Friday, August 31, 2012

Macbeth, O'Sullivan's Ancestor


Macbeth is a bleak portrait of a noble man descending the road to perdition. Once the champion of Scotland and King Duncan, Macbeth lets the dark arts and a sharp-tongued wife nurture the raw ambition within him. He becomes a traitor, an assassin, and a tyrant; he knows that he will be damned for all time even before he wields a blade against a defenseless, sleeping king, revealed in an early speech:

. . . But in these cases
    We still have judgment here; that we but teach
    Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
    To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
    Commends the ingredients of our poison'd chalice
    To our own lips
. (1. 7. 7-12)

Macbeth knows before he commits the crime against his kin, king, and country that his actions can only return to poison him, and indeed they do.

Having gained the throne, Macbeth decries his crown because he is not safely thus. All of Scotland whispers its suspicions against Macbeth, and he reacts by spying upon his thanes, slaughtering the one man who can report what the witches said, and finally succumbing to the worst possible abuse of power: killing innocent women and children to warn others, especially Macduff, against mounting an offensive against Macbeth’s reign.

Shakespeare stages a scene wherein Lady Macduff laments her vulnerability, inspiring her son to defend his father as a hero for Scotland and inspiring the audience to care for the child more deeply. Thus, when Macbeth’s hired thugs break in to eliminate the boy and his mother, the audience recognizes that Macbeth is beyond human redemption; any court would reasonably condemn him to die, especially at the hands of Macduff, the ending that Shakespeare delivers.

Macbeth chose the road to perdition and walked it to his own damnation. So does Michael O’Sullivan, the protagonist of Max Allan Collins’s graphic novel, Road to Perdition. But O’Sullivan’s character is a killer with a conscience, one that he does not forsake, and thus he is a very different beast from Macbeth, more complex and certainly more sympathetic, especially as brought to life by Tom Hanks in the film. In the novel, Collins defines O’Sullivan through the son who remembers his father, writing, he was quiet, my father, and the most honorable man I ever knew. He was what they used to call a family man (22).

An Irish child of deprivation and discrimination, O’Sullivan welcomes the attentions and opportunities provided by crime boss, John Rooney (Looney, in the novel). Michael’s family needs a provider, and he chooses to provide by any means necessary: as a collector and if necessary, an avenger for the mob boss. The fine line that O’Sullivan walks is to coerce a man to remain loyal and pay his debts without killing the man, but if a man refuses correction, then O’Sullivan delivers the final judgment. He is, as his name hints, an archangel, but an Archangel of Death.

O’Sullivan steps upon the road to perdition and continues upon it even though the weight of his choice seems too heavy. In the film, his shoulders bow not just from a heavy coat big enough to hide a weapon, but from the solemnity of what he has done and must do after mob law destroys his family.

In the graphic novel, O’Sullivan’s hands are so steeped in blood that nothing, save God’s Grace, could wash them clean, yet he seems somehow less evil than John or Connor Looney. He has escaped decay, because, we’re told, he wears a somber, almost regretful expression (38) as he does his work.

How then is he able to kill for money? How does the character retain honor? The graphic novel explains it thus: What I do for a livin’ is not to be admired. . . . I’m like a soldier, and a soldier does his duty (44). O’Sullivan goes on to explain to his son that the Church’s commandment against killing is correct, but his duty to provide for his family supersedes all else. O’Sullivan has chosen perdition, and it is a road he wants his son to avoid.

Even as O’Sullivan takes on the role of Macduff, an avenger not for an entire nation, but for his own family, slaughtered by Connor, Michael will not let his surviving son pick up a gun for anything more than self-defense. And it is his son that he directs to take him to a church instead of a hospital when the father is near death. There he receives absolution, the sacrament of Last Rites, and is made whole once more.

His final mission to kill the killer of his wife and younger son exposes the surviving son to gunfire, theft, vengeance, and duplicity. Yet the lesson the child learns is to be the agent of redemption. In the book, he becomes a priest; in the film, he returns to good and kind childless people who raise him as their son, teaching him to work the soil rather than wield weapons.

The Looneys, Rooneys, Capones, and Corleones may be of the Macbeth school, believing that death is the best path to power, but the Macduffs and O’Sullivans choose violence, Macduff reluctantly and only in the cause of Scotland first, vengeance second. He strives to restore order and safety in a world made ugly by a tyrant. O’Sullivan, on the other hand, loyal to his own code, opens the door to anarchy and chaos, first as a soldier in the army of crime and then in pursuit of his own justice.

Macduff’s cause brings the play full circle, from strife to peace, from treason to patriotism, from injustice to justice. The final scene of Macbeth is an unambiguous triumph for man’s better nature over his dark heart.

O’Sullivan’s justice is as brutal and raw as the world of any invented by Scorsese. The closing pages or final scene in the film put to rest our dread that corruption and evil must prevail. Evil-doers end, but at what cost? The next generation has already witnessed the terrible work of men.

Reading Challenge:

Read Max Allan Collins’s graphic novel, Road to Perdition, and the film adaptation directed by Sam Mendes.

Writing Challenge:

Analyze the endings of the graphic novel and the film. Write an essay explaining why one satisfies you more than the other.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): Back to School Basics

Two sets of three words that sound alike and are often confused: 1) to, two, and too and 2) there, they’re, and their. Add another to these sets, just two little words: its and it’s.

It is a puzzle to teachers that the world seems to have lost its mind about when to use an apostrophe and when not to use one. To English teachers, the use of the apostrophe is clear, but to sign-makers and the general public, apostrophes are not at all clear.

Possessive pronouns do not need an apostrophe:

·      That’s mine.
·      That is my coat.
·      Where is your coat?
·      Her coat is on the chair.
·      His coat is in the closet.
·      Their coats are on the guest bed.

Not a single apostrophe required for possession in one of those possessive pronouns above (each in bold font) so it’s only logical that the possessive form of its needs no apostrophe:

·      When did the world lose its mind about apostrophes?
·      The Corporation has changed its logo.
·      Greenland has lost much of its ice cover this summer.

Insert an apostrophe when the apostrophe replaces a letter in the phrase, it is :

·      It’s the hottest summer on record. It is the hottest summer on record.
·      It’s my opinion that sign-makers have hired people who do not know the difference between its and it’s.
·      Grammar Geeks the world over deplore the use of an apostrophe when it’s unnecessary.