Shakespeare’s plays reside so firmly in the public lexicon that their famous lines elicit chuckles of recognition out of audiences.
No matter the tone of the production, when ears hear the likes of “something wicked this way comes” or “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (kinda weird that both start with the word ‘something’) or “to be or not to be” or etc. ad infinitum — you get the idea — the reaction is almost always laughter.
One theory: “respectful” (whatever the fuck that means) laughter is considered (erroneously) the only appropriate, uncontroversial way that an audience is allowed to audibly respond in a live setting.
Which still begs the question: why respond at all?
A cynical take: it’s a form of intellectual boasting; “yes, did everyone hear that I’m smart enough to know the canon!!!”
An optimistic interpretation: it’s genuine giggling at their own innocent ignorance; “oh, I never realized that quote comes from the Bard!”
Regardless of which you believe (a bit of both? in addition to many other possible reasons? it’s person-by-person situational, like everything else?), I’m always impressed when Shakespeare-adjacent plays enter into such meaningful conversations with the originals that they forever alter how audiences engage with actual Shakespeare productions. Riffing on what’s already popular obviously gives contemporary writers a leg up in terms of achieving immortality, but these new works still need to vault themselves to Shakespeare’s level (with a little pre-existing assistance from ol’ Willy) to be forever associated with some of the most ubiquitous art ever created.
The next time you see Hamlet (you won’t need to wait long; uninspired producing alert), note how the introduction of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is always greeted with chortling, and Big Willy deserves as much credit for that as…Tom Stoppard! Two previously overlooked deaths (thematically deliberate! not an oversight!) are now spotlighted whenever Hamlet is endlessly staged thanks to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
And the second example occurred to me during SITI Company’s Radio Macbeth at NYU Skirball; the phrase “sleep no more” now gets the “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” treatment, courtesy of Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More.
The legacies, they are a-changin’.