How Shakespeare Shaped the Culture Wars

Mark Twain devotes several chapters of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to mocking the sham pretentions of the antebellum South in the form of a pair of Arkansas swindlers claiming to be European aristocrats. Posing as the Shakespearean actors David Garrick and Edmund Kean, the duke and dauphin decide to put on a performance for local edification and their enrichment, to include not only the sword fight in Richard III and the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet, but also Hamlet’s soliloquy, with the duke promising he will “piece it out from memory”. The speech he gives is pieced out indeed: “To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin/That makes calamity of so long life;/For who would fardels bear, till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane/But that the fear of something after death/Murders the innocent sleep…” Twelve people attend the show, laughing heartily at the absurdity. “So the duke said these Arkansaw lunkheads couldn’t come up to Shakespeare,” Huck reports: “what they wanted was low comedy.” And the duke and dauphin provide it, offering next a silent naked farce.

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