The Social Network: Modern Day Shakespeare?
Aaron Sorkin’s script for ‘The Social Network’ might claim to take it’s inspiration from Ben Mezrich’s ‘The Accidental Billionaires’ but what is clear, to all but the most uninformed viewer, is that he is not interested in the real events that took place, but in the characters and the outcome.
The outcome is simple. They’re all billionaires, even Dustin Moskowitz and Chris Hughes (Zuckerberg’s Harvard roommates). Even Eduardo Saverin is estimated to have in excess of a billion USD. So what actually went wrong? For a movie all about conflict, it seems to have a pretty happy ending. Well, anyone who’s seen the movie can tell you that the settlements with Saverin and the Winklevoss twins (and, indeed, Zuckerberg’s own financial fortunes) were only alluded to in brief subtitles after the action of the movie had been completed. So we can assume that what Sorkin and Fincher are really interested in is, not the business or legal side of the affair, but how two best friends ended up mixed up a billion dollar law suit. To arrive at this conclusion they construct, with some regard to the original story, a complex and labyrinthine narrative of comradeship, betrayal and confused motivations.
The easiest parallel to draw is that of ‘Othello’. It is clear that in constructing the non-linear narrative of the film, Sorkin was intent upon producing a modern film. The writer, who is responsible for the political drama ‘The West Wing’, is no panderer to times gone by, always choosing current affairs and events for his work. Therefore it might seem strange that ‘The Social Network’ is so infused with Shakespearean qualities. But, in every character, the relation is clear: Zuckerberg is Othello; brilliant but confused and ultimately victim of his own jealousy. Saverin is Desdemona; innocent and pure, but steadfastly blind to Othello’s fury. And, most obviously, Sean Parker is Iago; power hungry and ambitious; determined to manipulate Othello to his will. The real situation is unlikely to have played out anything like ‘Othello’ (or indeed ‘The Social Network’ for that matter), but in the film the characters are more than echoes of their Shakespearean counterparts.
But there are other clues too. The Harvard setting, an elite and prestigious institution, fits with the courts and castles that stretch from Elizabethan London to Elsinor of Shakespearean literature. The class divide between the brilliant students like Zuckerberg and the members of the Phoenix club is pure Montagues and Capulets. But perhaps most vividly the character of Macbeth sticks in mind. Zuckerberg is almost inch for inch the doomed king. Kenneth Muir, the Shakespearean scholar says that ‘Macbeth has not a predisposition to murder; he has merely an inordinate ambition that makes murder itself seem to be a lesser evil than failure to achieve the crown.’ If I reword the statement as ‘Zuckerberg has not a predisposition to screw over Saverin; he has merely an inordinate ambition that makes screwing Saverin over seem to be a lesser evil than failing to achieve his vision of Facebook, then the connection is almost scarily obvious. As if to strengthen the similarity, Macbeth was intended by Shakespeare to wear mismatching and unpopular clothes, or as it is put, he should look like he is ‘dressed in borrowed clothes’. Zuckerbeg himself is rarely seen in the movie wearing anything other than a North Face fleece, except to put on pajamas and surf shorts. Indeed the fact that he wears socks and sandals becomes a running assessment of his character.
Sure, the setting is modern, as modern as any film ever made. But the story comes from the most doomed, tragic characters from the annals of Shakespeare. Zuckerberg is driven by jealousy (of the established elite, of Sean Parker and, crucially, of Eduardo Saverin) and this is a most famously Shakespearean motivation. He is, in essence, Macbeth, Othello, Leontes, Romeo and Hamlet- doomed by the machinations of his own mind. Eduardo Saverin works out of trust rather than instinct, closing his eyes to the reality of the situation. He is Desdemona, Hermione, Cordelia, Juliet, Duncan and Ophelia. Sean Parker is motivated by a thirst for power and assisted by his talent for seduction and manipulation. He is the quintessential psychological villain, in the mould of Tybalt, Lady Macbeth, Claudius and, most obviously, Iago.
If Shakespeare were to be writing in the 21st century his witty and rhythmic dialogue would probably sounded a lot like Sorkin’s, and as stories go, ‘The Social Network’ is the essential modern day Shakespeare- brilliant innocence, astronomical rise, onset of jealousy and temptation, betrayal and, ultimately, tragedy.