For a people often classified as uptight, dour, and repressed, Victorians certainly had a healthy love for the bawdy. One manifestation of this love of which I have only recently become aware is the so-called burlesque, specifically the highly intriguing Shakespeare burlesque. (That’s right; it’s not just a movie starring Cher and Christina Aguilera.) So, if you think satire and parody are modern conventions, think again. The Shakespeare burlesque of the nineteenth century took spoofing to a whole new, Mel Brooks-worthy level.
First of all, Shakespeare underwent a great resurgence of popularity in the nineteenth century, which expressed itself in everything from the most serious (and now legendary) performances of actors like Edwin Booth, to the broad caricatures of the burlesque. The Victorian burlesque, also known as a “travesty” or an “extravaganza,” was simply a parody of any well known opera or classical play – a musical comedy featuring fairly low-brow humor and women in tights. Although, to be fair, with any burlesque there was an assumed expectation of familiarity with the source material, implying a certain level of intellectual in-the-know.
One of the first Shakespeare burlesques was based on Hamlet: the 1810 Hamlet Travestie in Three Acts with Burlesque Annotations, after the manner of Dr. Johnson and Geo. Steevens, Esq. At the end of the show, Hamlet and Laertes square off in a boxing match rather than a duel, and all concludes with Hamlet gasping out, “Here goes, Horatio – going –going – gone!” More burlesques followed closely on Hamlet’s heels. Richard III became “A Merrie Mysterie in One Act;” The Tempest became The Enchanted Isle; and The Merchant of Venice became “Shylock, or The Merchant of Venice Preserved, An entirely new reading of Shakespeare, From an edition hitherto undiscovered by modern authorities, and which it is hoped may be received as the stray leaves of Jerusalem Hearty-Joke.” And let us not forget A Thin Slice of Ham Let! from the 1860’s.
Bad puns abounded in these works. Puns were the primary comedic weapon, and the worse the pun, the better the burlesque. In one take on Macbeth, Macbeth and Banquo appear first under an umbrella. Upon the witches greeting of "Hail! hail! hail!", Macbeth asks Banquo, "What mean these salutations, noble thane?" and is told "These showers of 'Hail' anticipate your 'reign'.” (Get it?)
Sheet music for the burlesque, Faust up to Date
Some select dialogue from this work:
Mephistopheles: "Along the Riviera dudes her praises sing."
Walerlie: "Oh, did you Riviera such a thing?"
Burlesques were usually written in verse, as exemplified in Gilbert Abbot A’Beckett’s Shakespeare burlesque King John (With the Benefit of the Act), when Hubert tells John of the mysterious appearance of multiple moons in the sky:
Three pink, three orange, half-a-dozen green,
And in addition to this crowd of moons,
There have been five and twenty fire-balloons.
K. John. Oons! -- moons! -- balloons!
Hub. The people in the street,
Shake their heads frightfully, whene'er they meet;
And he that speaks, doth grip the hearer's button,
While what he says the other chap doth glut on.
Another trademark of the Shakespeare burlesque was large quantities of added music and songs. One 1859 burlesque of Romeo and Juliet contained some twenty-three musical numbers, including renditions of popular songs of the day, like "Buffalo Gals." At the end of A’Beckett’s King John, the glib conclusion runs:
Enter all the Characters for the Finale
Fate comes, we needs must take it, and not pick it,
Bring me the bucket, for I'm going to kick it.
Slow Music -- The King dies.
Lest this be too downbeat for anyone, though, John soon after rises to join in the song, declaring that he’d not “the slightest idea of dying.”
Frontpiece for the Shakespeare burlesque, King John (With the Benefit of the Act), featuring King John in his ridiculous, pseudo-medieval garb.
All things considered, this scenario isn’t too far removed from what Shakespeare’s original audiences would have witnessed: the tragic characters rising from the dead at the conclusion of a play to join in a merry dance. Elizabethan audiences loved a good song and dance, and sixteenth-century theatre frequently incorporated such things as an entertainment bonus. They also relished physical comedy, puns, and rude humor – staples of the burlesque. Plus, Shakespeare’s own comedies often venture into the realm of the burlesque themselves; just look at the “Pyramus and Thisbe” debacle in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. So, while the Shakespeare burlesques caused a good deal of controversy in their day for presuming to mock the sanctity of Shakespeare (Othello, the Moor of Fleet Street, anyone?), in truth they displayed a theatrical sense that the Bard himself probably would have enjoyed.