Crimes of Grindelwald: Shakespeare!

Image result for crimes of grindelwaldBack in the summer, as we were speculating on the then-forthcoming new Fantastic Beasts film, I pondered the possibilities that loomed for our next installment in the magizooilogical adventures of Newt Scamander and his associates, especially as those possibilities connected to Shakespeare’s textbook comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Now, after seeing the film and taking a week to process my thoughts, I’m delighted to kick around some of the ways in which the film fulfilled and challenged the Shakespearean conventions I hoped to see taking center stage in this segment of the five-film series: Alchemy, Character Pair-ups, and the use of Humors and Elements. All of these are central to many of Shakespeare’s plays, including the romp through the fairy-haunted forests of Athens, and are crucial to the latest adventures from the Wizarding World. Join me after the jump as we take a look at each of these factors, in reverse order this time, to see how the link between these two performance-focused texts helps us understand where our story is heading.

Elementary (and Humor-ous, too!)

From the very first images released for the film, it seemed evident that Rowling and her team were telling a story centered on humors, much as Shakespeare’s often are. Those hints do pay off mightily in Crimes as we are frequently reminded of the power of the elements and the symbolism of humors.

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Water is the featured element this time around. Tying in beautifully with the first film’s conclusion using rain as a healing tool to wash away painful memories, Crimes opens with an awesome rainstorm that sets the stage for Grindelwald’s dramatic thestral-driven, role-switching, forked-tongue-flickering escape. The torrential downpour that soaks both pursuers and pursued through the epic chase sequence is not mere meteorological backdrop; in addition to adding to the imagery of the escape and adding to the plot by giving Grindelwald cover for his getaway, the storm also signals that this installment is going to be a soggy one, with all the symbolic value that carries.

Rowling has always used the elements, and their associated symbolism, particularly in her development of the Hogwarts Houses. Water is the element most connected to Slytherin, from the underwater house common room to the sewer secret hideout of Salazar Slytherin himself. This film, which is soggy with water references, is also a story focused on the dark arts and the darkest wizard known to the pre-Voldemort Wizarding World.

While the first film did have some water aspects, most notably that lovely ending, this film is “drowning” in them. Many are utterly central to the plot, such as the death at sea of young Corvus Lestrange, his billowing gown beneath the waves becoming the image that haunts his sister Leta her entire life, even taking her entire Defense against the Dark Arts class beneath the waves when she encounters a boggart. Image result for crimes of grindelwaldIn addition, Queenie’s tears in a rain shower lead to her recruitment by Grindelwald and his cult, another pivotal moment in the film. But even non-essential moments provide nods to the watery theme: when Newt and Jacob slip out of the country in defiance of his Ministry travel ban, they do so in a bucket portkey staffed by a salty old fisherman on the cliffs of Dover; the weird parasite pulled from Kama’s eye is an aquatic one, sewer vermin; and, my personal favorite, Newt’s big opening creature moment is with a kelpie. The  kelpie sequence is lovely, illustrating Newt’s obvious ease with the dangerous creature (evidenced by Bunty’s bandaged finger) in contrast to his unease with human beings, particularly those he just left at the Ministry of Magic, but there is really no reason it should be a kelpie with whom our heroic Hufflepuff is interacting; it could have been any other impressive creature from Newt’s awesome basement bestiary,  but the kelpie stresses the water theme in this film.

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The humors, like the elements, also stress the fact that this is both a story that reflects Shakespearean themes and a story that is taking us down to some dark places. The humor that seems to rule is black bile, the humor of melancholy, of regret, which is the subject of Dumbledore’s wonderful conversation with Leta shortly after her inspection of a graffitied desk that features a Deathly Hallows symbol. Leta’s consuming regret, along with the emphasis on the melancholic figure of Credence (see the great post on the humor assignments of these characters), reminds us that black bile is the humor of focus in this story, and just in case we don’t get it, the melancholy is stressed by the use of thestrals, the animals only visible by those who have witnessed death, and by the plot device of Grindelwald’s gang using a hearse as they infiltrate the Muggle building that will become their headquarters and murder the family within.

I expect the humor structure will be more obvious as we go along with the other films, as it is important to remember this is part of a set.  If, as I suspect, Rowling is following the conventional five-act structure of the Shakespearean comedy with her five-film cycle, our first film was the first half of the frame structure (implying we’ll be back to NYC at the end, perhaps), and this one, like Act II in Midsummer Night’s Dream (MND), is about a whole lot going wrong before things can go right later, especially in matters of the heart.

Uncoupling Pairs and Partners

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That iconic promo poster also told us that, like Shakespeare, Rowling is telling us a story about couples, and the movie does not fail on that promise. Indeed, this is a film about pairs, including siblings, sweethearts, and switched babies: all themes Shakespeare also uses, particularly in MND. While Newt and Theseus certainly don’t have the kind of fireworks the bard brings to some of his sibling pairs, like the demented daughters of Lear, determined to kill their sister (and everyone else), they reflect his interest in the power of family foils. Because they are also romantic rivals for Leta, they also mirror the rivalry of MND’s Demetrius and Lysander, even as the forthcoming marriage of Theseus Scamander and Leta Lestrange is a clear allusion to the wedding of Theseus, Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. That Shakespearean allusion has a particularly nice connection in the film as well, since, in their conversation that opens the play, the Duke and the Amazon reveal their different perceptions of time based on their reactions to the forthcoming nuptials:


Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace; four happy days bring in
Another moon: but, O, methinks, how slow
This old moon wanes! she lingers my desires,
Like to a step-dame or a dowager
Long withering out a young man revenue.


Four days will quickly steep themselves in night;
Four nights will quickly dream away the time;
And then the moon, like to a silver bow
New-bent in heaven, shall behold the night
Of our solemnities.

For Theseus, eager for the wedding, the moon’s progress seems painfully slow in marking the time, while Hippolyta, the prize of war marrying her conqueror, sees that the moon is moving plenty fast enough, thank you very much, and her reference to the moon as a bow references her warlike nature. Like Leta, she is “bad,” but more importantly, she is utterly connected to the moon. At the end of the play, during the hilarious performance by the mechanicals, she makes profound comments on the figure of Image result for prisoner of azkaban boggartthe moon, because, as an Amazon, she is lunar-oriented. Leta’s riveting boggart encounter, which  leaves even Dumbledore speechless, should remind us of another professor using a boggart to let students practice the spell to repel the shapeshifters:  Remus Lupin. The reluctant werewolf’s boggart lessons morph into Harry’s dementor-fighting lessons, and for the professor the boggart always takes the same form: the moon, reminding him of his monthly metamorphosis into a monster. Leta’s boggart reminds her that she, too, is a monster, though, as she tells Newt, her only real childhood friend, he “never met a monster he couldn’t love.” By filming the scene in this film almost identically to that in Prisoner of Azkaban, our movie wizards are internally making some powerful connections that lead us back to Shakespeare.

Although MND is, of course, a story about couples, and although this movie has been heavily promoted with couple-themed photos, Crimes  ends with most of our pairs uncoupled. Queenie and Jacob, who seemed the most enamored of all the pairs coming into this story, are apart, torn away from each other by Queenie’s attempt to use a love spell, like the love flower in MND, to convince Jacob to marry her despite laws to the contrary and by the machinations of Grindelwald (I’m not convinced Queenie has really gone to the dark side; remember,  Rowling had a man working as a double agent for over  seventeen years, so stay tuned, sports fans). Nagini, who has been so protective of Credence, is separated from him, Leta and Theseus are separated by Leta’s apparent death (again, time will tell if that was what really happened), and even the troubled link between Dumbledore and Grindelwald is on the brink of being broken, thanks to a light-fingered Niffler (well, they aren’t fingers, exactly, of course). Only Tina and Newt, who have been at odds throughout most of the story, via a classic Shakespearean misunderstanding, are still together when the credits roll. Those credits, though, are one of the most important parts of the film, due to the way the characters are paired up, not all in the ways we expect. But by matching up the faces, the filmmakers stress how this is a movie about pairs.

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Not all those pairs are romantic, of course. Shakespeare loved foils and doubling, and so does Rowling. One of the most important kinds of doubling in MND is the concept of the changeling, the human child stolen away by fairies and replaced with one of their own. That is a powerful theme throughout the film as well, as Leta’s inadvertent switch of her inconsolable brother with a more docile child, who apparently grows up to become Credence Barebone. Credence’s true identity is still quite a mystery, though the possibility that he is the host to Ariana’s Obscurus, or even her child if the Muggle attack upon her was actually a rape, are both much more likely than the story told to him by the silver-tongued deceiver of the title. It is quite possible that he was actually a Muggle, at least at the time of the switch, which would stress the changeling motif. (And what are the chances that other passengers on that ship were wizards, anyway? Considering the loss of life in the sinking, if there were wizards on board, they were pretty crummy ones).   The half-siblings and switched children are not just plot devices for this film: they are definitely Shakespearean elements and part of the theme of pairs and doubles.

Alchemy to the Rescue

Shakespeare, that master of literary alchemy, would certainly have approved of the film’s use of alchemical elements, even if he didn’t know how critical the theme of alchemy has been since we all started this journey with a messy-haired kid who lived under the stairs and managed to save the Philosopher’s Stone. It did take him a while, partly because he overlooked a minor sentence on Chocolate Frog cImage result for chocolate frog card dumbledoreard that explained the identity of Nicholas Flamel. Of course, the appearance of Flamel himself in this film was a big alchemical moment that took us back to that all-important card clue (after all, our heroes find Flamel’s safehouse because Dumbledore gives Newt a magic card), but his role in the film is far more important. Though he seems pretty frail, Flamel is a vital part of the story. The symbol on his card and shop, resembling that of the planet Mars, not only pulls us back to that messy-haired kid and the reminder that “Mars is bright,” Image result for flamel safehouse card grindelwaldbut it also reminds us that battle is at hand, and it’s a battle that our protagonists (and probably the entire city of Paris) only survive because of Flamel’s intervention. His instruction to thrust their wands into the earth leads to a circle that contains Grindelwald’s flames. It’s a powerful alchemical moment, with the red-gold circle of flames defeating the blue flames within.

Alchemy, though, is woven throughout the movie in far more subtle ways as well, from the recurrence of the Phoenix to the name “Aurelius,” meaning golden.  Golden touches are frequently scattered throughout, little alchemy clues, like Tina’s golden footprints that lead Newt in his quest to find her.

Of course, the alchemical clues in this film are just part of the bigger picture, a picture we will only be able to really understand once we have the complete story. Unfortunately, in our impatience as filmgoers, we are not always able to process the slow work that is alchemy, at least not at first, any more than we are able to grasp Shakespeare on the first time we read or watch one of his plays.

I look forward to our on-going conversation about the Shakespearean aspects of the new film and about many other features in this film and those that follow, and I look forward to reading your thoughts, too (but not like Queenie. You have to type them…)Image result for crimes of grindelwald


  1. John,

    Thank you for pointing me to this post. I confess that I missed many of the golden aspects of this movie such as the footsteps.

    I was wondering why the movie makers kept the kelpie sequence as it seemed to take a long time to film when it didn’t really move the plot forward. Perhaps it will come to bear in a later installment. Then again, maybe JKR stressed they needed this water sequence, but didn’t really explain why it was necessary to the director. (I kinda doubt that directors would go along with a scene being included to fulfill alchemical symbolism more than it would for tangible plot points. That’s more of the bookkeeper mentality taking precedence over artistic vision, which is what I think happens more often than not.)

    Trivia bit: Staphylococcus aureus the scientific name for one of the nastiest bacterial pathogens is named aureus for the golden color of the colonies. (However, most Staph colonies I have seen in the laboratory have been white, demonstrating how bacteria evolves over the years and not just in becoming resistant to antibiotics.)

    That mention of Staph aureus was to bolster the idea of the name Aurelius pointing to gold. I don’t think it is likely that Ariana’s Obscurius resides in Aurelius. Instead, I think that the years of abuse at the hands of his adopted mother brought about that manifestation of uncontrolled magic in Credence/Aurelius. If anything, I agree with your hypothesis that Ariana also had an Obscurius. That would be due to her abuse at a young age is likely and demonstrates this can happen to magical children when they suffer extreme abuse. So I believe that both Ariana and Aurelius developed an Obscurus/uncontrolled magic.

    I wonder if the abuse to Ariana was a rape, but if she was supposed to be about six years old when it happened, I cannot see that she became pregnant at that time. And, if she had uncontrolled magic, it seems unlikely she would have been raped at a later time without her magical powers killing the would-be rapist. Besides, then Aurelius would be Albus’ nephew and not brother.

  2. Thank you so much for this wonderful comment!! How lovely to know that even the humble staph infection has a touch of gold in its name if not in its nature.

    I also don’t buy into the popular theories about Credence being Ariana’s child (although if the Muggle boys’ assault against her included sexual assault, that might explain both her long-term trauma and her father’s violent retribution despite the inevitable trip to Azkaban it would entail) yet, considering how this installment has played fast and loose with ages and dates, the timeline issue isn’t an immediate ticket to the curb for the theory. I just think it’s too awful, and I expect something more magical to be revealed in future.
    Thanks again!

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