Cruel to be kind: Irreverently celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Claudius (Craig Wallace, center), Rosencrantz (Romell Witherspoon, right), and Guildenstern (Adam Wesley Brown). Gertrude (Kimberly Schraf) pictured in background. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Folger Theatre, 2015. Photo by Jeff Malet.

T.S. Eliot lied! How can April be the cruelest month if it’s when we celebrate the birth and also, perhaps perversely, the death of William Shakespeare?

Maybe it’s not so perverse to acknowledge that Shakespeare was a man who, like all mere mortals, died. Maybe a dash of irreverence is the most reverent way to pay homage to a playwright who delighted in paradox, creating charming villains and combative lovers. Shakespeare also less-than-reverently pillaged such source materials as the histories of Holinshed and translations of Plutarch, taking what was useful, frequently changing it to suit his creative needs, and impertinently jettisoning the rest.

Perhaps impertinence is the only appropriate Shakespearean spirit. There are many examples of contemporary artists who have followed Shakespeare’s example, purloining his works for their own artistic purposes:

  • Tom Stoppard, who famously plundered the plot of Hamlet for his worm’s-eye view of two of its minor characters in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
  • Mya Gosling, whose stick-figure web comic Good Tickle Brain is a fond satire of both Shakespeare’s plays and our ongoing dialogue with and appreciation of them.
  • Author Jasper Fforde and songwriters Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick, who each used the phrase “something rottenfrom Hamlet as the title for two distinctively different projects: the former, the fourth book in the Thursday Next series of novels, about a literary detective who interacts with fictional characters who enter our world; and the latter, a very funny Broadway musical about Shakespeare’s fictional rival playwrights, Nick Bottom (!) and his brother Nigel.
  • Devon Glover, aka The Sonnet Man, who fuses Shakespeare’s sonnets to the rhythms of contemporary hip-hop.
  • Christopher Moore, who took the Fool from King Lear, named him Pocket, and created two comic novels featuring him as protagonist called Fool and The Serpent of Venice featuring characters from and surprisingly compelling back stories to not only Lear, but also (weirdly yet convincingly) The Merchant of Venice and Othello.
  • Mark Rylance, who brilliantly ignored the supposed rules of speaking Shakespeare’s verse by choosing to sometimes stutter the words in his Tony-winning performance as Olivia in an all-male Twelfth Night, even going so far as to change the punctuation of one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines to one of surprise when he asks, “How now, Malvoli — ohh!”

Clearly these are celebrations of Shakespeare that nonetheless might outrage some purists, past and present — and maybe this blog is the least daring place to point this out. One of the Folger’s many wonders is the way it celebrates all manner of engagement with Shakespeare, whether it be through scholarship, performance, or stage combat demonstrations on its beautiful grounds. However you engage with Shakespeare is the right way.

But maybe that message hasn’t been spread far enough, as evidenced by the number of people we encounter who are afraid of or intimidated by Shakespeare, or simply decided he’s not for them. It’s fair and correct to acknowledge that some of his plays aren’t that great, that some of his 400-year-old jokes and cultural allusions have lost their snap, and that his language can be challenging. Maybe looking at Shakespeare irreverently allows you to see not what his work is supposed to be, but what it is.

The good news, as Professor Richard Schoch has said (on this blog, in fact), is that “we are long past believing that parody poses a threat to the Bard’s genius.” When I first started performing with the Reduced Shakespeare Company in 1992, we would frequently be asked if we thought Shakespeare would be rolling in his grave by our literally reductive approach. A quarter of a century later, we don’t get that question much anymore. Maybe people are coming around to the idea that irreverence is its own form of reverence, and that being silly isn’t the opposite of being serious, it’s the opposite of being solemn, which, as the famously silly person John Cleese constructed it, only “serves pomposity and the self-important.”

Shakespeare, showman that he was, was many things but rarely pompous. And maybe — speaking as we were of cruelty — his most famous creation has the right of it. Hamlet, the melancholy Prince of Denmark who also served as his creator’s mouthpiece on all things related to plays, players, and stagecraft, famously decided, “I must be cruel only to be kind.”

Happy Birth-and-Deathday, Willy! Unlike your mortal shell, your works are immortal and will survive all manner of impertinence and cruelty.


  • Also, think of THE BOMB-ITTY OF ERRORS, a Rap/Hip Hop version of THE COMEDY OF ERRORS by Jordan Allen-Dutton, Jason Catalano.

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