Did Shakespeare Write Pulp Fiction? (No, But If He Did, It’d Sound Like This)

Imag­ine a high school class on the Great Works of West­ern Civ­i­liza­tion, cir­ca 2400. The teacher shows the stu­dents a selec­tion of films by Quentin Taran­ti­no, that exalt­ed late-20th- and ear­ly-21st-cen­tu­ry drama­tist who worked in the medi­um then known as film. The series cul­mi­nates in Pulp Fic­tion, per­haps, for mod­ern audi­ences, the most endur­ing and acces­si­ble exam­ple of the mas­ter’s art. Yet most of the kids in the room fal­ter on the edge of com­pre­hen­sion, and one even­tu­al­ly explodes in frus­tra­tion. “Why do they all dress like that?” the stu­dent demands, in what­ev­er the Eng­lish lan­guage has evolved into. “And seri­ous­ly, why do they talk that way? Why do we even have to watch this, any­way?” Then the teacher, return­ing to his dry­ing well of patience, his face set­tling into the creas­es worn by decades of sto­ical­ly borne dis­ap­point­ment, explains to his despon­dent charge that Taran­ti­no’s all about the lan­guage. “He used Eng­lish in ways nobody had before,” he says, for noth­ing close to the first nor last time, “and if you put in just a lit­tle more study time, you’d under­stand that.”

Her Majesty’s Secret Play­ers do seem to under­stand that, bring as they will a pro­duc­tion called Pulp Shake­speare (or, A Slur­ry Tale) to its West Coast pre­miere at this sum­mer’s Hol­ly­wood Fringe Fes­ti­val. To view the clip of the show above is to feel at least two sens­es of odd famil­iar­i­ty at once: don’t I know this scene and these char­ac­ters from some­where, and don’t I know these words from some­where? Were you to watch it with­out con­text, you’d prob­a­bly guess that the dia­logue sound­ed Shake­speare­an, and in the first few min­utes, that guess might even take you as far as won­der­ing which of the less­er-known plays this might be. But Pulp Shake­speare offers not Shake­speare’s words but a pas­tiche of Shake­speare through which to watch Pulp Fic­tion, effec­tive­ly bring­ing that 25th-cen­tu­ry class­room sce­nario into the present. Ren­der­ing Taran­ti­no’s dia­logue in Shake­speare­an dra­mat­ic poet­ry both famil­iar­izes Shake­speare’s style and de-famil­iar­izes Taran­ti­no’s, giv­ing strong hints to any­one look­ing to under­stand Shake­speare’s appeal in his day, how his­to­ry might treat Taran­ti­no, and how the two have more in com­mon than we’d have assumed.

(Note to 21st-cen­tu­ry teach­ers: we nonethe­less do not sug­gest you intro­duce Shake­speare as “sort of the Quentin Taran­ti­no of his day.”)

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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Comments (3)
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  • Hi, Col­in

    I am not too sure what you are sug­gest­ing, then, and what you see as the com­mon thread. Is this an attempt to ele­vate Taran­ti­no, or anoth­er attempt to prove that Shake­speare was just anoth­er pop­ulist play­wright? Frankly, what we have here is com­e­dy of incon­gruity. I doubt nei­ther the actors, the play­wright nor the audi­ence could say why it was a Shake­speare­an take on Pulp Fic­tion, rather than a Marlov­ian one. Indeed, a far more apt and use­ful jux­ta­po­si­tion would have been Ford or Web­ster.

    I’m not con­vinced that the nov­el­ty of this serves a pur­pose and I’d hon­est­ly be inter­est­ed to know why you think it does.



  • Miriam says:

    to Alan …

    I do believe Col­in is offer­ing an exam­ple of irony. humor, my dear man.

  • youdontknowme says:

    whats this about? i mean…shakespeare is AWESOME i love how i dont know what the heck hes say­ing LOL

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