before, but it bears repeating. Never let it be said that I pulled nothing useful from Shakespeare class . . . and one of the many tidbits of Shakespeare-related trivia that I had beaten into me repeatedly was a list of five things that make a classic Shakespearean tragic hero.

As I watched Citizen Kane for my second time, I couldn’t help but notice how closely he conformed to the list. I also couldn’t help but remember that Orson Welles was reading Shakespeare when he was, like, four years old or so. And he was producing Shakespeare plays in new and original ways with his troupe in the Mercury Theater as a young adult. So, I started running through the movie in my head later on and comparing it to the five characteristics on the Batts worksheet (which I went to all the trouble of climbing into the attic to retrieve from the box of textbooks and papers I didn’t expect to use this summer). The following is what I came up with.

The first element is that the character has ?noble status.? That is, that the character is ranked among the nobility. Kane, although he is born in humble surroundings, has indeed attained that status early in life. This, of course, is part of the ?American Dream.? Anyone can ?grow up to be president,? as it were. Or, in this case, anyone can grow up to be wealthy and important.

In this case, Kane?s achievement of noble status is even more traditional in nature, as he comes into that great sum of money through no personal merit or hard work of his own. Like Hamlet, Kane is thrust into his high position without really having any choice in the matter.

Second, the tragic hero will be cursed with a tragic flaw which will ultimately lead to their downfall. In looking for Kane?s tragic flaw, I was very much reminded of King Lear. Both Kane and Lear are men who desperately need to be loved, and to be shown that they are loved by tangible signs of affection, but both men are unable to show meaningful love in return. The only way they know how to return the visible signs of love are by showering their friends or lovers with material things. And the only way they can deal with a perceived lack of love is to completely shut out the person who ?didn?t love them enough.?

The third characteristic is that the downfall of the hero is not entirely deserved. There are greater forces at work, whether those forces can be attributed to the workings of Fate, or merely the machinations of a villain. While I could cite Kane?s dysfunctional childhood, resulting in his inability to love, I will leave that to one side as the cause of his tragic flaw rather than the direct cause of his downfall. The more direct cause is Kane?s relationship with Susan Alexander, and Boss Gettys?s underhanded political tactics which lead to the publicizing of the fact.

I am reminded of how Mark Antony forgets his political and military duties as a triumvir in charge of the Roman Empire while he has an affair with Cleopatra, and how he eventually ignores a marriage made for political reasons in order to be with Cleopatra. It also brings to mind Iago?s manipulation of Othello?s love for Desdemona which leads to the Moor’s downfall. (I was interested to see that Welles actually directed, produced and starred in a movie version of Othello later in his career. Yeah, we’ll be watching that this summer.)

Fourth, the tragic hero gains an increase in awareness, a sort of epiphany, before the end, realizing where they went wrong, or learning an important lesson from the situation. When Kane is throwing his temper tantrum in Susan?s room after she has left him, his gaze falls on a snow globe with a little log cabin in it which sends his memory back to where his life went wrong in the first place. Ultimately, it is obvious that this is what has been the most prevalent thought in his mind when he uttered his final word, ?Rosebud.? I?m not talking just about his ruined childhood, either. While his life wouldn?t have gone wrong in the same way if he had been able to stay and play his childhood games on his sled, I think he is remembering something else.

When he first meets Susan Alexander, he has been on his way to examine some things from his old home. Rosebud is no doubt among these things. When, instead of continuing down memory lane and coming to terms with his past in order to continue into the future, he abandons the original purpose of his errand and follows Susan back to her rooms, the seeds are sown for the ultimate disaster. Kane realizes this, and he dies knowing it.

Finally, the tragic hero always dies. Duh. Well, all right. So everyone always dies, but in the case of the tragic hero, the story or play or movie about them always ends with their death. We aren?t always shown other characters ending up dead. Now, Kane?s story begins with his death, which is certainly not the traditional way to go about things. But aside from a bit of creative work with the order in which the story is told, we still end up with a dead Kane when ?The End? flashes up on the screen. The real difference here is that Kane?s death seems to be of natural causes, while most (if not all) tragic heroes are cut down (almost always violently, often by their own hand) before their time. Kane?s tragedy is not that he died before ?his time,? but that he wasted any chance he might have had at happiness because he didn?t realize where he was wrong. In Citizen Kane it is not a life cut short, but a life badly misused that is the real tragedy.

In the end, it isn?t a perfect fit. But then, none of Shakespeare?s tragedies fully conformed to the traditional conventions either. It is possible, however, to see some very clear Shakespearean influences throughout the movie. Considering the background of the man who essentially was this movie, that is only to be expected.

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~ by Jared on May 24, 2004.

3 Responses to “The “Milk” of Orson Welles: Citizen Kane As Shakespearean Tragedy”

  1. now that is a blog……..”Rose bud!!!!!!”

  2. awesome speculation one of the few people that see Kane’s hamartia as his need for love not his pride. However with reference to all tragic hero’s dying what about Oedipus the man who is the epitome of all things tragically heroic???

  3. Well, let me put it this way:

    The five principles that I referred to as characteristics of a Shakespearean tragedy are actually characteristics of Greek tragedy. Part of what made Shakespeare so great was that he took those conventions that no one had deviated from in a couple thousand years and he followed them with just enough deviation to turn tragedy into something new that was entirely his own.

    As I said, Orson Welles (prior to the making of Citizen Kane) was known for what he was doing with Shakespearean material. However, Shakespeare, in some ways, was known for what he was doing with Greek material. As such, it is perfectly legitimate to go back and attempt to draw still more connections to Oedipus or any other Greek tragedy.

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