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Shakespeare and The Hunger Games: Adapted from Katniss the Cattail: An Unauthorized Guide to Names and Symbols in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games
The Hunger Games is a fascinating series, even more for its depths of meaning. For instance, did you know that Shakespeare’s Roman plays contributed sixteen of the character names? By doing this, Collins recreates the world of Rome with its arena and its spoiled citizens eager for bread and circuses. She also retells many of the ancient epics, especially that of Julius Caesar and his cycle of tyranny.
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar provides interesting echoes with Collins’s epic. The story is simple: Caesar tries to crown himself Emperor of the Roman Republic, so a band of rebels conspire to murder him. “President” Snow, despite his democratic title, is likewise absolute dictator of Panem. However, as with Julius Caesar, destroying the dictator only leads to more wars. There is more loss than triumph for both sides: Caesar is assassinated, yet the rebels die as well. Characters from the play that appear in Collins’s trilogy include Caesar and his wife (Cal)Purnia, and rebels Cinna, Portia, Flavius, and Messalla. (Brutus and Cato are also rebels in Julius Caesar, but are remade as Career Tributes because of other connections with their Roman counterparts).
In the play, Brutus murders his ally and leader Caesar to save his republic, echoing Katniss’s final shot of the war. The rebels also wonder whether they should slay Caesar’s ally Mark Antony, echoing the questionable decisions of executing Tributes, prep teams, and other noncombatants. In fact, they spare Antony, who pledges loyalty to Brutus the rebel leader and says all he needs to say to charm him. He then betrays Brutus and publically calls for his death, just as Katniss charms Coin and says what she must so she can end the war on her terms. Brutus comments that he thinks it “cowardly and vile” to commit suicide “for fear of what might fall” but ultimately kills himself rather than submit to the shame of punishment (V.i.112-113). Katniss tries suicide for just this reason, fear of the consequences, but gentle Peeta stops her.
Themes of Julius Caesar include the question of when a revolution is necessary and the transience of power: The play starts with one citizen reminding his friends that they all once cheered Pompey, the previous leader of Rome, and now they cheer Caesar “that comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood” (I:i:53). Blood and bleeding, in fact, are mentioned a whopping forty times in the play, linking once again to President Snow and the violence of rebellion. There’s also a great emphasis on how speeches and public proclamations can gain the people’s sympathy, as Caesar orders his statues draped with crowns and the rebels try to win over the people with cries of “Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!” after their brutal deed (III.i.86). The crowd is swayed by Brutus’s impassioned defense, and then swayed again by Antony’s inflammatory speech, emphasizing the extraordinary power of the media. This echoes Katniss’s television propos as the beloved Mockingjay.
In Shakespeare’s sequel, Antony and Cleopatra, Mark Antony takes over Egypt, falls for Cleopatra, and rebels against Rome. He loses, and Antony and Cleopatra die together in a manner reminiscent of Katniss and Peeta’s attempt with nightlock berries.
Antony’s wife and political pawn, Octavia, and his treacherous aide, Enobarbus (Enobaria) are cast in The Hunger Games series, as are title characters from Shakespeare’s other Roman plays, Troilus and Cressida, Coriolanus, and Titus Andronicus. Coriolanus hated those who didn’t live in his Capitol, and oppressed them until they rebelled, while Cressida was a famous traitor and Titus turned cannibal. His daughter Lavinia had her tongue cut out and was eventually murdered, a silent victim like Katniss’s Avox friend.
While there are many plant names in the series—like Katniss—that have nothing to do with Shakespeare, a few fit so well with Shakespeare’s intent that there may be a connection. Shakespeare, in The Winter’s Tale, speaks quite to the point of “pale primroses/who die unmarried” (IV.iii.143-144), as a certain Primrose remains in the series. And who could forget Ophelia, minutes before her suicide: She hands the tyrant King Claudius flowers, saying,
There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me. We may call it “herb of grace” o’ Sundays.—Oh, you must wear your rue with a difference [for a different reason].
While Claudius must bear regret for murder, Ophelia bears it for her losses—for those loved ones like her father who have died in this struggle for political ambition. Katniss echoes this moment when she gives Snow a white rose, the artificial Capitol flower that has always in her mind been linked with blood and death. Ophelia and Katniss both willingly go to their deaths but take a final moment to give the tyrant this particular gift, showing they know about the deaths that stain him forever.
These literary references to all of Shakespeare’s Roman plays tie The Hunger Games to the decadence and violence of the Roman Empire, where spoiled citizens dined on fancy imported foods and watched slaves die in the arena for entertainment. They also connect to Shakespeare’s themes as Katniss watches her world cycle through war after war and mourns that all the deaths have changed nothing.
Names from Shakespeare
Antony and Cleopatra
Brutus, Caesar Flickerman, Cato, Cinna, Claudius Templesmith, Flavius, Messalla, Portia, Purnia
Lavinia, Martin, Titus
Troilus and Cressida
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(From the author’s website)
Title: Katniss the Cattail: An Unauthorized Guide to Names and Symbols in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games
Author: Valerie Estelle Frankel
Release Date: February 2012
List Price: $6.95
ISBN-13 (print): 978-1469968247
ISBN-10 (print): 146996824X
Trim size: 8.5 x 5.5
Ages: 12 and Up
BISAC Category: Juvenile Nonfiction / Literary Criticism & Collections
Format: Trade paperback
Available from: Amazon, Baker & Taylor, Ingram, Books in Print, Buy.com, and many others.
Keywords: Hunger Games; Catching Fire; Mockingjay; Collins, Suzanne; YA; young adult; criticism; symbolism; analysis; children’s; Study Aids; Book Notes; commentary; movie
Who was Cinna? What do the hawthorn and primrose symbolize? Or President Snow’s garden and Peeta’s bread? What about Katniss’s last name? Bringing details from myths, herbal guides, military histories, and the classics, English professor and award-winning pop culture author Valerie Estelle Frankel sheds light on the deeper meanings behind Panem’s heroes and villains in this hottest of YA trilogies. In her series, Collins not only weaves a heroic tale of deep complexity but harnesses the power of Shakespeare and Rome to retell an ancient epic of betrayal, violence, and glory on the stage of an apocalyptic future.
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