Saturday, December 31, 2005

Laughing at Shakespeare

I have been idling my time of recovery away in studying Shakespeare. I stocked up on a few movies from the library and got a few books about Shakespeare, and am all set to read my way through the plays. The fact that my boys are going to need assistance in their English study of Shakespeare for school has been my excuse for shameless indulgence.

Shakespeare alternately amazes and repels me. Some of the subject matter is sublime, much of it ridiculous, and in other places indecent and brings a blush to my matronly cheeks. (There are some obscure and anachronistic terms that I will NOT be interpreting into modern patois for the boys!) The plot lines are improbable and at the same time reveal a startling insight into human nature. And is he ever hard to pin down. It is amusing to hear Shakespearean scholars pontificate about what Shakespeare meant by this or that only to have the next scholar come along and contradict the first. In the end, I don't think you can make Shakespeare a spokesman for any school of thought or the Elizabethan age in the same way Bob Dylan refused to be the spokesman for his generation. I have heard some people claim that he was a great Christian. And then I read some of the bawdy language and have no doubt that this was one of the things that led to the Puritans shutting down the theatres. Was he nihilistic? Realistic? Hopelessly romantic? Depressed? Hard to say. We don't have any of his writings on his own personal thoughts about things and I would greatly hesitate at making his plays or sonnets speak for his actual state of mind or personal opinion on anything. How nice it would be to find a detailed diary that would actually tell us that. Imagine if computers and blogs were around at the time he lived!

All the while I have been reading through some of the plays, especially the tragedies, I have had this Monty Pythonesque desire to do a parody of some of them. Apparently I am not the only one who has had this desire. Some of my most enjoyable moments have come from reading what others have said and done to Shakespeare. Witness:

~ When Big Pharma was an infant in the '70's, one of the enterprising pharmaceutical companies sought to combine the profundity of Shakespeare with a marketing strategy for tranquilizers. They psycho-analyzed the personality disorders of the likes of Lady MacBeth, Hamlet, and Ophelia. Apparently Ophelia's madness and subsequent suicide was more the result of a lack of tranqulizers and psychotherapy than the fact that her lover had violently rejected her and stabbed her father to death.

Of course, if Lady MacBeth had been tranquilized, she might not have dwelt on her guilt over urging her husband to murder Duncan. And then Shakespeare wouldn't have needed to write the play.

~ Shakespeare is beloved, not only by the nations of English speakers, but his plays have been translated into many languages and played in remote places like African huts. The Japanese are no slackers when it comes to admiration for the Bard. Some of Shakespeare's plays translated back into English from Japanese read as follows:

Strange Affair of the Flesh and the Bosom
(The Merchant of Venice)

Lust and Dreams of the Transitory World
(Romeo and Juliet)

Swords of Freedom
(Julius Caesar)

The Oar Well Accustomed to the Water
(All's Well That Ends Well)

and my favorite...

A Sad Case of Early Retirement
(King Lear)

Of course, not everyone was or is an admirer of Shakespeare. Mark Twain is one notable example. He said on one occasion:

"I feel that our fetish [with Shakespeare] is safe for three centuries yet. The bust too -- there in the Stratford Church. The precious bust, the calm bust, the serene bust, the emotionless bust, with the dandy mustache and the putty face, unseamed of care -- the face which looked passionlessly down upon the awed pilgrims for a hundred and fifty years, and will still look down upon the awed pilgrims three hundred more, with the deep, deep, deep, subtle, subtle, subtle expression of a bladder."

The urge to parody Shakespeare's tragedies is not new. Some of the nineteenth century music halls did a lot of business making fun of Hamlet:

Hamlet the Ravin' Prince of Denmark!! or the Baltic Swell!! And the Diving Belle!! A Burlesque Extravaganza in Three Acts

Hamlet a la Mode

Hamlet the Hysterical: A Delirium in Five Spasms

Apparently this was too much for humorist P.G. Wodehouse who wrote

I went into a music-hall but soon came out of it
On seeing some comedians in a painful "Hamlet" skit
And a gentleman who gave some imitations, all alone
Of other people's Hamlets, plus a Hamlet of his own.
It's "Hamlet" this and "Hamlet" that,
And Hamlet day by day.
Shakespeare and Bacon must regret they ever wrote the play.

Then there is the "skinhead" version of Hamlet which reduces a play that was originally about 4 hours long down to four pages. Here, in skinhead vernacular (with appropriate bleeping inserted by me), is Claudius's response to a play-within-a-play:

1 Player: Full thirty times hath Phoebus' cart
Claudius: I'll be ****** if I watch any more of this crap!

And in the final act when Fortinbras enters to find Hamlet, his mother, Claudius and Laertes dead:

Fortinbras: What the ******* is going on here?
Horatio: A ****** mess, that's for sure.
Fortinbras: No kidding. I see Hamlet's *******.
Horatio: Yer.
Fortinbras: ******* shame. ******* good bloke.
Horatio: Too ******* right.
Fortinbras: ******* this for a lark then. Let's piss off.
(Exeunt with alarums.)

Even Prince Charles has taken a stab at reproducing Hamlet's famous "to be or not to be" speech into the common vernacular of our day.

"Well, frankly, the problem as I see it
At this moment in time is whether I
Should just lie down under all this hassle
And let them walk all over me,
Or, whether I should just say, "OK,
I get the message," and do myself in.
I mean, let's face it, I'm in a no-win
Situation, and quite honestly,
I'm so stuffed up to here with the whole
Stupid mess that, I can tell you, I've just
Got a good mind to take the quick way out.
That's the bottom line. The only problem is:
What happens if I find out that when I 've bumped
Myself off, there's some kind of a, you know,
All that mystical stuff about when you die,
You might find you're still -- know what I mean?"

Anyhow, I'm having fun with all this Shakespeare stuff and enjoying most of the videos that I have been able to track down.

By the way, all the quotes from above have come from the book The Friendly Shakespeare: A Thoroughly Painless Guide to the Best of the Bard by Norrie Epstein.

Now tell me: Which is your favorite play or movie version of a Shakespeare play?


Willena said...

Romeo & Juliet, with Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey has been a favourite of mine since I went to see it in the theatre with my English class as a high school student.

A more recent favourite is Twelfth Night, with Imogen Stubbs and Helena Bonham Carter.

Joyce said...

Hi, Cheryl,
I liked Much Ado About Nothing with Emma Thompson and I forget who else (but he was great). My kiddos say, they don't like any Shakespeare!