Avenging Shakespeare: What If?

AI-generated cartoon Loki peforming Hamlet
Poor Yorick is about to be used as a projectile.

I was a huge fan of Marvel’s movie efforts right through Infinity War / Endgame. I’m also one of the people who think that Disney’s switch to television series was their jump-the-shark moment. I haven’t really followed any of their Disney+ shows, and once you lose those, you start losing the Easter eggs in the movies, which makes you care less about the movies. It’s a slippery slope.

Then I discovered the Season 2, Episode 8 of the animated What If? series has the Avengers in Shakespearean England. I’m in!

I haven’t watched any episodes leading up to this one, but who cares? I get the general idea – it’s a multiverse thing where we see the characters we know in new roles. This one opens with Loki doing Hamlet, and I’d recognize Tom Hiddleston’s voice anywhere. Sold. Of course, it’s not long before some alien force attacks, and the fight scenes begin.

Unfortunately, that’s about all the Shakespeare we get. We don’t get a Shakespeare character (though Tony Stark looks much like him). There’s a two-second bit where Loki is talking about a new play he’s written called Iago. “There are other characters in it,” he says, “but really it’s about Iago.” I laughed.

I assume this is based on Neil Gaiman’s comic of the same name, but I’ve not read it. Maybe I should? I’m going to assume it has a lot more Shakespeare content.

Andrew Scott as Patti LuPone

I have not yet seen Andrew Scott’s Hamlet, though it appears universally loved. It regularly comes up on the Shakespeare Reddit as one of the most approachable takes on the character ever filmed.

AI-generated image of a theatre where everyone is on their laptop

I wonder, then, if they caught it on video when he apparently stopped his performance to stare down a rude theatre-goer who opened up a laptop during “To be or not to be”?

“When I was playing Hamlet, a guy took out his laptop — not his phone, his laptop — while I was in the middle of ‘to be or not to f***ing be’,” Scott said. “I was pausing and [the stage team] were like, ‘Get on with it’ and I was like, ‘There’s no way’.”

On the one hand, I can’t disagree with him. You probably paid a lot of money for a live theatre ticket like that. And you’re going to fire up the laptop? Just to hell with everybody around you, right? Forget stopping the play, I want you on the blacklist for that theatre so you never see another live show. All this guy got was a stare down. Also, go ahead and stare him down for his phone, too. It’s all rude.

On the other, does anybody see what bothers me in the above quote? In the context of being interrupted during the most famous soliloquoy in the English language, our Hamlet says “like” twice. “He was like blah, and I was like, blah!” It’s amazing what’s happened to the language in 400 years. And I don’t mean that in a good way.

Where’s Patti LuPone When You Need Her

Maybe Mr. Scott just needs some years to get tired of it. Broadway legend Patti LuPone is famous for letting the audience know how she feels about them. In 2015 she marched into the audience and ripped the phone out of one audience member’s hand. In 2009 she started yelling at people who, ignoring the announcement, were taking pictures of the show. Gloriously, this moment lives on via YouTube.

I need to get to more live theatre, in the hopes of catching one of these moments. Who said Shakespeare is boring?

The One Where Fleance Comes Back

So my daughter and I are working on a secret project (more soon!) that involves a deep reading and markup of Macbeth. For our purposes, I got the plain text, public domain copy from Project Gutenberg. I made her a copy, made myself one, and over the Christmas break we’ve been going about our business making our notes, periodically comparing.

Until yesterday, when we were driving to visit relatives, with the whole family in the car, discussing various things like college majors and literary theory and Shakespeare. “I thought you said Fleance doesn’t come back,” I hear her say.

“He doesn’t,” I say, driving. “Some adaptations insert a scene of him returning, to reinforce the prophecy about Banquo’s children. I think the Fassbender movie version does that.”

“No,” she continues, “he’s in the final scene.”

“No,” I insist, “he’s not.”

“When we get back home I’ll need to show you. He has lines. It’s in my copy.”

“If that’s true, that would be a giant mistake.”

Well, giant mistake confirmed.

I do what I always do in these situations – I call Bardfilm, my friendly neighborhood virtual Shakespeare resource library. While I’m waiting to hear back (he is traveling for the holidays as well), I start checking other versions. Everywhere I can find, this line is Ross’s. Ross has delivered the previous line, and Siward is in conversation with him. There is no indicator that this should be, or ever has been, Fleance’s line. Even if we imagine him in this scene (there is no stage direction to show him entering), why would he deliver that line?

I’ve written to Project Gutenberg with our correction. I’m sure in their world, this happens all the time; they have an actual address and ticket system set up for errata. But this isn’t a typo. Stuff like this bothers me. The stats say that almost 3000 people/month download that file. Presumably, mostly students. How many of them read that and just assume, no matter how confusing it is, that Fleance makes an appearance at the end? Arguably, it’s a trivial thing, but not to us. If you read Macbeth or any Shakespeare, and you have questions, you’re entitled to answers to those questions. It’s not fair for the answer to be, “Yeah, that’s just wrong, you got a bad copy. Ignore that.”

If anybody needs me, I’ll be re-reading my copy with a First Folio (and maybe an Arden) sitting in my lap.

Review: Much Ado About Anyone But You

I did not expect to be reviewing Anyone But You. It is a generic rom-com featuring a young lady, Sydney Sweeney, who I know only from my children, telling me about Euphoria. The trailers do not suggest much chemistry. This one feels like it’ll come and go pretty quickly.

Until I realized that the plot is about a man and woman who look like they hate each other, but only because they really like each other and are both afraid to admit it. Does this have Much Ado About Nothing vibes? Maybe I can pull some content from it.

Anyone But You Shakespeare - AI-generated Beatrice and Benedick

Until I realize that it is a deliberate modern adaptation! Very cool. It’s been a long time since we had something like this. A friend mentioned She’s The Man the other day, which got us talking about 10 Things I Hate About You. But those were twenty years ago. Time for something new? The IMDB page calls it a “loose adaptation.” The commercials don’t seem to mention it at all. Let’s see!

The characters are literally named directly from the play. Sydney Sweeney’s Bea is paired up with Glen Powell’s Ben. Later, we’ll meet her father, Leo, Ben’s best friend, Claudia (now cast female), and her partner, Halle (I guess they couldn’t do much with Hero). Meddler Pete (perhaps an appropriately-cast Pedro character would have been a little over the top?) will hang out around the edges of the story, and Jonathan will be about as close to a villain as we’re going to get. So far, so good. They didn’t have to do that. That’s the kind of thing I do when I play with this idea — start with the original names and then shorten them backward until you get a modern, acceptable equivalent. Maybe that’s what the writer did here?

The premise tracks pretty closely as well. We get the backstory that the original doesn’t give us – we see Bea and Ben have a lovely meet-cute that ends badly due to a misunderstanding, setting up the whole “I really liked him/her, and I’m not over how hurt I am, that it didn’t work out” dynamic. Sometime later, they are reunited when Ben’s friend Claudia announces her wedding to Halle, Bea’s sister. Even better, it’s a destination wedding in Australia.

Let the fireworks begin! They do what they can here with the banter back and forth – the writer is no Shakespeare. Every time B&B is together, they take cheap shots at each other in a wholly unrealistic way. If two friends-of-friends in real life acted like that, their friends would make it a point to keep them apart or at least tell them to shut up. But in our movie reality, they all get together and say, “Well, it’s clear that they both want to jump each other, so let’s set that up.”

It eventually goes off to be its own thing – Ben actually likes the Margaret character, and Jonathan is Bea’s ex-boyfriend. Bea and Ben quickly see through the “get them together” plan and decide to fake it to get everyone off their backs. So it’s got some amount of original content, which I can’t fault it for.

People who keep telling me that The Lion King is Hamlet need to watch a movie like this to see how you do an adaptation. On the one hand, this thing isn’t trying to be Shakespeare. The comedy is tired and obvious, going for the easy physical laugh whenever it’s available rather than trying to do it with dialogue. On the other, it literally sprinkles Shakespeare quotes – actually attributed to Shakespeare – throughout the movie. People walk by billboards with Shakespeare quotes. Again, didn’t have to do that.

So yes, we have an R-rated modern romantic comedy that’s banking mostly on “Sydney Sweeney in a bathing suit” popularity, but once you’re in your seat, it’s not afraid to say, “Ha! This is actually Shakespeare, psych!” I’m pleasantly impressed. Regular reviews talk about the chemistry (or lack of) between the stars and the lovely scenery of Australia. But I’m just looking for the Shakespeare references. I wish they leaned into it more heavily in the marketing, and more people might give it a chance. I wouldn’t have given it a second thought without the Shakespeare connection. And here we are.

Hamlet is Batman

Ask a random person if they’ve seen Hamlet, and chances are, they’ll treat it like a yes or no question.

Ask that same person if they’ve seen Batman, and they’ll say, “Which one?”

In the time I’ve been alive, Batman has been portrayed by Adam West, Michael Keaton, George Clooney, Val Kilmer, Christian Bale, and Robert Patrick (did I miss any?) That’s not counting the animated or television versions. I know Adam West was tv Batman but they also did a full-length movie.

AI-generated image of Batman performing the Yorick speech from Hamlet.
Alas, poor Joker.

See where I’m going with this? Everybody knows “the Batman story”. Parents murdered when he was young. Grows up to be a crime-fighting billionaire, works at night, has lots of cool toys. Not only do we keep telling his story over and over again, but people keep going. We understand that we basically know the story. We want to see how it’s going to be told this time. We want to see how it’s going to be acted this time.

That is exactly how Shakespeare fans feel about Hamlet. I don’t feel the same way about Moby Dick or Catcher in the Rye. Those were checklist items, you read them and say ok, read that, I’m done. I suppose you could do this with Hamlet. You could read it and say, check, done, I can say I’ve read Hamlet. I know a lot of people make it their bucket list to read all of Shakespeare’s works.

But to see it, that’s a whole different story. Whose did you see? What do you think about Mel Gibson’s version versus David Tennant? Or Andrew Scott up against Benedict Cumberbatch? Thoughts on Kenneth Branagh, or Kevin Kline, or Derek Jacobi?

This is how I want us to explain our love of Shakespeare to our friends and family. Shakespeare’s not something you get through in high school just to get the grade and forget all about it. The text may not be changing, but our desire and opportunity to interpret it has continued to evolve over hundreds of years. A character like Hamlet should be as iconic as Batman. We all know the story. Everybody who’s seen Lion King knows the story. Uncle kills father, marries mother, son avenges father. We go to see how it’s going to be told this time and by whom. What insights will new voices bring? Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear … let them be our superheroes.