Monday, December 13, 2010

What the Thunder Said

This is a story that I wrote for one of my classes. It was the only opportunity I had all semester to do creative writing in school, so I pounced. An encounter between Shakespeare and Milton in a modern mental institution. Once I came up with this, I ran with it and didn't look back.

A little Silence of the Lambs, a little Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a little of Nolan's Joker, and more than a sprinkling of what I actually think.

John Milton walked tentatively down the corridors of Arkham Asylum. This place, not just an asylum for the criminally insane, doubled as a maximum security prison. Within these walls lurked a veritable rogue's gallery of all manner of fiends – and lunatics. On some level, Milton felt strangely at home in this hellish concrete structure. Yet, he couldn't help being uneasy, especially with the sounds he was hearing. Wails and groans seemed to emit right from the very walls, from the people who Milton knew would never see the light of day again. They had each committed their own egregious act of evil, acts which had cost them their individual liberty. Now, they paid the price, Milton thought, as handed down by the civilized, well-behaved, almost self-righteous society they once were a part of. This prison had been part of the basis for his best-selling book, Paradise Lost.

The police had asked Milton here for a reason. As one of the most well-known criminal psychologists in Gotham City, Milton had dealt with all kinds of psychopaths and deviants over the years. None, however, were quite like the one he would be facing today.

As he arrived at the cell, the guards stepped aside to allow Milton in, each giving brief nods that indicated respect without showing any particular friendliness. Milton walked through the archway into the dark room, the door slamming shut and locking behind him. Vaguely detectable at the end of the room was a prisoner in an iron mask. He stood in such a location that he was just out of the light, mostly obscured by shadows and only partly visible. A wall of bars divided the room in half, separating the prisoner from his new guest.

“Welcome to my castle,” said the still figure in the iron mask. “The pleasure is all mine,” replied Milton, standing his ground tentatively. “I know who you are, and I know why you are here,” said the man in the mask. “You are here because you have questions, and I have answers. But first, tell me this. What makes a man evil?”

Milton shook his head. “I'm not here to play your games, William. I'm here to find out why you killed and ate all of those people. What drove you. What-”

Just then, the man in the mask stepped forward dramatically into the light, which illuminated his cold eyes. The walls of the prison reverberated and howled momentarily with the even colder sound of the chill wind outside. “Firstly, you are not to call me by that name. By all rights, you should address me simply as God. However, as I am currently in a charitable mood, and as we are both gentleman, I shall accept being called Mr. Shakespeare. Next, the question you have asked me is one which you already have the answer to. Why did I eat those people, you ask? I was hungry. Why did I kill those people, you ask? Sometimes, one must kill to eat. Is that what you want to hear, John Milton? Of course not. You have labeled me as evil, as deviant. Society has labeled me as such, despite that I am closer to God than anyone else could ever hope to be. My eyes are open to the true nature of humanity. So I ask YOU, John Milton. What makes a man evil? Answer my query and you shall have your own answer. Perhaps the answer will frighten you. Perhaps it won't be the one you want to hear. Have you not felt great anger towards those who have wronged you, and lashed out with the most uncivilized of words? You and I, we aren't very different are we?”

Milton stood, very still, analyzing the situation as it were. “Mr. Shakespeare...” he began, before being interrupted again. “Very good!” exclaimed Shakespeare. “You obey orders like a well-behaved dog. Isn't that what all of us want, deep inside? To be obeyed, or at least respected by others? To have our way? Because you have fulfilled my simple request, you may call me William after all.”

Milton nodded, then began again. “William... before the murders, you wrote-” and again, he was cut off by the prisoner. “Yes indeed, previously I wrote. I wrote a series of plays about life, love, and the losses of each. Each of these plays dealt first and foremost with human weakness. And believe me, Mr. Milton, that is a subject with NO shortage of material! One story in particular, you may know it... I called this story Othello. This story told of a man who was driven to the very brink by others, and lost everything as a result. Guess what, though? It was largely his own fault! Others laid the trap, and he walked right into it. One can lead a camel to water, yet one cannot make it drink.”

A pause followed, during which Milton mulled over Shakespeare's words. “So,” Milton began, “Othello himself, he drank from the well of self-destruction. He gave in to his own fears.” Shakespeare nodded. “Indeed,” he said, “Othello was a doomed soul. Yet I will not place the entire brunt of the blame on the character of Othello. The man may have been responsible for his own ruination, but that does not change the fact that others demonized him and drove him to lash out, to spark his own ruin. Othello was a tall, dark moor, frightening to the lily white aristocrats around him. Some used this to their advantage when imposing their own spite upon him. For instance, Iago's appeal to Desdemona's father. 'Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe.' Is this not an appeal to human weakness, saying such a thing to a father? And much like Othello, the father was led to the well and proceeded to drink from it. Humans are dependable for one thing: to be fearful and spiteful of the other. My tales shed a light on our race that many would rather not see. Did you know that in my younger days at Gotham High, they called me William the Bloody? Knowing me, you may think it has to do with my...darker tendencies, but in reality it was because the other children couldn't make heads or tails of my 'BLOODY awful poetry'! Their loss, though, wasn't it?”

Shakespeare continued. “So, I was subjected to their ridicule. Oh, how they ridiculed. They simply would not stop! I was different, somehow easy prey for these children. So,” - Shakespeare paused momentarily to punch himself in the forehead - “So they... these people. They pushed me and pushed me. One day, I pushed back. Oh, how I pushed back. Success is the best revenge, don't you know? I became a writer. I would grab that brass ring, Mr. Milton. I wrote plays... BRILLIANT plays... that were read by not a man alive save myself. Not then, as it were. They...them...they took and took from my soul without giving me the time of day in return! Later...give me a measure of ill-gained notoriety, and suddenly they couldn't trip over each other fast enough to read my works! At the beginning, I thought my writing would give me purpose among these philistines. But no, it did not. They continued to push, to impose their wills on me. Ultimately, I broke. If they could not see me for God, then I would show them my Godhood by imposing my divine punishment. Now, Mr. Milton. What makes a man evil?”

Milton had heard enough. “What makes a man evil, William? What makes a man evil is when he does the things you've done. To innocent men! To women! children!” Shakespeare nodded and smiled. “Innocence,” he said, “is purely subjective. Who is to say they themselves were not evil? You have not answered the question, Mr. Milton. Perhaps you can't, in which case our little pow-wow shall conclude. I have to say, I'm quite disappointed. I had figured someone who had written the things you have written would have at least a rudimentary understanding of man's worse angels.”

John Milton had dealt with many criminals in his time, but this one was different. Milton was not only a criminal psychologist, but an author. His book, Paradise Lost, was a bestseller the likes of which the city had not seen in some time. As a fellow writer, Milton saw a shred – however small – of himself when he looked at the murderous Shakespeare.

“What makes a man evil are his actions,” said Milton. “And your actions are evil.” Shakespeare shook his head, restlessly. “But what IS evil? What is the source? Who decides this?” Milton looked around at the walls of the prison before speaking. “Evil is that which society deems to be evil.”

Shakespeare cracked what appeared to be a smile, beneath his iron mask. “Finally, my boy, you're starting to speak my language,” he said. “That which society deems to be evil. Different. And when society deems you such, they cast you out. But that isn't always a bad thing, sometimes, being cast out is just the catalyst we need to grow. You would know all about that, wouldn't you? You said yourself, in your book... through Satan's voice. 'Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.' I have read your book, Mr. Milton. Tell me about what drives YOU.”

Milton nodded, starting to feel that he was connecting with this man. “...In my book, Satan must deal with being exiled from his own society. I wrote, 'Meanwhile, the adversary of God and Man, / Satan with thoughts inflamed of highest design,' as Satan takes off in flight... what makes Satan the adversary of God and Man? Is it exclusively his actions, or did God and Man want him to be that adversary?” Shakespeare held up a hand to pause Milton's words, as the walls howled again. “Have you ever been exiled from paradise, Mr. Milton? Did you not feel those pangs of hatred at the sheer unfairness of it all?” asked the former 'William the Bloody'. “I have,” said Milton. “I have indeed been exiled from paradise. I have had everything and then lost my everything. Or what I thought was...”

Milton had paused momentarily, expecting an interruption. Instead, Shakespeare nodded as Milton went on. “ everything. I clawed my way back towards that bright light, but it was gone. I couldn't reach it. It got further away, and then there was nothing. Like sunlight circling the drain, like the finest sand, there was nothing I could do to take hold of it and keep things together. It was beyond my control. So I became angry. My powerlessness robbed me of my very adulthood. I wanted to make it better, and could not. But I was not...I was never hateful.”

Finally, Milton stopped, and looked up towards the light fixture at the center of the room, blinking several times...perhaps to clear his eyes. Shakespeare slowly began to speak. “You wanted to make it better,” he said. “So you, ousted from your own paradise, sought out newer grounds whereupon you could ply your trade, your writing. You forged your own kingdom, charred and burned as you were, and gave up on the other.”

Milton nodded. “That's right. My paradise was lost. So I began to write. Write about not only my lost paradise, but the exiles of other men. The men I met through my work, imprisoned here... there. Before I knew it... I had my book, written and completed. The story of the evil, vile Satan, an angel who lost everything; cast off so that others could ascend to their predestined idea of divinity.”

For a moment, both men stared at each other, unblinking, until one of them finally spoke. “And thus, Mr. Milton, you became Satan, in the hell you were ousted to by that...light of yours,” said Shakespeare with more than a hint of smugness. “What a tragedy. Well, Mr. Milton, I grow tired of your prattle of having loved and lost. While I sympathize, and Mr. Milton I DO sympathize... it is time for you to answer the fundamental question that I have for you, thereby giving yourself that which you so seek.”

Shakespeare then motioned, with a wave of his hand, at the large room around them. “Satan,” said Shakespeare, “was ousted by those who did not understand. Those who, rather than giving him even HALF of the benefit of the doubt as to his intentions, found it easier to define him as evil and impose their will on him. You would think that Lucifer had the unmitigated gall to bed God's only daughter! Spite, hypocrisy, and imposition of will... Are these things NOT what the human race does best?”

Slightly rattled by Shakespeare's escalating tone, Milton wiped away a bead of sweat from his forehead. Shakespeare continued. “Alas that God did not have a daughter, he had only a son. A son who, far from passing judgment, was better and less wrathful than you or I. He showed love to all people, always lending a hand to anyone who needed it. What did they do to HIM, Mr. Milton? Did they love him in return? NO, THEY DESTROYED HIM! Now TELL ME, what makes a man evil?”

Feeling a wave of nausea all of a sudden, Milton attempted to compose himself, and slowly answered. “What makes a man the fact that he is a man.”

A loud clap rang out in the chamber, as Shakespeare's hands slapped together, again...and again. He then tilted his masked head, raising his arms and gesturing broadly at his surroundings. “Very good, Mr. Milton. And we are all men.”


  1. The childhood and youth experiences of these writers are fairly distant from what's portrayed here, but the "Silence of the Lambs" scenario is interesting in its own right. You did well to portray Shakespeare as a Riddler, since he's so good at raising questions in his works and so resistant to setting forth some kind of clear-cut philosophy. I think the key to Lucifer on "Paradise Lost" is "better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven," and Milton dictating the book to his daughter because he'd already gone blind was a riveting detail itself.