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Shakespeare & Beyond

Sometimes the old tropes are the best tropes: Shakespeare and Our Flag Means Death

Two pirates on board a ship in Our Flag Means Death
Two pirates on board a ship in Our Flag Means Death
Two pirates on board a ship in Our Flag Means Death

Ed (Taika Waititi) and Stede (Rhys Darby), ready to risk it all. HBO Max, Our Flag Means Death.
Photograph by Aaron Epstein/HBO Max

A surprise hit of the spring was Our Flag Means Death, a quirky comedy about an aristocrat who escapes his privileged life in colonial Barbados to become a pirate captain. This “Gentleman Pirate” finds new self-assurance, comradeship with fellow outcasts, and eventually a friendship that blossoms into romantic love. It’s a classic comedy setup and is surprisingly Shakespearean at its most basic level. Indeed, Our Flag Means Death draws on many generic conventions, character types, and narratives Shakespeare used frequently across many of his plays, all while breathing new life into Shakespeare’s favorite tropes as a result.

Our Flag Means Death was inspired by the true story of Stede Bonnet, who sailed briefly with Blackbeard during the Golden Age of Piracy. But just as Shakespeare does in many of his history plays, the show’s creator, David Jenkins, draws on history for inspiration without great concern for historical accuracy. The real Stede Bonnet was only 28 when he turned to piracy, but Jenkins writes Stede (played by Rhys Darby) as a middle-aged man experiencing a mid-life crisis. Feeling “discomfort in a married state,” Stede abandons his life and family on shore and takes to the seas. He is, of course, hilariously inept as a pirate at first, though his crew of oddballs eventually drops their plans of mutiny and slowly forms into something of a found family.

Stede's crew of fellow outcasts

Stede’s crew of fellow outcasts. HBO Max, Our Flag Means Death. Photograph by Aaron Epstein/HBO Max

Stede’s flight from a restrictive society to a world of freedom mirrors a common motif used in many of Shakespeare’s festive comedies: that of the green world. First coined by literary scholar Northrup Frye, the green world describes a world of nature and escape, free from society’s laws, norms, and conflicts. The Two Gentlemen of Verona, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, and Cymbeline all feature characters who temporarily escape society’s dangers and rigidities by fleeing to the forest—often to be restored and transformed by their experience.

In the case of Our Flag Means Death, it is the ocean (rather than the forest) where Stede and his diverse crew escape to avoid the harms of patriarchy and colonialism on land. Stede is clearly haunted by his failures to live up to the masculine ideals of his society, and it’s implied that many members of his crew turned to piracy because they do not fit into the white, normative world. What is unique about Our Flag Means Death—and a big part of its appeal for audiences—is that it does not make a return to that restrictive world a narrative goal. The colonial society of the show is characterized by racism, bullying, and shame. A life of piracy on the open seas allows its characters not just a chance to escape those problems temporarily; instead, Stede’s crew becomes an alternative community that both resists and transcends society’s traumas.

Perhaps the best example of how the altered motif of the green world plays out in Our Flag Means Death is through the character of Jim. Like many of Shakespeare’s heroines who flees to the forest to escape danger, Jim does so disguised as a man. Unlike Shakespeare’s heroines, however, Jim chooses not to return to “woman’s weeds” (Twelfth Night 5.1.286) but to embrace a nonbinary identity. Though Jim is often drawn back to their former life and former expectations, they eventually reject those pressures to live a more authentic life within a new community that stands in opposition to the old.

Jim in Our Flag is Death

Jim (Vico Ortiz). HBO Max, Our Flag Means Death. Photograph by Aaron Epstein/HBO Max

Another commonality between Shakespeare and Our Flag Means Death is in its depictions of strong male friendships. After Stede is rescued from certain death by Edward “Blackbeard” Teach (Taika Waititi), the two form a fast friendship based on mutual admiration—Ed for Stede’s gentlemanly ways, Stede for Ed’s reputation as a fierce pirate. This friendship becomes the emotional core of the show, echoing several prominent male friendships in Shakespearean comedies like The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Twelfth Night, and The Merchant of Venice. Relationships between men in these plays are often both intimate and powerful, causing characters (like Antonio and Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice) to risk their fortunes and their lives in service to their friend.

Stede and Ed share a similar devotion, both willing to commit mayhem and risk life and freedom for one another. However, unlike Shakespearean male friendships, the feelings Stede and Ed have for each other is given space to become something more. Ed reveals to Stede in the penultimate episode that “what makes Ed happy is you” before drawing the surprised Stede in for a lingering kiss. This relationship and its consummation have proven impactful for being so rare. For viewers used to television shows that bait their audiences with the possibility of queer relationships and romance, Our Flag Means Death has been, in the words of Maya Gittelman, “deeply cathartic and genuinely freeing.” Unbound by the heterosexual love plot that concludes Shakespeare’s comedies, the two friends are able to translate their friendship into a deeper level of intimacy.

Alas, “the course of true love never did run smooth,” for Shakespeare’s lovers or for those in Our Flag Means Death. The last episode of the season ends with couples parted, trust broken, and crew members separated. But this last episode is where the show takes on the traits of another Shakespearean genre—the romance—which will likely shape the plot of Season 2 in significant ways. Romances like The Winter’s Tale, Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Tempest are not truly tales of love; they are tales of trial and hardship, of lovers and families parted by distance and fate, of great loss followed by miraculous recovery, and of life restored after seeming death. In several of these romances, the sea is an agent of both separation and transformation, and the grief and hardships characters endure, while sometimes earned, means that their second chances are all the sweeter.

As Season 1 concludes, both our main leads caused harm to others and are lost—literally and figuratively. Stede even returns briefly to his family on land, only to realize he has no place in that world anymore. He must die symbolically to that old life to be truly free to return to Ed. Ed, meanwhile, handles the separation by closing himself off emotionally and protecting himself with a dark, near-murderous persona. It seems impossible that what has been lost can be found again. But viewers who wonder how these two can come back together and how Stede’s lost crew can be recovered should look to the genre of romance for answers. Characters in a romance have their suffering rewarded, their contrition brings forgiveness and redemption, and those lost at sea are never lost for good.

A man standing in a boat looking out over the water

Stede (Rhys Darby) transformed by separation and trials. HBO Max, Our Flag Means Death.
Photograph by Aaron Epstein/HBO Max

Drawing on Shakespeare’s most beloved genres and motifs gives the show a classic feel. The need for escape, rebellion against a stifling society, fluidity of gender, and the desire for meaningful intimacy are enduring themes. At the same time, Our Flag Means Death makes these themes feel entirely fresh by giving them a new spin. Placing queer relationships within familiar tropes and centering the experiences of people of color allows the show to explicitly reject racism and heteronormativity while celebrating queer love. Viewers have been trained by our media to expect gay stories that end tragically, but they should find reassurance in the show’s turn towards a romance narrative with themes of recovery and reward.

Though Shakespeare is only briefly mentioned and visually referenced in Our Flag Means Death, the show is Shakespearean through and through. Many fans have picked up on this connection, as references to Shakespearean characters, portraits and production stills appear frequently in OFMD fan art. As Stede notes at one point in the show, “Sometimes the old things are the best things.” But just as Stede makes this point while turning an old piece of fabric into a handsome fashion accessory, Our Flag Means Death is a powerful example of how Shakespeare’s themes can be made newly relevant through reinvention and recontextualization.