Frank Stockton's "The Lady or the Tiger?" A young man, the forbidden lover of a princess, is sentenced to a trial by ordeal: in front of thousands of onlookers, he must choose between two doors. Behind one waits a tiger, behind the other waits a lovely maiden. Only the princess herself possesses the knowledge that will save her lover's life, though in doing so, she will send him into the arms of another woman. Stockton leaves whether or not she saves her beau to the reader's imagination.
The movie Gladiator also revolves around public spectacle and matters of justice and injustice. The main character, Maximus, a respected general and loyal subject of the Roman Empire, has been betrayed by Commodus, the Emperor. Sold into slavery, his family murdered, Maximus longs for revenge. He is forced to become a gladiator and use his strength to kill for the amusement of the mobs. At first, he resists this role, but his master, a former gladiator, reminds him that if he can get the people on his side, he will be invincible. Maximus takes the advice to heart and works to make the people his ally. When he is taken to fight at the Coliseum in Rome, he comes face-to-face with his old enemy Commodus. Commodus longs to have him killed, but Maximus is too popular for Commodus to risk it. Eventually, Maximus is able to avenge himself, though he does so at the cost of his own life.
The short story, "The Lady or the Tiger?" And the movie, Gladiator, have many similarities. Both utilize public spectacle as a way to control and soothe the citizens of a country; both address betrayal or the possibility of betrayal; and both involve a tyrant who arbitrarily wields the power of life and death over his citizens. However by no means are the two pieces completely alike. Whereas the princess's hapless lover in "The Lady or the Tiger?" faces a harsh but fair trial, Commodus's challenges offer only the appearance of fairness. In truth, every competition is heavily stacked against Maximus. Another difference lies in the character's relationships with others. All of the characters in "The Lady or the Tiger?" are primarily concerned with themselves; the protagonists in Gladiator are often more concerned with the well-being of others or with the greater good of the country. Finally, "The Lady or the Tiger?" is deliberately ambiguous throughout; Gladiator is not.
Both the short story and the movie utilize spectacle to entertain and appease the masses. Stockton's father was a strict, conservative Methodist minister who disapproved of all forms of light entertainment. Although Stockton himself became a popular writer, it appears that some of his father's inherent suspicion of games and spectacles has crept into his work (Golemba 18).
Stockton explains the perfection of the king's method of justice in "The Lady or the Tiger?" As follows: "Thus the masses were entertained and pleased, and the thinking part of the community could bring no charge of unfairness against this plan; for did not the accused person have the whole matter in his own hands?" (70). Gladiator director Ridley Scott also shows how the games in the arena often had political motives (Scott 9). Commodus, for instance, comes up with the idea of sponsoring 150 days of games after his senators chide him for not doing more to end an epidemic that has broken out. When one senator speculates this tactic will make Commodus a laughingstock, the another replies. "I think he knows what Rome is. Rome's the mob....He'll bring them death, and they will love him for it." Ironically, Commodus's plan leads to the elevation of Maximus as a hero of the people, a man so popular even Commodus cannot touch him. Writer David Franzoni elaborates. "The most powerful man in Rome [Commodus] suddenly realizes his nemesis is a sports superstar in the very arena he has created to keep himself in power -- and the crowd says 'thumbs up.' The Emperor can't do a damn thing about it" (qtd. In Soriano).
Second, the short story and the movie each deal with the theme of betrayal. In "The Lady or the Tiger?" The betrayal is not a certainty. It is one of two possible endings. The reader never knows whether the princess actually sends her lover to his death rather than see him wed another woman. Interestingly, Stockton gives the reader no hint that the lover himself suspects the princess is capable of betrayal. She tells him which door to open, and he opens it. In Gladiator, the betrayal is specific. Lucilla, the sister of Commodus, who has been helping Maximus in his plan to escape and lead his army to conquer Commodus, breaks down and confides the plot to her brother. The viewer cannot help but sympathize with her, though. Unlike the princess, who is ready to betray her lover out of jealousy, Lucilla betrays Maximus because Commodus has threatened her young son.
Another element shared by "The Lady or the Tiger?" And Gladiator is the presence of a tyrant who rules with an iron fist, wielding the power of life and death arbitrarily. Perhaps Stockton's king, a "man of exuberant fancy, and, withal, of an authority so irresistible that, at his will, he turned his varied fancies into facts" (68) was not unlike his own uncompromising father. Like Stockton's king, Commodus in Gladiator is a dictator. Unlike Stockton's king, however, he is an insecure, emotionally troubled man who, as Maximus points out, has been afraid since birth. The more threatened he feels, the more cruel his behavior becomes.
The Lady or the Tiger?" And Gladiator both employ spectacle as a means of controlling the common people; both involve betrayal; and both stories feature tyrants in positions of power. However, the short story and the movie also have some significant differences. In "The Lady or the Tiger?" The justice in the arena is harsh but fair. Every man has a 50-50 chance, no matter how the king might feel personally about the allegations or the accused criminal. As the king watches his daughter's lover entering the arena, for instance, Stockton tells us his thoughts: "No matter how the affair turned out, the youth would be disposed of [through marriage or death]; and the king would take an aesthetic pleasure in watching the course of events, which would determine whether or not the young man had done wrong in allowing himself to love the princess" (71). In Gladiator, however, Emperor Commodus does his best to preclude any chance of Maximus winning in the arena. For instance, he deliberately pits Maximus against a retired champion and, unbeknownst to Maximus, arranges for a tiger to be placed in the arena as well. Through great skill, Maximus wins that battle. Commodus decides to fight Maximus himself, however before the fight, he stabs Maximus in the chest and orders the guards to hide the wound the mob. He only wants to give the appearance of a fair fight. Maximus actually winning is an outcome that is unacceptable to him.
Another difference lies in how the main characters in each piece relate to each other. In "The Lady or the Tiger?" each of the main characters is concerned about his or her own self-interests. The king wants his spectacle. The lover of the princess wants to live. The princess isn't sure what she wants, but she is focused only on how the different outcomes will affect her. She spares no thought for what is best for the man she supposedly loves. In contrast, one of the recurring themes in Gladiator involves duty and obligation to others. Lucilla, for instance, does not betray Maximus for her own gain, but to ensure the survival of her small son. Maximus, similarly, puts the good of Rome, his men, and Lucilla before his own well being. With his dying breath, Maximus reassures Lucilla that her son is safe. Then he turns to a guard and says, "Free my men." As he dies Lucilla, heartbroken but knowing that Maximus's love had always truly belonged to his slain wife, "You're home." She does not begrudge him this escape into death.
The final, and most important difference, lies in the degree of ambiguity between the two pieces. "The Lady or the Tiger?" is deliberately ambiguous, not just in its famous ending but also in more mundane details such as time period, character names, and locations (Golemba 144). Stockton clearly bridled at the idea of providing the reader with too much information, in essence doing the reader's work for him or her. When hundreds of frustrated readers wrote to Stockton demanding to know whether the princess had saved her lover or sent him to his death, Stockton replied patiently, "If you decide which it was -- the lady or the tiger -- you find out what kind of person you are yourself" (qtd. In Golemba 40). Thus, "The Lady or the Tiger?" is a kind of Rorschach (i.e.,…