I don't give a damn if you used to talk to Jay-Z
He ain't with you, he with Beyonce, you need to stop actin' lazy
She Instagram herself like "Bad bitch alert"
He Instagram his watch like "Mad rich alert"
- Kanye West, Blood on the Leaves
Last week I put a question to an English class who are currently studying The Scottish Play. There were photographs of Dr. Dre, Chris Brown and Jay-Z on one side of the board, and Michael Fassbender as Macbeth on the other. The question was a simple one: what makes the current generation of hip-hop's male millionaires like Shakespeare's tragic hero?
It's a fairly inexhaustible list to make. Both sides are shaped by a violent environment and then find difficulties reconciling that with a polite 'public' role. Both sides are obsessed with status symbols and fixated on images of monarchy. Both sides risk their status with hubristic over-reaching. Both sides evoke an unrealistic hyper-masculinity and an obsession with lineage; Consider this line from the play:
"They hail'd him father to a line of kings:
Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown,
And put a barren sceptre in my gripe,
Thence to be wrench'd with an unlineal hand,
No son of mine succeeding."
- Macbeth III.i
Alongside this Kanye West lyric:
"My friend showed me pictures of his kids
And all I could show him was pictures of my cribs
He said his daughter got a brand new report card
And all I got was a brand new sports car."
- Kanye West, Welcome to Heartbreak
And, scholarly debate aside, both sides have a history of choosing independent, outspoken mates for wives and then driving them to madness and despair. But with her latest album, Lemonade, Beyoncé seems intent on disrupting that narrative. Let us not forget that Lady Macbeth disappears halfway through the play and dies off-stage, leaving her husband to utter many of the text's best lines. Clearly, this is not the ending Mrs Carter has in mind.
In fact, if we are to attribute a Shakespearean character to Beyoncé's latest incarnation, the role of Portia from The Merchant of Venice seems more of a fit; just as Portia is able to inhabit the role of a chaste maiden, a dutiful daughter to an absent father, a shrewd male lawyer and a formidable wife, the songs in Lemonade show Beyoncé seamlessly flitting between genres, inhabiting different voices, lexicons, aesthetics and audiences. The main reaction to be got from a first listen to the album is just how many different careers this woman could have had as a Karen O, a Dolly Parton, a Rhianna, a Lil Kim, an Anne Hathaway (the actress, or Shakespeare's wife, take your pick), the list goes on. In this sense, it is easy enough to read the 'failed marriage' aspect of the album as an imposed narrative used to bring together a body of work which is stylistically all over the place.
This reading only really holds up if you don't take into account the hour-long music-video which was released simultaneously with the album, in which the music is interwoven with the poetry of Warsan Shire and accompanied by a collage of personal home videos and iconography evoking the last five centuries of black history. Shire's confessional, piquant poetry reinforces the theme of infidelity and spousal mistrust at the centre of the album in way which encourages the listener to see strands of the Sylvia Plath / Ted Hughes / Assia Wevvil narrative played out in the public lives of hip-hop's first couple and whoever 'Becky with the good hair' turns out to be.
The visuals of the accompanying video are incredibly rich and cut powerfully between shots of cotton-fields, a plantation house, flooded New Orleans, a Rosa Parks-inspired bus, African tribal dancers, the streets of Harlem, a parking lot and every conceivable hairstyle one associates with black American culture. Together with the poetry, the photographs of victims of police brutality, the brief cameo from the humbled husband, the images of suicide and drowning and the destructive force of a monster-truck, there is plenty for a politically and culturally literate audience to be unpicking from this short film for years to come.
By the time I'd finished watching the video for Lemonade a few times, it became clear that, if I were to assert a Shakespearean character to Beyoncé's latest incarnation, it is neither Lady Macbeth, nor Portia that most apply, but two very different types of queen; Hermione of The Winter's Tale and Cleopatra.
The history of Hermione as a symbol of strength for feminists is a well-documented one. The narrative of a queen teaching her king the damage of his mistrustful ways and being received with adoration after having made her husband contemplate her death for sixteen years is definitely one which finds its resonances in the Lemonade video.
I similarly couldn't help but interject lines from Anthony and Cleopatra at various points during the sixty-minute feminist vignette:
"Go to the fellow, good Alexas; bid him
Report the feature of Octavia, her years,
Her inclination, let him not leave out
The colour of her hair: bring me word quickly"
The emotional complexity of Cleopatra as beautiful, insecure, jealous, flirtatious, powerful and weak certainly informs my readings of the various performances of Beyoncé over the course of the album. But as the video reaches its final cadences, and our heroine is sat atop a police-car amidst the flooded devastation of Hurricane Katrina, she is pulled under the water and it is, in the end, Ophelia whose image we are left with; a woman whose intrinsic madness and vulnerability was driven to its moment of crisis by the intrinsic madness and vulnerability of her lover.
Virginia Woolf posited that any woman born in Shakespeare's world with his genius would surely have had to commit suicide. It is no coincidence that Lemonade is rife with suicidal imagery. As with the Tarot deck however, death in this sense is simply a symbol for a new beginning.
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