In Something Rotten, the hit 2015 Broadway musical, something is rotten in the state of Denmark, and it’s an egg. The play-within-the-play is called “Omelet.” It’s easy to dismiss the foolishness and fun of the show (“Alas, poor yolk, I know thee well”), but Something Rotten is actually just one of the latest incarnations of a tradition of Shakespeare travesty dating back more than 200 years.
The first was John Poole’s Hamlet Travestie, performed in London in 1810. The word travesty comes from Italian, meaning “dressed up to appear ridiculous.” Poole accomplishes just that, taking speeches from Hamlet and sticking closely to the original text, but adding jokes, contemporary topical references, and songs, and fiddling with meter and rhyme, all to humorous effect. Shakespeare’s “Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death / The memory be green, and that it us befitted / To bear our hearts in grief” becomes for Poole: “Tho’ by our dismal phizzes plain ‘tis seen / The memory of our brother’s death is green / Yet, as he’s laid in peace upon the shelf, / ‘Tis time we think upon our royal self.”
In the following years, Romeo and Juliet Travestie, Othello Travestie, and Macbeth Travestie appeared on London stages, filled with clever wordplay: “Curse Birnam wood!—would anyone would burn ‘em!” As Richard Schoch discusses in Not Shakespeare: Bardolatry and Burlesque in the Nineteenth Century, these texts were updated for every revival so that their jokes stayed contemporary. These travesties were a hit with audiences until about 1890, when they stopped being published and produced.
But parts of Poole’s approach appear in the Shakespearean travesties that continue to be written today, which sift into two groups. There are philosophical travesties, which use absurdity to further explore the ideas Shakespeare raised in his plays. And there are popular travesties, which are substantially less faithful to Shakespeare’s original, trafficking in the most well-known touchstones of the plays.
The first Shakespeare travesty leaning in a philosophical direction was W.S. Gilbert’s 1891 Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Gilbert toys with the idea of the play-within-the-play in a manner both comical and more intellectual than travesties in the Poole model. Claudius is a failed playwright; Gertrude, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern urge Hamlet to commit suicide instead of soliloquizing; and at the end, Hamlet is shipped off to “Engle-land,” under the notion that the English would find him more enjoyable.
The epitome of a philosophical travesty is Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, first performed in 1966. In contrast to Poole’s model, it provides a more intellectual brand of humor that requires deep familiarity with Shakespeare’s original and deftness of thinking to truly enjoy. Stoppard’s jokes require an understanding of several layers of meaning of Hamlet. It is not enough just to know the lines from Hamlet, as in the Poole model. One must be deeply conversant in the themes of the play to fully enjoy the travesty. Its humor is cerebral and requires a Shakespeare lover or scholar to fully appreciate it.
In the other direction is popular travesty, as in Something Rotten. It doesn’t require much knowledge of the original text of Hamlet to enjoy, and, in stark contrast to Stoppard’s intellectual humor, the comedy depends mainly on physical spectacle, puns, and topical references. The New York Times’s Ben Brantley panned the show, calling it “both too much and not enough,” writing, “When I was in grade school, it was considered the height of wit to refer to ‘Hamlet’ as ‘Omelet,’ and it is such heights that ‘Something Rotten!’ occupies.”
These descendants of Poole are suited to different audiences: philosophical travesty is addressed to an audience well-versed in Shakespeare, while popular travesty is for the casual Broadway fan aware of the line “There is something rotten in the state of Denmark.”
Just look at Gnomeo and Juliet (2011), which seems to be a case where someone thought of a funny pun for a title, then wrote a whole movie to sustain it. While the basic elements of Romeo and Juliet are preserved—two gnomes, alike in dignity, in fair Verona, are star crossed lovers—the film happily strays from Shakespeare into lawnmower races and its sequel, Sherlock Gnomes. Popular travesty survives on the stage, too. The Reduced Shakespeare Company is dedicated to it, conceiving and performing such shows as The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) and Hamlet’s Big Adventure (A Prequel).
There has even been a popular travesty based on Stoppard’s earlier work, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead (2009). But philosophical travesty survives, as in Spymonkey’s The Complete Deaths (2016), written in honor of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. The play stages every death in Shakespeare’s plays.
These surviving Shakespeare travesty forms, popular and philosophical alike, continue to appeal to their audiences. Yes, part of their appeal comes from a feeling of intellectual superiority at recognizing the dressed-up Shakespearean text, but John Poole’s form also persists because seeing Hamlet as an egg or Juliet as a gnome is, you know, hilarious!