Hamlet’s Raspberry (first of three posts)

Hamlet’s BlackBerry seems like the worst possible title for a book that, judging from reviews, doesn’t sound half bad, and that I may well write about here, if I can ever find a copy. But in this and a couple of later posts I am more interested in Hamlet’s raspberry. Sherlock Holmes solved one of his most famous cases because a dog didn’t bark in the night. The mystery here is that of the whoopee cushion that didn’t sound on Shakespeare’s stage. In My Year with Shakespeare I discuss how Shakespeare can’t seem to resist a sexual pun. But it is much more unusual to see him cut a fart joke.

What explains this discrepancy? Certainly not censorship, or the refined sensibilities of the Elizabethans and Jacobeans. As the pioneering lexicographer Eric Partridge said in his 1947 Shakespeare’s Bawdy, the book that legitimized the study of Shakespeare’s dirty language, “Flatulence was, in Shakespeare’s day, the source and the target of humour and wit among all classes.” (When I discuss the Authorship Controversy I’ll buttress that claim by recounting a fart joke involving Elizabeth herself.) Indeed, he is positively restrained by comparison with some other Great Dead White Male Writers. Aristophanes, the first great comic writer, cracked fart jokes incessantly. If you’ve read anything by Chaucer, the first great English writer, it was probably “The Miller’s Tale,” with its notorious explosive ending. Just half a century before Shakespeare started his career, François Rabelais was writing Gargantua and Pantagruel, a book that makes South Park look like the Teletubbies. And centuries later Mark Twain’s long-suppressed “1601” would even have Shakespeare play he-who-smelt-it-dealt-it with Queen Elizabeth and her courtiers. Yet you can count the fart jokes in Shakespeare on both hands. Doesn’t this fact cry out for explanation?

Perhaps Shakespeare is too fastidious. Perhaps he agrees with Scott the “Canadian critic” who says on an episode of South Park entitled “Not Without My Anus” that “fart jokes are the lowest form of comedy.” Now, Scott would say this: not only is he Canadian, he has no sense of humor (the heroes of this episode are his mortal enemies Terrance and Phillip, South Park’s favorite comedy duo, who save Canada from a takeover by Saddam Hussein by farting). But modern stand-up comedy, including my own mercifully brief foray into the field, bears him out. I once took a comedy class that concluded in a five-minute show at Stand Up New York. (Yes, I still have the tape. No, you can’t see it.) My instructor was emphatic that fart jokes are “hack.” In stand-up jargon this usually means “plagiarized” but he meant “hackneyed,” something only a hack desperate for a cheap laugh would resort to. When a fellow student tried one out in our class, he cut her off short. He was right, too. Think of the A-list comedians you’ve seen. How many fart jokes have you heard from Eddie Izzard?

Scott the Canadian critic objects to fart jokes because they’re juvenile. So they are, but I don’t think that’s why comics avoid them. Successful stand-ups are quite ruthless and won’t think twice about torturing their mothers if they think it will get a laugh. (Case in point: David Letterman.) I think that when today’s stand-ups call fart jokes “hack,” they mean that they’re an easy, lazy laugh. You’re a hack if you resort to them because it means you can’t be bothered to write better material. And “better material” means verbal material. Stand-up comedy is fundamentally about language. If you doubt that, look no further than the contempt in which other stand-ups hold prop comics; even mentioning Carrot Top or Gallagher is good for a cheap laugh, a hack move in its own way.

What does all this have to do with Shakespeare?

I suggest he has a stand-up’s sensibility; he’s not afraid to be juvenile, but he won’t do hack. South Park’s Terrance and Phillip are juvenile, but they are also hack: when they want a laugh, they give us the sound—the raspberry—and pretty much all you can do with the sound is express contempt, provoke embarrassment, or punctuate. The Bronx cheer is nonverbal by its very nature, and nobody in world culture is more all about words than Shakespeare.

As far as I can tell, there’s only one passage in which Shakespeare may be calling for the raspberry. Naturally, it’s in Hamlet. Just after Hamlet has spent a page or so discussing the arrival of a troupe of players at Elsinore with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, that old fool Polonius has come in to tell him what he already knows:

POLONIUS: The actors are come hither, my lord.

HAMLET: Buzz, buzz.

POLONIUS: Upon mine honour—

HAMLET: Then came each actor on his ass.

Hamlet, Act II, scene ii, lines 388–391

Is “Buzz, buzz” a raspberry? Partridge flatly said so in Shakespeare’s Bawdy: the editors I’ve consulted venture that it’s “a sound expressing contempt,” which could well be periphrastic for “raspberry,” but they’re not saying in so many words. It would be extremely effective to play the line that way, as a perfect expression of Hamlet’s contempt for Polonius; that Hamlet’s next line is blatantly anal can only support this reading. But this cinches my point. If this is the only raspberry in Shakespeare, it’s because this is the only passage where an inarticulate sound can produce exactly the effect he wants. Sometimes, as with an old fart like Polonius or a bagman like Colin Powell in his notorious United Nations speech, the Bronx cheer is the only appropriate response. Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that “sometimes in doing philosophy one just wants to utter an inarticulate cry”; who says it has to come out of your mouth? (If Wittgenstein had not been totally humor-challenged—and known his Shakespeare—he might have said “one just wants to go ‘Buzz, buzz.’”) In the same vein, in “Not Without My Anus,” Saddam Hussein is defeated because the only appropriate response to his ludicrous ambitions is to fart in his face. (I’d like to think that Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park, are riffing on Spike Jones’s classic “Der Führer’s Face,” but somehow I suspect they think Spike Jones is a director of music videos. Unfortunately, too, this episode dates from mid-2001, so Terrance and Philip couldn’t have farted in the faces of the equally deserving George W. Bush and Tony Blair. The former’s predilection for fart jokes—he liked to cut one when meeting a new aide—would have added a very special layer of irony.)

But if Hamlet serves up the only Bronx cheer in Shakespeare, we have to ask why. Every acting company of his time, including his own, had a house clown who specialized in slapstick and other forms of nonverbal humor. It’s easy to imagine that the clown improvised the raspberry, along with other physical comedy, and that Shakespeare didn’t have to write them in. The fact remains that he could have but chose not to. On those infrequent occasions when Shakespeare cuts a fart joke, it is, as with everything else in the plays, in the service of character. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to press-gang Alfred Hitchcock’s famous distinction between surprise and suspense into service here. When, in a movie, a bomb goes off under a table, the audience is surprised. When we know the bomb is under the table, and characters who don’t know this sit around the table for ten minutes while we wonder whether the bomb is going to go off, that’s suspense. As Hitchcock explains it, there’s no question which of the two is more entertaining and involving. So it is with fart jokes. Terrance and Phillip use farts as punctuation marks; Shakespeare constructs sentences, even whole paragraphs with them. The next post in this series will show how he does it through examples.

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