Featured Plays: Fat Bottomed Girls; We Are the Champions; Somebody to Love; Who Wants to Live Forever; Death on Two Legs; I’m in Love with My Car; Liar, Son & Daughter; White Queen (As it Began)
For a week, I will be rolling out the complete mashup of every Queen song from the first 15 albums and every Shakespeare play. I debated the order of the rollout: Should I start by category (comedy, tragedy, et. al.)? Should I go chronologically through the plays? Or by Queen album?
In the end, I will be cross-referencing these for your convenience, but for now, I’m sticking to the teaser format to (I hope) get you hooked.
The purpose is to delight and inform—while Queen did not write their songs as a soundtrack to Shakespeare’s plays, they do work remarkably well together. Some will require a more thorough analysis, and some (especially toward the end) will be self-explanatory.
So without Much (further) Ado, we begin:
Moritz Retzsch, Henry IV Part 1, Act II, scene 4 by Scan archive.org; engraving Moritz Retzsch, Gallery to Shakespeare’s dramatic works [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
What You Need to Know: War’s a brewing because Henry IV hoodwinked and killed Richard II to get the throne, and now his allies the Percys are miffed because Henry wants their POWs from a recent battle, and they think the king hasn’t returned the favor enough from when they helped him overthrow Richard. Young Percy, nicknamed Hotspur, is a stud of a son and battle-tested warrior, and King Henry is jealous: his own son, Prince Hal, spends most of his time in Mistress Quickly’s brothel with a band of merry scoundrels led by Sir John Falstaff, a man who happened to be knighted and has lived off that title like an ’80s one-hit-wonder. Falstaff thinks of himself as a father figure to Hal, but it’s only a matter of time before Hal is called into action by his father as the Percys lead an all-out war to overthrow the king. Because if they could do it once…
Oh, was there ever a song more suited for men who came ever in the rearward of the fashion? Falstaff is perhaps the most delightful character in all of Shakespeare, a comic genius who uses his powers to entertain. He spends most of his time in Mistress Quickly’s brothel, deflecting the barbs of Prince Hal, the future Henry V, with the same dexterity as Hamlet swats Elsinoreans. While he is capable of reading between Hal’s lines, he never breaks his mischief on the young Prince or anyone maliciously. But there are plenty of soft barbs.
Of poor Mistress Quickly:
Falstaff: Setting thy womanhood aside, thou art a beast to say otherwise.
Quickly: Say, what beast, thou knave, thou?
Falstaff: What beast! why, an otter.
Hal: An otter, Sir John! why an otter?
Falstaff: Why, she’s neither fish nor flesh; a man knows not where to have her.
When a good portion of your play is set in an alehouse-slash-brothel, you don’t need to stretch much to read through the layers of punning. John Fall-staff (did you catch that?) is in the waning of his virility, as he complains at the beginning of Act III, scene iii:
Falstaff: Bardolph, am I not fall’n away vilely since this last action? do I not bate? do I not dwindle? Why, my skin hangs about me like an old lady’s loose gown [ahem, another pun]; I’m wither’d like an old apple-john.
But he still can manage a few good turns at The Boar’s Head, all with Queen playing in the background:
“I got stiffness in ma’ bones/Ain’t no beauty Queens in this locality (I tell you)/Oh but I still get my pleasure/Still get my greatest treasure/Heap big woman you gonna make a big man out of me.”
C. Kean as Richard III By A. Park (publisher) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
What You Need to Know: The Yorks have beaten the Lancasters! The Yorks have beaten the Lancasters! This is the play you want to read if you’re a Game of Thrones fan. Lots of characters, many with the same name: King Henry VI (the one who burned Joan of Arc) has a son, the Prince of Wales (first in line for the throne) named Edward, who dies in the battle. His widow is Lady Anne. Richard, 3rd Duke of York (but NOT our Richard III), has three sons: King Edward IV, whose wife is Queen Elizabeth but not THAT Queen Elizabeth, who has two sons, one of whom is Edward V; George, Duke of Clarence, who is married to Anne’s sister; Richard (THAT’S our Richard III), Duke of Gloucester, who helps along the death or outright murders of both of his brothers, his nephews, Queen Elizabeth’s brother, and a bunch of other people just after his opening monologue, and marries Lady Anne, who was previously married to Edward, Henry VI’s son. However, Richard kills Lady Anne, and then tries to arrange with the former Queen Regent Elizabeth to marry her daughter Elizabeth, Richard’s own niece, and…yeah, the whole thing’s as complicated as it sounds and requires some diagrams to get going. In fact, scratch all that—The Yorks have beaten the Lancasters! The Yorks have beaten the Lancasters!
No time for losers indeed. However, a little awkward for those with erectile dysfunction, if that’s what the new game is. For those who scoff at the rest of us who see sexual puns everywhere, Shakespeare has a longstanding tradition of combining war with masculinity and sexual prowess (see Act I of Macbeth for another example). Now everyone is capering in a lady’s chamber—they aren’t dancing, unless it’s ‘dancing with their heels up,’ if you catch Shakespeare’s drift. Alas, Richard isn’t lifting up anything:
“But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks/Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;/I, that am rudely stamped, and want love’s majesty/To strut before a wanton ambling nymph…”
Let’s just take a second to parse this bit. He doesn’t say looking glass—he says an amorous looking glass. There is evidence that the actual Richard may have had scoliosis, but he certainly wasn’t Quasimodo (a quick aside, even Vivien Leigh told Laurence Olivier he looked ridiculous with all that Lon Cheney-style costuming as Richard). And he’s a hell of a badass soldier who is smart and has no problem slaying ’em (not only figuratively). He wants love’s majesty—to stand tall, as it were. So really, there’s only one type of activity that makes him restless and cranky:
“I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion/Cheated of feature by dissembling Nature/Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time/Into this breathing world, scarce half made up/And that so lamely and unfashionable/That dogs bark at me as I halt by them […] And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover/To entertain these fair well-spoken days/I am determinèd to prove a villain/And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”
It’s like the entire high school football team making it after homecoming—except for the fullback who caught the clutch winning pass (and never gets nearly the credit he deserves). “No time for losers—” The whole team has won, but the losers are the ones not invited to the after-party. What but everyone singing “We Are the Champions” while he’s in this state could prick him to such a violent frenzy?
This is a great play to compare with Macbeth. Despite the great acting of the 2015 Macbeth directed by Justin Kurzel, the adaptation misses the mark, starting with the opening scene of the burial of baby Macbeth. Kurziel’s Macbeths have nothing to lose, whereas the play’s couple has everything to lose. They are happy and they have sex a lot. They celebrate victories by having sex. They are complete equals in the marriage, and Lady Macbeth is far from the Wellesian harpy that evokes the evil queen in Snow White that Marion Cotillard is channeling. More on this at another time, but sexuality and masculinity (and femininity) are crucial to a complete understanding of the plays (and to what Shakespeare is trying to say about the connection between manhood and the size of one’s weapon). Whereas Macbeth is strategically an idiot, Richard has none of the sex but all of the brain power. Because in Shakespeare’s non-comedies, you really can’t have it all.
Katharine Hepburn, Vanessa Brown, and Robert Foster from the Theatre Guild 1951 production of As You Like It.
What You Need to Know: The Duke has been banished by his brother Frederick, and he and a bunch of his lords have hightailed it deep into the forest of Arden. The daughter of the banished duke is Rosalind, who is living with her Uncle Frederick and his daughter, Celia. Meanwhile, Orlando, son of the late Sir Rowland de Boys (best name ever), is bummed because his older brother, Oliver, has kept him a bumpkin, while sending the youngest brother off to school. Oliver is jealous because of Orlando’s…great attributes and his wrestling and arranges to have Orlando killed during such a wrestling match. As improbable as it is, Orlando wins the wrestling match, which Rosalind and Celia are watching, and Rosalind falls in love with the very attributes that make Oliver jealous. Orlando has to skip out before Oliver really murders him, and Frederick decides he doesn’t like Rosalind living there, so he banishes her. She and Celia decide to run away together incognito, with Rosalind dressed as a young man named…wait for it…Ganymede. They all wind up in the forest. Antics ensue, “Ganymede” courts/preps Orlando in the guise of helping him win Rosalind, and even the god Hymen shows up. Yep, really.
“Can anybody find me somebody to love?” Ultimately, this is a song about casting a wide net.
Celia, trying to cheer up her cousin Rosalind over the banishment of Rosalind’s father by his own brother (Celia’s father—did you catch all that?) asks her to be merry. Rosalind’s first reply: “Unless you can teach me to forget a banisht father, you must not learn me how to remember any extraordinary pleasure.” Celia then says to love her (very bad) father as her own, then promises her that when he dies, Celia will make Rosalind the true heir: “and when I break that oath, let me turn monster: therefore, my sweet Rose, my dear Rose, be merry.” Rosalind’s immediate reply? “From henceforth I will, coz, and devise sports. Let me see; what think you of falling in love?” This is a woman with incredible adaptability and coping skills.
The Reconciliation of the Montagues and the Capulets Over the Dead Bodies of Romeo and Juliet by Frederic Leighton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
What You Need to Know: Seriously?
Queen’s lyrics actually complete the circuit opened by Bernstein & Sondheim:
“There’s no time for us/There’s no place for us/What is this thing that builds our dreams, yet slips away from us.” I’m not convinced this song was ever about Highlander. Let’s go into that tomb when Juliet awakens to find Romeo’s warm, dead body (and Paris’s slightly less warm body):
“Who wants to live forever/There’s no chance for us/It’s all decided for us/This world has only one sweet moment set aside for us.Who wants to live forever/Who dares to love forever/When love must die./But touch my tears with your lips/Touch my world with your fingertips/And we can have forever/And we can love forever/Forever is our today/Who wants to live forever/Who wants to live forever/Forever is our today/Who waits forever anyway?”
Now tell me you’ll ever hear this song in the same way.
Artuš Scheiner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
What You Need to Know: When we call it a “problem play” it’s really because we don’t know what to do with it. Parts are funny, parts are icky, but it’s still better than Two Gentlemen of Verona. Duke Vincentio wants to clean up the brothels but doesn’t want to be in charge of taking away people’s sex, so he “goes on vacation” (sticks around in disguise) and makes the puritanical Angelo do the dirty work. Angelo gets as power drunk as a congressman at a Koch brothers underwear party and arrests half the town and arranges for mass executions, going after in particular Claudio, a young man who has impregnated his fiance, Juliet. Claudio appeals to his sister, Isabella, for help; Isabella is a novice in a convent. When she pleads to Angelo for mercy, cognitive dissonance ensues when he refuses on moralistic grounds and then proceeds to sexually harass and almost sexually assault Isabella. Then the Koch brothers show up, and…oh wait, wrong story.
“You suck my blood like a leech/You break the law and you preach/Screw my brain till it hurts/You’ve taken all my money and you want more” Initially, you think: Could this be about anyone other than Iago telling Roderigo: “Put money in thy purse!”
Whereas the continuation “Misguided old mule/With your pigheaded rules/With your narrow-minded cronies who are fools of the first division” is clearly about Measure for Measure’s Angelo.
Queen continues: “Kill joy, Bad guy,/Big talking, Small fry/You’re just an old barrow-boy/ Talk like a big business tycoon/You’re just a hot air balloon/So no one gives you a damn/You’re just an overgrown school boy/Let me tan your hide”
Or, according to Angelo: “Condemn the fault, and not the actor of it? Why, every fault’s condemn’d ere it be done: mine were the very cipher of a function, to fine the faults, whose fine stands in record, and let go by the actor.” The Duke leaves him in charge, and soon all the fun has been Puritanically sucked out of the Duchy. (That would be a pun, but Puritans don’t pun. They just suck.)
Lester Wallack as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing By Creator: Gebbie & Husson. Publisher: Gebbie & Co. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
What You Need to Know: Don Pedro, Prince of Arragon, has fought and reconciled with his illegitimate brother, Don John, there was a war, they won, and now Don Pedro and his super best friends Benedick and Claudio (and everyone else who fought) are coming to Messina to hang out with Leonato and party it up for a month. Claudio falls for Leonato’s daughter Hero, and Benedick is brought back into merry conflict with eternal sparring partner Beatrice, Hero’s cousin and perhaps my favorite character in all of Shakespeare. Don John decides he’s the diet version of Richard III and wants to make evil, and it sort of works for a while, when the I-will-love-you-forever-Claudio spurns Hero at the alter. Out of necessity, Hero fakes her own death, and then we get a bunch of fart jokes and a guy named Dogberry.
Shakespeare loves his euphemisms. Usually it’s horses or swords, but it might as well be heavy machinery. Clearly, this song is about someone who prefers to have his hand on “your grease gun/get a grip on my boy racer roll bar/such a thrill when your radials squeal/told my girl I’ll have to forget her—”
Benedick (remember bene means good in Italian), Claudio (and Don Pedro) are fresh and frothy from a victorious battle. And as Beatrice says, Bene-dick had five wits but is now only governed by his ONE WIT. He’s a trencherman with an insatiable appetite for upward thrusting (Signior Montanto) who now hangs on Claudio like a disease that will take a thousand pounds to cure (if he hasn’t already given Claudio one, in their time together, in the trenches). And he’s a stuffed man—wait, what were we talking about? Listen to this song while reading Act I, Scene i. Sure Benedick is loved of all ladies though he loves none, and though his heart remains hard. So he’s focused on his boy racer roll bar. Named Claudio.
Fluellen Forces Pistol to Eat a Leek By H. C. Selous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
What You Need to Know: Prince Hal has grown up and become King, he broke Falstaff’s heart at the end of Henry IV Part 2, and though we don’t see Falstaff, we hear about his death during sex at the Boar’s Head. Now instead of all the lords fighting each other, England is fighting France.
Sure, by the title we want to say, Iago, this is you…but with Iago, there’s no pretense that he’s even somewhat contrite (“Mama I’m gonna be your slave/All day long/Mama I’m gonna try behave/All day long”). And the chorus clearly lets him know they don’t believe him, and Iago is nobody’s slave, ever. Don John is equally unrepentant, though much more easily seen through (or would be if the rest of Leonato’s house weren’t caught up in randy matchmaking).
But this is more the “fish-tale” kind of liar: “Liar – I have sailed the seas/Liar – from Mars to Mercury/Liar – I have drunk the wine/Liar – Time after time/Liar – You’re lying to me/Liar – You’re lying to me.”
Our liars are Bardolph, Nym, and especially Pistol.
As the attendant boy muses in Act III, scene ii: “As young as I am, I have observed these three swashers. I am boy to them all three: but all they three, though they would serve me, could not be man to me; for, indeed, three such antics do not amount to a man. For Bardolph, he is white-liver’d and red-faced’ by the means whereof a’ faces it out, but fights now. For Pistol, he hath a killing tongue and a quiet sword; by the means whereof a’ breaks words, and keeps whole weapons. For Nym, he hath heard that men of few words are the best men; and therefore he scorns to say his prayers, lest a’ should be thought a coward: but his few bad words are matcht with as few good deeds; for a’ never broke any man’s head but his own, and that was against a post when he was drunk. They will steal any thing, and call it purchase.”
Then there is the whole exchange in Act V, scene I, about eating leeks and a whole lot of shaking and cudgeling of leeks, an outright acknowledgement of the, ehem, self-aggrandizing that’s been going on between them. Gower then calls Pistol a “counterfeit cowardly knave. Will you…dare not avouch in your deeds any of your words?” and then goes on to talk about penises again. Pistol, ever the survivalist (inheriting outright from the departed Falstaff), proclaims: “Old I do wax; and from my weary limbs/Honour is cudgell’d. Well, bawd I will turn,/and something lean to cutpurse of quick hand./To England I will steal, and there I’ll steal:/and patches will I get unto these scars,/and swear I got them in the Gallia wars.”
Olivia Unveiling by William Powell Frith [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
What You Need to Know: Viola and her brother Sebastian are on a ship when it sinks and each thinks the other is dead. They wind up, separately, in Illyria, Viola deciding that until she gets a feel for the place, she’ll play it safe and dress up as a young man, and as Cesario enters the service of Orsino, the duke, with whom she falls immediately in love—even though Orsino has been trying to woo the lady Olivia, who is in mourning after her father’s death and has no interest in romance…until she sees Viola, disguised as Cesario, and gets all heated up. Hijinks ensue, aided by delightfully hooliganish secondary characters.
Viola, yes, is now son and daughter as she disguises herself as Cesario (“I am all the daughters of my father’s house, and all the brothers too”), courting the Duke Orsino (well, pining for) as he uses Cesario to court Olivia, who has no interest in getting married—especially not to the Duke, though give him an A for effort—but falls for Cesario in all [his] femininity.
For the connection, take the opening lines from Queen: “Tried to be your son and daughter rolled into one/You said you’d equal any man for having your fun/Now didn’t you feel surprise to find/The cap just didn’t fit?/The world expects a man/To buckle down and to shovel shit/What’ll you do for loving/When its only just begun?/I want you to be a woman…”
Here, we have a muddling of Viola and Olivia (and indeed, just look at those two names). For as Olivia declares her love for Cesario (disguised Viola), she calls the youth “beautiful” and refers to the anger on his lip (also a pun). Even more complex is Olivia’s next phrase: “A murderous guild shows not itself more soon/than love that would seem hid: love’s night is noon.” Love that would seem hid, and the [guilty] evidence of love/sexual desire in men is an erection. Night is a pun on vagina, noon and day refer to the penis. So the non-disguised Olivia is saying she has a very masculine erection for the feminine boy Cesario (the woman pretending to be a young man). So really, Olivia wants to play the man in the relationship since she’s older and feels the greater desire. The 17th Century was progressive even by our standards.
The Queen in Hamlet Edwin Austin Abbey [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
What You Need to Know: Hamlet is smart but seemingly only when it suits him. He comes home from school (he’s 30) for his father’s funeral and is annoyed because his mom has turned around and married his uncle Claudius, now the king. He wants to go back to school, but his mom pleads for him to stay a while longer so he can cheer up. This would give him plenty of time to get in some much-needed lap-lying with his girlfriend Ophelia (man, is she patient), except Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his father, who drops the news that he was murdered by Claudius and that Hamlet now has to avenge him. Suddenly, Hamlet discovers the daddy issues he never knew he had, and he tries to weigh his options, which include being a perpetual student, suicide, marrying Ophelia, driving Ophelia mad, yelling at Ophelia, making lewd jokes to Ophelia, killing her father, killing his uncle, hanging out with his college friends, hanging out with his friends from home, hanging out with pirates, hanging out with skulls, and joining a theater troupe.
Freddie sings: “So sad her eyes/Smiling dark eyes/So sad her eyes/As it began…”
The “as it began” part is important, especially if you read the lyrics as Cladius’s confession.
“On such a breathless night as this/Upon my brow the lightest kiss/I walked alone/And all around the air did say/My lady soon will stir this way/In sorrow known/The White Queen walks and the night grows pale/Stars of lovingness in her hair/Needing – unheard/Pleading – one word/So sad my eyes/She cannot see…”
Claudius has been in love with Gertrude for some time. Is that why he murders King Hamlet? In a word, no.
Claudius is a pragmatic doer. King Hamlet is a vengeful warmonger who would destroy his family and his kingdom to settle a score and to prove the Hamlets are better than the Fortinbrases…es. (Fortinbri?) It’s not enough that King Hamlet defeated King Fortinbras. He wants to keep the annihilation going posthumously and is pissed that he was murdered (most foul) before he could prove his sexual prowess, I mean size of his sword, I mean masculinity with more war (for an extended seminar on this, see Macbeth, Act I). King Hamlet is a royal asshole. The poison Claudius puts in his ear penetrates him, weakens him in a syphilitic stupor, debilitates and—most importantly—feminizes him. And that pisses him off.
Hamlet imagines his mother to be a happy and loving wife. And while he is hyper-observant, he’s been away at school, and when he’s back, spends most of his time in Ophelia’s lap. While his father is out killing more people than the bubonic plague, Hamlet is being raised by Yorick, his mother, and his loving uncle. (Just an aside—notice how Claudius names Hamlet his heir…not trying to compete with him, and Hamlet has not actually lost his place in primogeniture, especially since the last thing he seems to be interested in is being king. No seriously—does he even mention it once? He wants to book it back to school to get back to his My Chemical Romance poster and his Live Journal blog about how Jean-Paul Sartre just gets him). But back to Gertrude. Is she really in love with Joseph Kony Hamlet? She seems a little sad at the funeral, sure, but she does not have a problem moving on, that is clear. But let’s pause a moment to address poor Gertrude: She has been walking alone in sorrow because her husband is an evil piece of shit who only loves himself. (Seriously, friends, he ends up in hell. IN HELL. It’s not purgatory when there’s sulfur and you fear the dawn—and the cock, see above re: penetration and syphilis.) Gertrude has been suffering, and now she finally may have a shot at happiness. So sure, Claudius kills his brother, and it’s regicide, but HE DOES IT FOR THE GOOD OF DENMARK AND EVERYONE IN IT! Pretty much everyone in Scandinavia. He is a diplomat. Notice how he diffuses the situation when Young Fortinbras wants to avenge his father, and intercedes with Young Fortinbras’ uncle, the current king of Norway (whose brother, Old Dead King Fortinbras, was murdered/defeated-in-battle by Old Dead King Hamlet). Norway still retains some bloodlust since he advises Young Fortinbras to take his swollen rage and his young sword and kill some Polish people. This makes Claudius, by contrast, seem like an even better ruler. Either way, Claudius has saved his people from further war.
Does Claudius want anything bad to happen to Hamlet? Not until Hamlet starts killing the king’s advisors. What does Old Dead Bastard King Hamlet want? For his son to become a murderer and possibly lose his life or at least ruin it, it doesn’t matter. Avenge me, he says. Nothing about, Hey son, how’re ya doin’? Okay there? Worried about ruling a country one day? I’ll give you some advice. Unfortunately, Old Dead Bastard King Hamlet is the image of masculinity for Hamlet, Claudius is the thinking diplomat, although in this world, that’s a traditionally feminine role (see Gertrude as well as Lady Macbeth when she’s not murdering people for two examples), Hamlet is more like his uncle than his father, which only adds to the confusion, and now you have an emotional stew of conscience and identity.
Returning to the White Queen for the ending of the song: “How did thee fare, what have thee seen/The mother of the willow green/I call her name/And ‘neath her window have I stayed/I loved the footsteps that she made/And when she came/White Queen how my heart did ache/And dry my lips no word would make/So still I wait/My Goddess, hear my darkest fear/I speak too late/It’s for evermore that I wait.”
This denouement would be more problematic if I was trying to prove that Brian May intentionally wrote this song to depict scenes from Hamlet. But no, this is A) all for fun, and B) an example of how using intertextuality can enliven our relationship to and our understanding of Shakespeare.
So with that said, we have two options. There’s a conflation of tragic female figures in the unfulfilled love (Gertrude got to marry Claudius; Ophelia did not get to marry Hamlet), and Ophelia and Gertrude become one and the same, or it’s a reference to the fleeting time Claudius actually gets to spend with Gertrude and the forevermore is hyperbole in the face of despair. Sure it might be a bigger stretch than a Gandha Bherundasana.
I hope you’ve enjoyed Part 1 of Queen Shakespeare! More will be dropped throughout the week. And yes, I’m covering them all, so if you haven’t seen your favorites yet, it is only a matter of time.