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  • Alexis Howell

No Guts, No Glory

Media constantly evolves, but one tradition that has remained constant through centuries is adapting previous work to your own style. The first time I watched Emerald Fennell’s ‘Saltburn,’ I couldn’t help noticing the persistent references to Shakespeare: the Catton’s folio collection, Oliver’s birthday party themed after ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ I realized ‘Saltburn’ is a postmodern retelling of the Shakesperian tragedy ‘Richard III’ when Oliver is asked whether he’d, “fuck, chuck, or marry” English kings Richard III, Henry VII, and Henry VIII.  

The antihero of ‘Saltburn,’ Ollie, is the epitome of Machiavellian characters: he’s conniving and deceptive. He manipulates, murders, and cheats to gain the Saltburn estate and the power that comes with it in the name of self-interest and obsession. Characters of the Machiavellian archetype use cheap excuses to justify their deeds, and it’s not their grievances that drive them to villainy but gleeful homicidal ambition.

Richard III is aroused by murdering his family to gain power. While other Machiavellian characters have justifiable grievances driving them, Richard III doesn’t, and his reason for justifying his means is his physical disability. Similarly, Oliver fabricates a story of his “addict” mother and “dead” father to gain access to Saltburn, and his profound love and obsession over Felix is his cheap excuse for him to be horrible.

Richard and Oliver have a serpentine charm that helps them manipulate others by smooth-talking their way out of trouble. In the Shakespeare play, Anne ridicules Richard for killing her husband, his brother – but succumbs to his seduction through his reptilian rizz. She also dies offstage, which some imply was done by Richard. In parallel, when Oliver poisons Felix and steps into his role (literally by wearing his robe and aftershave), Venetia voices that she has noticed, then is immediately seduced and subsequently murdered.

Richard III’s character directly addresses the audience with the honesty of his malintent. I would argue that Fennell intended to use Oliver’s monologue throughout the film as a device for him to speak directly to the viewers. While we find out in the end that he’s talking to incapacitated Elspeth, I think Fennell used this as a device for Oliver to address the audience directly. There is one metatheatrical aspect of this that convinces me why, and it’s right before Oliver poisons Felix. Ollie says, “Everyone puts on a show for Felix. So I’m sorry if my performance wasn’t good enough.” In doing so, Ollie refers to how everyone tries to impress Felix but also addresses his performance as a character in the film. His lie wasn’t good enough to keep his well-off family a secret, so Felix must die. By addressing the performance, Oliver makes us, the voyeurs, complacent in his crimes and success.

Fennell’s maximalist attention to detail and Oliver’s tragic flaw, flourishing him rather than perishing him, are the reasons I call ‘Saltburn’ a postmodern adaptation. With the combination of silly moments and characters disappearing after one another, Fennell shows us there is a thin line between comedy and tragedy.


Art by Randy (Ethan Choi)


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