Throughout the 19th century, the publishing phenomenon of the penny dreadful was in full swing. A penny dreadful was a cheap and popular form of serial literature that was being produced in the United Kingdom. This literature was predominately filled with gruesome violence and horrors that allowed the minds of Victorian readers to run rampant with curiosity. A byproduct of the penny dreadful was a character known as Sweeney Todd in a story called The String of Pearls (1946-47). Todd was a barber in a thriving barbershop on Fleet Street who was a neighbor to a woman named Mrs. Lovett, who colluded with Todd in the murder of several customers that would enter his shop. The character of Sweeney Todd has been adapted into many different forms since its debut. One of the most recent and popularized adaptations of Sweeney Todd is the movie Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) directed by Tim Burton. Through a further exploration of the two stories, it is possible to analyze Todd, not only as a literary character who has garnered a great deal of popularity, but also a monstrosity. By identifying the characteristics and story-based habituality of Todd, there can be a substantial amount of evidence that eludes to Todd being characterized as monster and how the story arch contributed to the development of Todd as a horrendous character. This analysis is derived by utilizing Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s monster theory and its multiple theses and applications to the story of Sweeney Todd.
To begin, Todd will be analyzed by applying the first thesis of Cohen’s monster theory. Thesis one discusses the idea of the monster’s body as a cultural body. As stated by Cohen, “[t]he monster is born only at this metaphoric crossroads, as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment.” This allows the monster to create a sense of fear in the audience by prying directly at real-life events. By assimilating itself with real-life events, the relatability is further unlocked to the audience. In terms of Sweeney Todd, as a character, his monstrosity was also derived directly from the realities that were affecting the time. In terms of Todd, as a monster, he was monstrous because of the usually mundane nature of his job, twisted into a fearful false reality of a “Demon Barber.” It was customary to the time in London, as well as other parts of the world for men to go to barbershops to get a shave. Because of that it made the character of Sweeney Todd appear as a person whom one would not suspect to commit such gruesome acts. In regards to Mrs. Lovett, her character was an example of the indecencies that people may have been experiencing in terms of the food industry of the time. As discussed in an article by Rosalind Crone, called “From Sawney Beane to Sweeney Todd: Murder machines in the mid-nineteenth century metropolis,” Crone asserts that “Mrs. Lovett’s pies drew on concerns about the use of diseased meat in products for human consumption, and even more particularly, fears about the vulnerability of urban foodstuffs to corporeal contamination as a result of badly maintained sewage systems and overcrowded burial grounds” (Crone 19). That, to some degree, was why the story of Sweeney Todd was so well received. The stories ability to touch its audience and create a sense of cultural relatability clearly influenced its success in its time. That is just one example of how Sweeney Todd can be analyzed using Cohen’s Monster Theory, now it is time to look at Todd from the next.
To continue in the analyzation of Todd using Cohen’s Monster Theory, it is important to highlight another one of Cohen’s theses. This is where it is paramount to look at “Thesis VII: The Monster Stands at the Threshold…of Becoming.” The reason why it is important to follow Thesis I with Thesis VII is because it allows a better comprehension of Todd’s development as a heinous creature. In order to fully understand his character, it is important to compare his character and reason for his monstrosity. In the original story, The String of Pearls, Todd is presented as a barber who has taken a man named Lieutenant Thornhill (who is believed to be Mark Ingestrie using a different name) as prisoner, as he comes into the shop for a shave. Mark is then forced to work for Todd in the vault and make pies out of his victims. The story continues by elaborating on all of the ways in which Johanna, Mark’s wife to be, proceeds in finding her beloved Mark. Johanna does this by disguising herself as a boy, in order to, become an apprentice of Sweeney Todd, following the arrest of his previous apprentice, Tobias, and investigate the disappearance of her betrothed. Once Mark finally escaped the vault by using the lift that the pies are transported on, he gets to the pie shop where he reveals to the customers that Lovett’s pies are made of human flesh. This is where Lovett is then set to be arrested, but Todd has placed poison in her brandy bottle which causes her to die before being arrested. Todd is then arrested and hung, allowing Johanna and Mark to marry and live their lives happily together. This all allows for an interesting story, but the real root of the problem is that Todd is a murderer. Throughout the String of Pearls, the true motive for these murders is never clearly stated, thus leaving the audience to surmise which motive they believe is the most logical or to ponder if these acts were done merely out of mere insanity. Todd murders people of power and wealth and robs them of their riches. Oddly enough, Todd does not appear to enjoy the killing or the riches, he kills almost emotionless and does so without remorse for his actions. His motives, however, are more heavily supported in the more recent rendition of the story. In Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Todd is given a more in-depth background that allows for a different level of sympathy from the audience than that of the Sweeney Todd in The String of Pearls. His murders are almost justified by a perspective that they are solely vengeance driven, opposed to the killing he does in The String of Pearls, due to what is simply assumed to be because of his insanity. In the new adaptation, most his murders all fall into the background as actor, Johnny Depp, breaks into song. They are depicted with all of their graphicness, but they all seem almost insignificant to Todd because they are not the person that he is longing to kill and finally get revenge on. In the film, the person that Todd is trying to get revenge on is a judge that wrongfully sentenced him to prison time in order to steal Todd’s wife and later on try to marry Todd’s daughter. This is the core reason why Todd is believed to have gone insane in the film.This adaptation of the story allows for the actions of Todd to be justified to some extent. Apart from the murder of the judge, however, it is still unreasonable to try to justify the other numerous murders he performs throughout the film in preparation for his long-awaited revenge. About midway through the film Todd has a scene where he and Mrs. Lovett are in his shop, just moments after he had a chance to kill the judge, where he explains that he is going to “cleanse” the world of what he believed to be “vermin.” That is where the film differs greatly from the original and allows the audience to sympathize and understand a deeper storyline in terms of Todd’s murders.
Finally, the last Cohen’s Thesis VI can be discussed. Thesis VI discussed the fact that the “Fear of the Monster is Really a Kind of Desire.” The character of Sweeney Todd is an interesting monster in terms of this because in his different portrayals, the characterization differs greatly. That, however, is one thing that has drawn people to the story of Sweeney Todd and for that reason, why there has been several versions and adaptations of the story. The direct description from the original story follows as such: “The barber himself was a long, low-jointed, ill-put-together sort of fellow, with an immense mouth, and such huge hands and feet, that he was, in his way, quite a natural curiosity; and, what was more wonderful, considering his trade, there never was seen such a head of hair as Sweeney Todd’s” (Rymer). The character described in that quote was not at all translated to the film adaption, where the character of Sweeney Todd was portrayed by actor, Johnny Depp. The director of the film tried to portray Sweeney Todd as more physically desirable. This allowed for a more engaging portrayal that appeals directly to Cohen’s Thesis VI. This is depicted in the film throughout many different scenes where Mrs. Lovett is still drawn to Todd, regardless of the fact that he is murdering people and in a very dramatic scene even threatens her. Depp’s portrayal of Todd is a clear example of how the character was changed, in order to appeal to the audience and enhance the desire towards Todd.
To conclude, there is a plethora of information that exist in regards to analyzing and understanding Sweeney Todd as a monstrous character. The way Todd is used to touch on the cultural fears of the time contributed to the fear he garnered. Next, the character development in terms of how he came to be allowed the audience to interpret the monster that Todd is for themselves. Lastly, the way his characterization affects his monstrosity because the fear he receives from others is also directly correlated to his desirability. Todd falls directly into the category of psychopathic murderer and clearly fits well. Todd is a good example of a murderous monster because his killing, aside from the eventual murder of the judge, cannot be justified. Many other monster murderers that have existed in the past amass fear through the simple explanation that their killing has no reason behind it. So, in terms of that, Todd is a great example of a murderous monster. With that, Todd believed that he had the obligation to cleanse London of all of “vermin” that roamed the street. Todd’s demon-complex is another intricacy that is intertwined into the story that enables the character of Todd to be seen as a false prophet. Todd, in comparisons, is often paralleled with Lucifer/Satan in regards to them both being casted out and “return” with the hope of taking the souls of those whose time has come. All of those factors contribute directly to the quality of monster that Sweeney Todd is. For all of those reasons, it is clear to see that Sweeney Todd has been overlooked and should be considered just as monstrous as other murderous monsters such as Freddy Kruger, Michael Myers, and Jason Voorhees.
Burton, Tim, John Logan, Laurie MacDonald, Walter F. Parkes, Richard D. Zanuck, Johnny Depp, Carter H. Bonham, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Cohen S. Baron, Jayne Wisener, Jamie C. Bower, Laura M. Kelly, Ed Sanders, Anthony S. Head, Peter Bowles, Stephen Sondheim, Hugh Wheeler, and C G. Bond. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. , 2008.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Monster Theory: Reading Culture. University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
Crone, Rosalind. “From Sawney Beane to Sweeney Todd: Murder machines in the mid-nineteenth century metropolis.” Cultural and Social History 7.1 (2010): 59-85.
Poore, Benjamin, and Kelly Jones. “Introduction to ‘Swing Your Razor Wide…’: Sweeney Todd and Other (Neo-) Victorian Criminalities.” Neo-Victorian Studies 2.1 (2008): 1-16.
Rymer, James M, G A. Macfarren, Thomas P. Prest, Edward P. Hingston, and Albert Smith. The String of Pearls, Or, the Barber of Fleet Street: A Domestic Romance. London: E. Lloyd, 1850.