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Were Knights 'Real' in Shrek?

“A system of values that knights in the Middle Ages were expected to follow”, values that were further defined as loyalty, defense, courage, justice, faith, humility, and nobility, this is chivalry (Merriam-Webster & Gonder).

Shrek showcases what is known as an “ironical revisitation” of the classic tale of the knight, teaching readers that Shrek’s evolution throughout the movie represented the characters shift from ironic mockery of the cliched knight, to someone a character who truly embodied a knight (Travels in Hyperreality). The movie almost immediately sets itself up to as a film that takes place in a fictionalized version of the Middle Ages; the film presents numerous fictional characters (i.e. Pinocchio, the Big Bad Wolf, the Three Little Pigs, etc.) and paints them as mainstays of the world Shrek inhabits. Despite the fact that the film inhabits a fictionalized universe, featuring kind and harmless versions of most fictional characters, the knights in the film are far from kind, and far from chivalrous. Despite the knights seemingly inhabiting the same socioeconomic class as they did in the Middle Ages, noble men who worked beneath the king, the knights in Shrek seem to ignore all senses of courage, justice, faith, and nobility, in favor of an overwhelming loyalty to their tyrannical leader, Lord Farquad.

The first act of Shrek begins by familiarizing the audience with a selfish, volatile, and content ogre. Shrek’s selfish nature is embodied by his need and content with living alone – as portrayed by the opening montage – and his volatility by his insistence on scaring the general public that surrounds his swamp. Rather than beginning the film by introducing a character longing to embody what it means to be a knight, and to be a knight, Shrek introduces a character that wants nothing more than the opposite, an ironical satire of the cliched knight. Shrek directly juxtaposes this cliched trope, and this is very well illustrated at the outset of the film; Shrek begins the film sitting in his outhouse making snide remarks about the ‘classic’ tale of the knight. Interestingly, the audience isn’t even privy to the fact that Shrek is in his outhouse until 45 seconds into Shrek’s narration of the book he’s reading. As he reaches the end of the story and discusses how the knight and princess he’d saved would fall in love, Shrek remarks, “like that’s ever going to happen”, proceeding to tear the final page of the story out and – seemingly – use the story he sees as a, “load of sh*t”, as a means to wipe his sh*t (Scene 1). While this scene almost immediately clarifies that this film is a satire and not a supposed to be a ‘love story’ – as the first 45 seconds imply – it also serves as the perfect introduction for Shrek’s crass, volatile and blunt behavior. Further suggesting that this movie will serve as a mockery to the classic knight’s tale, besides stating that it (the outcome illustrated in the knight’s tale) won’t ever be occurring, is the fact that – as aforementioned – Shrek uses the final page of the story as toilet paper, implying both the story and what it represents are “beneath” Shrek. Interestingly this scene actually serves as more than a means of establishing the story as a satire, it also introduces the obvious fact that Shrek is clearly not knight-like and he doesn’t want to be. Shrek’s position as a character who juxtaposes a knight is further evidenced by the sequences that follow Shrek’s time in the bathroom; playing to Smash Mouth’s All Star the montage follows Shrek as he goes through his typical day: painting ‘keep out’ signs, brushing his teeth with mud, showering with mud, and eating eyeballs (Scene 1). Shrek’s selfish attitude endures through the movies first act until it’s final manifestation in which Shrek, for his own reasons combats numerous knights (who are supposed to represent chivalry); remarkably this further plays into the films overall satire as well. Rather than combating the beast and slaying it, as the knight did at the beginning of the book (in Shrek’s outhouse), these knights are actually bested by the beast (Scene 2). Shrek remains a selfish creature of satire throughout the duration of the movie’s first act but, much like the cliched hero in the tale whom he detests, Shrek begins to evolve into something more as the story progresses and his true quest begins.

The second act of Shrek displays the character’s shift from opposition to/of being a knight to an embracement of the cause he has taken up, while his motivations at this point in the movie are selfish in nature, his shift from selfish and closed off is also extremely evident. At this point in the film the audience has seen Shrek display traits of loyalty – to an end – courage, and even nobility in his cause. It is at this point in the film that the audience also sees Shrek’s shift from “creature of satire” – a character whose actions make the film a satire – to a satirical plot device – a character whose existence and being are the satire. Before the movies second act it was Shrek’s direct actions (his words) that made the movie a satire of the classic knight’s tale, but during the second and third acts of the film it is Shrek’s general action, as a hero, that still makes Shrek a mockery of the cliched tale of the knight, because Shrek isn’t a knight. Shrek’s growth is most exemplified in a scene in which the audience sees him walking through a field of corn with Donkey. The two eventually reach a clearing and Shrek picks an onion and, after a remark from Donkey, begins to describe how he – like the onion – has layers. This scene in particular expresses just how much of a shift Shrek has made since the beginning of the film, after telling Donkey that “Ogres are like onions”, Shrek proceeds to explain that they have layers, and then halts his response (Scene 2). At first glance, this line doesn’t seem to represent much but after careful analysis it actually seems to best represent Shrek’s shift into a character that represents a satire of the cliched knight; Shrek’s comments about Ogre’s having layers also denotes that he is wearing an armor. Much like both Shrek, and an onion, knights wear a protective armor to protect the true human within, and beneath that armor resides a living being with emotion and depth; in stating that he is like an onion – and by extension a knight – Shrek is admitting that he’s a more complex character then previously thought. In peeling back the layers of an onion, the onion becomes rawer in both a literal – eyes burning and tearing – sense whereas Shrek admits, at this point, that he is similar – with emotions beneath his protective hide. Shrek wears a figurative armor to protect what his character has buried deep inside, beneath his layers, he has the potential to be more chivalrous and heroic, successfully establishing the “monster” as the “knight” of the story, and further representing the movie’s satire.

By the movie’s third act, long gone is the selfish ogre who the audience had been introduced to at the outset of the film, and in his place the spectators are presented with a character with not only depth, but someone who cares for others – a stark contrast to the Shrek we knew. The film’s second act presented the audience with Shrek’s potential to be more than he was, while the final act of the film capitalizes on this notion; this cements the character as the idealized and cliched knight, making the “beast” into a “knight”, and further satirizing the knights tale seen as the beginning of the film. One of the final scenes of the film features Shrek – after debating if he should or should not – halting Lord Farquaad’s marriage ceremony (to Fiona). While at first glance the audience might interpret these actions as selfish – which whould be a regression for Shrek’s character – they are soon treated with to Shrek stating that, “He’s [ Farquaad’s] just marrying you to be king”, confirming Shrek’s actions were to benefit both himself and Fiona (Scene 3). The scene resumes as Shrek states that “He’s not your true love”, a line cut short as Lord Farquaad laughs and states, “the ogre has fallen in love with the princess” (Scene 3). After an exchange between Shrek, Fiona, Farquaad and [a] dragon, Shrek returns to his swamp with Fiona and openly welcomes guests to his “new” home. The entirety of the film’s ending is representative of Shrek’s shift as a character, in saving Fiona from a loveless marriage – he shows honor – and in welcoming people into his swamp and having a happy ending (until Shrek 2), Shrek shows that he – regardless of what was said at the outset of the film – did partake in the same type of fairytale story he had once laughed at. In doing this, Shrek confirms itself as a satire of the cliched tale of the knight, rather than having an actual knight fulfill the role of hero, the monster, and the honorable knights and heroes fulfill the role of the monster.

While Shrek is a film set in what can only be described as an extremely fictionalized version of medieval times, most of the movies characters seem to serve as very satirical takes on characters of the classical and cliched tale of the knight. Not only is the princess more than capable of taking care of herself, not a damsel in distress, but the hero of the movie is actually the “beast”, rather than the knight and the knights of the film are the “monsters”. Rather than remain a selfish, self centered and irrational beast, Shrek evolves throughout the film to embody traits typically only seen the most chivalrous knights of medieval times such as honor, a drive for justice, ability to accept humility, loyalty, and defense.

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