The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.1888 Wednesday, 16 November 2005
From: Al Magary <
Date: Wednesday, 16 Nov 2005 02:29:39 -0800
Subject: Shakespeare Travesties
Internet Archive has online from the Million Book Project a small book
by William Davenport Adams, _A Book of Burlesque, Sketches of English
Stage Travestie and Parody_ (Whitefriars Library of Wit and Humour;
London: Henry & Co., 1891): http://www.archive.org/details/ABookOfBurlesque
Ch. 6 deals with Shakespeare travesties written by once-popular comic
dramatists like Maurice Dowling, Charles Beckington, Andrew Halliday
(Duff), Gilbert Abbott a'Beckett (who did the only known burlesque of
King John), H.J. Byron, Francis Talfourd, and F.C. Burnand; W.S. Gilbert
remains popular, of course, for his collaborations with Sullivan.
The genre flourished in the 19th century after John Poole's _Hamlet
Travestie_ (1810), with a run of 70 works up to Gilbert's _Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern: A Tragic Episode, in Three Tabloids, Founded on an
Old Danish Legend_ (1891).
The Adams book summarizes the Gilbert R&G with some best bits including
this scene in which the two chatterboxes meet the talkative Ophelia, who
is engaged to Hamlet:
GUILDENSTERN And what's he like?
OPHELIA Alike for no two seasons at a time.
Sometimes he's tall -- sometimes he's very short --
Now with black hair -- now with a flaxen wig --
Sometimes with an English accent -- then a French --
Then English with a strong provincial "burr."
Once an American, and once a Jew --
But Danish never, take him how you will!
And strange to say, whate'er his tongue may be,
Whether he's dark or flaxen -- English -- French --
Though we're in Denmark, A.D. ten-six-two--
He always dresses as King James the First!
GUILDENSTERN Oh, he is surely mad!
OPHELIA Well, there again
Opinion is divided. Some men hold
That he's the sanest, far, of all sane men --
Some that he's really sane, but shamming mad --
Some that he's really mad, but shamming sane --
Some that he will be mad, some that he was
Some that he couldn't be. But on the whole
(As far as I can make out what they mean)
The favourite theory's somewhat like this:
Hamlet is idiotically sane
With lucid intervals of lunacy
In the second act the Queen, seeing Hamlet is about to soliloquize,
tells the henchmen, "Prevent this, gentlemen, by any means." Later,
when instructing the Players, Hamlet tells them (in prose): "Pray you,
let there be no huge red noses, nor extravagant monstrous wigs, nor
coarse men garbed as women, in this comi-tragedy; for such things are as
much as to say, 'I am a comick fellow -- I pray you laugh at me, and
hold what I say to be cleverly ridiculous.' Such labelling of humour is
an impertinence to your audience, for it seemeth to imply that they are
unable to recognize a joke unless it be pointed out to them."
The a'Beckett _King John_ has a hilarious bit when the king tries to
direct Hubert to do in Arthur:
KING JOHN Hubert, my friend, I had a thing to say.
But let it pass -- the sun is shining bright:
To suit my purpose, it had needs be night,
If where we stand could be a railroad tunnel,
As if we looked at Tartarus through a funnel;
If you could only scent what I propose,
Yet let it not smell rankly in your nose,
If you could, or if I -- Hubert, my lad,
Who made that coat? -- indeed, the cut's not bad.
The Gilbert R&G skit can be found at
but a'Beckett's KJ is not online as far as I know. Poole's _Hamlet
Travestie_ is available as a facsimile online at Penn's SCETI/Furness
along with Richard Gurney's _Romeo and Juliet Travesty_. Stanley Wells
assembled a large number in five volumes, _Shakespeare Burlesques_
(London: Diploma Press, 1977; Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier, 1978).
A recent study is Richard W. Schoch's _Not Shakespeare: Bardolatry and
Burlesque in the Nineteenth Century_ (Cambridge UP, 2002), which was
reviewed by Michael Dobson in Shakespeare Quarterly in Spring 2004.
While Google doesn't readily turn up any performances of the 19th
century travesties these days, I think some of these burlesques have
some sharp humor that could find a place in Shakespeare criticism.
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