Saturday, December 31, 2011

Mississippi Shakespeare

Though he is one of America’s beloved humorists, Mark Twain is probably not as well known as a creator of some of the worst revisionist Shakespeare – albeit tongue-in-cheek – ever penned.  In his novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in 1885 in the United States, Twain’s memorable rapscallions the Duke and the Dauphin recreate, blend, and bastardize several of Shakespeare’s plays, including Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Richard III, Macbeth, and King Lear.   

The Duke
When Huck and Jim encounter the Duke and Dauphin, both men insist they are royalty.  The Duke also presents himself as an expert on phrenology, divining, and acting; the last he confirms with a playbill announcing himself as the “world-renowned Shakespearian tragedian, Garrick the Younger, of Drury Lane, London.”  He asks the Dauphin if he has “ever trod the playboards” so they can prepare a play to scheme locals out of their money.  The Dauphin replies that he “was too small when pap used to have ‘em at the palace” and asks the Duke to “learn” him how to perform Shakespeare. 

The Dauphin as Juliet

In one of the pair’s first practices, the Duke instructs the Dauphin to dress like Juliet.  E.W. Kembell’s illustrations from the first edition  of the novel, included here, depict the ludicrous notion of a bearded, older man performing Juliet.[1]  The Dauphin has enough sense to suggest that he won’t make a believable Juliet: “But if Juliet's such a young gal, duke, my peeled head and my white whiskers is goin' to look oncommon odd on her, maybe.”

The Duke and Dauphin soon move from practicing the part of the star-crossed lovers, and in addition to the problems with costuming and age, the Duke reveals that the Dauphin cannot seem to voice the part, either: “you mustn't bellow out ROMEO! that way, like a bull—you must say it soft and sick and languishy, so—R-o-o-meo! that is the idea; for Juliet's a dear sweet mere child of a girl, you know, and she doesn't bray like a jackass.” Undaunted, the hucksters don “meedyevil armor for Richard III” and practice their swordplay on a raft in the Mississippi until the Dauphin falls into the water.

The Duke and Dauphin rehearsing Richard III

Assessing their progress thus far, the Duke determines that they should have a short piece ready for the encore of their stage masterpiece and decides upon Hamlet’s soliloquy – despite the that there are four soliloquies in the play – “the most celebrated thing in Shakespeare.”  Since he doesn’t have a text of Hamlet, the Duke must recall the soliloquy from memory, and his memory, as with his attempts at any of the plays thus far, are terrible:

To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin
  That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would fardels bear, till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane,
  But that the fear of something after death
  Murders the innocent sleep,                 
  Great nature's second course,
  And makes us rather sling the arrows of outrageous fortune
Than fly to others that we know not of.
  There's the respect must give us pause:
  Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst;
  For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
  The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
  The law's delay, and the quietus which his pangs might take,
  In the dead waste and middle of the night, when churchyards yawn
  In customary suits of solemn black,
  But that the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns,
  Breathes forth contagion on the world,
  And thus the native hue of resolution, like the poor cat i' the adage,
  Is sicklied o'er with care,
  And all the clouds that lowered o'er our housetops,
  With this regard their currents turn awry,
  And lose the name of action.
  'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. But soft you, the fair Ophelia:
  Ope not thy ponderous and marble jaws,
  But get thee to a nunnery--go!

The Duke’s soliloquy here is a mix of Hamlet, Macbeth, poor memory, and ad libbing. He clearly has some familiarity with Shakespeare’s work, but no clear knowledge of the lines, tradition, or performance of the plays.  As Huck watches the performance, he describes the Duke’s acting as, “beautiful…he strikes a most noble attitude, with one leg shoved forwards, and his arms stretched away up, and his head tilted back, looking up at the sky; and then he begins to rip and rave and grit his teeth; and after that, all through his speech, he howled, and spread around, and swelled up his chest, and just knocked the spots out of any acting ever I see before.”  
In this depiction of the Duke’s acting, Twain has his character perform Hamlet in a style that Hamlet himself decries in 3.2 as he instructs the players,
Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, by use all gently, for in the very torrent, tempest, and (as I may say) whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise. I would have such a fellow whipped for o'erdoing Termagant. It out-herods Herod. Pray you avoid it. Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. Now this overdone, or come tardy off, though it make the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve, the censure of the which one must in your allowance o'erweigh a whole theatre of others. O, there be players that I have seen play, and heard others praise, and that highly (not to speak profanely), that neither having th' accent of Christians, nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of Nature's journeymen had made men, and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably. Reform it altogether! And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them, for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the mean time some necessary question of the play be then to be considered. That's villainous and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it. Go make you ready. 

Clearly, the Duke has had little-to-no actual theatrical training, and he doesn’t even remember Hamlet’s instructions about acting. 

  The Duke and Dauphin's Performance -- with a naked, painted Dauphin

After Twain builds up the upcoming swindle/performance, the scene still manages to surprise the reader.  The Dauphin takes the stage, “a-prancing out on all fours, naked; and he was painted all over, ring-streaked-and-striped, all sorts of colors, as splendid as a rainbow. And—but never mind the rest of his outfit; it was just wild, but it was awful funny. The people most killed themselves laughing; and when the king got done capering and capered off behind the scenes, they roared and clapped and stormed and haw-hawed till he come back and done it over again, and after that they made him do it another time. Well, it would make a cow laugh to see the shines that old idiot cut.”  And though the audience is amused, their laughter soon turns to irritation since this prancing scene and one short speech is all the “Shakespeare” they will get to see for their fifty cents. 

Certainly, Twain has a strong knowledge of Shakespeare to be able to create these humorous scenes.  As for the Duke and Dauphin, Bad Shakespeare gives them 2/10 laurels for their efforts. 

[1] This is probably a shrewd twist on the history of the play, where the role of Juliet was performed by a young man or boy in Shakespeare’s day.

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