Send Up for Shakespeare!

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Photo by Christoph Mueller

It’s not new. Individual lines and passages from Shakespeare’s plays were imitated and parodied even in his own time, as in The Knight of the Burning Pestle, where there is a send-up of Hotspur’s lines on honour from 1 Henry IV, and in Beaumont’s comedy The Woman Hater (or is it by Fletcher, or by both of them together?). And in Eastward Ho, ‘made by’ Chapman, Jonson, and Marston, as the title page tells us, there’s a footman called Hamlet who has, significantly, only a tiny part. The first full-scale burlesque of a Shakespeare play, though, is The Mock-Tempest, or The Enchanted Castle, by Thomas Duffett, of 1674, in which Prospero’s island is transformed into a brothel. Obscene, vigorous, and amusing, it burlesques a current production of Thomas Shadwell’s operatic version of the adaptation of The Tempest by Dryden and Davenant. So it’s a sort of bastard of a bastard.

After that there are numerous parodies of individual passages and scenes from Shakespeare, but the heyday of burlesques adopting the entire framework of a Shakespeare play doesn’t come till later. Curiously, some of the most popular plays were burlesqued in Vienna around the turn of the eighteenth century, and a few years later, in 1810, was published John Poole’s Hamlet Travestie, with ‘Burlesque Annotations, after the manner of Dr Johnson and Geo. Steevens Esq. and the various Commentators.’ It parodies and paraphrases the play in rhyming couplets and incorporates songs set to popular tunes. This is essentially a literary burlesque, intended for reading, and includes hilarious mock annotations, but it has often been performed, frequently as a way of making fun of individual actors. In fact my interest in the burlesques, which led eventually to the publication of a five-volume collection which I edited in 1974, was first piqued by a reference in a biography of Henry Irving to the fact that his performance of Hamlet had been sent up in a burlesque acted at a minor theatre while he was playing Hamlet at the Lyceum. Poole’s play has been produced in recent times, too, usually by people who’ve been under the impression that they were the first to discover it.

The heyday of the burlesque came during the middle of the nineteenth century, and there are some delightful examples by writers such as Francis Talfourd and the brothers Henry and William Brough. I’m particularly fond of the Broughs’ charming Perdita, or the Royal Milkmaid, of 1856, which is a direct send-up of Charles Kean’s then current production of The Winter’s Tale. As well as being entertaining in their own right, these burlesques are a marvellous source of information about the theatrical and social scene of their time. There’s an excellent study of them by Richard Schoch, called Not Shakespeare: Bardolatry and Burlesque in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, 2002). A late example of the genre is a one-act burlesque by David Piper, sometime Director of the National Portrait Gallery, called Shamlet; A Drammer, acted in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in 1944. Michel Dobson, in Shakespeare and Amateur Performance (p. 129), writes that in it ‘Shakespeare and the sods’ opera came together.’

Gilbert’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, like Poole’s Hamlet Travestie, was written originally for publication, in three consecutive issues of a magazine called Fun in December 1874, at a time when Irving was playing Hamlet with sensational success at the Lyceum. Gilbert himself did comic drawings for it, under his pseudonym of ‘Bab.’ He had just begun to collaborate with Arthur Sullivan. In some ways it’s untypical of the majority of burlesques. Gilbert greatly alters the plot, and there are no songs – sadly from Sullivan’s great librettist. The guilty secret in this Claudius’s life is that, when young, he wrote a five-act tragedy – which flopped. He has decreed that any of his subjects found sneering at it should be executed. Rosencrantz is in love with Ophelia, and the passage in which she describes Hamlet glances at both the oddities of actors and the disagreements of scholars, describing the favourite theory about the play as:

‘Hamlet is idiotically sane
With lucid intervals of lunacy.’

There’s little direct parody of the original, though the play includes a pastiche of Shakespearian prose imitative of Hamlet’s advice to the players which is revealing of Gilbert’s principles of comic writing. The First Player politely suggests to Hamlet that he and his fellows know their job, and he has no more right to instruct them in the rules of acting than they to instruct him on the duties of the heir-apparent.

Gilbert’s play was not acted until 1891, and after that it was several times revised in order to enhance its topicality. Gilbert himself appeared as Claudius in amateur productions, when he ‘wore his royal robes as to the manner born, looking much more like a Shakespearean than a burlesque figure.’ A variorum edition has not yet appeared. Maybe next week’s production at The Shakespeare Institute will stimulate one. If this happened, and if Gilbert – who was no great admirer of Shakespeare – knew about it, his comments would be worth hearing.

There is a rare opportunity to see a staging of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on Saturday 11 February from 7.00pm at The Shakespeare Institute, Church Street, Stratford-upon-Avon. It’s being presented to raise money for the Lizz Ketterer Trust.

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Author:Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells or visit his website
  • Humphrey

    I have started making a list of references to Shakespeare in modern film/tv of which there is an abundance in such shows as The Simpsons, Family Guy, South Park, American Dad, Futurama, CSI and a whole heap of other popular American tv shows. Rod Serling, creator of ‘The Twilight Zone’ (and a Vietnam airborne vet!) was a HUGE fan and barley an episode of the original series doesn’t have at least one quote or reference. Often, episodes are named after them. There is even a double-length special feature where Shakespeare himself comes to life and helps a down-and-out screenwriter in Hollywood! Hilarious! Great article, I have made a copy for my own research, thanks for this Pro. Wells

  • Warrenking


    I’m delighted to see that Stanley Wells is still very active
    in the world of Shakespeare and still making his interesting and informative
    comments. I met him many years ago in the company of the late Rex Gibson,
    another most significant Shakespeare scholar. He won’t remember, of course, as
    I was just a member of the first Shakespeare and Schools intake. Stanley
    welcomed us in Stratford and showed us a good time, as they say. In this blog entry
    Stanley has offered me a whole new opportunity for taking pleasure as I follow his
    references up.

  • Dr. Ira Seidenstein

    ‘Hamlet’ bits from “Harlequin Dreams” – Ira Seidenstein

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