A talk by Professor Michael Slater

Thursday 14 July 2016
Senate House Library
Part of the 'Shakespeare:Metamorphosis' Season

Review by Eleonora Sammartino, PhD candidate, Film Studies

It could be argued that parody is the sincerest form of flattery. Certainly, the well-established tradition of burlesques was a sign of the popularity and success of Shakespeare in the 19th century just as much as “bardolatry”. One would surely come to this conclusion after listening to the talk delivered by Professor Michael Slater, titled “Shakespeare Burlesqued”. The event, held at Senate House Library, was the second of a series of three exploring the favourable reception of Shakespeare during the Victorian period, in connection with the “Shakespeare: Metamorphosis” exhibition that will be open to the public throughout the summer.

As a form of parody, burlesque relied on the audience’s familiarity with the texts, reworking the elements that were most characteristic of the original plays, such as costumes, combats, dances, but, above all, the monologues and the topical moments like the appearance of the ghost in Hamlet or the wooing of Lady Anne in Richard III. The use of inappropriate props, like a bunch of veggies instead of the usual flowers carried by Ophelia, and word play guaranteed laughter from the audience, who could easily recognise them and particularly enjoyed the exaggerated imitations of respected actors like Charles Keane.

The tradition of Shakespeare burlesques emerged at the beginning of the 19th century with John Poole’s Hamlet Travestie (1810), a mock comic booklet that was soon turned into a staged play, and continued throughout the century until a decline in the 1890s because of changes in the approach to the Bard and, as Slater speculates, a rising popularity of Dickens burlesques. Of all the Shakespeare plays, Hamlet was the most parodied in the Victorian period without any doubt (73 parodies in total), including the aptly titled Ham Let! (1864) and Hamlet, the Ravin’ Prince of Denmark (1866), where the monologue was turned into a rebelaisian “To be or not to be, that is the question / Oh dear! I’m suffering from the indigestion!”.

Although mostly aiming at entertaining the public, some burlesques actually tackled some serious issues, managing to avoid censorship through the use of songs which were not inspected by the Lord Chamberlain. The Enchanted Island (1848) transposed the setting of The Tempest to the present day, commenting on contemporary revolutionary events in continental Europe. Featuring Prospero as a Victorian magician and Philip of France as a dethroned king, the play significantly ended with Caliban being left to rule the island but no idea of how to do that. The burlesque resonated with the audiences, running for several months.

Best known for his work on Dickens, Professor Slater navigated through the large corpus of plays with easiness and a contagious enthusiasm, peppering the talk with funny and yet insightful anecdotes. Still, it was his own performance, reading excerpts from the most popular works discussed with verve and in-character voice that really managed to evoke the true spirit of Shakespeare burlesques, turning the evening into a celebration of mirth and laughter.