So Shakespeare wrote terrible jokes, apparently

I read the other day that one of the reasons why kids often don’t ‘click’ with Shakespeare – or find his comedies funny – is that his jokes were terrible. They were also topical, and the one thing that dates faster than last week’s old fish is a topical joke.

William Shakespeare, the 'Flower' portrait c1820-1840, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
William Shakespeare, the ‘Flower’ portrait c1820-1840, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I can’t help thinking – at least on my experience – that high school English teachers also have a bit to do with the calculation. The one I had, back in the late 1970s – a fellow named ‘Frog’ McKenzie- was a pleasant and well-meaning guy, but he had an unerring ability to make anything he taught dull. He obliterated class interest in literature. All the reading on the curriculum – not just Shakespeare but Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and even Heller’s Catch -22 – were rendered dull, dull, dull. Forever.

The reality, carefully hidden by the teacher, was that Shakespeare was the hot writer of his day – sharp, fast and witty. Interesting.

I don’t buy into the debates over whether the plays were written by Will Shakespeare or some other guy with the same name. Nor do I think they were penned by his wife Anne Hathaway (who got his second-best bed in his will, and is apparently now a Hollywood actress), or the Duke of Bedford, still less the Queen’s nurse, Bernard (who Shakespeare parodied in Romeo and Juliet’s The Nurse).

I think the plays were written by the guy we usually say they were. They were rollicking good stories.

Back then Londoners went to The Globe for an evening’s entertainment – much as later generations went to the cinema, and we blob around on our own couches with our X Boxes. So the pressure was on the Immortal Bard to hit the spot – and he did. If you happened to be living in Elizabethan England, his plays were up to the minute, jokey, bawdy, and often geared to subtly tweak the nose of the regime. This last was quite risky, because the place was being run as a police state. But Shakespeare managed it, usually by setting his play in some historical period. Some of his history plays were also designed to bolster the Tudor regime (a deep defamation on Richard III, but hey….)

Shakespeare produced, in short, a jolly good evening’s entertainment that was edgy enough to be good – but not so edgy it had him thrown into the Tower. (‘I only let him off because he blubbed on the way to the gallows’). And that’s the sort of stuff I wasn’t taught at school by my English teacher, who instead presented Shakespeare as high literature and a looooong afternoon’s bore.

That said, it’s hard to ‘get’ every last subtle in-joke, in all its complex detail, unless you’re a close scholar of the Elizabethan period. I’m not, which means I probably miss quite a lot, except the bit about ‘sack’, which was the Elizabethan term for cheap imported sherry, usually in a sack-wrapped bottle. Today we’d probably call it ‘chateau cardboard’ – you know, 3 litres of terrible wine packaged in a plastic bladder held in a cardboard box with a small slot for a tap.

Sir John Falstaff with a jar of sack. Public domain, via Wikipedia.
Sir John Falstaff with a jar of sack. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Now, the last time I saw ‘chateau cardboard’ on sale in a pub was in a bar in Reefton in 1997, where my wife ordered a glass of house savignon. The woman behind the bar fished out a plastic bladder (sans cardboard case) from the chiller, opened the valve, and schpritzed a glass-full of this vinegary, sugary liquid. Conceptually? Sack. So began an evening that continued with the local ‘Man O Man’ contest, fuelled by an astonishing amount of drinking (we sat at the back, watching in amusement) and to my mind all this was not entirely unlike the sort of bawdy fun in the kind of Elizabethan bars that Prince Hal and Sir John Falstaff might have frequented. Falstaff, anyway.

See what I mean? I could go on like this for quite a while, because a lot of what Shakespeare wrote cut to the heart of the human condition, which everybody can identify with today because it’s still going on – I mean, a rowdy bar is a rowdy bar. It’s all interesting, if we know where to look. My English teacher didn’t, but that’s another story.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


21 thoughts on “So Shakespeare wrote terrible jokes, apparently

  1. The topicality and references of Shakespeare’s humor don’t help make the case that he’s actually funny, no. (There’s probably a good warning there for anyone who wants to be funny and make a topical joke.) There’s also the grammatical problem, I suspect. Elizabethan English reads like a particularly quarrelsome subleasing agreement between multinational corporations who don’t like one another, or themselves. Add to that that before the rise of microphones, tight editing, and wide-screen TVs the writing had to make sure any important pieces were underlined heavily so everybody in the back could follow what was going on. You get a style of writing that feels more ponderous, even when it is being whimsical.

    1. Too true! Shakespeare’s grammar is very close to modern Dutch, which probably says something about the evolution of the two languages. He also ran out of vocab quite often and solved it by making words up. Something else authors have a hard time getting away with today, unless they’re Tolkien.

  2. Interesting take on Shakespeare. I didn’t find him entertaining until my 30’s when girlfriends educated me. HS–like you–he just didn’t keep my attention.

    1. It seems to be a common fate! I am prepared to bet that Will S never imagined his writing would be used to bore schoolchildren around the English speaking world. But it is – such are the turns of history.

  3. The English teacher I had in high school introduced me to Shakespeare (MacBeth) and I got far more out of the reading than I did out of any presentation she gave. She could bore a sloth. Sadly, my appreciation for Shakespeare didn’t come until I took a beginning theatre class in 2008 for fun. He knew how to teach it!

    1. It’s amazing how some teacher manage to suck the life out of the subject. While others inspire! For me the Eureka moment was when I realised that Elizabethan England was a police state…and the Immortal Bard was tweaking its nose.

  4. When I was at high school in the early sixties I had a brilliant English teacher – Frank Pound. Whenever he saw all of us were developing the kid’s equivalent of the thousand yard stare, he would say, “to hell with the curriculum, anyone for Shakespeare.” It worked every time. 😉

      1. Frank realized that to spend an entire lesson droning on about the meaning of verbs, nouns, adjectives. part participles etc, etc, is guaranteed to send kids to sleep. Whereas to get those same kids acting out one of the Bard’s plays…. 😉

        1. Damn straight! My wife had an English teacher who used to do something similar, apparently he’d do Shakespeare and alert the class to the ‘naughty bits’, slightly misaligned though they may be to our sensibilities…but it got the class instantly engaged!

  5. Your teacher must have been related to mine. Everything he touched was boring. We had to sit there in lessons listening to a tape recording of him reading the text, be it Midsummer Night’s Dream, A Tale of Two Cities or Cider With Rosie. (Which was boring enough without his help.)

    Shakespeare came alive for me when it was performed. Good college tutors brought out the subtlety of the writing, but seeing it performed brought it to life better than any ‘reading.’

    1. Couldn’t agree more! One of the best and most engaging Shakespeare performances I saw was when the Victoria University Drama Club (which I’d belonged to, years earlier) did ‘King Lear’ in the Wellington Botanic gardens. A truly stunning re-interpretation complete with actors descending on ropes from trees, which I thought was a bit risky but probably OK as long as they didn’t mention the title of another well-known Shakespearean play (ahem)…

  6. I was lucky,in that I had a great high school English teacher. And the most remarkable performance of Shakespeare I ever saw was The Tempest, in Stratford on Avon. I really need to go to London for a Globe performance.
    too bad your dull, dull teacher didn’t tell his class about all of the phrases in the English language that come from the Bard.

    1. Shakespeare definitely added a lot of vocab to English – it’s a far richer language because of him. It must have been a fantastic experience to see Shakespeare at the Globe!

  7. Aloha Matthew,

    I identify strongly with your post and the comments. I take it all as confirmation of a long held belief – Literature classes are wasted on high school boys, they are just not ready for it. I think it better to assign them a racy current adventure book and let them practice their reading skills. Later perhaps they will discover Shakespeare.

    A Hui Hou,

  8. I taught secondary school English in north London schools in the 1990s, to Year 9 & upwards. We were lucky to have teachers’ days at the National Theatre where we were taught the practical exercises that directors used to familiarise actors with Shakespearian English – yelling the insults at each other, & the like. It was a blast, & we gratefully took all the exercises back to our classrooms. There was also a Cambridge series of the plays that had the ms on one page & on the facing page, info & acting exercises to help students connect with the plays. I loved teaching Shakespeare & class was often raucous.

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