In the BBC’s recent adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes saga, Sherlock, Irene Adler deliciously croons “brainy is the new sexy.” She is referring, of course, to the show’s titular character, magnificently brought to life by Benedict Cumberbatch. His Sherlock is tall, dark, and handsome—brilliant and sneeringly superior, yet totally irresistible. Cumberbatch’s turn as Sherlock and his entire body of work are critically acclaimed and voraciously loved because he has tapped into a vein of the old sexy, the archetypal beauty of which the public will never grow tired: the Byronic bad boy.
There’s no need to take my word for it. Various sources have bandied about the adjective to describe Cumberbatch, from Vogue to Steven Moffat, creator of the Sherlock series. Matthew Gilbert of the Boston Globe waxed rhapsodic about the actor’s “remarkable face,” while Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times sums it up perfectly: “Cumberbatch, with his alabaster skin and aquamarine eyes, has the vaguely tubercular, Romantic beauty known to cause women with PhDs in comparative literature to scream aloud.” Despite a small group of idiotic naysayers who refuse to acknowledge his otherworldly splendor, the consensus is that Cumberbatch is really something quite different from the conventional leading men of the big and small screen. What is it about him that has women foaming at the mouth, with a fervor last seen from teenage girls at a Beatles concert? It is his calculated decision to choose and portray roles in a way that embodies a certain ideal.
For those of us without advanced literature degrees, a brush-up on Byron may be in order. Born in 1788, George Gordon Byron was the first international celebrity—the original rock star. Raised by a slightly crazy single mother and born with a club foot, Byron spent his youth feeling like an outsider. He was a lonely child, constantly searching for a place to belong, as evidenced by his several legal surname changes to insert himself into various families. He both adored and despised his mother, which set the template for every relationship with the fairer sex he would have in his life. He loved deeply, tired quickly, and when he earned the affection of his target, renounced her utterly.
Like all brooding poets, he was also gorgeous. Contemporary Samuel Taylor Coleridge exclaimed upon meeting him that his “eyes [were] open portals of the sun.” Despite his luminous sun-eyes, Bryon’s beauty came at a price—he frequently took diuretics and purged himself to remain thin, slept with curling papers in his hair, and stayed inside all morning to avoid sun exposure. Byron was a carefully constructed façade: an ephemeral sex object whose antics shrouded (but did not entirely obscure) his inner insecure fat kid and the oceans of sadness hidden just underneath the surface.
Despite his emo qualities and promiscuous behavior, Byron also wrote some of the most sublime poetry of the English language. His work defined the Romantic Movement and influenced countless poets that came after. Anyone can be a sad dude who writes poetry, (you probably dated one your freshman year of college) but Byron was a sad dude who wrote really good poetry. The paradox of something perfect coming from someone so damaged has always been a perilously romantic combination, what keeps us coming back century after century. The form of perfection and the type of damage vary, but the combination of the two is always intoxicating.
Byron’s first hero appeared in 1812’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, likely modeled on Hamlet and Goethe’s Werther, as well as Byron’s own life. Lord Macaulay, 19th century critic, described Byron’s protagonist as, “a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection.” Many beloved characters were formed from Byron’s original bad boy mold, notably the Bronte sisters’ Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester, Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy, and our century’s greatest Byronic hero, Edward Cullen. (A thrilling aside: the modern vampire was created by John Polidori, Byron’s personal physician, at the same month-long slumber party where Mary Shelley composed Frankenstein. Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, Mary’s sister Claire, and Polidori held a challenge one night to write the scariest ghost story to distract them from the storm outside their villa. Polidori based the villainous vampire, whose seductive exterior masked a corroded interior, on…Lord Byron.)
Byronic heroes abound, but few actors have pursued and portrayed them with such relish as Benedict Cumberbatch. With few exceptions, the characters he brings to life are the embodiment of the Byron’s ideal: tortured, brilliant, and proud. And gorgeous. I can’t forget to mention gorgeous.
Any discussion of Cumberbatch is incomplete without a mention of Sherlock Holmes, the role that made Cumberbatch a household name. As Sherlock, he is a self-diagnosed sociopath who nevertheless forms a deep bond with his ever-faithful sidekick, Dr. John Watson. With his beloved Belstaff coat swirling behind him like a cape and cheekbones that could cut glass, he definitely looks the part of the Byronic hero. There are entire videos devoted to Benedict-as-Sherlock insults (“you lower the IQ of the whole street” is a personal favorite) and his sneer could curdle dairy. He is a pompous ass, never missing an opportunity to ridicule a lesser intellect, but he is (barely) tolerated because he is always right.
But Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is much more than “an annoying dick” (quote from his best friend, John Watson). He plays the violin and is a lover of classical music. He has a soft spot for his landlady, throwing a burglar out the window for frightening her. Moffat invented the charming tidbit that young Sherlock wanted to be a pirate. In the scene where this fact is revealed, a café confrontation between John and Sherlock’s elder brother Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s bona fides for the Byronic bad boy club are offered: with his mind, he could have been a scientist or a philosopher, yet he’s chosen to become a detective. There’s something more to him than just brains and arrogance. Underneath the carefully crafted exterior there’s a little boy who wants to be a pirate. Rebellion! Mystery! Byronic gold.
A different take on the Byronic hero, this one based on a real person, comes from Hawking, the quasi-documentary on the early life of the scientist. Cumberbatch’s portrayal is nuanced and heartbreaking. This is not the wheelchair-bound, speech machine Hawking we’re familiar with; the film focuses on Hawking’s pre-illness college years. Cumberbatch presents Hawking as a young, gawky co-ed at the prime of his life, searching for a thesis big enough to excite his massive brain just as his body begins to betray him. Hawking suffers from ALS, which seems doubly cruel in Cumberbatch’s portrayal: as his mind is getting sharper and faster, his body is breaking down. The man who wrote so much about cosmic time thought he had very little of it left. At his diagnosis, he was given two years to live. His father urged him to accept a simpler dissertation topic, so that he might live to finish it. But Cumberbatch’s Hawking (and the real Hawking) is not interested in a tidy, safe dissertation. Instead, he invented quantum mechanics and explained the creation of the universe. As Cumberbatch struggles valiantly to climb the stairs to his dormitory or tie his shoelaces, the resolute set of his jaw informs us that he is not going to give up due to a mere terminal illness. His defiance and tragic fate (although Hawking is still living today, some fifty years after his diagnosis) make him an excellent fit for the Byronic club.
BBC/HBO’s miniseries Parade’s End, which not only offers five glorious uninterrupted hours of Cumberwatching but also presents a Byronic bad boy in the form of Cumberbatch’s Christopher Tietjens, is another must-watch. Tietjens is an aristocrat of the Old Guard, who is facing the obsolescence of his way of life at the dawn of the Great War. Cumberbatch does some exceptional work here, making Tietjens’ stiff upper lip a literal one by the use of either prosthesis or some really impressive muscle control. His entire face is a mask: carefully composed at all times to avoid demonstrating any emotion. With a twitch of his Cupid’s bow lip or a crinkle in his forehead, he displays inner torment that is as intense as it is genuine. Rarely does an actor convey so much with such minute gestures. Tietjens is a stuffy old bore who corrects the encyclopedia for fun and refuses to admit that the times, they are a changing’, but Cumberbatch manages to make him eminently pitiable. He is the boy who’s just been told Santa Claus isn’t real; he is a man who discovers his life is built on a lie. Tietjens must adapt to the new attitudes and social mores or perish, and we struggle along with him, rooting for him all the way. Tietjens is textbook Byron: a handsome, wealthy man whose seemingly bucolic existence is plagued by inner struggle and the inability to act on his feelings, namely, to divorce his smokin’-hot-but-unfaithful wife Sylvia and go after the sweet-as-cupcakes suffragette Valentine.
Lest you assume that Byronic bad boys only exist in British television and art films, one of this summer’s biggest American blockbusters prominently features an epic Byronic bad boy, courtesy of one Benedict Cumberbatch. His portrayal of John Harrison, aka REDACTED (is that a spoiler? Is anyone who hasn’t seen Star Trek: Into Darkness still planning on seeing it?) is a Byronic bad boy for the 30th century. Secret sadness due to a tragic past? Check. Arrogance and scorn for mankind? Double check. Sneering malevolence that is inexplicably hot? So. Much. Check. And the deleted shower scene? Bonus check!
It’s 4:56 in the afternoon, and I know I need to send this article off by 5:00. I should be revising it, but instead I’m staring at one of my favorite pictures of Benedict, whom I privately call Benny. It’s a close-up shot: he is gazing off into the distance and holding a dying cigarette. I abhor smoking, have never tried it myself, and loudly condemn people who do it too near a building I am trying to enter. But, there is something about this picture that won’t let me go. There are many, many gorgeous pictures of Benny, and I spend hours poring over them, but this is the one I always come back to. The picture holds the thrill of breaking a taboo, tossing a screw-you to politeness and following the rules. It is a little bit naughty and it promises me the rush of something unfamiliar and slightly dangerous. It is like a ride on a motorcycle, clinging tightly to the driver you’re pressed up against. “I probably won’t remember your birthday or treat you too kindly,” the picture says, “but stick with me and I’ll show you a life most people are too timid to even dream of.” That, all of that, is what the Byronic bad boy is all about: brilliance that allows one to break free of society’s constraints and live gloriously unfettered, the envy of all. Not to mention those scrumptious cheekbones.
Laura Sook Duncombe lives in Alexandria, Virgina with her husband and a mutt named Indiana Bones, Jr. Musical theater, pirates, and Sherlock Holmes are a few of her favorite things. Her work can be found on the Toast, the Hairpin, Jezebel, and at her blog.