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ELH 67.4 (2000) 973-991

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"Chopkins, Late Shakespeare": The Bard and His Burlesques, 1810-6

Richard W. Schoch

R. F. Sharp's 1920 bibliography of Shakespeare burlesques, the first of its kind in English literary scholarship, is most notable for what it excludes: Thomas Duffet's The Mock-Tempest (1674) and his farcical version of Elkanah Settle's The Empress of Morocco (1673). Duffet's burlesque of The Empress of Morocco features an epilogue which parodies the elaborate production of the witches' scenes in Sir William Davenant's adaptation of Macbeth then being performed at the rival Dorset Garden Theatre. 1 Mocking scenic effects of "Painted Tiffany" which "blind and amuse the senses," Duffet's epilogue flatters itself as more theatrically honest than Davenant's tragedy because its own "thunder and lightning" were discovered "openly, by the most excellent way of Mustard-bowl and Salt-Peter." 2 In other words, reliance on traditional stagecraft made the Drury Lane travesty a more legitimate version of Shakespeare than the Dorset Garden Macbeth, which owed much of its success to intricate behind-the-scenes technology.

While more than thirty years have passed since Stanley Wells acknowledged Duffet's "Epilogue Spoken by Hecate and the Witches" as the first recorded Shakespearean travesty, the implications of that acknowledgment are, for students of Shakespeare in performance, still largely unexamined. 3 It seems clear enough, however, that Duffet's epilogue anticipates the two principal features of nineteenth-century Shakespeare travesties and burlesques: first, that the object of their satire is not Shakespeare's text, but a specific performance of a text; and second, that the travesty authorizes itself to speak on Shakespeare's behalf when he comes under attack (at least in the opinion of burlesque playwrights) from latter-day theatrical iconoclasts. From its inception, then, the burlesque sought not only to criticize contemporary Shakespearean performances but to correct them. The burlesque was as much prescriptive as it was diagnostic. An act of theatrical reform that aggressively compensated for the deficiencies of other people's productions, the burlesque became part of the very performance history upon which it first had cast its reproachful eye. And in honoring Shakespeare, [End Page 973] the travesty really honored itself as the poet's rightful heir and only legitimate descendant, effectively displacing--indeed, bastardizing--all other competing versions and performances of the Bard. To burlesque was to be Shakespearean.

In John Poole's Hamlet Travestie (1810), the first performed parody of Shakespeare since the Restoration, these issues of legitimacy and fidelity to the playwright emerge with renewed vigor. The most successful aspect of Poole's travesty, as its original critics affirmed, was not the text itself (a bland, full-length Shakespearean paraphrase) but rather its satiric versions of critical notes, glosses, and emendations. Hamlet Travestie thus mocked the conventions not of the stage, but of scholarship. Poole asserted that his parody of Shakespeare criticism required neither "apology" nor "extenuation" because all admirers of the Bard (and who, he presumed, would read the burlesque but an admirer) must feel "indignant at finding his sense perverted and his meaning obscured, by the false lights, and the fanciful and arbitrary illustrations of Black-letter Critics and Honey-Catching Commentators." On behalf of those whose devotion to Shakespeare remained undiminished, Poole undertook to out-Herod Herod, declaring that "it had been well if some able satirist had exposed and punished their folly, their affectation, and their arrogance." Jealous, then, of its own privileged relationship with the simple and plain-speaking national poet, the burlesque disavowed the haughty exhortations of "every pedant in Black-Letter lore." Even in a text as manifestly atheatrical as Hamlet Travestie (for there is no mention, let alone criticism of a specific performance) we can nonetheless detect the continuing desire, inherited from Duffet, to safeguard Shakespeare from his "pollutor[s]." 4

Of course the burlesque was not merely destructive, but also actively restorative. For even as the burlesque obliterated traditions of textual criticism or theatrical staging, it also postulated--and upheld--an exacting standard of Shakespearean purity which it alone...


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