Violence In Media: From Shakespeare to Eric Garner

In the world of information, media and how it portrays events and individuals influences the way we interact and communicate with society. Artists and authors often use this influence to explore the environment and political climate around them, creating parallels throughout history, from Shakespeare’s depiction of violence in King Lear as discussed by Professor David Anderson in “The Tragedy of Good Friday: Sacrificial Violence in King Lear,” to hip-hop artist Mos Def’s illustration of life around in him in Black on Both Sides. This portrayal of violence extends to contemporary examples such as the depiction of black violence in modern media, specifically with the death of Eric Garner, and directly forces the reader to think about the world around them.

To compare violence in media, it is important to begin with the idea of what is sacrificial violence? Sacrificial violence is violence that is portrayed or shaped by the words framing it to give the idea of a person or group giving up something important or of value, as a sacrifice, for the greater good. This portrayal can also show a sense of situational irony, where a character sacrifices something they didn’t have to, or where their sacrifice achieves a different goal than the one they intended. In “The Tragedy of Good Friday: Sacrificial Violence in King Lear” by English professor David Anderson, sacrificial violence shows up as a motif in the famous Shakespearian play Othello. Mr. Anderson notes that Othello, after having killed his wife as a sacrifice to the greater good of morality since he believed she was unfaithful, still acts to conceal her death. While Othello “claims that he is the aggrieved party, [he] wants to hide the truth of his violence — the grisly reality of Desdemona’s dead body — from the world” (Anderson, 259–260). While Othello argues that he is the one fought against here, he still wants to hide the fact that he committed violence, as well as her body, from the world; Mr. Anderson argues that he does so to hide the violence from himself as well. Othello’s speech and call to heaven tries to alter how he views the violence, but his wife’s cry of her innocence shakes him because it strips aside the delusion, and reveals what it is at its core: murder. It is particularly striking that Othello is “genuinely shaken by Desdemona’s denial because it contradicts his claim of “sacrifice” and labels her death plain “murder.” If, as Othello has it, the killing is a sacrifice then it is necessary violence; it is made holy because of the greater purpose it serves” (260). Showing the violence and tragedy of Desdemona’s death becomes sacrificial in a larger sense because it indirectly sacrifices the innocence the audience had coming into the play about the world inside of it, to shape their thoughts for the greater good of knowledge. The play prominently pressed on a nerve for the rest of England in the 16th century, mirroring the deaths of Englishman from the religious violence that went on around them, as well as challenging witnesses on how to interpret the violence both in the play and in the courts. According to Mr. Anderson, Shakespeare “exploits a division within the religious culture of Jacobean England, where increasing acts of sacrificial violence were challenging witnesses with an interpretive problem. Persecutory violence was the point at which the English church confronted itself, and the often-wide gap between its ideals and its practices” (260). Using media and violence inside the media itself, Shakespeare was able to reflect on society around him, and help shape and create a discussion about said violence.

This ability to create and shape a discussion is paralleled by hip hop artist Mos Def’s album Black on Both Sides, where he tries to create a discussion about the value of black lives and the violence in them in the track Mathematics. Mos Def begins with the idea that media influences us, citing people who use music to grow and change the world around them as well as surpass societal obstacles, letting people “Hip-Hop past all your tall social hurdles / Like the nationwide projects, prison-industry complex”. Discussing music as an influence to let people grow is important, but Mos Def’s reference to the projects and prison-industry complex is more important, is it highlights what the social hurdles are that black people face to try and shape the discussion towards those challenges. This effort to grow and change is balanced by the fact that the violence ongoing in the community around him was one of the obstacles Mos felt that black people faced, leaving the “streets too loud to ever hear freedom sing / Say evacuate your sleep, it’s dangerous to dream” (Mos Def, 1). While there is a larger systemic problem, the greater obstacle, according to Mos, is the violence around them that holds black people back. His music describes what people sacrifice to become a part of the system, to become a part of the greater good, where there are “no faces just lines and statistics / From your phone, your zip code, to S-S-I digits / The system break man child and women into figures / Two columns for who is, and who ain’t niggas” (1). The violence and obstacles previously discussed all get further refined, allowing for Mos to define what he wants to discuss: in this instance, reducing violence to a form of numbers means that it increases the struggle to address and solve the problem instead of devolving to statistical analysis instead of action. Mos further notes that the amount sacrificed is disproportionately large for black people, calling out minimum wages as too low so “you gotta find a new ground to get cream”, and showing the disparate “white unemployment rate, [which] is nearly more than triple for black” (1). This forces people to resort to “Bubbling crack, jewel theft and robbery to combat poverty / And end up in the global jail economy / Stiffer stipulations attached to each sentence … And even if you get out of prison still living / [you] Join the other five million under state supervision” (1). Using his media to compare the plight of black people to the society around him, Mos Def’s use of sacrificial violence develops the conversation around racial tension the same way Shakespeare did around religious tension, to highlight ongoing societal issues and create and shape that new discussion.

The conversation about the value of black lives continues to this day, influenced by media around us such as news stations and networks. With the death of Eric Garner, media outlets began to print sensationalized headlines, describing sides as lashing out, or calling his death murder before due process had begun, actions that shaped the discussion surrounding his death. In an article by Corky Siemasko published in the NY Daily News in December, titled “’The Time for Remorse Was When My Husband Was Yelling to Breathe’: Eric Garner’s Widow Lashes out at NYPD Cop Who Put Her Husband in Fatal Chokehold”, the depiction of violence is parallel in many ways to the sacrificial violence of Shakespeare and the racial tension depicted by Mos Def. The article begins first and foremost with the words of Mr. Garner’s widow, who exclaimed that “’the time for remorse was when my husband was yelling to breathe,’ [Eric Garner’s widow] said, referring to Eric Garner’s last words. ‘That would have been the time for him to show some remorse or some type of care for another human being’s life’” (Siemasko, 1). The article itself uses recent events framing Mr. Garner’s death to argue that there was existing racial tension, saying that “Garner’s death sparked national outrage after the video of his deadly encounter with police was published by The News. It later drew comparisons to Ferguson, Mo., where another black man — unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown — was killed in August by another white cop. And there was mayhem in that Missouri town last week when a local grand jury declined to indict Officer Darren Wilson” (1). Printing Garner’s widow’s striking words, including her refusal of an apology, since she “’[doesn’t] accept his apology,’ … said Wednesday night at the Harlem headquarters of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. ‘I could care less about his condolences. My husband is 6 feet under. (The cop) is still working. He’s still collecting a paycheck and I’m looking for a way to feed my kids’” (1). Similar to how Mos Def argued that black lives were being treated like numbers and digits instead of people, Garner’s widow treats the apology as she sees it, a hollow act or gesture, and reminds the reader that the she is still a person with needs and obstacles of her own. Parallel to how King Lear claims that “by the marks of sovereignty, knowledge, and reason, I should be false persuaded I had daughters” since they forced him from his home under the guise of the greater good, but in fact acted for their own self interest, Garner’s widow shows that her husband’s death may seem to work towards a greater good or create a discussion, but the stark reality is that the officer still drawing a paycheck means that the system around them will and has acted in its own self-interest.

The use of violence in media to shape and create discussions is an action that has and will continue to exist as a byproduct of the influence that authors wield in our society. While arguably a positive role, the ability of authors to both reflect on our own society and on history is a vital part of the conversation that must occur for society to both decide what it considers as growth and move towards it, from violence in Shakespeare’s time around religion, to today’s discussion around racial violence. Media should be embraced and understood, by balancing the author’s zeitgeist and bias with their message, and by using it as a tool to view the world around us.

Works Cited

Anderson, David K. “The Tragedy of Good Friday: Sacrificial Violence in King Lear.” ELH 78.2 (2011): 259–286. Project MUSE. Web. 9 Oct. 2015.

Bey, Yasiin. Mathematics. Mos Def. Rawkus Records, 1999. CD.

Burke, Kerry, Tina Moore, Thomas Tracy, Rocoo Parascandola, and Corky Siemaszko. “’The Time for Remorse Was When My Husband Was Yelling to Breathe’: Eric Garner’s Widow Lashes out at NYPD Cop Who Put Her Husband in Fatal Chokehold.” NY Daily News. Daily News, 4 Dec. 2014. Web. 04 Nov. 2015.

Dianis, Judith Browne. “What Really Killed Eric Garner Was More than Just a Chokehold.” MSNBC. NBC News Digital, 05 Aug. 2014. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. New York: WW Norton, 2004. Print.

Loomba, Ania. Shakespeare, Race, and Colonialism. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Lear. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992. Print.

Shakespeare, William, and Honigmann, E. A. J. Othello. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. Print. Shakespeare, William, 1564–1616. Works. 1995.