This winter, I became obsessed with WandaVision, the Marvel Studios streaming series that gripped me from its opening minutes and might be reductively described as “superheroes in a sitcom.” The tension WandaVision created between character and genre reminded me of Shakespeare’s plays and made me think about them in a couple of interesting new ways. CAUTION: Mild spoilers ahead for a recent TV show, a three-year-old movie, and several 400-year-old plays.
For those more familiar with Shakespearean witches than comic book ones, a brief explanation: WandaVision concerns the tragic romance between Wanda Maximoff (aka the Scarlet Witch) and her synthezoid partner Vision, two relatively minor superheroes in the vast Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), an entertainment behemoth that consists of 23 summer blockbusters and two streaming series (with more on the way).
#WandaVision makes me think of Shakespeare characters trapped in a concept production (A sitcom! A high school! A musical!) where some want to stay and some are desperately trying to get back to the play. In this @FolgerLibrary essay I will
— Austin Tichenor (@austintichenor) January 23, 2021
At first, WandaVision had the surprising effect of making me feel genuinely sorry for every Shakespeare character trapped in a bizarre modern interpretation of their play. We’ve all seen or heard of them: a steampunk Macbeth; a Trumpian Julius Caesar; a high-school Much Ado About Nothing. While reimagined Shakespeare can reveal new aspects of a play, and some characters genuinely thrive within these “brave new worlds,” you can sense other characters chafing in their new surroundings — and WandaVision’s creator Jac Schaeffer used this exact tension as a narrative device.
Wanda and Vision never got their own movie and received relatively little screen time in the MCU, so Schaeffer plonked the two supernatural beings into a genre-shifted series where they could play a starring role — not unlike what Shakespeare did when he moved Sir John Falstaff from the Henry IV history plays into the domestic comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor. Schaefer revealed that this was “the delicious twist of this project”: taking Wanda and Vision, whose “heartache and drama [is] at a Shakespearean level,” and “throw[ing] them into sitcom shenanigans”. Yet WandaVision (despite the Shakespeare-like pun of its title) is no spoof: its entertaining form serves a dramaturgical function, employing genre tropes and storytelling devices from classic American sitcoms like The Dick Van Dyke Show to create uncertainty for characters and audience alike as we all try to figure out what’s happening.
Which is the next thing I realized: Shakespeare also plays with genre expectations. He creates dread in audiences watching Romeo and Juliet by telling us in the prologue that his “pair of star-crossed lovers [will] take their life” — so while his characters don’t know they’re in a tragedy, we do. And a sense of what we might call genre displacement can be felt by characters throughout the canon: Prince Hal wishes he wasn’t in a history play and could remain eternally in the rowdy tavern comedy he prefers; Malvolio probably wishes he wasn’t in Twelfth Night, a comedy where he’s the butt of many jokes (and worse); Hamlet soliloquizes repeatedly about the revenge tragedy he’s been thrust into; Desdemona thinks she’s in a love story; and it may be all one and the same to the Porter in Macbeth.
Perhaps the Shakespeare play WandaVision most directly resembles is Antony and Cleopatra, another tale that mixes genres and tones while featuring two immensely powerful figures navigating a doomed romance amidst personal, political, and military obstacles. Wanda, like Cleopatra, uses her power to treat the people around her in problematic ways, and Elizabeth Olsen’s spectacular performance displays both the character and her talent as an actor in their “infinite variety.”
Shakespeare’s plays and the MCU share a fascination with costumes, disguises, transformations, and questions of identity. While a world of mortals transformed into superheroes through spider bites, gamma radiation, and Infinity Stones seems to add several acts to Shakespeare’s “seven ages of man” speech, WandaVision adds a heightened theatrical awareness of the roles we play and whether they’re assigned or chosen. “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” asks King Lear, a question echoed by many MCU characters and refuted entirely by Wanda, who declares, “I don’t need you to tell me who I am.” As characters are allowed to evolve, survive, and grow, the ultimate curse is to be condemned to remain forever in the “role you chose,” a fate that befalls one of WandaVision’s main characters.
WandaVision’s skillful deployment of genre to convey meaning is authentically Shakespearean, as is the MCU’s mixture of tones within individual movies (histories and tragedies lightened by comedy; comedies grounded by tragedy and pain). And I don’t think it’s unrelated that the MCU is the most financially successful storytelling franchise in history, a reminder that Shakespeare himself was also a highly successful, incredibly commercial, market-driven storyteller — a good thing to remember when we explore his plays and their origins.
Wanda’s desperation to remain in her cozy sitcom neighborhood suggests she created this false universe herself, and though that mystery takes several episodes to resolve, anyone with an understanding of Shakespeare characters who upend the status quo and sow chaos when it serves their purpose will figure out the truth of it. Our sympathy for Wanda and Vision is heightened because we know such super-powered beings shouldn’t be stuck in the blandly domestic confines of a sitcom — especially since (again, spoiler alert) Vision was killed in the film Avengers: Infinity War and really shouldn’t be alive at all. So many of Shakespeare’s plays (Hamlet; Twelfth Night; Henry VI; even, for goodness’ sake, The Comedy of Errors) are set into motion by powerful grief and characters doing whatever they can to survive it, and WandaVision is similarly, as critic Alan Sepinwall puts it, “telling a big story about grief and love.”
In fact, one of WandaVision’s most quoted and meme-worthy lines (credited to writer Laura Donney) expressed this idea:
“What is grief, if not love persevering.”
Shakespeare, of course, put a similar thought even more beautifully (if less succinctly) in King John:
“Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?”
Well, what is WandaVision’s line about grief, if not Shakespeare’s speech about grief persevering?