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.

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.

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.

Did Shakespeare Write Let It Be?

Personally, I’m not a huge Beatles fan. I put them in that category where I can acknowledge that they deserve their legendary status in the history of music, but that doesn’t mean when a song of theirs comes on the radio I turn it up. (Except maybe some stuff off the White album.)

So I don’t have all the trivia about where and when the Beatles crossover with Shakespeare. I know there’s a video of some TV skit where they did bits from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And isn’t there a song out there that samples from King Lear? There are probably plenty more that have scooted their way across my radar over the years.

But a headline like “Paul McCartney reveals how Shakespeare inspired Let It Be” is just begging me to click it. One of their most popular songs, inspired by Shakespeare’s most well-known play? And I haven’t heard this story before? Ok, I’m curious.

Right off the bat, the article mentions inspiration at a “subconscious level,” and I think oh, here we go. But then it takes a turn:

“And it had been pointed out to me recently that Hamlet, when he has been poisoned, he actually says, ‘Let it be’ – act five, scene two. He says ‘Let be’ the first time, then the second time he says, ‘Had I but time — as this fell sergeant, Death, Is strict in his arrest — oh, I could tell you. But let it be Horatio.’”

The Beatle concluded: “I was interested that I was exposed to those words during a time when I was studying Shakespeare so that years later the phrase appears to me in a dream with my mother saying it.”

Really? There’s really that one-to-one connection? To The Text!

The second reference is easy to find, starting in Q2. It’s just like he says, right as Hamlet is dying. It’s not in Q1. It’s in FF as well.

AI-generated image of The Beatles performing Shakespeare
Paul is dead, Horatio.

But what about that first reference? It’s hard to parse that quote — it sounds like he’s saying that the first time is also in Act V Scene 2, but that’s not correct. He’s basically saying, “Yeah, yeah, he says it once … but the second one is the more famous one.”

That’s because the first one doesn’t really hit the same:

 I pray you all,

If you have hitherto conceal’d this sight,

Let it be tenable in your silence still;

Hamlet I.ii

Saying “Let it be” as a complete thought is definitely different from “Let it be this” or “let it be that”.

Still, though. Inspiration confirmed, I guess. Something to add to the Beatles / Shakespeare trivia category.

Dame Judi Dench is my Roman Empire

When Sir Patrick Stewart reads Shakespeare, you want to follow him into battle.

When Dame Judi Dench reads Shakespeare, you want to curl up under a quilt near a fireplace, holding a nice cup of tea. I love her interviews, like this one, because she’s simultaneously a theatrical legend and also someone you want to be your grandmother. I want my parents to drop me off at her house for a sleepover where I can curl under a quilt on her couch near her fireplace with a cup of tea that she made, you know? I can listen to her recite sonnets endlessly (and I’m not kidding, I replayed that clip from the Graham Norton show for days). But then she says grandmother things like, “I can’t stand people who throw away food on the sell-by date. What’s wrong with eating bread a few days old?” Absolutely, Dame Judi. You are the essence of wisdom in all its forms.

It makes me sad that her eyesight is failing rapidly. Soon, we’ll have to be the ones to read Shakespeare to her. I would totally sign up for that. Can’t wait to get my hands on her book.