Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 69
You can find Shakespeare in all sorts of places, including the Fox TV series Empire. The story of an aging ruler – in this case the head of a hip-hop music dynasty – who sets his three children against each other … Sound familiar?
From its very beginning, Empire has fashioned itself on the plot of King Lear. And that’s not the only Shakespeare connection to the program, as Ilene Chaiken, showrunner and executive producer for Empire, explains. She was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published March 22, 2017. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode, “The World in Empire,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer. We had help from Jeff Peters at the Marketplace studios in Los Angeles.
MICHAEL WITMORE: Shakespeare can turn up almost anywhere.
[A series of clips from Empire:]
How long you been plannin’ to kick my dad off the phone?
Since the day he banished me.
I could die a thousand times… just please…
From here on out, this is about to be the biggest, baddest company in hip-hop culture. Ladies and gentlemen, make some noise for the new era of Hakeem Lyon, y’all…
MICHAEL: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director.
This podcast is called “The World in Empire.” That clip you heard a second ago was from the Fox TV series Empire. The story of an aging ruler— in this case, the head of a hip-hop music dynasty—who sets his three children against each other. Sound familiar? As you will hear, from its very beginning, Empire has fashioned itself on the plot of King Lear. And that’s not the only Shakespeare connection to the program.
To explain all this, we brought in Empire’s showrunner, the woman who makes everything happen on time and on budget, Ilene Chaiken. She was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: Well, Empire seems as if its elevator pitch was a hip-hop King Lear. Was that the idea from the start?
ILENE CHAIKEN: Yes, as I understand it, now I didn’t create Empire—
BOGAEV: Right, because you’re the showrunner, and first, there’s a pilot, and then the series gets picked up, and then they pick the showrunner.
CHAIKEN: Yes. It was created by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong. And as I understand it, that was the idea. Danny Strong wanted to write about hip-hop. He went to Lee and his idea was, let’s do King Lear in hip-hop.
BOGAEV: And it seems pretty literal in that it’s explicit in the pilot, there’s a reference to King Lear.
CHAIKEN: Exactly. Exactly, it’s literal in the conception and in the modeling of the show, and it’s actually put on text.
BOGAEV: Yeah, remind— for people who didn’t hear the pilot, and also the premise, which is, it’s three sons, not three daughters.
CHAIKEN: Right. So it’s a father who charges his three sons each with earning the right and privilege of inheriting his company, his kingdom—it’s called Empire. It’s all very literal.
BOGAEV: Yeah, his name is Lucious. I mean the patriarch.
CHAIKEN: Yes. Yeah. Exactly. And in the premise-establishing scene, which is a scene probably five minutes into the pilot, when Lucious sits his three sons down at his dining room table and says, “One of you three is going to have to take over this company.”
[CLIP from Empire:]
LUCIOUS LYON: Your brother and I been working hard to turn Empire into a publicly traded company. Now, part of us going public is ensuring a legacy for this company, and right now, it appears none of you are prepared to take over when I’m gone.
CHAIKEN: Lucious already knows or believes that he has a fatal illness, and he puts it to them: “One of you is going to have to prove himself. You’re competing against one another to take over this great billion-dollar company that I’ve created.”
LUCIOUS: Now it won’t happen today, nor tomorrow, but I will start grooming someone soon…
CHAIKEN: And one of the three sons, Jamal, the most sensitive, the most artistic, the most honest and pure, and the one his father is least likely to favor says, “What are we, King Lear or something?”
JAMAL: What is this? We King Lear now?
LUCIOUS: Call it what you want, smartass, but over the next several months—
ANDRE: Wait, wait, what are you saying? We’re all in competition to be the future head of the company?
CHAIKEN: And I think that you know, probably we should believe that Jamal is the only one that would go there, Jamal is the one who has the literary framework to even understand that reference.
BOGAEV: And there are a lot of reverberations and foreshadowing, and in some ways it’s closer to The Lion In Winter, right, because in that you have a husband and a wife using the children in all these ways, and as pawns, and there’re three sons rather than three daughters.
CHAIKEN: Yes, and Danny also was explicit about The Lion in Winter. He said, “This is The Lion in Winter, that’s what I’m doing, it’s King Lear.” I’m not sure that this is correct, but wasn’t King Lear the underpinning for The Lion in Winter? I mean, isn’t it, you know, a reference and an inspiration that now goes through several layers of interpretation?
BOGAEV: Now as we said, you’re the showrunner, so you came on after the series got picked up, and it already has this Shakespeare-flooded intention. Was it clear to you how you were going to practically follow through on that, though?
CHAIKEN: No, not initially, my job in coming on as the showrunner, to carry out somebody else’s vision, Lee and Danny’s vision—
BOGAEV: Right, to make it work.
CHAIKEN: —Is, it’s to make it work, but it’s also to really explore it with them. They’re very involved in the show and especially in the beginning, the first thing I did was sit down with them, and talk to them at length—it’s a very kind of psychological interview, a mind meld.
BOGAEV: It’s a mind meld. Right.
CHAIKEN: It’s all of those things, you know, what are your wishes, intentions, and so on? And neither of them has ever done a television series, has—I mean Lee is a filmmaker, a director. Danny is a screenwriter and an actor. He’s acted in television shows before, but he’s never created one that’s been on the air and had to tell stories week after week. So, I talked to them about all of the things that are important to them, and one of the things that comes through is… these Shakespearean themes are core to our concept of the show, and we want to really stay true to them and it’s not that we’re literally doing Lear, that’s going to have to—
BOGAEV: Fade away.
CHAIKEN: Yes. It’ll have to fade away, or at least take on a life of its own. But the themes of the show should always feel Shakespearean. And so we talked about all the different ways in which that can happen, and one of the things that I’ve done in my own shows, has been to find something that doesn’t expressly wind up on the screen, but that informs the thinking behind a show. It’s, you know, how do you name your episodes? How do you contemplate your themes? And I suggested that maybe every episode we should find a quote from Shakespeare—and it can be anything, I mean, I think we’ve stayed with the plays, we’re not going to sonnets—but every single episode, we find our themes, and we always define a Shakespearean theme or story in the episode, as we’re breaking a story. And the scripts, you know the audience never sees this, but every single script has on the title page, a quote from one of Shakespeare’s plays, comedy or tragedy.
BOGAEV: Right and you have “Out, damned spot” and “Et tu, Brute” and “Poor Yorick.”
CHAIKEN: Exactly. And further to that, every episode, with the exception of three that were written by Danny, because he likes to choose his own titles, but every episode is titled with some portion of a quote. And we try to be—not random about it—but we find sometimes something that’s not all that familiar. That says it in a way that isn’t clichéd.
BOGAEV: But I find that really fascinating. And as a showrunner, you think about… it’s very much about construction and form, right? You… that’s what you, among other things, bring to this, bring to a script, especially a television script. So what do these quotes do for you all there in the writer’s room?
CHAIKEN: They do a number of things. They help to pull us back to our themes, because breaking an episode of television, especially when you’re doing serialized drama, is hugely challenging. And you always wind up going off in a million different directions, and you need something to pull you back to the show. Now, it’s the characters, primarily, and the stories you’re telling, but we always find several moments during a story-break, where we go back to that quote. When we say, either, “Are we being true to these themes?” or if we’re lost, “How can these themes help us to find our way?” So—
BOGAEV: So, it’s like the guiding light.
BOGAEV: That’s so interesting. Now, and going back to what you said before, that Lee Daniels and Danny Strong and you were very adamant about this series reflecting Shakespearean themes, and style, and honing to that—what did that mean?
CHAIKEN: I’m not sure that it meant the same thing to the three of us. To me it means that the show should always have a kind of epic grandeur. And the show attempts to do a number of things. It attempts to feel real and grounded sometimes and at the same time, live in this heightened world of extremes, of…
BOGAEV: Yeah, and because it’s very operatic. And it is a soap opera, so it’s soap-operatic.
CHAIKEN: Yes. Yeah.
BOGAEV: But can you give us some examples of feeling you know, staying grounded, but then soaring to something Shakespearean?
CHAIKEN: Sure. Well I mean you know, we talk about contemporary life, contemporary issues, things that are happening in the world: poverty, crime, racism. Those are grounded issues and issues that we take very seriously. And at the same time, we take these very soap-operatic turns, sometimes ludicrous… mostly I hope not altogether ludicrous.
BOGAEV: For instance?
CHAIKEN: Jamal has a daughter: he had no idea, she appears out of nowhere. There are far more deaths and murders in the lives of the Lyons than there are in the life of your average hip-hop mogul, I would say.
BOGAEV: To be sure, yes. Really anyone’s life.
CHAIKEN: Let’s hope.
BOGAEV: Well, this is really bringing up something that I was thinking about before we started talking, which is that I just saw King Lear, a production, and I hadn’t seen it in a while, and it reminded me how that play just whips you back and forth between comedy and tragedy. And you stay with it, if both are done well. And Empire has a way of doing that as well.
CHAIKEN: Well, that hopefully is another way in which the show is Shakespearean, and takes its cue from Shakespeare.
BOGAEV: Can you give us an example of that, of swinging from high or low comedy to high drama, serious drama?
CHAIKEN: I would go right to the pilot.
[CLIP from Empire:]
JAMAL: When you coming home, Mama?
COOKIE: Told you to stop asking me that. Where’s your father?
JAMAL: He’s not coming to see you today.
Cookie’s arrival and that first moment that she appears on screen, she’s in prison, that’s… and it’s done with pathos, with seriousness. When you see her in those flashbacks, when her young son comes to visit her, those moments are very, very real and grounded.
COOKIE: How you doing in school, little man?
JAMAL: My friends are picking on me… but I’m afraid to tell Dad. He’ll tell me to fight.
COOKIE: Listen to me. You different. Okay? It’s only something Mama knows, but it’s gonna make life hard for you sometimes. But I want you to always remember, I got you. You hear me? I got you?
CHAIKEN: And then she walks out of the prison in her fur, with her hair up, and drops her first one liner: Cookie’s back.
[CLIP from Empire:]
COOKIE: For a queen, you sure do keep a messy place. What you need is a good maid up in here. You cookin’ chicken?
JAMAL: Oh, yeah—
COOKIE: Did you fry it?
JAMAL: No, it’s stewed—
COOKIE: Who is this?
JAMAL: That’s Michael. We’re sorta living together. Uh, put… Mama, I know you hungry—
COOKIE: Oh! Oh, honey, you didn’t tell me you was dating a little Mexican! Oh look at her, she’s adorable! Yeah, I said little Mexican. You need to get la cucaracha to clean up in here.
CHAIKEN: And when she walks into Lucious’s office, and calls Anika, “Boo-Boo Kitty.”
[CLIP from Empire:]
ANIKA: Baby, we need to make sure we—
COOKIE: Mm! Boo-Boo Kitty.
CHAIKEN: I think that’s a defining moment of the series. And yet it doesn’t in any way undermine those very real moments between her and her son that are absolutely heartbreaking.
BOGAEV: It’s not an easy thing to pull off.
CHAIKEN: No. It’s not.
BOGAEV: Yeah, and does that go back to the acting or is it the interplay of the script and the skill, the subtlety of the acting?
CHAIKEN: It’s absolutely both, it’s the script and it’s the acting. You can’t do it successfully without superior actors, and that is one of the things that Empire has that I think makes the show such a phenomenon. Terrence Howard and Taraji Henson are spectacular actors, and actors who have a range and a skillset that you don’t always or often get in a television show.
BOGAEV: Right, and that, Terrence Howard plays Lucious, the patriarch, and Taraji P. Henson just won an Academy Award for Hidden Figures.
CHAIKEN: Well, her, the movie won the Academy Award—
BOGAEV: Right, the movie, her movie won—
CHAIKEN: And Taraji has won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Cookie. She’s been nominated for an Emmy for her portrayal of Cookie. And they both do this high drama and extraordinary comedy without missing a beat.
BOGAEV: She’s amazing, she’s incredibly strong, incredibly compelling and complex, and incredibly colorful. Everything about her, her clothes, her language, so she always has that comic, that, like, life-force edge to her character.
CHAIKEN: Yeah, she’s a life force and a force of nature.
BOGAEV: Well I noticed that Empire fans can really go down rabbit holes with these Shakespeare parallels, I was trawling in some discussion groups, and the fans will talk about the traits of certain characters on the show and compare them to the traits of Shakespearean characters, of course. For instance, Andre, one of the sons, his wife Rhonda is a kind of Lady Macbeth figure. And I guess you could say the most obvious Lady Macbeth figure could be Cookie, really, because she’s so strong, and so powerful, and she has a conscience.
CHAIKEN: She could.
BOGAEV: Does the writer’s room think of either of these characters or any of these characters in terms of their Shakespeare roles—does that come into play when they’re writing?
CHAIKEN: It sometimes does, but it’s fluid. We’re not rigid about it, or rigidly locked into any of those touchstones. It changes from time to time, but one story—and this is not my story, it’s a story I’m passing on—as, when Lee and Danny were casting the show, they auditioned Trai Byers, who plays Andre. And I know that he gave a great audition, they loved him. I can’t say whether he was their first choice coming into the room, but he apparently turned to them after a great audition and said: “I know my character. I’m Iago.” And Danny said that was when he got the role.
BOGAEV: I wonder if he caught wind of any of the King Lear/hip-hop elevator pitch.
CHAIKEN: So, well, Trai is a Yale-trained actor, so you know, Trai came into this really knowing his Shakespeare, knowing his references, and you know, some of the younger actors don’t have that same set of references as him, but they all are finding their characters.
BOGAEV: So he went right to it. Yeah.
CHAIKEN: He just knew what he was doing, who he was playing.
BOGAEV: Well along these lines, Jamal is the—as we said before—the very emotional, the worthy, the pure and thoughtful son. And he’s kind of a Hamlet or a Romeo figure, he seems like. Certainly fans pick up on that.
CHAIKEN: Yeah. Again, it’s not terribly literal, but you can find him in any number of plays as that tormented, hopeful…doing his best to you know, rise above the calumny of his father and his family.
BOGAEV: Good Shakespeare word there. How will his story go forward, will it go in a Romeo or Hamlet direction?
CHAIKEN: Well, interesting you should ask, because you know, when every season… we’ve just finished season three of the show, and at the end of each season, or the beginning of each new season, we have to regroup and say what story are we telling, what are our touchstones for this new season, and we… you know, when we got to season three, we said, are we still doing Shakespeare?
BOGAEV: Oh, that’s interesting.
CHAIKEN: And then everybody said, “Well, of course, you never stop doing Shakespeare. And it’s not as if you run out of stories and…”
BOGAEV: So they, the writers groove on the Shakespeare inspiration. Okay.
CHAIKEN: Yeah. And going into season four, and this is a little bit of a spoiler, because this, I’m not going to tell you how or why, because it doesn’t really come up until the very end of season three… We go on the air on Wednesday night, with the second half of our season. We’ve got nine more episodes and at the end of the season, we’re setting up for season four. Well, Jamal in season four is… we are doing Romeo and Juliet with Jamal in season four.
BOGAEV: Well, get out. That’s a scoop here on Shakespeare Unlimited.
CHAIKEN: You heard it first here. You heard it first.
BOGAEV: Wow, well, I could see Jamal going either way, Romeo or Juliet. I’m not even sure I know what that means, whether the seducer or the seduced.
CHAIKEN: We’re doing the Montagues and the Capulets, in that sense.
BOGAEV: In that sense, okay, so two families fighting it out. And entwining.
BOGAEV: Oh, how exciting. Well, okay, so that brings me to this issue of actual language, and Shakespeare and Empire and we’ve talked to a number of hip-hop Shakespeare people on this show, and there’re obvious parallels between hip-hop and iambic pentameter, in terms of rhythm. And also this popular culture form, which Shakespeare was in his time. And it made me wonder whether those parallels come into play at all, when in the writing, in the language of television.
CHAIKEN: They come into play, though perhaps less explicitly and less consciously. Lucious is prone to Shakespearean speeches. Lucious—
BOGAEV: To monologues. Uh-huh.
CHAIKEN: Yes. Lucious can deliver a monologue with grandeur and he’s often talking about his empire, his dominance, in words that, although they aren’t explicitly lifted from Shakespeare, certainly have Shakespearean resonance.
BOGAEV: They have a weight and he has amazing rhythm. That’s true. And a very king, a very Richard III, kind of…
CHAIKEN: And, of course, we have also talked about Lucious as Richard III from time to time.
BOGAEV: Oh, to inform a plot or inform his character?
CHAIKEN: Both, both. There was a moment in… I’m trying to think, I believe it was season one, you know, we have to pitch stories to the network and the studio from time to time, tell them where we’re going, talk them through our thinking, and I recall this long conversation which I said, think of Lucious as Richard.
[CLIP from Empire:]
CHARACTER: Damn, Lucious. You said you was gonna bring the heat, but damn!
LUCIOUS: It’s about time. This past year, I’ve been attacked from all sides. Gangsters. Feds. Even Family…
CHAIKEN: Lucious is railing against all of his misfortunes, his family has abandoned him, he’s just, he’s standing alone in that field, looking for his horse.
BOGAEV: Looking, right. And that resonated with…?
CHAIKEN: Absolutely. Yeah. And we do go back to that for Lucious sometimes, because Lucious does feel beleaguered in a very King Richard way from time to time.
BOGAEV: Well, another thing that we’ve talked a lot about on this podcast that I think is relevant here is this idea of cultural legitimacy and Shakespeare, and how nations and cultures all over the world have claimed Shakespeare in some way and made it over in their image, whether it’s in small villages or small theaters in India or Mexico or Africa or hip-hop productions, as I said, on Broadway. And I watch Empire and I think this is so great, Empire is claiming Shakespeare as its own: as a primarily African American staff, African American origins, it’s about hip-hop, and it’s claiming it for television, in a way that I haven’t seen in a long time. And since you were the showrunner also on The L Word, which claimed its own space for lesbians on television, I wonder if, what your thoughts are on this? On Shakespeare as kind of an agency for cultural legitimacy.
CHAIKEN: It always has been, always will be. I think that it’s so completely embedded in Empire is not unique, but distinct. There’ve been lots of television shows, I mean Romeo and Juliet is the, you know, is the Shakespeare play that’s most often recycled in movies, in television. The number of times I’ve heard that pitch or even seen a show go on the air which claims that as its premise, I mean, it’s at least in double digits.
BOGAEV: Oh sure, it’s a cliché now. Yeah.
CHAIKEN: There are many, many others that have, you know, just shamelessly taken and owned their Shakespearean roots. And we’re going to keep on doing it, and it does belong in every culture, in every genre, but hip-hop is, I think, especially suited to Shakespearean language and themes and stories and in… once again, in the ‘80s, I worked for Quincy Jones, and I was the senior executive in his company, and I remember that we flew to New York with great excitement, because somebody was doing a hip-hop version of… and I can’t even remember, it was one of the comedies, it might’ve been Measure for Measure, but it was big, and we just, and Quincy Jones flew in to see it. And it seemed like a wild, novel idea to do Shakespeare with hip-hop. And we saw it and it was just so clear that this was going to happen again and again—probably wasn’t the first, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. It’s just, it’s made for it.
BOGAEV: Now switching gears again for a moment, you’re from Philadelphia and suburban Philadelphia.
CHAIKEN: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
BOGAEV: So am I, by the way.
CHAIKEN: Oh really?
BOGAEV: Yeah. And it, our education was grounded, not grounded, but we got a lot of Shakespeare. I can’t say we did a lot of it on the stage, that wasn’t the direction at my school, but it did make me wonder what your earliest connection was to Shakespeare and whether it came from school or being a theater kid or your parents?
CHAIKEN: I don’t have a deep Shakespeare early-childhood connection. I went to public school. I was reasonably well-educated, but not profoundly well-educated. I read Shakespeare and studied Shakespeare in a superficial way. I was a little bit of a theater kid, and I did do Shakespeare on stage, once. I remember that I played a prince.
BOGAEV: How wonderful.
CHAIKEN: Yeah, I think, I think of it more as a seminal gay experience than a seminal Shakespeare experience. But nonetheless.
BOGAEV: So you identify with the gender fluidity—
CHAIKEN: Yes, yeah.
BOGAEV: Do you find yourself harkening back to that?
CHAIKEN: I do. Yeah.
BOGAEV: Really, in what way? Can you think of any time as you’ve been on, working on Empire that it kind of, “Oh right, this is what I loved so much about Shakespeare.”
CHAIKEN: Well, although we don’t need Shakespeare now to talk about gender fluidity, the fact that it’s so inherent in Shakespeare, and that we talk about it in the show, just feels like another… and not just talk about it, but portray and talk about sexuality, sexual orientation, gender, feels like yet another Shakespearean theme that just is manifest in Empire.
BOGAEV: That’s true, and I was thinking that I read somewhere when you worked on The L Word, that you had Showtime executives yelling at you, “Don’t just hire lesbians. Just hire good writers, they can write, they can write gay characters, no problem.” And you realized, no, they can’t. They can’t do that. And looking at the writer’s room on Empire, you have what, you have twelve of them, you have five African American women, two white women, three African American men, one Afro-Latino man, and—this is just unheard of, I think—only one white guy. So to bring this back to Shakespeare, it’s pretty, I mean, obviously it’s remarkable in so many ways, but how do you rate him as a white guy on writing women and the more and these gender fluid characters?
CHAIKEN: I don’t rate him, I just take. But the story you told about The L Word really informed my approach to Empire. It was very clear to me, I mean, there was never a question that the show should be staffed with and written by primarily African American writers, and to have those African American writers now taking Shakespeare and interpreting it through their prism is what works. It has to be, those two things need to be married in the storytelling in order for it to mean something; otherwise, you’re just taking it farther away from the culture that it purports to represent. It has to not purport to represent the culture, it has to be the culture.
BOGAEV: Oh, that’s a really rich prism. That mix of ethnicities, soaking in Shakespeare and coming out into hip-hop television. So, looking ahead on Empire, do you see an evolution to the Shakespeare in terms of its—how it inspires the writing? As in, deepening or changing season to season?
CHAIKEN: It changes season to season. I don’t think that this show can or should become more or less Shakespearean. I think that there’s so much to pluck from that we’re just going to keep finding our references. We’ll tell a different story, we’ll find a different Shakespearean template, maybe a different tone, maybe a different play, and that’s how the show will continue to live in this kind of realm that it’s kind of claimed, while also continuing to evolve and hopefully not repeating itself.
BOGAEV: You know, you must’ve had moments. I just imagine the writers’ room where they just say, “Okay, enough with the Shakespeare thing. We got to get back into real hip-hop culture here.”
CHAIKEN: We try to always do both, and it’s what I was trying to describe earlier. It’s, sometimes we forget Shakespeare, and I mean not willfully or intentionally, like, “Oh, screw that, we’re not doing that anymore,” but just we’re telling our stories, we’re delving into the culture, but then we go deep into the story that we’ve told and say, “What’s the Shakespearean element or moment or meaning to this story that we’re telling?”
BOGAEV: What’s the favorite moment for you, say, the Shakespearean element in this season so far?
CHAIKEN: It’s going to come at the end of the season, so I can’t talk about it in terms of plot. But it’s all about the Shakespearean ruse, the manipulative king, the person who’s not whom, you know, who he or she appears to be, and the way in which love conquers all and things come together in the end. That’s going to be my favorite Shakespearean moment.
BOGAEV: Of the whole series?
CHAIKEN: Possibly of the whole show, and certainly of the season.
BOGAEV: Well that’s exciting, that’s something to look forward to. I really looked forward to this, and I am so enjoying binging my Empire. So thank you so much, and thanks for this so much, Irene.
CHAIKEN: Thank you. Thank you, thanks for having me.
WITMORE: Ilene Chaiken is showrunner for the hit Fox TV series Empire. She was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
“The World in Empire” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Jeff Peters at the Marketplace Studios in Los Angeles.
Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.