Home > Multimedia Essays > On the Parodies of Shakespeare’s Works and the Term “Shakespearean”

On the Parodies of Shakespeare’s Works and the Term “Shakespearean”

Submitted by: Jed Kevin C. Morada, 2008-10783, UP Diliman

Disclaimer: I do not own these pictures. Please see below for the original websites that posted them.

It took a while for me to formulate the title of this essay, mainly because I had to make it look and sound pleasant to both the purist and the more liberal reader of Shakespeare. Putting it as “Shakespearean Parodies” might not sound very appropriate (as I will not talk here about specific parodies of his works), or even politically incorrect for some. This awareness comes from the fact that the word “Shakespearean” has become a slippery and contentious term, and which we have found as a difficult one to define.

Nevertheless, for the past meetings of our class on Transmedial Shakespeare, there has been a hot debate on whether we (as readers and interpreters of Shakespeare) should include much of what the popular culture produces based on his works, as Shakespearean, specifically those which do not necessarily and completely reflect Shakespeare’s works (and words).

While this debate is ultimately important for this discourse, what I perceive is that there is no very great advancement, from the first time we discussed this, in the classification of some of these popular works. The class seems divided on this matter, and it was not definitely resolved. I do not wish to resolve this ultimately in this essay, because there is still much to be discussed than I will here in this small space. I would rather try to clear some things up, since the issue has become blown up and a bit (at the least) scattered. For this, I would like to concentrate on parody as a popular medium, since of all of them, and for some, this is one of the most liable to be un-Shakespearean.

Parody and Its Nature

Parody is not a new genre. Several sources will tell the reader that some of its earliest examples came from ancient Greece, and some of the most prominent writers have at some point produced one or some of their own. Encyclopædia Britannica‘s online entry of the term states:

Aristophanes parodied the dramatic styles of Aeschylus and Euripides in The Frogs; Chaucer parodied the chivalric romance in ‘The Tale of Sir Thopas’ (c. 1375), as did Cervantes in Don Quixote (1605); Rabelais parodied the Scholastics in Gartantua and Pantagruel (1532-34); Shakespeare mimicked Christopher Marlowe’s high dramatic style in the players’ scene in Hamlet… (“parody,” britannica.com) (Bold letters mine)

Here we can see that parody is not even an ostracized genre. Even Shakespeare (as indicated by the above quote) made some form of parody. But what impedes parodies of his work from being unanimously called Shakespearean? Here I propose a couple of reasons for this:

1. Though parody is an accepted genre, people mostly tend to view it as something of lesser greatness than the one it parodies. This does not apply to all parodies, of course, because evil and stupid acts (which, by all means, are not great) can be parodied. I narrow down this statement to parodies of institutions, like the educational system, religions, etc. Shakespeare belongs here. And while he is an institution, the parodies of his works are generally seen to have “lesser” importance and value.

2. The media of these parodies are not themselves accepted unanimously. We looked at the performance of Hamlet by the Reduced Shakespeare Company and some parts of The Simpsons episode “Tales from the Public Domain,” and while most (if not everyone) look at them as good parodies of the play, many more might tend to readily classify the former as Shakespearean as compared to the latter. The former is still theater (thus, it is still the medium as with Shakespeare’s plays), while the latter is cartoon (which many people view as being “only children’s stuff,” and therefore not easily accepted).

The parodied: interpretations of Shakespeare's plays

The Reduced Shakespeare Company (in video format)

The Simpsons. Screenshots from the episode 'Tales from the Public Domain'

As far as the definition of parody goes, the first proposed reason cannot be helped. Parody on the first place is reactionary. Something must exist first before it can be parodied, thus sometimes it can be seen as being “second rate.” And considering that Shakespeare is an institution in the present paradigm, anything that goes against it is dismissed as being “second rate.” Unfortunately for the parodies, they are displaced by their own nature.

And as for the second proposition, I believe the example is not universal. Paradigms do shift and the way people look at different media can also change; people favor one medium over the other in different times. But it seems that accepted media do not lose their position as being accepted: though the theater is no longer very popular, it is still an accepted art form. What I mean is that it will be perhaps just a matter of time that “lesser” media such as cartoons and “cheap” comic books (i.e. not Marvel, DC, or even graphic novels) will be accepted.

Therefore, I believe that these parodies will still be essential in studying Shakespeare in the future, as these reflect reactions from certain groups of people that may share also the reactions of certain cultures, generations, et al. on Shakespeare’s works.

(Also, it can be noted that these do not necessarily react to Shakespeare’s works per se, but to the establishments that interpret them. This, I believe, was noted by Dr. Judy Ick in one of our discussions.)

And Again…

We go back to our idea of “Shakespearean.” I would like to bring up again the characteristic of the parody as being reactionary. If our idea of “Shakespearean” is that which interprets Shakespeare, then arguably the parody will not fit into it, since it does not interpret the work. Opera versions of his plays (mostly, if not all) are interpretative. Rock songs based on say Hamlet (the character) do not have to; it depends. But mostly, since rock music is considered rebellious, then it can be argued that they are reactionary in nature, too. So, should we dismiss reactionary works altogether?

And then, if we say “Shakespearean,” are we talking about again, interpretations, or the Shakespearean discourse? Of course the interpretations are part of that discourse. But then, not surprisingly, the parodies are, too. Because if we say “discourse,” then it should reach outside the work, and should not limit it: it envelops a lot of things.

To this end, I hope we can agree on what we should call “Shakespearean,” since this is all the basis of all that we are studying here. (And I also hope that we can use the criteria I laid out in the last couple of paragraphs.)

Work Cited:

“parody.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011. Web. 21 Mar. 2011.


Image A: From imdb.com:



Image B: From video-online-store.com:


Image C: From raylayug.tumblr.com: <http://27.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_kxhlptSPZp1qzkkudo1_500.png&gt;

Categories: Multimedia Essays
  1. carlos
    March 24, 2011 at 9:24 pm

    interesting number of points that you raised. i’m on the fence about whether or not i agree to your distinguishing interpreting and reacting… the essay seems to imply that they are two separate moments, with interpreting as the first one (your example about operas, etc) and reacting as the second (parodies, in general). but wouldn’t the act of interpreting something already mean that you were reacting to it? can the two exist separately? isn’t an opera version of any Shakespearean text just as reactionary as it is interpretative for the simple reason that you are using a different means of presenting the text? i do not think that there can be any interpretation without reacting because if that were so then you would produce the exact same thing. i do not know if any of my presumptions are correct but they are how i am interpreting (and reacting) to what the essay is saying 😀

    i’d also like to say that i do not think that parodies are in any way second-rate to that which they react to or interpret because even the things that they parody or echo are based on something: ideas, beliefs, hopes, dreams, etc. so, in a sense, everything is a parody of things abstract and intangible. nothing produced is really organic or original anymore- just different ways of presenting and combining things that we are all aware of. anything we read, watch, or listen to are physical manifestations of something. and if you were to call parodies second-rate because they merely react to the ideas of something then everything would be a second-rate interpretation. wouldn’t it?

    overall, it’s a very good attempt at trying to settle some of the major issues that have diversified and, at times, polarized the class’s on opinion on just what exactly is Shakespearean. I agree with plenty of what you said, especially with how the discourse on Shakespeare must include everything if it is ever to get at the bottom of just what exactly constitutes Shakespearean. however, i think that we will not, in the foreseeable future, agree on a specific set of terms and boundaries that would pinpoint what Shakespearean is exactly. good try at trying to distill order from the chaos of our own making though 😀

  2. March 24, 2011 at 10:33 pm

    I also find that problematic, defining what’s Shakespearean and what’s not. Paintings don’t contain the words and the plot of Shakespeare, and yet they are considered Shakespearean. The RSC’s Hamlet follows the plot and includes famous lines, and yet one of our classmates thought it wasn’t Shakespearean, because it was supposed to be tragic, not funny. I think that’s just how democratic our class could get. I mean it’s called “Transmedial Shakespeare”, Shakespeare in different media. It’s not called “Defining what’s Shakespearean”. That extends to the whole Shakespeare academe as well, because Shakespeare is art. In art, you could get 3 out of 2 plus 2. You can’t really draw clear cut boundaries.

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