Reducing Shakespeare

A few years ago, I discovered the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). It is a sketch comedy play which supposedly performs all of Shakespeare’s (36, 38, 39?) plays in just one and a half hours. In fact, they only mention many of the plays. For example, they combine all of the comedies into a single play entitled The Comedy of Two Well-Measured Gentlemen Lost in the Merry Wives of Venice on a Midsummer’s Twelfth Night in Winter. And they do all of the histories in a mock football game. The only plays they actually do are Romeo and Juliet, Titus Andronicus (brilliantly as a cooking show), Othello, Macbeth, Julius Caeser (barely), Antony and Cleopatra, Troilus and Cressida (with Godzilla), and finally, Hamlet, which takes up half of the entire play. Here is their version of Othello:

As I think can be seen, The Reduced Shakespeare Company does not over-revere Shakespeare. Thus, when I saw that two of the actors—Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor—had written a book called Reduced Shakespeare, I was excited. Unfortunately, the book is a major disappointment. On the plus side, it is a fun enough read. The comedy is often forced, but humor in book form is always a mixed bag. What’s more, for those who know little of Shakespeare, there is much to be learned from the book.

Where the book falls down is in the worship it shows to Shakespeare. Throughout the book, Shakespeare is not just a great writer, or even the greatest English playwright, or even the greatest English writer. No: he is the greatest writer ever. They say, for example, “Ultimately you will understand that Shakespeare is revered above all other writers not because of the kind of man he was but because of his works.” Later, they say that Hamlet is, “In all likelihood … the greatest play ever written.” Really? Hamlet?

I’m not going to go into a discussion of just why such statements are ridiculous. For those interested, I highly recommend Gary Taylor’s Reinventing Shakespeare. But the book missed out on the funniest thing about Shakespeare: the idolatry surrounding him. No one who has read contemporaries of Shakespeare can come away with any thought more than that Shakespeare was slightly better than his peers (and I would not go nearly that far). So how is it that Shakespeare towers over all of the playwrights who came before and after him? Certainly, when it comes to comedy, Aristophanes is far better than Shakespeare.

To be fair, Martin and Tichenor do lampoon Shakespeare idolatry. Unfortunately, they suffer from it greatly without any apparent recognition of the condition. And that is deadly. Thankfully, that is not the case with the play, which I still recommend highly.


The boys have a whole chapter in which they review Shakespeare on film. Unfortunately, in many cases, they admit to having never seen the movie. That’s part of the joke. Get it? Anyway, they review perhaps Orson Welles’ greatest film, Chimes at Midnight (this is not my opinion—I have not seen it—but rather that of Welles himself and Peter Bogdanovich). They start the review thusly:

This is Orson Welles’s[1] crowning Shakespearean achievement, in which he brings a robust magnificence to Falstaff, Shakespeare’s greatest comic creation and a part Welles was born to play. He had a brilliant idea: Create a story that focused on Falstaff by taking the relevant scenes from all the plays in which Falstaff appears (Henry VI, Parts 1 and 2, Henry V, Richard II, and The Merry Wives of Windsor). He even used Holinshed’s Chronicles (Shakespeare’s own original source) for the narration. Welles’s performance is outstanding, and the battle scenes are impressively intense.

Wow. Sounds pretty good, right? But they give it one (out of five) “bards.” Their complaint seems to be that the film has too many technical “glitches” to be enjoyable. They have much the same to say about Welles’ Othello, which they also gave one “bard” to. By their discussion of the film, it is unclear whether they had seen the restored Othello, which is by far the easiest to get today. One would think they would take a little more care with the winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Prize. And one would think some mention would be made of the fact this is one of a very few film performances of the great Irish stage actor Micheál MacLiammóir, who is great as Iago.

It is also worth noting that the the plays these boys claim to be of five “bard” quality are: Hamlet (interesting, but really not that good), Henry IV, Part 1 (Falstaff is fun, but one wonders just how much Shakespeare is responsible for the character), King Lear (about as good as Shakespeare gets), Macbeth (ditto), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (tedious when Bottom isn’t on stage), Richard III (good Shakespeare, but I hate the whole “I’m a villain” setup; see also Don John in Much Ado About Nothing), and Romeo and Juliet (as good as that bard gets). I think they have picked about the best of what Shakespeare has to offer, but if it were up to me, I wouldn’t give any play more than four bards.

And Martin and Tichenor never address the most pressing question: why is Shakespeare always better in Japanese?

[1] I hate this construction. Is there any reason at all to add this extra “s”? No. There isn’t.

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