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Going after that pound of flesh


John Douglas Thompson, who is Shylock in “Merchant of Venice,” knows something about vengeance, in Washington, on March 30, 2022.

By Maureen Dowd


Why do people at the top of their careers snap and make wildly self-destructive moves that rip apart everything they have been working to build?


In a blink, Will Smith went from Mr. Nice Guy on the verge of winning an Oscar to a crazed assailant in Satan’s grip.


“At your highest moment, be careful. That’s when the devil comes for you,” Smith said in his acceptance speech, quoting what Denzel Washington told him minutes earlier to calm him down.


Let’s start with the fact that academy officials bungled the whole ugly affair. David Rubin, the president of the academy, should have gone over to Smith during the break and insisted on talking with him backstage. Then, he should have explained the academy’s position and had security guards escort the actor out of the building.


Instead, Hollywood’s big and powerful chickened out and asked Smith’s publicist to talk to him about leaving. His publicist! She no doubt told Smith to sit tight, which was, from a publicity point of view, good guidance. No wonder she was the first one he hugged when he walked offstage with his Oscar. Smith also got good advice from his team when Friday he admitted he had “betrayed” the academy and resigned from the group — before he could be suspended.


“I am heartbroken,” he said in a statement.


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did an excellent taxonomy of the selfishness of Smith’s explosion against Chris Rock and the aftershock, including his “tearful, self-serving acceptance speech” in which Smith exploited the women he claimed he was protecting. Plus, Abdul-Jabbar said, Smith was setting a horrible example for young men, especially Black youth.


I’ve focused on narratives of self-destruction my entire life, covering politics, chronicling imploding Hollywood and studying Shakespeare.


I could only look at the Will Smith meltdown from the point of view of that earlier Will, because Shakespeare has so many characters who precipitate a steep and stunning downfall: Macbeth, Lear, Othello, Hamlet, Shylock. The title of Smith’s movie, in which he plays the father of Venus and Serena Williams, evokes a Shakespearean monarch; he rose from Fresh Prince to “King Richard.”


The bard’s two King Richards behave in ways that bring the royal roof caving in on them.


Seeking insight into Smith’s shame spiral, I went to Washington’s Shakespeare Theater, where Simon Godwin, the director of the company, was interviewing John Douglas Thompson, who is starring as Shylock in director Arin Arbus’ dazzling new production of “Merchant of Venice.” In this version, Shylock is more sympathetic because we get a clearer view of the other characters’ flaws.


Godwin asked Thompson — a renowned Shakespearean actor who has appeared on TV in “Mare of Easttown” and “The Gilded Age” — where he stands on revenge, the emotional state that spurs Shylock’s fall.


“Listen, I saw the Oscars, and Will Smith walking up onstage and punching somebody,” the actor replied. “I couldn’t believe it. There is no place for that. It does seem to be some sort of thing that’s happening out there in America. As we become more tribalistic, certain behaviors are now normalized — violence, revenge, vengeance — and there’s just got to be a better way to handle these things. We’re just going to kill each other.”


Bill Maher told TMZ that Smith’s attack was redolent of modern mores. “It was sort of like cancel culture encapsulated, because at first you saw he was laughing at the joke, right?” And then there’s the I’m-supposed-to-be-offended moment and the wild overreaction. “He was like the Twitter mob come alive.”


It was also redolent of the mores of yore. The quality of mercy was strained, to say the least.


“Will Smith and Shylock, they’re both after a pound of flesh,” Godwin told me. “Indeed, Shakespeare is fascinated by characters being undone by their need for the pound of flesh. Freud calls it the ‘death drive,’ the annihilation of the self or the reputation, which hovers over all of these characters. We are still the same human animals that Shakespeare was describing 400 years ago, and we’re still led by the id or the primal drive to fight, to hate, to be violent, to self-destruct.”


Thompson told me that Shakespeare shows you what happens at the moment you become your own worst enemy, a vertiginous moment that Aristotle called “hamartia,” or missing the mark (an archery expression).


It is, he said, “a dangerous place to be.”


“There’s a point,” the actor added, “where you cannot reach Shylock anymore. He says, ‘I will have my bond,’ and, ‘There is no power in the tongue of man to alter me’ from this path that I’ve chosen.”


Smith himself seemed to realize the danger when he talked to Rolling Stone back in 1998 and said he could be “a laser-guided, intergalactic, space-molecular air-dispensing module” for finding someone’s weakest spot and “ramming an ice pick into it.”


“When you stab someone you didn’t have to,” he said, you could damage them. “Someone catches you on the wrong day, says the wrong thing, and you lash out. Then you think, ‘I didn’t have to do that.’”


No, you certainly didn’t.

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