Twain, Shakespeare, and Nonsense

April 16, 2014

Tonight, Andrew presented his proposal for a final paper on Mark Twain’s allusions to Shakespeare as nonsense in Huckleberry Finn. This will be the final paper for his Folklore of Play class. In the novel, Huck meets two con men who claim to be the Duke of Bridgewater and King Louis XVII. One of the Duke’s scams is performing scenes from Shakespeare, so he teaches the King to do Hamlet’s “to be, or not to be” soliloquy, but the speech turns out to be a hodgepodge of disordered lines from Hamlet, Macbeth, and Richard III. In nineteenth-century America, parodies and burlesques of Shakespeare were common in performance and writing, often vulgarizing or combining the original text with American slang or folk songs for humorous effect. Twain’s allusions, however, maintain the original wording; it is the sequence of lines that is changed. The lines are recognizable but disarranged;  the mismatch of references spiral into nonsense. Drawing on Susan Stewart’s theories of nonsense as breaking common sense frames with overabundance of signification, and allusion’s connections with nostalgia, the soliloquy as nonsense suggests an intrusion upon the American realist project and a unified American identity. The constant invention of origins by Huck, the Duke, and the King, alongside the allusive nature of the text, point to a problem of American origins–America’s culture and literature lacking the deep history of European societies. The speech not only destabilizes American identity by reliance on a British past, but also destabilizes that British past itself by cobbling it together from various texts in an incoherent way, rather than pointing to a single, cohesive source.

Consult this color-coded transcription of the Duke’s recitation. The different colors show which play the lines come from, and the original Shakespeare passages are given as well.

Allusions to Shakespeare in Huckleberry Finn

Fun facts: as Twain worked on Huck Finn, he also wrote a few acts for a full-length burlesque of Hamlet, in which a nineteenth-century slickster book agent visits Denmark and tries to push his wares on Hamlet and his father’s ghost, but tries to help out the prince when he learns of the plot against him. Also, Twain published a book-length essay in 1909, a year before he died, called Is Shakespeare Dead?, in which he claims to side with those who believe Sir Francis Bacon to have written the works of Shakespeare, apparently a hot controversy at the time. Some scholars believe the work’s exaggerated vehemence of argumentation to be satirical.

William Shakespeare and Mark Twain

Mark Twain may have believed that Sir Francis Bacon, not William Shakespeare, wrote Hamlet. Or he might have been telling a stretcher.

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