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Saltburn and the Bard

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“[Felix] doesn’t like sharing his toys. Even the ones he doesn’t want to play with anymore.” 

– Saltburn (2023)

“[Titania] never had so sweet a changeling; / And jealous Oberon would have the child / Knight of his train, to trace the forests […]

– A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2.1.390-2

Whether audiences loved or hated Saltburn’s discussion of class, found it scathing or… merely present, the film’s concern with class divides and power is woven into its fine details. Needless to say, Saltburn is concerned with the concept of class in a very English (or should we say, “Old World”?) sense – land, money, and lineage. It’s exactly the English-ness of the focus that gives meaning to the film in general and its multiple references to Shakespeare in particular.

The fact that Saltburn touches on Shakespeare at all speaks to its preoccupation with class divides. Beyond being exalted as an icon of Anglophone literature (to the dismay of English students the world over), William Shakespeare as a figure is representative of a cultural anxiety about social class. While it is generally accepted by scholars and historians that he was a member of what constituted as a “middle class” in early modern England, it is because of his social standing that there has been such a longstanding debate over the authorship of his works. How could a no-name from Stratford-upon-Avon have become one of the most prolific and well-known playwrights in the English-speaking world? Never mind the fact that John Shakespeare was a businessman and politician with the financial means and connections to furnish his son with an education – even if he didn’t manage to send William to college. For centuries, a small but vocal collective of fringe theorists have argued that William Shakespeare of Stratford was a front for some other playwright, someone more educated or of a higher social ranking. In other words, someone “worthier” of the honor of such adulation. Christopher Marlowe, perhaps, a contemporary of Shakespeare who penned Doctor Faustus, who at least studied at Cambridge… even if he was a scholarship student like Saltburn’s poor Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), shock horror. Or better yet – how about Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford? Surely a man in possession of one of England’s oldest hereditary titles is more capable of such an impressive body of work than William. (The De Vere theory was the subject of Roland Emmerich’s 2011 film, Anonymous, in which he was portrayed Rhys Ifans.)

Regardless of who anti-Stratfordians believe was the “real” Shakespeare, the whole enterprise belies a conviction that a higher social standing – or, at least, its requisite privileges – constitutes something worthier. More deserving. Better. Even if, in the 21st century, hereditary titles don’t hold the weight that they used to, don’t they grease palms, open doors, invite idolatry? Why wouldn’t Oliver ditch “Ask-Me-Sums” Gavey for the chance to be allowed into Felix Catton’s (Jacob Elordi) orbit, even if his crew is clearly lukewarm on Oliver at best? Why wouldn’t Professor Ware show Farleigh (Archie Madekwe) preferential treatment simply because he’s a Catton cousin? Even in an era of (relative) social mobility, the titled possess about them a glittering aura of the divine, are infused with a faerie tale essence of beauty and excess.

It’s exactly this feeling of enchantment that Oliver’s summer at the Saltburn estate evokes, stoked to feverish heights by his Midsummer Night’s Dream-themed birthday party. That the film’s climactic set piece is also its most overt Shakespeare reference can be no coincidence. A dizzying, romantically fraught comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream features a tangled quartet of young lovers who chafe at the restrictive paternalism of Athens. Fleeing the city for the forest, the lovers unwittingly stumble into a domestic dispute among the fairy court. Oliver, (seemingly) graceless young lover that he is, sticks out as a mundane in the ancient and ethereal environment of Saltburn. The Cattons, a bit odd and slightly uncanny in their beauty, take it upon themselves to meddle in Oliver’s life, prying at personal details and planning parties. Even Felix’s attempt to reconcile Oliver with his supposedly estranged mother speaks to a certain level of confident entitlement, as earnest and well-intentioned as the gesture was.

If we dig even deeper into Midsummer, we find that Oliver is actually playing dual roles – the stumbling, bewitched young lover and another, much more telling character. The changeling boy, who doesn’t even appear onstage in Shakespeare’s play, is the root cause of strife in the fairy court. Echoed in Felix and Venetia’s (Alison Oliver) brief, jealous tug-of-war over Oliver, King Oberon and Queen Titania squabble over the changeling boy like he’s nothing more than a toy. And even when the dispute is over, after Oberon successfully steals him from Titania… that’s that. Possession is entirely the point, greed the only motivating factor. When the fun’s over, the changeling boy’s only course of action is to be forgotten. He is the instigator of the dispute but is powerless to exert any influence over it. Oliver is this summer’s new toy; his days are only getting shorter. It’s an old story. We know how it goes.

We think we know how it goes.

Saltburn 2It’s so easy – for us the audience and for the Cattons – to grow complacent with the order of things, to bend to the idle whims of the privileged and powerful. But the very ease of it arouses suspicion. Who can be content to remain silent and powerless for so long? Greed is not the sole purview of the privileged, and the Cattons are set up to learn this the hard way.

While the Midsummer parallel sets up the reveal, it’s a Richard III reference that forewarns it. It’s about the time that Farleigh starts a game of “fuck, chuck, or marry” and pitches Richard III as an option that the subversion starts to rear its head. “I think I’d fuck Richard III,” Farleigh says, his rationale being that “he’s so insecure, so you’d know he’d put in the work.” Farleigh’s disdain for Oliver is no secret; he might even be pulling his punches here by not explicitly connecting the dots. It’s actually Oliver who pitches the comparison between himself and England’s most notorious monarch. Admittedly, this isn’t quite a clear reference to the Shakespeare play, but as an unabashed Richard III enjoyer, I found the connection irresistible. Oliver and Richard – simultaneously off-putting and appealing; jealous and hungry, a pariah from the outset, “determined to prove a villain.” If there was any doubt that Oliver isn’t content to face the same fate as Midsummer’s changeling boy, it has promptly fled the scene.

Romeo and Juliet wraps up the film’s trio of Shakespeare allusions. Felix’s party costume of a pair of wings over a white top is a visual reference to Claire Danes’ Juliet in Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet. It’s not only an interesting – and, personally speaking, delightful – instance of playing with gender, but it also functions as a moment of foreshadowing. Much like Juliet the moment she meets Romeo in Act 1, scene 5, by the time of the party, Felix and Oliver’s relationship is poised to go nowhere but awry. While the details aren’t immediately evident, we start to understand that the inevitable end is nigh and that by the time we recognize it, nothing can be done to redirect it. Too early seen unknown, and known too late.

By furnishing Saltburn with these references to Shakespeare, Fennell places both a uniquely English connotation on this tale of class, greed, and desire as well as an intensity of focus. On both the larger and smaller scales, Saltburn is concerned with complicating the typical, perceived dissimilarities of the all-powerful nobility and the commoners they exploit. For all their history, their good (and deliberate) breeding, their old money, Oliver reveals the Cattons to be neither apex predators nor otherworldly. They luxuriate and grow complacent in their greed, content to nibble on others’ misfortunes so long as they find it entertaining. But such vices are not reserved solely for the wealthy. The moneyed are still merely mortal.

And Lord, what fools these mortals be.

Saltburn 3


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