Wednesday, 21 September 2011
Another chapter from my thankfully-abandoned Shakespeare book - a complete (?) guide to Shakespeare references in the TV series Black Adder. (The idea for the book was that it would include all sorts of nonsense that normal Shakespeare books avoid, like listing all the Shakespeare quotes that have become the titles of Star Trek episodes, that sort of thing. Anyway.)
Shakespeare on Blackadder
Shakespeare, quite rightly, receives an ‘additional dialogue’ credit on the first series of the TV comedy ‘The Black Adder’. Many episodes of the series contain references to Shakespeare, or parodies of his work - many of which only become clear when you bear in mind that the first series of ‘The Black Adder’ was broadcast a few months after the BBC’s productions of the Henry VI and Richard III plays. But no-one has been sad enough to compile a list of all the Shakespeare references. Until now.
Series 1: The Black Adder
1. The Foretelling
Edmund Blackadder is named after Edmund from King Lear, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester who plots to turn his father against his legitimate son, Edgar. There was a genuine Blackadder dynasty in the middle ages, but they were based in Scotland. Blackadder’s manner and appearance seem to be inspired by Ron Cook’s performance in the BBC production of Richard III.
A Baldrick is a type of ornamental belt worn diagonally, but is also a slang term for vagina - see Much Ado About Nothing’s ‘hang my bugle in an invisible baldrick’.
This episode concerns the Battle of Bosworth Field, presenting an alternative ‘true’ version of events to those shown in Richard III. It begins with Richard III, portrayed as a kindly uncle by Peter Cook, in a parody of the opening of Richard III - where Shakespeare’s Richard is self-loathing, Blackadder’s Richard is self-deprecating:
‘Now is the summer of our sweet content
Made overcast winter by these Tudor clouds...
And I, that am not shaped for black-faced war,
I am that am rudely cast and want true majesty...’ - Richard III, Blackadder
‘Now is the winter of our discontent,
Made glorious summer by this son of York...
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks...
I, that am rudely stamped and want love’s majesty...’ - Richard III, Richard III
And later, at the battle itself, Richard conflates two speeches from Henry V:
‘Once more onto the breach, dear friends, once more.
Consign their parts most private to a Rutland tree...
And gentlemen in London now abed.
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here.
And hold their manhoods cheap while others speak.
Who fought with us upon Ralph the Liar’s day!’ - Richard III, Blackadder
‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.
Or close the wall up with our English dead...’ - Henry V, Henry V
‘And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here.
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day!’ ’ - Henry V, Henry V
Later, having defeated Henry Tudor, Richard casually calls out for ‘A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!’ as in Richard III, before being accidentally beheaded by Blackadder. Meanwhile Blackadder’s idiot friend Percy helps Henry Tudor flee the site of battle (Henry Tudor coincidentally being performed by Peter Benson, who had played Henry VI in the BBC’s productions).
When Prince Harry, Richard’s grandson, discovers the corpse, he mourns him by paraphrasing Hamlet: ‘Goodnight, sweet king. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.’
Later in the episode, Blackadder is visited by the ghost of Richard III while at the banquet, in a scene combining the ghostly visitations of Hamlet and Macbeth.
And finally, while chasing Henry Tudor through some woods, Blackadder encounters three witches, named Cordelia, Goneril and Regan after the daughters in King Lear, in a situation reminiscent of the opening of Macbeth, where they inform him that one day he will be king. It turns out that they have got him mixed up with Henry Tudor.
6. The Black Seal
The bloodbath conclusion of this episode, with everyone accidentally drinking poison, recalls the climax of Hamlet. Just before Blackadder dies, his father calls him Edgar - possibly a reference to King Lear, but also part of the running gag that at this point in history it’s quite difficult to keep track of names and who’s related to who.
Series 2: Blackadder II - 1986
This episode concerns a girl, Kate, dressing as a boy to seek her fortune, falling in love with her employer, Blackadder, in a direct homage to the plot of Twelfth Night where Viola falls for the Duke while pretending to be ‘Cesario’. And according to Tim McInnery, his characterisation of Percy was based on Sir Andrew Aguecheek.
Sir Thomas More, who pointed out that a boy without a winkle is a girl, would later be the subject of the play Sir Thomas More, partially written by Shakespeare.
‘Kiss me, Kate’ is obviously a reference to The Taming of the Shrew.
Nursie seems to be inspired by the character of the Nurse from Romeo and Juliet, who is similarly obsessed with sex - and who was coincidentally performed by the same actress, Patsy Byrne, in the 1976 Thames Television production of the play.
Blackadder mentions how keen Queenie was on Essex, right up to the point where she had his head cut off. This would be Robert Deveraux, the Earl of Essex, alluded to in Henry V and the last person to be executed at the Tower of London.
Shakespeare has helped Queenie out with the title of her poem, ‘Edmund’.
Tom, the Mad Beggar, seems to have wandered in from a production of King Lear, where Edgar pretends to be an extremely similar mad beggar, Tom O’Bedlam, who refers to himself as ‘poor Tom’ and is always going on about how ‘acold’ he is.
Percy suggests ‘For God’s sake, let us sit upon the carpet and tell sad stories...’, paraphrasing Richard II - ‘For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings.’
Baldrick has a such a poor sense of humour he’d ‘laugh at a Shakespeare comedy’.
The ballad played at the end says ‘be not a borrower or lender’, paraphrasing a well-known saying from Hamlet.
Lord Melchett is identified as Lord Chamberlain. There wasn’t a real Lord Melchett - towards the end of Elizabeth I’s reign, the Lord Chamberlain was her cousin, Henry Carey, who was also the patron of Shakespeare’s acting company, hence the name, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men.
Series 3: Blackadder The Third - 1987
4. Sense and Senility
The actors Mossop and Keanrick are superstitious about the name of the ‘Scottish play’, Macbeth, and whenever it’s mentioned they have to perform a chant ending with the line ‘Puck will make amends’, paraphrasing A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Coincidentally, Baldrick’s uncle was in Macbeth once - he played second codpiece.
Blackadder mentions that during the assassination scene from Julius Caesar, the Prince Regent shouted out, ‘Look out behind you, Mr Caesar!’ The part of Brutus was played by an actor called Kemp, possibly an allusion to William Kempe. Mossop and Keanrick perform their stage roars from Hamlet, Julius Caesar and Macbeth.
The Bloody Murder of the Foul Prince Romero and His Enormously Bosomed Wife appears to be a particularly gruesome revenge tragedy in the John Webster/Thomas Middleton mould.
The Shakespeare Sketch - 1989
Not strictly canonical Blackadder, but clearly in a similar mould, this sketch was performed by Rowan Atkinson and Hugh Laurie at the Hysteria 2 benefit concert. Hugh Laurie plays William Shakespeare, who is being advised by Atkinson’s character on possible cuts to Hamlet. He suggests editing the ‘stand-up stuff in the middle’, reducing the line ‘To be a victim of all life’s earthly woes, or not to be a coward and take death by his proffered hand’ to ‘To be or not to be’ and, by taking out the guff later on in the speech, creates the mixed metaphor ‘to take arms against a sea of troubles’. He also suggests killing off the main character in Act One:
“Let’s face it, it’s the ghost that’s selling this show at the moment. Joe Public loves the ghost, he loves the sword-fights, he loves the crazy chick in the see-through dress who does the flower gags and then drowns herself. But no-one likes Hamlet.’
Eventually Shakespeare agrees to the cuts - in return for the scene with the ‘awful cockney gravediggers’ and ‘the skull routine’ being put back in.
Special: Back & Forth - 1999
In this sequel-too-far, Blackadder finally bumps into Shakespeare himself, played by Colin Firth. After getting his autograph, Blackadder punches him for all the suffering he will cause schoolchildren for the next four hundred years, stuck ‘at school desks trying to find one joke in A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. And then he kicks him as retribution for ‘Kenneth Branagh’s endless uncut four-hour version of Hamlet.’
There are also non-specific references made to Macbeth, The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Othello, and then later, in an alternative version of history, Blackadder congratulates Shakespeare on his King Lear, describing it as ‘very funny’.