While it’s nearly impossible to find a literary work that doesn’t reference another literary work, it isn’t always easy to tell why such references are included. Sometimes they foreshadow important plot points, sometimes they help characterize a person in the narrative, and sometimes, we’re convinced, they’re just included to make the author sound smart. The really good ones, however, work on multiple levels – the most important of which being to further the story’s overarching message. Oh yeah, and to make us laugh. Observe.
Two of the most memorable allusions in literature have got to be the Shakespeare shout-outs in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. After taking up with two swindlers who claim to be a king and a duke, Huck and the escaped slave, Jim, help put on a production of select scenes from “Romeo and Juliet” and “Hamlet” as a money-making scheme in rural Missouri. As you can imagine, the result ain’t pretty.
In Romeo and Juliet, the old, bearded Duke dons a stolen nightgown and is wooed by the King in the play’s immortal balcony scene; in Hamlet, the Duke performs a magnificently botched version of Hamlet’s soliloquy that includes the phrases, “To be or not to be; that is the bare bodkin” and “But soft you, the fair Ophelia: ope not thy ponderous and marble jaws.” As an uneducated thirteen-year old, Huck doesn’t appreciate the hilarity of the situation, but unlike the Duke and King, he at least has the excuse of inexperience.
Although these scenes are typical of Twain in that they’re hugely entertaining, they also work on several deeper levels. For one thing, it’s only fitting that Huckleberry Finn – often considered the seminal American novel – tips its hat to its European predecessors while simultaneously announcing its departure from literary tradition. Not to mention, including a theater production within the novel is a big acknowledgement to Shakespeare’s whole play-within-a-play thing.
In fact, the play within Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is particularly important because it confirms what Hamlet already suspects: that King Claudius is guilty of his Hamlet’s father’s murder. Similarly, even though the reader already knows that the King and Duke are frauds, the shamelessness of their theater scam alerts us to the fact that things are only going to get worse.
When push comes to shove, however, Twain’s Shakespearean allusions have a much more important function in promoting the theme of high-meets-low art; after all, it’s not often that a country’s most important work of literature is told from the perspective of an ignorant teenager talking in rural slang. What’s really cool about this is that it abandons the notion that high art should only be accessible to the upper echelons of society. Some artwork is only on display in museums and palaces; some literature is only intelligible to the multi-lingual with a background in the classics; Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is accessible to anyone who wants a good laugh and an outsider’s perspective on society.
Twain’s juxtaposition of high and low art remind us that literature in its purest form is meant to be democratic. And what screams “seminal American novel” more loudly than a democratizing adventure story about moving past institutionalized racism?