Saturday night I received a surprise birthday gift with a ticket to Pericles, a William Shakespeare play that was debuting at the California Shakespeare Theater in Orinda. One of my best friends couldn’t go because she wasn’t feeling well so she offered the ticket to me. At first I wasn’t sure about going, because I just put on pajamas, I was ready for bed. Then I thought what the heck? So I went with my friend’s father. We bundled up in blankets and drank tea as we watched eight actors delve into fifty parts. Except for a breeze, I forgot how cold it was. I didn’t understand the beginning of the play, but slowly I got into it.
Like many people, I’ve had a rocky road with good old Bill Shakespeare. I knew of Romeo and Juliet because of that famous Brady Bunch episode when Marcia was Juliet, and then of course the soaps I watched had to have an R&J couple on the show, the star crossed lovers that remained star crossed. I read the play freshman year of high school, and then we saw the Leonard Whitting/Olivia Hussey movie version. Wasn’t Olivia Hussey the most perfect Juliet? Years later, I saw the Leonardo DiCaprio/Claire Danes movie version. I saw it with most of the teenage girls in Walnut Creek. I’ll never forget when Leo drank the poison and the girls started to shriek “No, no! She’s still alive!” This remains one of my favorite movie moments.
Sophomore year we read Taming of the Shrew and watched the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton movie version, and then we watched the Moonlighting episode when Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd played the roles of the shrew and the tamer. No doubt, they are showing now the remake starring Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger.
Junior and senior years no Shakespeare plays. My senior year, someone approached my English teacher about him teaching Hamlet. My English teacher gestured towards the class and asked “Look at them. You really think they are going to want to read Hamlet? You think they’ll understand Hamlet?” He had a point.
My first year at my community college, I took a History of Drama class and guess what? We got to read three Shakespeare plays: As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, and Othello. I saw Othello with my dad when the Orson Welles version came out. Some of it I understood, some of it I didn’t.
Years passed before I read another Shakespeare play. I did go to London and see his cottage and I saw Hamlet on stage starring Kenneth Branaugh. I didn’t understand one word of it, which was intimidating. Then in my introduction to Literature class, we had to read Hamlet. Yup, good old Hamlet. Actors like Mel Gibson, Kenneth Branaugh, Ethan Hawke, Lawrence Oliver, and Maximilian Schell have tackled this part. I think Henry Winkler did a monologue of Hamlet once, when he was playing The Fonz.
What? You have never seen the Maximilian Schell version? Well, boy, you are missing out.
The Maximilian Schell version was shown in Germany in the sixties, and it was unearthed years later in the show Mystery Science Theater 3000. MST3K, in case you never got to see it, is the story of Mike Nelson (before him, Joel Hodgson) who is stuck up in space and forced by evil scientists to watch bad movies to see if he cracks or holds strong. He has two robots to help him make wisecracks. One time, he got the Maximilian Schell version of Hamlet.
The jokes come fast and furious. When Queen Gertrude announces to Hamlet she has married his uncle, Crow says “I’m going to rock your uncle’s world!” When the subjects of the kingdom are dancing, Tom Servo starts to sing “Night fever, night fever, you know how to do it…” During the famous scene with Ophelia, Mike says “He really knows how to suck the air out of the room, doesn’t he?” Crow also remarks “I shut her down, man.” Then “Ophelia! Sam Wainwright’s on the phone!”
Of course, I had to get this version from Netflix. Besides, I couldn’t find the Lawrence Oliver version. After I got it, I started to show it to people. I brought it to class when we weren’t formally meeting and people started to flock around my computer, laughing. My teacher came up to the computer and said “Wait a minute, isn’t that Mystery Science Theater 3000? They did Hamlet?” I put it on in my dorm’s TV room and girls started to flock to it and laugh. On my floor, it was passed to person to person, and people would tell me a couple of things: They laughed like crazy, and they finally understood Hamlet.
I don’t know what old Bill would’ve thought of MST3k doing his famous play. I think he would’ve liked it, because the guy did have a sense of humor. Maybe he would’ve joined in.
What I do know is I am grateful to MST3K for helping people understand the play, and for making us laugh. We were reading Hamlet right after the 2004 election and since my college was 90% Democrats/Green/anyone but Bush, it was a relief to laugh. We needed to laugh. That’s what good art does; be it Shakespeare done by Oliver, Ethan Hawke, or Maxmilian Schell. It helps us escape. It helps us see what we have in ourselves. It helps us go somewhere we didn’t know we didn’t want to go.
Note: In my media section, I've uploaded all the parts of MST3k's version of Hamlet. Watch, laugh, and enjoy!
Causes Jennifer Gibbons Supports
Gilda's Club, Greenpeace, Rosie's Broadway Kids,Westwind Foster Family Agency, Amber Brown Fund, Linda Duncan Fund for Contra Costa Libraries