King Lear & The Tiger King: How Shakespeare Makes Joe Exotic’s Tragedy Roar

There are many parallels between Joe Exotic's life and Shakespeare's

There are many parallels between Joe Exotic's life and Shakespeare's "King Lear." (Courtesy of Facebook)

Mason Rowlee, Columnist

By now, it’s almost impossible to have not heard about Netflix’s new docuseries “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness,” which details the feud between exotic cat dealers in contemporary America. While violent and hysterically amusing, the rise in popularity of “Tiger King” is not surprising; the docuseries exists as a modern-day Shakespearean tragedy that dissects the American consciousness in the same ways Shakespeare’s works examined English society nearly 400 years ago. 

The docuseries, which premiered as one of Netflix’s most-watched programs of all time, amassed over 34.3 million streams within its first 10 days. Popular critics have noted that the struggles between exotic animal breeder Joe Exotic, the self-proclaimed “gay, gun-carrying redneck with a mullet,” and animal sanctuary owner Carole Baskin reveals the dependently hypocritical relationship of modern American politics. 

While the need to care for endangered species is what both parties deem to be at the forefront of their missions, the unabashed slander Joe Exotic and Baskin spew at each other dominates the audience’s viewing experience. As if instead of passing legislation, both parties are fixated on creating a marketing spectacle which appeases their own base.

This hypocritical relationship is widely recognized throughout the show; however, its assessment of Joe’s character makes him appear like the protagonist of a Shakespearean drama. His bold caricature of American individualism and independence is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s accounts of English kings, particularly the one most often referred to as the “mad king,” King Lear. 

The tragedy of “King Lear” begins unsurprisingly with King Lear, an older king, asking his three daughters to compete for his affections and, with that, the keys to his kingdom. Two of the daughters happily oblige and coerce Lear out of his kingdom as Cordelia, the remaining daughter, chooses not to shower Lear in affections and receives nothing. 

As the tragedy unfolds, Lear is banished from his kingdom and roams the wilderness, going mad when left with his thoughts. Later joined by the Earl of Gloucester — who is then blinded by Lear’s psychotic daughter for his allegiance to Lear — and the two roam the countryside until the climax of the play when Lear is quickly reunited with Cordelia and his crown before their eventual death. 

What does this have to do with Joe Exotic’s tragedy? 

Well, to start, as Joe Exotic’s time as the “Tiger King” was approaching an end, he reached out to his peer Jeff Lowe for his assistance and positive affirmations. Lowe quickly took over Joe Exotic’s zoo in Oklahoma and helped facilitate his plot to kill Carole Baskin (the scheme which would serve as Joe Exotic’s demise). As if Lowe was Lear’s two conniving daughters, he used his monetary affections to steal the zoo, becoming the new king of Joe Exotic’s kingdom.

In doing so, Lowe eventually banishes Joe Exotic from the park, leaving him to wander the American southeast with his husband, Dillon Passage. Although never confirmed by Passage, Joe Exotic’s former employees alleged that he used drugs to facilitate sexual relationships with his former husbands Travis Maldanado and John Finlay. 

Is it then possible to assume that Joe Exotic’s husbands’ allegiance to him has made them blind? Instead of being able to recognize the problems with Joe Exotic’s practices, the drugs and emotions exchanged between them produce a visual impairment, which makes it difficult for Joe Exotic’s husbands to acknowledge the abusive conditions confining their freedoms. 

Moreover, these strained and abusive relationships reappear with the character Cordelia, who represents the fame Joe Exotic has neglected to capture until it appears too late. At the beginning of “King Lear,” Cordelia refuses to give Lear affection if it is not deserved, and he banishes her from the kingdom as punishment; however, as the play progresses, Cordelia eventually returns to Lear in death. If fame and popularity were to symbolize Cordelia, it is possible to assess that Joe Exotic never received the recognition associated with a celebrity until he was unable to enjoy it any longer — due to his sentencing of 22 years in federal prison. 

Cordelia’s relationship with Lear is one of the great tragedies of “King Lear” and dissects the adverse effects of hubris. Perhaps in “Tiger King” as well, hubris is what produced the immense tragedy for Joe Exotic. 

In dissecting the tragic aspects of Joe Exotic’s dethronement, perhaps the greatest tragedy is his centrality in the documentary. It is stunningly Shakespearean to watch Joe Exotic, a great king, fall into the depths of society and emerge punished for his foul crimes, all the while being the subject of immense humor. 

Frequently in “King Lear,” the audience laughs at Lear’s downfall, making him the subject of a sadistic joke that reminds the audience of the irony of his position — which for Joe Exotic, who is spending life behind bars, serves as karmic retribution for the terrible treatment of his animals. 

And where does Joe Exotic’s arch-nemesis Carole Baskin fit into the story of “King Lear”? Although it may be argued Baskin could easily be characterized as one of Lear’s spiteful daughters along with Lowe, it is not impossible to assess her role in Joe Exotic’s demise as one similar to King Lear’s fool.

At the start of the play, King Lear repeatedly abuses his fool; however, by the hinge of the play, King Lear’s madness begins to out shadow the fool, and the fool speaks directly to the audience to exploit his madness as compared to his own. Baskin, whose cat sanctuary has taken criticism (along with allegations she fed her late husband to tigers), clearly serves as a spectacle of humor in the show. 

Her outlandish outfits, occasionally cringeworthy conversations and bizarre marriage become background noise to the spectacle of Joe Exotic’s madness. As if to say, her madness revealed the truth about a situation which the audience mistook because of her humor. By the end, both Baskin and the fool emerge as voices of rationality — an ironic ending for the kings who exploited them. 

And, finally, what do the parallels between “King Lear” and “Tiger King” tell us about our current society? 

The context of both works comes during an outbreak of infectious disease: “King Lear” was written by Shakespeare during an outbreak of the plague in London, and “Tiger King” became a global phenomenon during the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps the isolation which accompanies outbreaks of diseases sends people into a scramble, asking for texts which show retribution and balance in a world which lacks consistency.

As both Joe Exotic and Lear spiral to their demise, the audience is greeted with entertainment and humor, which reminds them of their position above the fallen madmen. As if to remind them that at least they are maintaining a semblance of normalcy, those leaders who appear to lead are also subject to even worse ridicule than themselves. 

Finally, perhaps the greatest tragedy emerging from the docuseries is the animals cared for during Joe Exotic’s time as the Tiger King. As said by former zookeeper Kelci Saffery, “not a single animal benefitted from this war.” While the world continues to marvel at Joe Exotic’s tragic journey, those animals — the core of conflict throughout the show — remain in cages, just like Joe Exotic.