Last fall, I explored the Shakespearean echoes of the HBO series The White Lotus, the first season of which transformed Shakespeare’s The Tempest into a darkly funny satire of the hospitality industry. While Mike White’s award-winning second season takes place in Sicily, inevitably calling to mind similarities to Shakespeare’s Italian plays, these seven episodes of The White Lotus have, perhaps surprisingly, greater connections to his plays set in England.
Like many of Shakespeare’s plays (notably his Histories), The White Lotus is dedicated to explorations of power amongst the privileged and the people who attend them. Season one, set in Hawaii, focused on issues of money and class, while season two, in White’s words, focuses “more on sexual jealousy and adultery and infidelity and a more operatic kind of bedroom farce.” As in Shakespeare’s Comedies, desire and sex become a great equalizer and a paradoxical source of intrigue, comedy, tragedy, and — pun unintended but fully unavoidable — happy endings.
Nobody embodies that tonal mixture better than Jennifer Coolidge, who reprises her award-winning performance as Tanya McQuoid, a tragicomic figure of Falstaffian proportions who brags about having risen through the ranks of the hotel’s version of English nobility: “I was a Petal, and I worked my way up to Blossom.” Tanya has status due to her vast wealth but little power or respect, and — as with Sir John’s lies about the number of bandits he fought in the forest — gets in trouble when her romantic delusions prove dangerously mistaken.
The titular resorts, be they in Hawaii or Sicily, serve as a kind of Shakespearean green world (like the Athenian woods in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) where characters explore romance and temptation they might resist at home, and if the first season resembled The Tempest, this second season bears striking comparisons to As You Like It. As in that play’s Forest of Arden, multiple tales of love and desire occur simultaneously and not all of the lovers are as they outwardly appear. While The White Lotus has no usurping dukes, it does have an older expat gay man (and his entertaining entourage) who lives in a kind of permanent exile and welcomes others to join him. Two former college roommates share a brotherly rivalry that climaxes in a fierce wrestling match in the Ionian surf. Oscar-winning actor F. Murray Abraham plays a still-lively old patriarch given to Jacques-like aphorisms such as “Flirting is one of the pleasures in life,” and “They used to respect the old. Now we’re just reminders of an offensive past.” He even dons a plaid jacket — a classic wardrobe choice for many of Shakespeare’s fools.
But it’s in the relationships amongst the women of The White Lotus that one hears the strongest echoes of As You Like It, most notably in the characters of Lucia and Mia, two Italian girls who choose to pursue sex work to realize their ambitions and further their careers. Like the two shepherdesses Phoebe and Audrey, they’re navigating their own romantic opportunities, weighing how each may (or may not) advance their social status.
While Hymen, the Greek god of marriage who appears in As You Like It, does not get referenced specifically in The White Lotus, many other myths and legends do, implying that the characters’ romantic impulses are “hard-wired” (in one character’s words) and therefore impossible to change or control. This recalls Gloucester’s line in King Lear, “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods; / They kill us for their sport.” The White Lotus has no shortage of wanton boys, whether they’re deluding themselves and each other or scheming cruelly to get what they want.
There are, of course, echoes of Shakespeare’s Italian plays in The White Lotus, but as Kent Cartwright points out, Shakespeare’s use of Italian settings in his plays is more about the idea of Italy: “‘Italy’ as an imagined construct.” Similarly, White’s Italy is informed by how it’s been imagined in operas like Madame Butterfly and movies like The Godfather and L’avventura, even going so far as to film in the same locations and recreate iconic shots.
While some characters share Italian names (Portia, Isabella, Valentina) and others visit the Sicilian cities of Palermo, Noto, and Taormina (itself a part of Messina), the Italian city most evoked in The White Lotus is Shakespeare’s “fair Verona.” One of the storylines focuses on the brotherly rivals competing for, among other things, the affections of each other’s wives, as in Shakespeare’s famous Two Douchebros…er, Gentlemen of Verona. White also borrows from the prologue of Romeo and Juliet by letting us know right at the beginning of both seasons that one (or more) characters will die before the “fearful passage” of this “death-marked” story is over. As in the doomed romance of Shakespeare’s tragedy, this creates increasing dread in viewers who fear for the fates of each character and parse every action for clues to the identity of the victim. It’s a fantastic storytelling trick, and White wished he’d thought of it sooner, saying, “Had I only known…I’d [have] put a dead body at the beginning of Enlightened,” his critically-acclaimed but little-watched series from 2011. “You realize these kinds of hooks do actually get viewers,” he continued, something Shakespeare knew 400 years ago.
I’ve saved the only real spoiler for this last paragraph because, fittingly, it’s only in the final moments of the second season that we realize The White Lotus’s sympathies are not with the “wanton boys” (who get more screen time than they warrant, frankly) or even with fan-favorite Coolidge. Rather, the camera focuses on the “wanton girls” Lucia and Mia, who have been practicing a long con to which Lucia’s once-threatening pimp Alessio is in fact their smiling and cheerful accomplice. As “The Best Things In Life Are Free” warbles ironically on the soundtrack, the ladies skip happily down la strada, just as they like it.
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