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Breaking Bad as Literature
Previously, on Shmooping Bad, we thought about Breaking Bad as a classical tragedy, and why we love it for just that reason.
One of the defining traits of a classical tragedy is a hero with a hamartia: some mistake or "fatal flaw" that ends up sending everything straight to h-e-double hockey sticks. The hero isn't necessarily a bad guy; in fact, he might have plenty of bright and shiny qualities that make us like him. But no matter how strong, noble, or well-intentioned the hero is, there's just that one thing about him that ends up causing trouble for everyone around him.
And that's Walter White in a nutshell.
He starts off as a decent high school chemistry teacher trying to provide for his family after his imminent death. But his fatal flaw, like many tragic heroes, is his hubris—that is, an out-of-control arrogance that causes him to sorely misjudge reality and his own importance.
In August 2013, creator Vince Gilligan said this about Walt:
Walt has behaved at times in what could be regarded as an evil fashion, but I don't think he's an evil man. He is an extremely self-deluded man. We always say in the writers' room, if Walter White has a true superpower, it's not his knowledge of chemistry or his intellect, it's his ability to lie to himself. He is the world's greatest liar.
Once Walt gets a little taste of power (and maybe inhales a few too many of those methylamine fumes), there's no stopping his hubris. It's the root of Walt's self-delusion, his soaring ambition (his brand of meth is literally called "Blue Sky"), and his willingness to manipulate everyone around him to get his way. Just compare the Walter of the first season—scared, stuttering, and trembling—to the Heisenberg of Season 5. When Mike asks him how he knows the magnet scheme worked, Walt replies, "Because I say so."
It's age-old tragedy in the making, and today we'll be squaring it against one of the all-time most famous tragedies of hubris and ambition.
Shmoop on and find out.
Meth and Macbeth
When you're talking tragedy and insight into human nature, you just can't go wrong with Shakespeare.
In Julius Caesar, Cassius says, "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves." In other words, it's not Walt's lung cancer or his financial necessities that are to blame—it's Walt himself.
We figured it couldn't hurt to see what else Will Shakespeare's got up his sleeve, so today you'll be reading an article by Tom Gualtieri, who compares Breaking Bad to one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies: Macbeth. (If you need a refresher on it, our summary's got your covered.)
Before you read, we'll give you a quick rundown.
Gualtieri points out that both Walt and Macbeth are influenced by powerful wives, struggle with their moral dilemmas (at first, anyway), and are partly driven by the desire to reclaim their manhood. We've got a few more things to add to that list:
- Walt and Macbeth are both initially launched into action by "prophecies" (Walt's cancer diagnosis and Macbeth's encounter with the Weird Sisters).
- Both narratives are divided into five acts (or seasons, if you will).
- Both have royal aspirations—for Macbeth it's literal, and in "Buyout" (Season 5, Episode 6) Walt tells Jesse that he's in the "empire business."
- Walt and Macbeth both keep justifying murders by telling themselves that it'll be the last time:
- "No matter what happens, no more bloodshed. No violence." (Breaking Bad Season 1, Episode 6)
- "I am in blood / Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o'er" (Macbeth III.4)
- Walt and Macbeth are both prone to whacking people who threaten their power or might kill them:
- Both Skyler and Lady Macbeth have nervous breakdowns from keeping their husbands' secrets.
Now's probably a good time to mention that there's a dispute about the term hamartia. When you learn about it in class, you usually hear it translated as a "fatal flaw," but some scholars think that the term translates better to "tragic error." That is, it's not that the hero has a deep character flaw, but instead he just does something relatively harmless that ends up setting off a domino chain of unavoidable disasters. (That's how Gualtieri uses it in his piece, in case you got mixed up about it.) So you could even argue that Walt's cancer is his hamartia—after all, it's what sets the whole thing in motion, right?
Now go on and read the article.
Once you're all set, check your car for wiretaps and tracking devices, and meet us in the desert to do today's activity.Go to Lesson: Faces of Meth