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
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
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.
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)
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
Bad Shakespeare gives Star Trek Shakespeare:
Agree? Disagree? Bad Shakespeare values your opinion. Let us know what you think.