Bard Bits: The Beatles and the Bard
Three months after The Beatles rocked the world on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, The Fab Four taped a show called Around the Beatles. The Liverpool songsters performed an abbreviated version of “Pyramus and Thisbe” from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Of course it was done with the panache that only John, Paul, Ringo, and George could bring to the 400 years old play. First Ringo enters in period dress, bearing a program flag and firing a cannon. Then silhouetted trumpeters appear who are none other than John, Paul, and George. They are a hit before the play begins which is confirmed by the screaming fans situated in the audience.
Decked out in period attire, Paul and John play the star-crossed lovers Pyramus and Thisbe. Paul as Pyramus hams it up well to the camera, with his winks and smiles. John, as Thisbe, with expected mischief, sports a blacked-out tooth, and wild blonde Pippi Longstocking braids. George becomes the Moon and leads out his “doggy woggy”, while Ringo roars out his part as the Lion. As for the wall? Not sure at all.
While the foursome stay mostly to Shakespeare’s penned lines, they, naturally, add in their own unique style. Ninny’s Tomb as the suggested meeting place for the lovers becomes a referenced club: “Ninny’s tomb—is that still open?” And when the Lion is to reassure the audience that he is only an actor, Ringo switches out the lines of—“Then know that I, as Snug the joiner, am / A lion fell”—for: “Then know that I one Ringo the drummer am.” He also reminds the audience that he wouldn’t be making so much money if he really was a lion. Finally, at the end when Pyramus “dies, dies, dies”, Paul comforts the distraught fans with a reassuring: “It’s all right, it’s all right.”
The performance represents the high/low snubbing typical of the sixties with its counter-culture approach towards tradition. The mixture of the current most famous band performing the world’s long-regarded most famous playwright’s work is a tribute to how versatile Shakespeare’s can be. The overlap that The Beatles are “rude mechanicals”, that is working class fellows, is amplified by planted hecklers in the audience who shout out good-natured jibes, such as “Roll over, Shakespeare.” This could refer to Chuck Berry’s, “Roll Over, Beethoven,” or that Shakespeare might roll over in his grave if he knew about their performance. Personally, I think William S. would be amused, being a bit of a culture-breaker himself.
The Beatles comical performance once again shows how well Shakespeare transfers across the ages and the stages of time. As Ben Jonson once stated about Shakespeare, “He was not of an age, but for all time!”