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BlogNovember-December, 2010
Shakespearean Elements in The Deer Hunter

“I fear, too early: for my mind misgives

Some consequence yet hanging in the stars

Shall bitterly begin his fearful date

With this night's revels and expire the term

Of a despised life closed in my breast

By some vile forfeit of untimely death. 

But He, that hath the steerage of my course,

Direct my sail! On, lusty gentlemen." 

Romeo, Act I Scene IV, Romeo and Juliet


“On, lusty gentlemen,” could very well be the mantra of The Deer Hunter, a story of camaraderie and conflict among six male friends in Clairton, Pennsylvania. They hunt, they drink, they punch each other, they race cars, they quarrel, they sing. They enjoy what’s left of their bachelorhood.

Speaking strictly in the company of men, Romeo fears “some consequence yet hanging in the stars / Shall bitterly begin his fearful date / With this night’s revels.” Likewise, the opening male merriments of The Deer Hunter are seasoned with augury. Mike Vronsky (Robert De Niro) points to sun dogs in the sky. “It means a blessing on the hunter sent by the great wolf to his children,” he says.

“What the fuck are you talking about,” replies Stanley Stosh (John Cazale) with a grin.

Vronsky: No, it’s an old Indian thing.

Stosh (turning serious): You’re full of shit.

Vronsky: Stanley, would I shit you about something like that?

Stosh: You know, Mike, there’s times when nobody but a doctor can understand you.

Vronsky (speaking to the group, rather than directly to Stosh): That’s an omen, you know that? You know that we could have one great fucking hunting trip tonight?

Later scenes elucidate the Stosh-Vronsky tension. Toward the end of the first act, they nearly shoot each other when Vronsky refuses to lend Stosh his boots. In the scene, Vronsky condescends to Stosh, glibly telling him, “No means no.” In turn, Stosh calls Vronsky a fag. Only the social suavity of Nick Chevotarevich (Christopher Walken) keeps the peace. In the third act – with Chevotarevich stuck in Vietnam and unable to intercede – Vronsky fires a partially loaded pistol into Stosh’s temple.

The Deer Hunter’s sublimity stems from its portrayals of how the best of pals can get into the worst of fights. The Stosh-Vronsky conflict and the Chevotarevich-Vronsky duel it foreshadows have teeth precisely because the film is faithful to their friendships.

We get our first glimpse of the Stosh-Vronsky friendship at the wedding. In a rare display of bashfulness, Vronsky is initially a wallflower at the party. He gets drunk and sneaks smiles at Chevotarevich’s girl, Linda (Meryl Streep). When the band leader introduces Vronsky to loud applause, Vronsky is reluctant to leave the bar.

It is Stosh who bear-hugs Vronsky from behind and lugs him to the dance floor. Next, Stosh falls down and Vronsky lands on top of him. Soon the two men are laughing and dancing with each other. They embrace and twirl for nearly half a minute. At one point, Stosh wants to let go but Vronsky wants to keep dancing. As a viewer you forget this moment – until Stosh reminds you of it later by calling Vronsky a fag.
The strength of male bonds is just as important to the plot of Romeo and Juliet. The Romeo-Mercutio relationship gives Romeo a motive for dueling with Tybalt after Tybalt slays Mercutio. Some critics, including Harold Bloom, believe Shakespeare went slightly awry by making Mercutio more interesting than Romeo. When Mercutio dies, Romeo gets a motive, but the play also loses its most captivating stage presence – with two acts remaining. To quote Holden Caulfield on the subject: “I felt much sorrier when old Mercutio got killed than when Romeo and Juliet did” (111).

The Deer Hunter is far from flawless, but it exceeds Romeo and Juliet in tragic power for one simple reason: Not until the very end of the story does the most sympathetic character die. That character is the eminently likable Chevotarevich, the peacekeeper and merrymaker of the group. When asked by Vronsky what he enjoys about hunting, Chevotarevich simply replies, “I like the know...the way the trees are.” The way he says it, he is speaking from his heart.

He is hardly the type of character you would expect to fire a gun into his own forehead. That he ends up doing so is a testament to how events in The Deer Hunter both transform his personality and obliterate his formerly irrepressible will to live.


Ilan Mochari's fiction has been published in Keyhole and honored by
Glimmer Train. In 2009, he received a Literature Artist Fellowship grant from the Somerville Arts Council, a local agency supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. He is a former staff writer for Inc, and he has also written for Fortune Small Business and CFO. He has a B.A. in English from Yale University.

    © 2008 Ilan Mochari  
Ilan Mochari