Have you sat though lectures in High School or College about Shakespeare’s plays, vying your time between passing notes or just trying to get to the end of class without being caught sleeping? Here’s a hint, your Lit teacher knew your eyes were closed behind those sunglasses. You weren’t fooling anybody.
Here’s the thing. The language of Shakespeare’s plays are downright opaque in places, with more sub-references to pop culture of that time than a Dennis Miller comedy special. That’s why there were all of those footnotes in your text. But here is something else. Shakespeare was a genius, and back during a time when public entertainment consisted of bear baiting and trying not to die of childhood disease, he had nearly everything figured out when it came to plot. Drama, comedy, tragedy and any gradient between are all in those plays. And it all had to be good enough to compete with things killing other things in pits, with a full bar right next door.
So, what does Shakespeare has to do with “Deadwood?” Everything. The characters all fit the same model that Bill Shakespeare had already built up years ago. Long-suffering heroines, flawed heroes, misunderstandings that lead to horrible consequences or hilarious twists.
You don’t recall King Lear or Hamlet using language like Al Swearengen? At the time, a lot of the oaths and insults of the day were right there in the dialog. The use of some of the words might be anachronistic in Deadwood, just as a lot of the language used in Shakespeare’s plays about Ancient Rome would have been similar to this. The key element of all that cursing is another Shakespearean element, having to do with something that probably really put you to sleep in class. Poetic Meter and Scansion. This is the stuff Iambic Pentameter is made from. A rhythm of language that is most obvious in Shakespeare’s sonnets, but also rears its ugly head in his plays as well.
Part of the reason we see the so much flowery language crammed into a statement, that even back in the 16th Century would have been spoken much more plainly by real people, is because Shakespeare had to make the rhythm of his dialog work with Iambic pentameter. Why then does Al Swearengen have to use the language he does? It’s because the language he uses, albeit something men and women of that time probably would have considered “fightin’ words” not only displays his abrasive nature, but it also creates a rhythm in the show’s dialog.
No character is more Shakespearean than E.B. Farnum. If he was in one of the Bard’s plays, he would easily be a Clown of some sort. Clowns in those plays were not the things of nightmares we know of today. They were foolish people, often outside of the plot, who conducted grisly undertakings, such as grave-diggers and apothecaries, who used gallows humor to give insight to the audience. Farnum could have been pasted into the pages of “Much Ado About Nothing” or “Hamlet” and no one back then would have batted an eye.
“Deadwood” isn’t a smart show because it uses elements nearly as old as Western theatre and literature themselves. It is smart because it does it in such a way that the audience is not pulled out of the story. We still care about the characters. We still hate some of them. And most of all, we are entertained.
So, next time you want to impress your English teacher, recommend Deadwood to them on their To Be Watched stack and ask them what they thought of the Shakespearean elements throughout. It’s still good enough to compete with bear baiting.