WALTER: Over the line, Smokey! I'm sorry. That's a foul.
SMOKEY: Bull—. Eight, Dude.
WALTER: Excuse me! Mark it zero. Next frame.
SMOKEY: Bull—, Walter!
WALTER: This is not 'Nam. This is bowling. There are rules.
— The Big Lebowski, 1998
WALTER: Thou cross’st the line!
JACK SMOKE: Your pardon, noble sir?
WALTER: Thou cross’st the line, Jack Smoke, O cavalier,
As clearly demarcated in our rules,
In tumbling past the throw. ‘Tis play most foul.
JACK SMOKE: But see the pins struck down in fair play’s course!
Knave, mark thou mine eight pins; mark it eight.
WALTER: Not eight but l’ouef; you’ll mark it nought, O Knave,
And so we carry on to the next frame.
JACK SMOKE: Peace, Sir Walter!
WALTER: Smokey, this be not the foul jungles of the darkest East Orient. This be ninepins. We are bound by laws.
— The Two Gentlemen of Lebowski, 2010
Shakespeare has probably been performed on every continent. Sure, sure, I know what you're saying: Antarctica. But some poor bored researchers stuck there probably recorded an adapted radio play for their families. We use words Shakespeare invented every day, and we use aphorisms he coined without even thinking of them as arcane or anything other than self-evident.
His plays have been translated into every language still widely used on this planet and into more than a few dead and dying ones. Philologists get bored and want to hear his jokes in ancient Greek. Grad students get bored and rework his plays in Irish Gaelic. Or, as in Adam Bertocci's case, a bored and under-employed screenwriter takes something else and makes it sound like Shakespeare.
The something else in particular is Joel and Ethan Coen's 1998 cult classic,
The Big Lebowski, in which a deadbeat old hippie named Jeffrey Lebowski — better known as The Dude — is mistaken for a millionaire with a trophy wife racking up debts all around town. After two seedy collection-agent thugs soil Lebowski's rug (it really tied his room together), he asks the Big Lebowski (the millionaire) for a replacement rug. From there he's drawn into a web of embezzlement, questionable kidnaping, scamming nihilists-turned-pornstars, a fertile heiress with bad art and a ticking biological clock, a teenage runaway and, of course, the bowling league finals.
Originally panned by critics as a disappointing step down following their critically acclaimed Fargo, the film grew in college and quasi-counterculture imagination until it took on a life of its own and became likely the filmmakers' best known and most beloved work. Go to any bowling alley near a college, and you'll hear quotes from it. In another decade's time, it will be as ubiquitous in bowling as Caddyshack is in golf. There are actual festivals in the United States where people show up to dress and act like protagonist Jeffrey Lebowski.
And why shouldn't they? Comedian Eddie Izzard made a joke in his (similarly cult classic) show
Dress to Kill about Shaggy and Scooby Doo, from the Scooby Doo mysteries, arguing that they were great archetypal characters from popular culture. Consider: they are lazy cowards who love sandwiches. What's not to love? (That's basically me on a weekend if you tell me there's a snake in the backyard.) Audience members tried to name similarly adored characters from literature, and the biggest analog they could come up with was Falstaff. Something similar is at work with Jeffrey Lebowski, an indelibly slovenly former sixties radical who wants to be left alone to love white russians, marijuana, bowling, his rug and Creedence.
There's something about him that so perfectly captures the second half of the 20th century that he works on that Falstaffian iconic level. Certainly, the likeness doesn't work in anything like a one-to-one comparison. Lebowski is physically soft and chemically over-steeped like Falstaff, but his story seems a little more like Prince Hal/Henry to me. His callow and misspent youth stretched into his fifties, but sudden events bring dormant genius and courage to the fore. All of Jeffrey Lebowski's questions are resolved by the end of the movie; that his world goes literally unconquered owes far more to the absence of citizen armies than an absence of strange charisma.
All that is fine, but what of The Two Gentlemen of Lebowski's writing itself? Well, it's actually pretty great. As anyone who's spent a week at a Shakespeare festival or days reading
The Complete Works can tell you, eventually your brain soaks up enough iambic pentameter to begin unconsciously thinking of things in its rhythms. The noun-verb inversions, the asides, the quirks of Shakespearean English quickly go from foreign to almost second nature. And while that might account for the authenticity of Bertocci's version of Lebowski in its beats and rhythms, clearly the man is a happy student and fan of his subjects. He probably sat down with a copy of the Lebowski screenplay and referred back to whatever complete Shakespeare he had at hand, but this is obviously a labor of love.
It's also probably a fitting one. Retelling a story like Lebowski in Shakespearean English seems, at the most superficial glance, like a tremendous waste of time. It's gimmicky and a little goofy, and, as Bertocci himself admits in the FAQs on his site, it can really only do him good by getting him attention that allows him to get paid for other projects. But of course Shakespeare himself retold a lot of stories. The topics in his histories weren't uncommon knowledge; he and Marlowe covered the same dramatic ground; and reading Ovid or Virgil (to name just two) gives anyone a good idea of where some of other plots and concepts got lifted.
Nonetheless, he poached on known ideas and represented them in a way that captivated new audiences and perhaps educated them too. One can't fault Bertocci for doing the same. Think of all those high school kids who love quoting Lebowski so much that they know it by heart, for whom a glance at a text like The Two Gentlemen of Lebowski immediately translates and unpacks whole treasure chests of Shakespearean language. The piece then becomes a voluntary and welcome cheat sheet to an entirely different mode of drama and kind of language. This is exactly the sort of fun idea that should be shared immediately and often. And while you're at it, make people read some real Shakespeare, too.
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