"Barry" Draws Parallels With Macbeth; Not Quite Shakespearean

September 26, 2018

In the fifth episode of HBO's "Barry"—which has gained some steam after two Emmy wins last week— the female lead, Sarah Goldberg, says to Bill Hader's PTSD addled ex-Marine, "are we really debating the morality of murder right now?"

They are on stage, part of an acting class Barry uses to find potential escape from the demons and trauma he has earned in battle and in his post-war profession as a hitman. Prompting the discussion is a scene from Macbeth, William Shakespeare's shortest and bloodiest tragedy, namely, the moment where Macbeth has invited the current King of Scotland into his estate with intentions of assassinating him and usurping the throne.

A war hero and holder of titles, Macbeth is already on the rise within his fiefdom, but a prophecy from three wild witches leads him to believe that he must kill the King, his confidante Banquo, and pretty much anyone else that gets in his way. He even puts a hit out on a fellow nobleman's wife and son when he deems them a threat to his ascendancy.


Macbeth indeed becomes king, but is tormented by literal and figurative ghosts, and his descent into hell is accompanied by spots and visions, floating daggers, and the tortured sleepwalking of his wife, Lady Macbeth, who is unsettled by the blood she just can't wash from her hands.

"Barry" works some of these motifs through the second half of its first season, particularly in episode seven where we see Barry attempting to slap the visions of his deceased friend from his memory; a friend he has just had to make a dire decision about. A mirror shatters.


And though "Barry" takes cues from Shakespeare, it brings in a levity that isn't present in Macbeth, namely through Henry Winkler, who excellently plays the vibrant acting coach his aspirers deserve.

Shakespeare's plays mostly fell into four categories: the Tragedies (the hero dies), the Comedies (the hero lives), the Histories and, especially in his later years, the Romances, or tragi-comics. It took some time to figure out where "Barry" could fit into these categories—after all it's a Bill Hader show. And while its irony and darkly comedic sequences—like the one where a Chechen and Bolivian ganglord chat about self-help books while declaring war on each other—shield us from the underlying violence of the show, "Barry" mostly settles on the latter, a Romance: part comedy, part tragedy, and part love story, full of bloody sub-plots.


Indeed, Barry's longest relationship is the one he has with death, and it is an intimate one. While viewers root for him to pull away from the madness, he seems to be drawn back time and time again by an innate flaw, each killing conundrum growing weightier than the next.

Overall, the plot lines aren't as convoluted nor the dialogue as sharp as a Shakespeare, but Bill Hader and co-writer Alec Berg get a lot right in this eight-episode, often well-directed series, which has been renewed for a second season on HBO.

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