Well today is May 4rth, when a lot of people have chosen to celebrate one of the most iconic movies of the 20th century: Star Wars! And why not? The story is full of conflict, introspection, love, change, the conflict between fathers and sons, and occasionally guidance from ghosts. Wait, that sounds familiar- it’s a lot like Shakespeare! Yes, the movie has a lot of parallels with the Shakespearean canon, and I’d like to share some of those similarities here. Below is a post I did for the American Shakespeare Center about how the Star Wars prequels parallel Shakespeare’s history saga of Henry the Sixth:
As I was writing William Shakespeare’s The Empire Striketh Back, I was surprised to realize I had made more references to Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing than any other play. Much Ado is a comedy—probably my favorite of Shakespeare’s comedies—so it was strange that lines from it kept popping up in the darkest of the original Star Wars® trilogy.
William Shakespeare’s Star Wars is a series of parody plays written by Ian Doescher that takes the prose screenplays of the Star Wars story and transforms them into Elizabethan verse. Last time I mentioned how much I loved the cheeky references to Shakespeare and Star Wars, and how Doescher adapts the cinematic quality into Elizabethan drama very well. In my podcast, I also emphasized the way Doescher gives each character verbose Shakespearan language that works very well for radio and theater:
What I want to do with this post, (and the accompanying podcast), is to see whether this edition captures the fun, the clever wordplay, and the Shakespearean storytelling of “A New Hope,” with the second installment of the series, and if it helps to capture the shift in tone between the two movies, as Luke is tempted by the dark side and Han is betrayed and frozen by Lando.
Notes about the play
The first play in the series, “Verily, A New Hope,” took plot and structure inspiration from Henry V; it tells the story as an epic heroic story of Luke’s heroic deeds, much like how Henry V is about a king who grows from boy to man.
By the playwright’s own admission, the dialogue is stuffed with lots of re-purposed quotes from Much AdoAbout Nothing, Shakespeare’s comedy of a womanizing, self-centered soldier who becomes a devoted husband. This is appropriate since the Leia/ Han plot within the play and movie starts out with them bickering like Beatrice and Benedick. Doescher says this was an accident, but I think he might have subconsciously taken inspiration from their love affair to help structure the dialogue. In the accompanying podcast episode, I talk more about how the use of Much Ado quotes helped to flesh out the characters of Luke, Leia, and especially Han.
Movies and plays follow a similar structure where the action starts at a static place, tension rises, and finally, things get resolved at the end. A lot of the same elements are in both issues. The main difference is how they are arranged. Let’s see how Doescher translated the three-act structure of a screenplay, to the five-act structure of an Elizabethan tragedy.
As you can see, films have a 3 act structure
Elements to Watch for:
A Chorus is a short speech where a character who is not part of the action of the play introduces the plot. It functions the same way as the famous title crawl at the beginning of Star Wars.
I mentioned last time that “Verily: A New Hope” uses choruses liberally, which is appropriate because the tone of this story is so much darker, and since the action follows the journeys of Han and Luke so closely Ian doesn’t use choruses as much. I suspect this is partly because unlike The Empire Strikes Back, A New Hope jumped around more between planets and locations and used wipes and other transitions heavily:
Below is a link to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Learning Zone, where you can learn about the language of the Henry V chorus.
The literary technique of stichomythia has characters who speak at more or less the same time, using slightly different forms of dialogue. Doescher uses this well as a staging device by having Vader and Luke speak similar lines as Luke plummets down the shaft after losing his lightsaber duel:
These similar lines highlight the connection these two have (no spoilers), and also emphasize that, though the actors might be physically close onstage, their characters are meant to be far apart; they wouldn’t be saying this to each other.
In Romeo and Juliet, there’s an excellent example of stichomythia in Act IV, Scene iv, right after Juliet’s parents and Nurse discovers her, apparently dead. There is a long series of laments by her parents and nurse where they are shocked and horrified at her sudden death:
Lady Capulet. Accursed, unhappy, wretched, hateful day! 2702 Most miserable hour that e’er time saw In lasting labour of his pilgrimage! But one, poor one, one poor and loving child, But one thing to rejoice and solace in, And cruel death hath catch’d it from my sight!
Nurse. O woe! O woful, woful, woful day! Most lamentable day, most woful day, That ever, ever, I did yet behold!2710 O day! O day! O day! O hateful day! Never was seen so black a day as this: O woful day, O woful day!
Paris. Beguiled, divorced, wronged, spited, slain! Most detestable death, by thee beguil’d,2715 By cruel cruel thee quite overthrown! O love! O life! not life, but love in death!
Capulet. Despised, distressed, hated, martyr’d, kill’d! Uncomfortable time, why camest thou now To murder, murder our solemnity?2720 O child! O child! my soul, and not my child! Dead art thou! Alack! my child is dead; And with my child my joys are buried.
Romeo and Juliet, Act IV, Scene v lines 2702-2723.
When I played Friar Laurence and the cast and I rehearsed this scene, the actors playing the Nurse and Juliet’s parents were struck by how similar the lines are and worried that these long passages of laments would get tedious to an audience. I realized by looking at the similar lines, the similar words (especially at the ends of lines), and the fact that Friar Laurence interrupts them at the end, led me to believe that these lines are meant to be spoken AT THE SAME TIME. This creates an effect of organized chaos where the actors seem to be wailing and ranting, but are actually speaking a carefully composed quartet of grief. Thus Doescher cleverly mimics Shakespeare’s use of stichomythia to convey Vader and Luke’s physical distance, and complementary feelings at the same time.
3. Parody Lines
The biggest appeal of William Shakespeare’s Star Wars is the fact that it is a parody, and I’ve said for many years that parody and gentle riffing on Shakespeare is a great way to get students to overcome their fear of Shakespeare and engage with him. Students who know Star Wars but don’t know Shakespeare will recognize the familiar characters and plots of the movies and then see how Shakespeare’s language tells the story anew. Similarly, people who know Shakespeare will recognize the way Doescher re-tools famous Shakespeare quotes to give to characters in the Star Wars Universe, like here, where he spoofs the intentionally bad speech of Snug the Joiner and gives it to the Wampa from Empire Strikes Back:
Peter Keavy as Snug the Joyner in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” 2017.
In the Educator’s guide, which I’ve attached below, Doescher tells you exactly which lines he has parodied and the plots of the original plays so the students can learn about Shakespeare through these famous speeches. Orson Wells once said that “We sit through Shakespeare in order to recognize the quotations,” and this edition gives us thrilling space battle, wonderful characters, and witty dialogue to keep us entertained while we wait.
As Doescher worked his way through all nine installments of Star Wars, he continued to expand and experiment with his storytelling. There are a couple of moments in “Empire” that work only onstage such as the aforementioned moment of stichomythia after the lightsaber duel, and the scene in Act II, Scene ii where the Imperial Walkers known as AT-ATs actually speak to each other onstage. Like the French in Henry V, it’s interesting to see the battle from the enemy’s point of view, albeit a highly biased one. I won’t reprint it here for copyright reasons, but I will put this funny sketch in as a placeholder:
Although I loved “Verily, A New Hope,” I feel that Doescher didn’t go far enough to adapt the dialogue in interesting ways and play with the stagecraft of Star Wars to make it more distinct from the film and the first installment. My favorite moment of the play was the Wampa speech which was great because it not only parodies one of my favorite speeches in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it also made the Wampa attack tonally distinct from the film- the film is tense and grim, while the Wampa speech is funny and charming. I wish Doescher had embraced the parody and silly tone he shows in this speech and applied it more to the rest of the play; we already know Empire is the darkest installment of the series, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be played like that the whole time.
What I think works best in the film is the romantic comedy between Han and Leia; Doescher does a wonderful job pointing out the parallels between Han and Leia and Benedick and Beatrice which is not only fun, but helps Star Wars fans appreciate the comedy of Much Ado About Nothing even more. This is why I’m glad Doescher took painstaking notes on how he parodied Much Ado and other plays in the guide below:
For Shakespeare’s birthday, I thought I’d re-visit one of my most popular posts, especially since the Royal Shakespeare Company is celebrating by putting on an adaptation of Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet:
Just like his famous father, we know very little about the life of Hamnet Shakespeare. Since infant mortality rates were high, we don’t know his exact birthday, only that he was baptized on February 2nd, 1582. Like most 11-year old boys, he probably had started going to school at the King Edward Grammer School, the same as his father. This means he spent long hours away from his parents learning to read and write in Latin and Greek. When he was home, he lived with his mother, his two sisters, and his grandparents in the house of Henley Street.
O’Farrel portrays the boy Hamnet as sensitive and somewhat lonely, which makes sense, since he probably didn’t see his father for long periods of the year; Will Shakespeare spent much of the year writing, going on tour, and performing at the Globe- he commuted from London to Stratford for most of the year. He probably only came around during Lent, Christmas, and times of plague when the theaters were closed.
Never mind what I know. You must go.” She pushes at his chest, putting air and space between them, feeling his arms slide off her, disentangling them. His face is crumpled, tense, uncertain. She smiles at him, drawing in breath. “I won’t say goodbye,” she says, keeping her voice steady. “Neither will I.” “I won’t watch you walk away.” “I’ll walk backwards,” he says, backing away, “so I can keep you in my sights.” “All the way to London?” “If I have to.” She laughs. “You’ll fall into a ditch. You’ll crash into a cart.” “So be it.
The novel portrays Anne Shakespeare realizing that her husband is stifled and unhappy living with his parents in Stratford, and so she suggests to his father that he go to London to ‘expand the family business,’ though in reality, she wants him to go to make his fortune and find more fulfilling work. Scholars have wondered for years how Shakespeare got his start in theater- as a man with children he was legally unable to become an apprentice, and as a glover’s son from Stratford, he didn’t know anyone in London. O’Farrell solves the mystery by making him start out as a costume maker and mender for a theater company, who later became a writer and actor.
This idea of Shakespeare starting out as the company’s glove mender actually has some historical merit- records from the time confirm that many playwrights and actors were also local artisans. Men like John Webster, Richard Tarlton, Edward Kyneston, and even Richard Burbage were skilled drapers, textile merchants, haberdashers (men’s tailors) and ( like the Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,”) some of these men were weavers-turned actors (Source: Anna Gonzales) So it’s entirely possible that Shakespeare started in London by selling gloves to theaters, before selling his plays.
When Will moved to London, he lived in a number of locations throughout the city, probably because it wasn’t a safe place. Theaters were located in the same districts as bear baiting and brothels, so Will probably had to move to get away from bad neighborhoods, as this video from The History Squad illustrates:
A glover will only ever want the skin, the surface, the outer layer. Everything else is useless, an inconvenience, an unnecessary mess. She thinks of the private cruelty behind something as beautiful and perfect as a glove.
Almost immediately after Will leaves, Anne is full of remorse. She knows his work in London will consume him and his success will make the distance between him and her even greater.
She walks back, more slowly, the way she came. How odd it feels, to move along the same streets, the route in reverse, like inking over old words, her feet the quill, going back over work, rewriting, erasing. Partings are strange. It seems so simple: one minute ago, four, five, he was here, at her side; now, he is gone. She was with him; she is alone. She feels exposed, chill, peeled like an onion.
He wants to tear down the sky, he wants to rip every blossom from that tree, he wishes to take a burning branch and drive that pink-clad girl and her nag over a cliff, just to be rid of them, to clear them all out of his way. So many miles, so much road stands between him and his child, and so few hours left.
As I’ve said in previous posts, Shakespeare survived three epidemics of Plague; one in 1563, (before he was born), one in 1593, and one in 1603. In O’Farell’s novel, the germs that kill Hamnet came not from a massive outbreak, but a few germs that were transported in a box that his sister had the misfortune of opening. This frightful passage shows the grim tenacity and eve-present fear that, while England expanded and became more interconnected with the world, it also brought death and disease to and from the rest of Europe.
In the book, the plague germs that infect Judith and later Hamnet, lie inside a box with some glass beads that the Shakespeare’s ordered from Italy to decorate a pair of fancy gloves. As this video from National Geographic shows, trade routs then as now are prime spreaders of disease and even one ship that slips by can turn any box of goods into a Pandora’s Box, waiting for a poor unsuspecting girl like Judith to release it unto the world.
He can feel Death in the room, hovering in the shadows, over there beside the door, head averted, but watching all the same, always watching. It is waiting, biding its time. It will slide forward on skinless feet, with breath of damp ashes, to take her, to clasp her in its cold embrace, and he, Hamnet, will not be able to wrest her free.
In the novel, Hamnet somehow takes the plague away from his sister and dies in her place. Though it is hardly conclusive, I do find it interesting that Shakespeare stopped writing comedies about twins for another four years after Hamnet’s death, until he wrote Twelfth Night, which unlike earlier comedies like The Comedy of Errors, has a pair of twins mourning each other’s apparent death. They seem to share one soul, and one tries to resurrect the other, like Viola mourning her brother by, (in a sense), becoming her brother.
What should I do in Ilyria? My brother is in Elysium
Viola- “Twelfth Night”, Act I, Scene ii.
ELIZABETHAN FUNERAL CUSTOMS
In the book, Anne makes a winding sheet for her son. This was a cloth of linen or wool that was wrapped around dead bodies, since at the time, coffins were re-used. This must have been a somber and deeply upsetting activity for Anne.
As this quote from “The Evolution of the English Shroud” illustrates, the act of making a winding sheet was a sort of sad family responsibility, a way of ensuring that your loved ones die with dignity, and Anne clearly takes the task of making one very seriously.
The 16th-century shroud for the poor and lower middle classes was a large sheet that was gathered at the head and feet, and tied in knots at both ends, covering every part of the body. It resembled earlier Medieval practices and was a functional, yet modest way of preserving the deceased’s dignity. It was also economical, with very little cost involved, as the burial sheet was usually taken from the family home. At this point, linens dominated as the material of choice; after all, it was a biblical tradition as Jesus was wrapped in a linen cloth. Linen was also considered more fashionable than wool.
Coffin Works Archive
The Aftermath Of Hamnet’s Death (Spoilers)
She discovers that it is possible to cry all day and all night. That there are many different ways to cry: the sudden outpouring of tears, the deep, racking sobs, the soundless and endless leaking of water from the eyes. That sore skin around the eyes may be treated with oil infused with a tincture of eyebright and chamomile. That it is possible to comfort your daughters with assurances about places in Heaven and eternal joy and how they may all be reunited after death and how he will be waiting for them, while not believing any of it. That people don’t always know what to say to a woman whose child has died. That some will cross the street to avoid her merely because of this. That people not considered to be good friends will come, without warning, to the fore, will leave bread and cakes on your sill, will say a kind and apt word to you after church, will ruffle Judith’s hair and pinch her wan cheek.
The Women of Hamnet
The most unique thing about this novel is how it shows the interdependence of women in Elizabethan society. Since Shakespeare spends most of the novel away from Anne, her support system mostly comes from Will’s mother Mary, as well as Anne’s daughters, her sister, and all the other women of the town. Nowadays we do most of our socialization online and barely know our own neighbors, but in the 1590s, especially for women, community was a way of building strength where women got through things like childbirth, loss, the managing of households, and many other difficulties through their relationships with other women. This video below shows the kinds of home remedies that women would share and later write down during the Tudor period:
Other Mysteries Solved
Once Hamnet dies, Will buys her a new house, New Place so she isn’t forced to live with his parents and no longer has to live in the house where her son died. But Will’s success comes with a price- he still has to leave for London. he offers to move them there but Agnes won’t hear of it. This solves the riddle of why Shakespeare commuted between town and country for his entire career- she knows the plague that took her son literally came from London, and she won’t risk losing her daughteras well. She probably also sees London like another woman that took her husband away as well, and therefore refuses to look it in the face.
It is no matter,” she pants, as they struggle there, beside the guzzling swine. “I know. You are caught by that place, like a hooked fish.” “What place? You mean London?” “No, the place in your head. I saw it once, a long time ago, a whole country in there, a landscape. You have gone to that place and it is now more real to you than anywhere else. Nothing can keep you from it. Not even the death of your own child. I see this,” she says to him, as he binds her wrists together with one of his hands, reaching down for the bag at his feet with the other. “Don’t think I don’t.”
The Shakespeares’ Marriage after Hamnet
I mean’, he says, ‘that I don´t think you have any idea what it is like to be married to someone like you.’ ‘Like me?’ ‘Someone who knows everything about you, before you even know it yourself. Someone who can just loo at you and divine your deepest secrets, just with a glance. Someone who can tell what you are about to say- and what you might not- before you say it. It is’ he says, ‘both a joy and a curse.
The ugly truth that O’Farrell highlights in Hamnet is that it must have been very hard for the Shakespeares to endure Hamnet’s death, especially since Will was probably not there when it happened, and probably didn’t stay around long after burying his son. It must have been catastrophic on his marriage, sort of like this tragic moment in the musical Hamilton, where the couple mourns the loss of their son, who died in a duel trying to defend his father’s honor.
Agnes is a woman broken into pieces, crumbled and scattered around. She would not be surprised to look down, one of these days, and see a foot over in the corner, an arm left on the ground, a hand dropped to the floor. Her daughters are the same. Susanna’s face is set, her brows lowered in something like anger. Judith just cries, on and on, silently; the tears leak from her and will, it seems, never stop. — How were they to know that Hamnet was the pin holding them together? That without him they would all fragment and fall apart, like a cup shattered on the floor?
Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet
The Second Best Bed mystery
Though Anne is angry at Will for a while, she does eventually forgive him, as evidenced by another solved historical mystery. In Shakespeare’s will he gives his wife “My second-best bed, with the furniture,” which O’Farell explains, is their marriage bed. The best bed was the one they gave to guests and was therefore newer. In the book, Will offers to replace it after Hamnet dies, but Anne won’t hear of it; although she partially blames Will for Hamnet’s death, she still loves him and her love is stronger than her grief, as is her love for her surviving daughters.
What is the word, Judith asks her mother, for someone who was a twin but is no longer a twin? Her mother, dipping a folded, doubled wick into heated tallow, pauses, but doesn’t turn around. If you were a wife, Judith continues, and your husband dies, then you are a widow. And if its parents die, a child becomes an orphan. But what is the word for what I am? I don’t know, her mother says. Judith watches the liquid slide off the ends of the wicks, into the bowl below. Maybe there isn’t one, she suggests. Maybe not, says her mother
Raising the Dead
At the end of the book, Shakespeare plays the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, and writes Hamlet as a tribute to his late son. We don’t know for a fact that the real William Shakespeare did this but Stratford legend says that Shakespeare played the Ghost of Hamlet’s father onstage, and this has captivated the imagination of authors and scholars alike. In any case, as Stephen Greenblatt says in his book Will In The World, Shakespeare’s father’s health faded around the same time that he wrote Hamlet. it must have been hard for Shakespeare to write a name that was one letter away from his son’s over and over again. Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play, and the titular character has over 40% of the dialogue, so it must have been haunting at the very least for Shakespeare to have to write his son’s name nearly 4,000 times.
Whatever he determined at the time, Shakespeare must have still been brooding in late 1600 and early 1601, when he sat down to write a tragedy whose doomed hero bore the name of his dead son. His thoughts may have been intensified by news that his elderly father was seriously ill back in Stratford, for the thought of his father's death is deeply woven into the play. And the death of his son and the impending death of his father--a crisis of mourning and memory--could have caused a psychic disturbance that helps to explain the explosive power and inwardness of Hamlet.
Greenblatt, 2004, p. 8)
In the book, Anne secretly goes to London to see Hamlet onstage and is overcome with emotion. Not only does Will play a ghost as tribute to his dying father, not only does he put his son’s name onstage, he directs the actor playing Hamlet to affect his own son’s mannerisms and gestures, to use theater to bring his son back from the dead. Anne is both appalled and moved by this act- Hamnet is dead, but his story is now immortal.
O’ Farrell has done a fantastic job of taking what little we know about the Shakespeare’s lives, infusing them with some clever inferences from the plays of Will Shakespeare, and finally fleshing them out with her own Shakespearean knowledge of the human heart- how it feels to bury someone, how it feels to go through trauma and what it’s like to be part of a family and to truly love someone, even though they often fail to properly love you back. As the end of the book implies, maybe Will didn’t intend to immortalize his son and share his powers of theatrical resurrection with the world, maybe this was just his way of apologizing to the love of his life. To try to make amends for the time he lost and to express a wish that he could give her son back to her, which in a way, he does:
Hamlet, here, on this stage, is two people, the young man, alive, and the father, dead. He is both alive and dead. Her husband has brought him back to life, in the only way he can. As the ghost talks, she sees that her husband, in writing this, in taking the role of the ghost, has changed places with his son. He has taken his son’s death and made it his own; he has put himself in death’s clutches, resurrecting the boy in his place. “O horrible! O horrible! Most horrible!” murmurs her husband’s ghoulish voice, recalling the agony of his death.
Bray, Peter. “Men, loss and spiritual emergency: Shakespeare, the death of Hamnet and the making of Hamlet.” Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality, vol. 2, no. 2, June 2008, pp. 95+. Gale Literature Resource Center, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A189052376/LitRC?u=pl9286&sid=bookmark-LitRC&xid=ea79f235. Accessed 20 Apr. 2023.
Document-specific information Creator: Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon Title: Parish Register of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon Date: 1558-1776 Repository: The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Stratford-upon-Avon, UK Call number and opening: DR243/1: Baptismal register, fol. 22v View online bibliographic record
Just for fun, I found this superhero creator website, and decided to create a Shakespeare character from it:
I put the real Shakespeare’s coat of arms on his chest, and decided to use the same color scheme. Hence, the black cape, the black mask that looks like an eagle, (since in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, the god Jupiter appears on an eagle. I also gave him yellow tights as a nod to Malvolio from Twelfth Night. I also kept colors that hint at Batman, since of course, Batman is partly inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
If I were to make a full comic book of this character, I’d probably make Shakespeare’s quill magic and either cover people with ink, or temporarily control their actions. He can also throw a wooden Globe at criminals and cram them inside it (an homage to the Prologue of Henry V.
I’d make Shakespeare a detective who can solve crimes because of his great storytelling abilities.
What do you think? Should I make a full comic of Shakespeare Man? Who should his nemesis be? And would this be something that you would enjoy seeing on this blog on a regular basis?
Happy April Fool’s Day! Today I’d like to look at the rich history of Shakespeare’s fools and clowns! Clowns are some of Shakespeare’s classic comic characters, but fools are complex characters that entertain, satirize, and even philosophize. They may dress the part, but they are no fools.
This clip from Mel Brooks’ comic masterpiece History of the World, Part I, has the writer/director perform as Comicus, a ‘stand-up philosopher’ from Ancient Rome- a philosopher who is basically a stand-up comic. As you’ll see, unlike clowns, most of Shakespeare’s fools basically fulfill this role- to satirize and make fun of people and institutions.
What Is A Fool?
Fools and clowns are based on medieval minstrels who, as this video from Monty Python’s Terry Jones shows, were itinerant entertainers who had to do a number of jobs including play music, dance, sing, compose poetry, juggle, and on occasion- START A WAR!
Fools Vs. Clowns
A fool is the renaissance version of a minstrel- an official royal entertainer who worked at royal courts. A clown is a comic part in a play. The often danced, sang, and did improv comedy. To illustrate the difference, here’s a short video about the life of Henry VIII’s favorite fool- Will Sommers
Foolish Founding Fathers
All of Shakespeare’s fools and clowns are based on ancient Italian sources-from the Roman comedies of Plautus and Terrence to the improvised comedy known as Commedia Del ‘ Arte
Commedia is based on stock character types that Shakespeare adapted and fleshed out- Arlequinno became the constantly hungry Dromio, (among others), while Capitano became Falstaff and Pistol. Even Shylock has remnants of Brighella in his DNA. According to Dario Fo in his book: Manuale Minimodell’Attore, Shakespeare adapted stock characters from commedia to be his clowns, and sarcastic characters called sots, who commented on the action to become his fools (Fo, 107)
Will Kempe- Shakespeare’s First Great Clown
Despite his strength and skill as a dancer, Kempe specialized in playing oafish buffoons like Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, Falstaff in the Henry IV plays, and Peter in Romeo and Juliet. In the Second Quarto edition of Romeo and Juliet, you can see in the stage directions “Enter Will Kempe,” right before Peter speaks:
According to Will In the World by Steven Greenblatt, Kempe and Shakespeare had a falling out in the late 1590s, which many scholars have assumed might have been due to Shakespeare’s distaste for clowns wasting time with jokes that bogged down the play:
Let those that play your
clowns speak no more than is set down for them. For there
be of them will themselves laugh, to set on some
quantity of barren spectators to laugh too. Though in the
meantime, 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. Hamlet, Act III, Scene ii.
Kempe, for his part, seemed a little big for his britches; he and his fellow clowns seemed to think that Shakespeare's scripts were just vehicles for his own jokes and songs (Reynolds, 247). He then sold his share in the Chamberlain's Men, derriding them in print as "My notable Shake-rags," and then staged a publicity stunt where he danced across England!
1600-1613: The Golden Age Of Foolery
Kempe’s replacement was Robert Armin, an accomplished writer and singer, who specialized in playing satirical Fool roles, which appeared in a number of Shakespeare’s plays after 1599.
Unlike Kempe, Armin’s characters invariably support the themes and ideas of the plays they are a part of. As Feste in Twelfth Night, Armin makes jokes that make fun of the overly-serious Orsino and Countess Olivia:
Feste. Good madonna, why mournest thou?
Olivia. Good fool, for my brother's death.
Feste. I think his soul is in hell, madonna.
Olivia. I know his soul is in heaven, fool.
Feste. The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother's
soul being in heaven. Take away the fool, gentlemen. Twelfth Night, Act I, Scene v.
Sometimes Armin’s characters are satirical mirrors into Elizabethan society; in As You Like It, Touchstone the Fool mocks the culture of dueling; implying that there are hundreds of loopholes that a gentleman may use to challenge a man to a duel, without actually fighting.
Touchstone. I did dislike the cut of a certain courtier’s beard; he sent me word, if I said his beard was not cut well, he was in the mind it was. This is call’d the Retort Courteous. If I sent him word again it was not well cut, he would send me word he cut it to please himself. This is call’d the Quip Modest. If again it was not well cut, he disabled my judgment. This is call’d the Reply Churlish. If again it was not well cut, he would answer I spake not true. This is call’d the Reproof Valiant. If again it was not well cut, he would say I lie. This is call’d the Countercheck Quarrelsome. And so to the Lie Circumstantial and the Lie Direct.
Jaques (lord). And how oft did you say his beard was not well cut?
Touchstone. I durst go no further than the Lie Circumstantial, nor he durst not give me the Lie Direct; and so we measur’d swords and parted.
The Fool in “King Lear”
Perhaps Armin’s greatest comic creation was The Fool in King Lear; the ultimate satirist who makes fun of the king’s foolish choices. He tries to talk sense to the increasingly mad king, until he vanishes entirely, and Lear himself starts making fool-like cracks at the audience:
Lear Thou hast seen a
farmer's dog bark at a beggar?
Earl of Gloucester. Ay, sir.
Lear. And the creature run from the cur? There thou mightst behold
the great image of authority: a dog's obeyed in office.
The usurer hangs the cozener.
Through tatter'd clothes small vices do appear;
Robes and furr'd gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;
Arm it in rags, a pygmy's straw does pierce it.
None does offend, none- I say none! Get thee glass eyes
And, like a scurvy politician, seem
To see the things thou dost not. King Lear, Act IV, Scene vi.
Through realizing his own foolishness, Lear recovers his sanity, and makes peace with his daughter, which beautifully shows the importance of fools, clowns, and satirists; to question ourselves, to sharpen our critical thinking, and to endure hardships with good humor. Therefore on this April Fools Day, I say,
“Here’s to the fools, to folly, to farce. Let them push the wealthy on the ar— APRIL FOOLS!”
Best, Michael. “Shakespeare’s Actors: Will Kempe” Internet Shakespeare Editions, University of Victoria, 28 Sept. 2016, ise.uvic.ca/Foyer/citing. Accessed 30 Sept. 2023.
I teach a class specifically on Shakespeare’s comedies where I’ll talk a lot about the way Shakespeare writes clowns. I’ll also delve into the history of Commedia Del’Arte and how it influenced Shakespeare’s characters! For more information, visit http://www.outschool.com
This is my new trailer for my fully online, fully immersive murder mystery game based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” You play as a detective hired to solve the mystery of Juliet’s murder. You will piece together the plot and characters of Romeo and Juliet, but also use forensic science to identify clues, interrogate suspects, and examine the crime scene just like a real detective! Register now at Outschool.com SPECIAL OFFER: Get $5 off the murder mystery class with coupon code HTHESSQ76F5 until Apr 22, 2023. Get started at https://outschool.com/classes/romeo-a… and enter the coupon code at checkout.
I can think of no better wrapup to my play of the month “Twelfth Night,” than by reporting on my visit to an actual Twelfth night Party, presented by the Society For Creative Anachronism.
What’s a Twelfth Night Party?
If you took my class on Shakespearean Christmas traditions or read my blog posts, you know that, back in Shakespeare’s day, Twelfth Night was a party to end the Christmas season. It was presided over by a Lord of Misrule, who would lead people in games and songs. The party would also have a Twelfth Night Cake with a bean in the center. If you found the bean, you’d have good luck for the year! So I was pleased to come to a real-life Twelfth Night party and see these traditions come to life!
What is the society for Creative anachronism?
The short answer is- it’s LARPING for history nerds. Rather than creating a D&D persona and then getting arms and armor to play-fight in the backyard, SCA members create personas based on real medieval history, make or buy real historical arms and armor, (or arts and crafts as the case may be) and spend years of their lives studying and perfecting their immersion in that character’s life. SCA-ers learn how to fight with swords, daggers, spears, etc, how to sing medieval songs, medieval dances, and many other medieval ‘mysteries,’ which in this case means arts, crafts, and professions.
The Shire of Owlsherst
Owlsherst is the SCA’s local chapter in York PA. They have a number of dedicated members who specialize in textiles to rapier-dagger fighting. I’ve posted some videos of their fighting demonstrations on Youtube and Tiktok and their archery master has his own Tiktok channel. They hosted this year’s Twelfth Nigh party and have many other events throughout the year. For more information on this chapter, go to https://owlsherst.eastkingdom.org/
Every SCA event is a great way to celebrate people who are passionate about history and have talents for arts and crafts. Everything from the tapestries to the to the food, to the adorable owl toys, was made by hand by these dedicated people (most of whom brought their own medieval costumes). More members were doing live demonstrations of rapier/ dagger fights, binding books in cow leather, and singing medieval Christmas songs. I was inspired by everyone’s dedication and hard work to put this together. I also wonder if this is how Shakespeare himself felt when, as a child, he went to sheep shearing fairs and saw his friends and fellow artisans put on amateur bible plays on medieval pageant wagons.
I should warn you that, like a lot of historical reenacting societies like Civil War reenactors, etc, this society is more aimed at hardcore history nerds, than anyone else. This isn’t Medieval Times or a big-budget renaissance fair which is aimed at children and casual fun seekers. As such, it wasn’t really family-friendly. There aren’t many activities for kids and many of the arts and crafts are too delicate for toddlers and young kids. Also, this event isn’t particularly immersive or organized. People mostly just mingled, ate, and watched the various demonstrations. Keep in mind, this is just one chapter and just one event, which means your experience may vary. Nevertheless, because of the organization’s amateur historical nature, I would caution you to manage your expectations. Like I said before, this isn’t some big-budget Disney theme-park ride, but it is a chance for hardcore history nerds to get together, share their knowledge, and celebrate the traditions of a bygone era. If that’s your thing, I highly recommend it!
I’ve been in this play three times and I’m continually struck by how fun, romantic, and progressive it is. It raises questions about gender roles, social norms, bullying, and even catfishing and heteronormativity! It’s a fascinating and thought-provoking play and it’s my favorite of Shakespeare’s comedies!
Shakespeare’s early comedies are about young love, infatuation, and being ‘madly in love’ (sometimes literally). His middle plays are about mature relationships between men and women and the need for commitment. I would argue that Twelfth Night, (and possibly Much Ado About Nothing), are the best examples of Shakespeare telling meaningful stories about romantic relationships.
In honor of “Twelfth Night,” I’ve created a coupon for my course on Shakespeare’s comedies from now till January 31st: Get $10 off my class “Shakespeare’s Comic Plays” with coupon code HTHESYTIT110 until Jan 31, 2023. Get started at https://outschool.com/classes/shakespeares-comic-plays-868BR5hg and enter the coupon code at checkout.
To finish I wanted to give you a complete production of Twelfth Night for your viewing pleasure, but I can’t decide which one, so I will post a bunch today!
1. 1996 TV movie starring Geoffrey Rush (Pirates of the Caribbean)