Hollywood may be all about “digitally de-aging” its stars these days, but that doesn’t leave live theatre much to work with. It’s a sad truth that even our greatest heroes age, and will eventually age out of their own greatest roles. I could watch Sir Patrick Stewart play Macbeth forever, but Sir Patrick Stewart can’t play Macbeth forever, you know what I’m trying to say?
Some years ago, Sir Derek Jacobi played Mercutio at the age of 77. That’s not quite the same thing as playing Romeo at that age, though.
And I wish I could find a link, but I remember an interview with Christopher Plummer, while he was playing Prospero, lamenting that there were no more roles left for him to play at his age.
The other day I was bemoaning the fact that I had no good video of Robin Williams really doing Shakespeare. Sure, he would inevitably through some random references into his rambling on just about every talk show appearance, but knowing he went to Juilliard, it did little but whet the appetite for more.
Well I have to say, I’ve been doing this blog for 15 years now and I still come across resources that are new to me. How about Robin Williams Dick Cavett improvising a Shakespeare play for about 5 minutes? Hmmm, how to explain Dick Cavett to the younger crowd. Before Jimmy Fallon was Jay Leno, right? And before Jay Leno was Johnny Carson? Well before Johnny Carson was Jack Parr. Dick Cavett was a writer for the Tonight Show right in that Parr->Carson time period. He did a lot more than that, including having his own talk show (featured here), I just wanted to put this in some sort of historical perspective. The date is 1979, and the current event they mention, Three-Mile Island, was a nuclear disaster.
True it’s not “real” Shakespeare, but you can play count the references – you can see Dick Cavett trying to keep up by hurling bits and pieces of memorized monologues at Robin. For a period at the beginning I wondered if Cavett was going to get to talk at all, every time he opens his mouth Robin just takes off again.
When my kids were younger I could just shower them in Shakespeare references and hope they said something amusing in return. As they turned into teenagers I was afraid they’d leave such things behind. It always warms my heart when they remind me this is not the case.
Such as at dinner last night, when for some reason (I forget the context) the question came up of what my daughter would name her children.
Daughter #2: “Desdemona!”
Daughter #1: “No…”
Daughter #2: “Oh, wait, Ophelia! Desdemona or Ophelia!”
Daughter #1: “You can’t name her Desdemona, Desdemona dies.”
I don’t like working from home. It’s not so much the distractions, it’s that I am in control of the distractions. Odd, right? If I’m in control of the distractions I should be able to limit them. And that’s why I don’t like working from home, because that’s what I’m bad at. Example? We have a kitchen at work. I have a kitchen at home. I know at work if I get up and go to the kitchen every half hour, people are going to notice. But at home the only person stopping me is me, and I go easy on myself.
The same is true for background noise. I’m one of those people that tells myself “I work better with noise in the background.” So the television is always on. But I’ve learned from years of practice that it has to be a certain kind of television. It has to be interesting enough that if I pay attention to it I’ll like it, but not so interesting that I care if I miss anything, you know? So while there might be an endless supply of Shakespeare to stream, it doesn’t fit that latter category. You have to pay attention to Shakespeare. Same with Netflix originals.
You know what’s great for this, though, is sitcoms. Binge-watching old sitcoms. There’s countless hours of them, they’re just entertaining enough that you catch a joke here and there that makes you smile. But the world isn’t going to end, you’re not going to lose the plot forever, if you get up and walk away for twenty minutes.
So that’s what I’ve been doing. And I noticed something very interesting. There used to be a lot of Shakespeare in these old sitcoms. It’s fairly obvious that any sitcom set in a high school would inevitably do a Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet episode. And Frasier was full of references, but a show about two over-educated snobs is really just on level one when they break out the Shakespeare. They’re just getting started.
But then I started watching Grace Under Fire, the 1993 Brett Butler sitcom about a divorced mom who is a recovering alcoholic trying to escape an abusive relationship. Sure enough, Shakespeare shows up by the third episode! A good amount, too, as Brett and her friend end up at a college party, where at 35 they feel way, way too old for these college boys, until she finds herself in a Shakespeare quote-off with one of them. A few episodes later there’s a reference to the town’s production of Macbeth as well, again allowing Butler to throw some quotes into the script.
I got to wondering what purpose Shakespeare serves in these shows. On the one hand it’s public domain so the writers can help themselves without worry. But to what end? For a Shakespeare joke to go over, the audience has to get it. Which is probably why we only ever get Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Macbeth references. They’re the ones people remember most from high school English class.
It’s also interesting to consider the context of the reference. In the Butler’s show it’s clearly there so we know that despite her circumstances she’s intelligent and well educated. But what about something more modern, like Friends? I’m reasonably sure that every Shakespeare joke in Friends – and there’s maybe only three of them? – was at the Joey’s expense. As in, “I haven’t heard Joey stumble to get words out like that since that time he played Macbeth.”
I can’t think of any more recent examples, but I also don’t watch as many sitcoms anymore.
So I’m left wondering, were sitcoms “smarter” decades ago? By that I mean did writers assume the audience would be more likely to get the reference? Or am I reading too much into this?
Who else has a good sitcom Shakespeare reference? I was going to say “the older the better” but that’s only evidence for my point. If you’ve got new stuff, stuff that’s still on tv, I’d love to see it. I want to see if there’s anything to my theory.
Star Trek : The Next Generation doesn’t count 🙂 – not only is it not a sitcom, but a show starring one of the world’s most well known Shakespearean actors in an ongoing story arc teaching an android about what it means to be human is hardly an unbiased example.
I know M*A*S*H had a few (thinking of Hawkeye performing Richard III most notably) but what about Taxi? How about the goofier ones like Three’s Company?
I’m straying dangerously into Bardfilm’s territory now so I expect him to come in and school me at any moment. But I’m starved for content and hadn’t written anything in a while, so take that, Professor!
You’ve probably seen (or heard) impressionist Jim Meskimen‘s work. Not only was he on America’s Got Talent, but he’s also turned up in everything from Friends to Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. If you haven’t seen his Richard III you really should. This is a Shakespeare blog after all. I’ve followed him on Twitter since I first discovered that one.
Recently he put out an offer on Twitter for custom recordings. I assume he was expecting people to ask for voice mail greetings. But just like my habit of typing “Shakespeare” into every new search engine I see, I knew exactly what I wanted him to read, and which voice I wanted him to do.
Robin Williams doing “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”
I can’t even really tell you why. I had no plans for it. It’s not my voice mail greeting. I just wanted to hear his voice again. Not the manic Robin Williams who never stood still. The Dead Poet’s Society Robin who wanted you to hear what he was saying to you because it was important. It made me think of Steve Jobs’ “Here’s to the crazy ones” commercial. Maybe I’ll put this to a video montage at some point.
In the meantime, though, please enjoy.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits and Are melted into air, into thin air: And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep.