Methodical Madness: Monty Python on Hamlet
FREDERICK IRVING P. IGLESIAS
2007-25126/BA English Studies: Literature
(Disclaimer: I do not own any of the videos or pictures included in this post. All video clips are courtesy of YouTube. Photo is courtesy of Fanpop.com. External links are provided wherever necessary.)
When it comes to turning the Bard and/or his works into caricatures of themselves, the Americans seem to lead the way. Type in “Shakespeare” and “parodies” in Google and the first site that pops up is Shakespeare-Parodies.com, a site which features parodies of Shakespeare’s place staged in New York and Los Angeles. A lesson plan for teachers on the American Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) actually suggests that teachers encourage their students to write a parody of Shakespeare’s plays. The California-based Reduced Shakespeare Company brazenly declares on their website that they “take long, serious subjects and reduce them to short, sharp comedies.” Not too long ago, long-running animated show The Simpsons did their own takes on Hamlet and Macbeth, wherein they took care to not only subvert the plays but make them fit their show, hence a clueless Laertes (played by Ralph Wiggum), a crude Claudius (Moe Szyslak) and a cowardly Macbeth (Homer Simpson).
Clip from the Simpsons episode “Tales from the Public Domain”
A role played by an idiot: Homer Simpson as Macbeth
But if you thought the British were splitting hairs at the sight of their favorite son being made to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous humor, think again—they’ve joined in the fun, courtesy of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
For the benefit of readers about to waste time Googling the last four words of the previous paragraph, a brief background-slash-blurb: Monty Python is to comedy what the Beatles is to music, or what Shakespeare is to literature, or what Britain is to imperialism—while their time has long gone, they are still considered easily one of the most popular and influential in their field. The group, made up of comedians Eric Idle, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Graham Chapman, have made several movies together, at least two of which—Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Life of Brian—are now considered classics.
But what catapulted them to fame was the BBC sketch show Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which ran for five years from 1969-1974. Near the end of the show’s run, they released an episode wherein they parodied Hamlet, and it is in this sketch where we can see just how different a beast a British parody is from an American one. Of course, most of Monty Python were educated either at Oxford or Cambridge, where they were schooled in Shakespeare, so such a degree of familiarity with and understanding of the subject would seem to spell the difference.
Hamlet on the couch in a Monty Python sketch
Despite the fanfare that accompanies the opening card, the sketch begins in the least outrageous, outlandish way possible. What features of Elizabethan England the viewer might expect to see are completely absent, as the sketch is set in contemporary times. We see first a car zooming along a city road, and then grinding to a halt. The driver gets out—and it’s the Danish prince himself, walking towards a building. He rings the doorbell and looks around impatiently before being let in.
The sketch then cuts to Hamlet on a psychiatrist’s couch. He laments how everyone he comes across always wants him to recite either the “To be or not to be” or the “Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt” soliloquy, both of which the shrink finishes for him. While the doctor, carrying a skull, presses his patient to recite “Alas, poor Yorick”, Hamlet refuses, expressing his desire to “make something of his life” and be a “private dick” (private detective). At this point, we can see how the sketch pokes fun at the many psychoanalytic readings done on the play as well the cultural impact of the play. It also seems to question the assumption of a definitive reading of the play—Monty Python’s Hamlet is given a voice, and with it expresses concerns most readers probably wouldn’t have expected.
Here the meat of the sketch is presented: while Hamlet counts sex as one of the reasons he’d like to be a “private dick”, the doctor concludes that sex is the problem, then proceeds to launch into a graphic description of an imaginary sex scene while Hamlet looks on in shock. The door then bursts open and another shrink chases the first one out and then proceeds to tell Hamlet that the first one was a fake. While Hamlet thinks he’d have a proper session now, the doctor soon launches into the same bawdy question the first one began before he is chased out by another one. This doctor takes care to present every sort of document to his patient to prove that he is a “real” psychiatrist, including a letter from his mother. However, soon the doctor begins the same monologue before being interrupted by a secretary telling him a real doctor is coming to take a look at him. He disguises himself as a policeman and lets him out, but soon another doctor comes in firing the same question before being taken away by the orderlies, leaving Hamlet completely puzzled. Another doctor comes in telling him that he had just undergone a “disorientation test” and assures him that they can properly begin. Hamlet is just beginning to calm down when the doctor himself asks a sex question before being chased out. The number of phony psychiatrists “studying” Hamlet appears to symbolize the many people—qualified or not–who attempt to uncover Hamlet’s sexual desires through “psychoanalysis”, but in doing so ironically and unconsciously reveal their own repressed sexual tendencies and desires.
What’s remarkable about this sketch is not just its sparseness and dry humor but the topics it chooses to parody. It pokes fun neither at the play itself nor at the hero of the play, but how various people have tried—and many times failed–to interpret it correctly over the years and decades and centuries. Clearly, for the British, and even for a comedy group such as Monty Python which seems to make fun of just about anything that moves, Shakespeare’s magnum opus, the so-called pinnacle of theatre and literature, must be left untouched and unsullied, ultimately clean of any uncertain, debatable interpretation.
Larsen, Darl. Monty Python, Shakespeare and English Renaissance Drama. North Carolina: Macfarland, 2003. Print.
Leopold, Todd. “How Monty Python changed the world.” CNN.com. 11 Dec 2003. Web. Accessed 16 Mar 2011.