Two Bitter Swords

There's a lot of Banksy's work that I like, such as this, or this. His manifest is one of the best artist's manifests I've ever read (which isn't saying much).

I don't want to talk about the guy, although I think there can be some interesting discussions had.

I just want to talk about this image. The people of Bristol overwhelmingly (at least, on a city internet forum they were invited to express their opinions on, probably skewing the votes toward younger people) decided not to paint over it. It's amusing, you see.

Are you ready for my fuddiduddiness? There's nothing exceptional about the tableau; in fact, it's sort of iconic in nature, the sort of image/idea that is a part of our cultural background noise.

Is it funny? Come on. Can it be funny that a man is being cuckolded? (he's probably a bad husband) Is it funny that the woman is seeking to calm him, instead of being broken in guilt? (what good could come from admission) What about the naked guy? Why isn't he facing the other guy like a man? (he probably doesn't want to embarass the woman)

The painting may be shocking because it's on a wall in the middle of the city, but still, a commonplace tableau. And really, just depressing. It's not a funny scene. It's tragic.

I love the old song Matty Groves (if you don't follow any of the other links in this post, follow the previous one. The version is missing the excellent interaction between the servant and Lord Arnold/Arlen/Darlen/Daniel, but is really well sung).

You want to know a deep dark secret? There are two endings to the song, and I have a favorite. Both songs feature unrepentant Matty and Lady Arnold. But in one version, Lord Arnold returns, fights and kills Matty Groves, and the song ends with his wife crying and reviling him for killing the fairest man in all of England. In the more common ending, Arnold kills both of them, and then sinks to the ground, horrified that he had done so (sometimes calling them "the fairest pair in all of England"). It's interesting to note that in every version (there are more than two, but two outcomes where deaths are concerned) Lady Arnold loudly cries her loyalty to Matty Groves, usually insulting Lord Arnold in the process. That is when he kills her, is most versions stabbing her through the heart, in other cutting off her head "with his bitter sword."

That second ending is by far the better. The scene is tragic, and should end tragically. When Lord Arnold comes into the bedroom and finds them asleep in his bed, there are only two poetically true ending possible. Either one or both of the adulterers begs for forgiveness and mercy, or neither one repents. If Arnold turns a cold heart to a plea for mercy, he is suddenly a villain, not a tragic figure.

And that's what's wrong with Banksy's picture. Nobody's sorry (unless they're sorry he came home early). Nobody's crying.