Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Spectacular Shakespeare in The Spectacular Spider Man (Part One)

"Growing Pains." By Nicole Dubuc and Stan Lee. Perf. Josh Keaton, Daran Norris, James Arnold Taylor, Ben Diskin, Jeff Bennett, Lacey Chabert, and Grey DeLisle. Dir. Michael Goguen. The Spectacular Spider-Man. Season 2, episode 6. Kids' WB! 22 February 2009. DVD. Sony Pictures, 2010.

On 18 June 2010, an alert reader wrote to tell me about another source for Shakespeare in popular culture: the animated television program The Spectacular Spider-Man. In well under a year's time, I tracked down the material he mentioned, viewed it, digested it, and reported on my findings. Well, I'm about to report on my findings.

The show's use of Shakespeare falls into the "thoughtful and revealing" category rather than the "merely parasitical." One indication of this care is the quotations themselves. They are not all taken from a "Top Ten Shakespeare Quotes" list somewhere. In conjunction with that, the quotes also speak to the larger issues of the show—particularly of characterization. I haven't made myself intimately aware of the details of the show's world, but it's clear enough that the quotes they deliver work on more than one level.

For example, take a look at this video clip. Peter Parker's high school is about to mount a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and they're holding auditions. Brief glimpses of the hopeful actors punctuate the episode's action. In keeping with our Macbeth theme, the first quote comes from that play—and it begins the entire episode:

The episode provides quotations from six different plays—Hamlet, as you might expect, gets three of the eight quotes:
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
Macbeth, IV.i.44-45
Presume not that I am the thing I was,
[For] I have turned away my former self.
2 Henry IV, V.v.56, 58
Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.
Othello, II.iii.262-64
Why strew'st thou sugar on that bottled spider,
Whose deadly web ensnareth thee about?
Fool, fool! . . . The day will come [to] curse [this venemous] bunchback'd toad.
Richard III, I.iii.241-45
O villain, villain, smiling, [cursed] villain!
That one [might] smile and smile and be a villain.
[Go, Villain! Whoo! Yeah!]
Hamlet, I.v.106, 108
Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.
Hamlet, II.ii.116-19
O, it is excellent
To have a giant's strength; but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.
Measure for Measure, II.ii.107-09
I will be brief. Your noble son is mad:
Mad call I it; for, to define true madness,
What is't but to be nothing else but mad?
Hamlet, II.ii.92-94
All in all, the audition scenes span an extraordinary range—one that is entirely comprehensible—and it sets its quotations in a context that reveals something of their consistent relevance.

Links: The Episode at IMDB.

Click below to purchase the complete series from
(and to support Bardfilm as you do so).



Alexi said...

Great to see this posted!

The second quote (from Henry VI, Part 2) is especially revealing of the character. Harry Osbourne is Peter Parker's erstwhile best friend, who (seemingly) becomes his nemesis, the Green Goblin, before (seemingly) recovering and reforming. It's all very confusing, but it relates beautifully to the Hal/Henry V line he quotes: "Presume not that I am the thing I was."

kj said...

Thanks for the comment, Alexi! That's exactly the sort of insight I was hoping for—from someone familiar with the show. That there are deeper meanings is plain; what those deeper meanings are is more obscure.


David said...

Measure for Measure quote: "...excellent to have a giant's strength..." is on the surface a reference to a guy who becomes a villain after alien spores make him grow into a giant.

However, again, the writers of the cartoon are pretty smart and clearly bardaloters. The "giant" is John Jameson, the son of the newspaper mogul. He is an astronaut, national hero, and the ultimate boy scout - paralleling Angelo before possessing "a giant's strength"

I could easily give you 500 words on each quote and the context/relation to S' play.

kj said...

Thanks, David! I'd be glad to hear your thoughts. I can tell that there's more than just the surface to these particular choices—the writers were particularly thoughtful—and I'm glad to have some additional insight!

Take care!


Anonymous said...

There are two more episodes of Spectacular Spider-Man, featuring Shakespeare. One ("Subtext") shows rehearsals of Dream to bookend the episode. The other ("Opening Night") shows the actual production of Dream as counterpoint to the action throughout the episode.

kj said...

Thanks for the comments! These are mentioned in the second part of this two-part post.


T Campbell... said...

The Measure for Measure quote is probably as close as Shakespeare got to the most famous line in Spider-Man, which is often quoted as if it were Shakespeare: "With great power comes great responsibility."

Most of the cast seem to be choosing a Shakespeare quote as a medium of self-expression, as in the Harry Osborn example another character explained. The exceptions are Sally Avril the cheerleader and Flash Thompson the jock, who, true to their basic stereotypes, have no idea what the hell they're saying and touch on the story's ongoing themes entirely by accident.

The best performer, the only one to get a standing ovation, is the red-haired Mary Jane, which would be no surprise to Spider-Man fans: in some versions of her story, she grows up to be a modestly successful actress.

kj said...

Thanks, T. Campbell. That's quite insightful. Clearly, there's much food for thought here!


Bardfilm is normally written as one word, though it can also be found under a search for "Bard Film Blog." Bardfilm is a Shakespeare blog (admittedly, one of many Shakespeare blogs), and it is dedicated to commentary on films (Shakespeare movies, The Shakespeare Movie, Shakespeare on television, Shakespeare at the cinema), plays, and other matter related to Shakespeare (allusions to Shakespeare in pop culture, quotes from Shakespeare in popular culture, quotations that come from Shakespeare, et cetera).

Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
All material original to this blog is copyrighted: Copyright 2008-2039 (and into perpetuity thereafter) by Keith Jones.

The very instant that I saw you did / My heart fly to your service; there resides, / To make me slave to it; and, for your sake, / Am I this patient [b]log-man.

—The Tempest