Sunday, July 15, 2012

Plagiarism and Pretension in the Original Klingon

Entry by Alex Shaw

My first pop culture love was Star Trek. The original series. I was in kindergarten when I first started watching the series in 1970s syndication on local UHF television. I remember when Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered on television, and I remember how much ado was made at the time about airing the original "The Cage" pilot of the original series.

 The Conscience of the King -- featuring bad Shakespeare

I discovered Star Trek well before I came to find Shakespeare. Indeed, my first exposure to Shakespeare comes out of Star Trek. It was actually in "The Conscience of the King" (season 1, episode 13, originally aired December 8, 1966, Stardate 2817.6) that I first experienced Shakespeare. In the episode, Kirk meets a twenty-third century Shakespearean actor, Anton Karidian, who with his daughter is putting on a production of Hamlet. Karidian, it turns out, is an alias assumed by the tyrannical Kodos "The Executioner" who was responsible for atrocities on Tarsus IV twenty years previously. These atrocities resulted in the deaths of members of Kirk's and others’ families. In the end, Karidian's daughter, Lenore, is responsible for a series of murders as she tries to silence and eliminate those who might reveal the truth about her father. Ultimately, she is discovered, and Kodos sacrifices himself to save Kirk as she takes aim with a phaser. She goes mad—an obvious-to-me-now allusion to Ophelia—and is committed to a hospital. Oh, and the climax occurs during a production of Hamlet taking place onboard the Enterprise.

So it seems that my first experience with Shakespeare was Hamlet by way of Shatner & Company.

Honestly, I don’t remember too much about this episode, and I’ve not seen it in ages. I remember it as that episode with Kodos and Shakespearean players and the crazy woman are they doing Lear or Hamlet or Macbeth or what on it? What made a greater impression on me, though, were Nicholas Meyer’s two directorial excursions into Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (II) and The Undiscovered Country (VI). I remember friends in high school—we were, of course, “nerds” at a time when “geek” wasn’t yet in circulation—quoting the whole of Wrath of Khan during school assemblies. And I remember when The Undiscovered Country came out that it was a big deal after the meh I felt about Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

At the time, I thought the film was fantastic—and I still rather like quite a bit about VI today—but I remember my English teacher being rather disdainful of the Shakespearean dialogue uttered by General Chang. Today, I understand why.

Christopher Plummer as the Shakespeare-quoting Klingon

He’s a bombastic hack.

In Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V, Shakespeare gives us a fellow named Pistol. He’s a “swaggerer,” a blowhard braggart, histrionic in his delivery, imitating in his overwrought way Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine while alluding to everything from Tudor era translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses to Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. The man talks big—shouts big!—but he’s ultimately a coward, beaten before the audience by Captain Fluellen after Pistol mocks old Welsh military customs.

The man talks big—shouts big!—but he’s ultimately a coward.

General Chang is a bit like Pistol.

Even the subtitle of the film, The Undiscovered Country, references Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy. When I was a teenaged Trekker, I thought Chang was a decent villain who was tossing out these kickin’, epic lines of dialogue. Now, I can’t help but see how Meyer and Chang are just quoting famous Shakespearean lines in order to graft a bit of gravitas and culture on to themselves. What they’re doing is pretty much what Pistol does in 2 Henry IV and Henry V: he was a poseur who, when left to his own devices, was just a cutpurse-to-be. Chang, meanwhile, is a fossil from the Cold War with a bumpy forehead. The difference is that Shakespeare wrote Pistol to poke fun at the writing of his rivals and contemporaries and the sorts of people who quote plays and poems to seem cooler or deeper than they are.

Here are Chang’s quotes from the film (I’ve tagged them with the Shakespearean sources):

General Chang: Once more unto the breach, dear friends (Henry V)

General Chang: "I am constant as the northern star...” (Julius Caesar)

General Chang: Cry havoc, and let slip the Dogs of War. (Richard III)

General Chang: To be... or not to be? (Hamlet)

General Chang: "Tickle us, do we not laugh? Prick us, do we not bleed? Wrong us, shall we not revenge?" (The Merchant of Venice)

General Chang: Ahh... parting is such sweet sorrow. Don't we hear the chimes at midnight? (Romeo and Juliet)

And finally:

Chancellor Gorkon: I offer a toast. The undiscovered country—the future.

Everyone: The undiscovered country.

Spock: Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1.

Gorkon: You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.

Chang: taH pagh taHbe' [Klingons laugh] "To be or not to be?" That is the question which preoccupies our people, Captain Kirk. We need breathing room. (Hamlet again)

This final example, coming from the Enterprise crew’s dinner party with the Klingon diplomats, including Chang, veers into a Star Trek version of the generally discredited Shakespeare authorship debates. As opposed to the Oxfordians or Marlovians, I suppose the Klingons are Qo'noS-ians instead. Gorkon’s reading of undiscovered country also very self-servingly ignores that soliloquy’s meditations upon suicide, choice, action, and liberty, though we can perhaps forgive Gorkon for trying to connect with humans about an uncertain future by using Shakespeare.

Bones McCoy also hates bad Shakespeare

And it’s uncharitable to think Meyer’s not unaware of how Chang sounds as he shouts famous lines of dialogue over subspace radio. As Doctor McCoy says towards the film’s climax, “I'd give real money if he'd shut up.”

Bad Shakespeare gives Star Trek Shakespeare:

Agree?  Disagree?  Bad Shakespeare values your opinion.  Let us know what you think. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Know Thy Source, or, Why You Sound Silly Quoting Polonius

Entry by Tanya Anderson

It’s a deliberately inflammatory article title, but as I age, I find myself getting more and more annoyed with the abundance of “Bad Shakespeare” out there. Exhibit A: a screen capture of a Google image search for “To Thine Own Self be True” necklaces.

Lots and lots of necklaces celebrating...Polonius?

Perhaps I should back up a bit and explain that as I age, I also find myself drowning in an onslaught of catalogs that have well-meaning, if rather empty, plaques and knickknacks of platitudes that seem to abandon ship midway, jumping the spiritual wave for several pages dedicated to personal massagers of various shapes and sizes before concluding with an assortment of various items lumped together at random. It’s as if, in the final pages, some content editor or layout artist grew weary of trying to figure out who would actually purchase a toilet paper cover shaped like four putti fighting, but figured, “You know, eff it – I’ll stick it next to the ladybug potholders and statues of fairy-angels praying, I guess?”

The whole experience of thumbing through these catalogs is aesthetic gluttony. I’m appalled that I have gawked through the whole thing, and I imagine my mind’s eye looks like this wee dog:

Months will pass. Babies will be born, people we love will die. Students will groan that they have to read Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet and put off writing term papers until the wee hours in the morning Рwee-er than the little dog up there. But some things remain the same: these necklaces are always at the very front or very back of those magazines. You can see from the thumbnails here that they are wildly popular, available in various sizes and shapes Рeven the M̦bius band -- which makes the Shakespeare quote on them appear even more cosmic or esoteric.

Of course, it’s not esoteric. Shakespeare penned the phrase, in what is, by many, considered to be the pinnacle of his dramatic achievements: Hamlet. The sentiment in the words appeals to our modern sensibilities because it echoes much of the philosophy we associate with our age: a knowledge of self and science, an enlightenment, a cogito ergo sum, if you will.

Where, then, is the harm?

The phrase, unfortunately, seems a strange quote for edification for those of us familiar with its speaker, the dramatis persona Hamlet himself derides as “a tedious old fool.” Hamlet, after all, can force Polonius into parroting anything absurd he says:

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in the shape of a camel?
Polonius: By the mass, and 'tis like a camel indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it's like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale.
Polonius: Very like a whale.

The Parroting Polonius (you'll nose him in a month)

In his brief stage life, Polonius is never true to himself. He is officious, meddlesome – even willing to risk his own daughter’s safety and sanity to stay in the good graces of Claudius and Gertrude. By the time Hamlet stabs Polonius in the queen’s chambers (which, now that I see that written down, seems like I’m playing medieval-by-way-of-Renaissance-Clue), we understand that Polonius is the least likely character to remain true to himself.

Excellent.  No more Polonian pith. 
On to uncover Old Hamlet's murder!

Intriguingly, people often quote another of Polonius’s aphorisms  out of context: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Here we witness the aged courtier in his element, addressing the king and queen. The speech, in its entirety, runs:

My liege, and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
What day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day, and time;
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief. Your noble son is mad. . . .

before Gertrude can take no more and cuts him off with, “More matter, with less art.” Here again, while the phrase itself is pithy, it only remains so if one is unaware of the speaker or context.

There are far worse things than tacky catalogs and quoting Shakespeare out of context, to be sure. But for the sheer frequency of these misappropriations, Bad Shakespeare awards this use of the Bard’s matter without acknowledging the art in them:

Do you have a Polonius necklace?  Do you like to remind people that 'Brevity is the soul of wit'? Weigh in and let Bad Shakespeare know if we should eat crow.