What Shakespeare taught me about RP

Shakespeare movies, anyway.

What, did you think I was gonna be all cultured?

You musta forgot which blog you were at. Ratshag is ====> thataway.

So, Shakespeare.

Having been a player of tabletop RPGs most of my adult life (and before), I have always been interested to some extent in acting.

My interest is, of course, more in the improvisation end of things than in repeating someone else’s written lines, but the technique of trying to put yourself in the mind of a  different character and ‘make believe’ is at the heart of roleplaying.

It’s acting without a stage, for the shared delight of the actors themselves.

And since this is what I’ve been thinking about, this is the topic you get today.

Don’t ask where I get this stuff from, my head is a cluttered attic of junk, and it seems everything is piled on top of everything else. Every morning I climb into the attic looking for something to drag onto the yard sale of the blog, and lucky you, you get whatever is nearest to the attic door at the time.

Two movies. Two movies that are relevant to the discussion.

The first is Hamlet, starring Mel Gibson.

The second is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

For those of you unfamiliar with Shakespeare in general or the story of Hamlet in particular…

Hamlet is the name of the lead character in a wonderfully light-hearted romantic comedy about the fun loving royal family of Denmark, and their lives and loves…


Y’know, if I could follow that line up with a straight face, I’d have a future in comedy.

Seriously though, Hamlet is the name of the lead character in a play by Wm. Shakespeare. The story follows his point of view almost exclusively, and thus you see the events of the story from his perspective.

It is a tragedy, in that in the end, no one has a happy ending.

A morally just one, perhaps, in certain respects, since everyone that dies in the end has tried in some way to screw everyone else, and along the way killed innocent people while trying to get revenge for being done wrong, thus earning their own share of justice for hurting innocents while trying to get revenge, etc etc.

The play ends ina grand guignol scene of utter carnage, dead bodies everywhere…

The movie Hamlet, which cast Mel Gibson in the lead role, is, to me, a wonderfully acted version of the play.

I say that, because not only has great care been made to capture the feel and atmosphere of the settings, but because when each actor speaks their lines, they speak them as though this is the everyday language which they are used to. It is just how they talk. It seems natural. Unforced. Smooth.

There are scenes where Mel Gibson is speaking some of the trippingly fast dialogue of Hamlet in a manic phase that is so unearthly natural that you forget that you are hearnig archaic dialogue, in much the same way that, when you’re totally absorbed in a foreign film, that afterwords you find it hard to remember that you were reading subtitles, in thinking back over the film you remember the words the actors spoke as though you understood the language. For me, Brotherhood of the Wolf in french with subtitles is much like that. Looking back I forgot that I didn’t understand what they were actually saying.

So Hamlet with Mel Gibson, to me, is an excellent example of the film and the story and is mentioned here to point out that the story focuses on the events, as seen through the eyes of the main character, Hamlet, the mover and shaker. He is the person around whom everything pivots.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, however, is also Hamlet.

It is.

It is the story of Hamlet, from beginning to end. And if you haven’t actually ever SEEN or read Hamlet in any form, much of the humor of the situation will be lost on you.

But you can still appreciate it for what it is, one of my favorite movies of all time.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a film that still drives me crazy because I can’t reconcile it’s existence with a greedy Hollywood out for a fast buck. I just don’t see how any greedy corporation could have heard the pitch for this film, and thought “That there will make me some big money. I want to invest in a piece of that.”

God bless the ones that did, though.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is Hamlet… but it is Hamlet, shown from the point of view of two small, very small, almost nonexistent minor characters of the story of Hamlet, and never from Hamlet himself.

You see the story of Hamlet from the point of view of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two characters that appear from time to time in the play.

So far, nothing so unique, yes?

Ah, but let me delve into the joys of this film.

First, the two lead roles, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are played by Gary Oldman and Tim Roth.

And when I say that these are Gary Oldman from The Fifth Element (the main villain) and The Professional (the corrupt police lieutenant), and Tim Roth from Pulp Fiction (one of the two crooks in the diner) and Reservoir Dogs (the undercover police officer), THAT level of brilliant dialogue and timing, then you should be excited. Very, very excited.

And second, the two characters only exist within the confines of the Hamlet story, in and around the scenes in which they take part… and they themselves have no memory of who they are or what they were doing prior to the first scene in which they appear, on a mountain trail in Denmark.

The movie is almost a detective story in philosophical discourse, as the two try to reason with each other, trying to puzzle out with logic and debate who they are, why they are where they are, why they would have no memory of their past, and what these crazy people they keep bumping into expect of them.

It is a rich movie, and a very fun one, as these two incredibly small bit parts of the play are brought to vivid life, where you start to really love these two guys and admire the hell out of them… they are people, not cardboard cutouts, and if you know the play, you know what’s coming.

I bring these two films up, because in many ways the lesson they teach is the heart of roleplaying, whether in pen and paper RPG settings or in WoW.

We play in a large world filled with what can be called ‘the lore’ (dun dun dun), or what is really just the fictional setting that exists at this time. There are main characters, great events, timelines and locales. It is a static story, in that we are told what has happeend in the past, and then we play in a never-ending ‘present’, where we seem to advance through the stories as we quest and level, but once you reach the end game, the present goes ever on and on, with no ultimate resolution or change.

And we play in this setting, making our own homes and stories, knowing that we cannot interact with or continue writing our own version of the major aspects of the story, because it’s not one we control.

We are bit players, without control over the events we are rushing towards, wondering what the writers of Blizzard will do to bring the main characters forward, and advance the present into a new static future that we will begin to quest towards again. 

We don’t play Arthas. WE have no input to what Thrall may decide to do next. We do not craft policy for the Alliance. We do not play one of these main characters.

We play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, small parts in the grand drama. We are but supporting players who may not even get a mention in the credits.

But even though it is Hamlet that gets top billing, and that everyone will know about, and whose story will be familiar, it is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead that teaches us there is a ton of room for the bit characters to have their own rich history, their own depth and drama, to perhaps touch in only the smallest way on such mythic figures as Thrall or Arthas or Jaina Proudmoore, but to have grand adventures in other parts of the world that are no less exciting or important to us. 

I love Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. It is a wonderful example of how you can be your own star of your own story, even as your position in lore and history is unrecognised and unremarked amidst the grand destinies of thrones and the royal prerogatives that swirl on all around you.

And of course, the moral of the story is, you don’t have to be the bastard stepson of the main character or the secret lover of the Queen that was the real reason for massive event ‘X’, in order to be a part of the setting.

I hope, somewhere in all this, there was something that was worth writing, and worth reading.

If nothing else, I hope I have enticed you into watching Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

By the way, if you like the whole ‘different take on Shakespeare’ thing, I heartily, strongly, voraciously recommend you read or see a traditional version of the Taming of the Shrew, and then get the Moonlighting tv episode ‘Atomic Shakespeare’, from Season 3 (Episode 7, btw), which is a brilliantly funny take on it. God, I love that episide. Just classic.


24 thoughts on “What Shakespeare taught me about RP

  1. I dunno, I thought it was a pretty good sign of the Baz’s take on R&J when the father of the Capulets says, “Give me my long word. Ho.” Then he proceeds to pull out an assault shotgun with the word “Sword” engraved in its barrel.

    This was a great entry, John. The insight into “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” really puts things in perspective for me (pun intended) in regards to some recent role-playing events in which I’ve been involved.


  2. Oh, and I think it’s great that I am not alone in loving he BL Romeo and Juliet.

    I got very tired of trying to defend the originality of it’s take on it, and how well I thought they did. And yes, Mercutio rocked.

    Oooh, did you know Claire Danes is our kind of people? She did the intro to one of Neil Gaimens’ Sandman graphic novels back in the day, I think it was ‘The Doll House’.

    At the time, it was pretty surprising to me, in a ‘wow a beautiful Hollywood actress who enjoys Sandman and isn’t afraid to admit it, damn’ kind of way.


  3. “Do bears bear? Do bees bee?” 🙂

    Why am I not surprised that you like Moonlighting BBB. Hmm, can’t see much use for a bee form though.

    Shakespeare, in all its guises, is fundamentally about people. He was the finest character writer the world has ever seen imho and his observations were written with an elegance that we seem to have lost in our modern age. A fine source of inspiration for anything with MMO in the title. However, I would much rather have Falstaff or Bottom as my role model than the tortured prince of Denmark!

    I have been fortunate in that I have lived in both Stratford-upon-Avon and London and have therefore been able to see many of his plays performed live. This is without doubt, the best way to see Shakespeare, as it was originally intended, as entertainment for the washed and unwashed masses. If you ever get the chance to see a play at the new Globe theatre it really should not be missed!

    Also, I second the mention of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet. A stunning film which, while coming under the category of a modern interpretation, is completely faithful to the original play. It also features Harrold Perinneau (of Lost Fame) as a cross-dressing Mercutio. Pure genius 🙂

    I’ll certainly pick up R&G are Dead but Mel Gibson…as Hamlet? It boggles the mind.

    P.S. First comment, but long time reader. Great blog and keep up the good work!


  4. James Earl Jones is amazing. His voice is godly.

    Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are dead is a fantastic play, and film as well. (First time I saw it was being performed by our high school theatre class, and… I’m biased. It was wonderful. I actually like parts of it better than the movie.) Verbal tennis is still one of my favorite scenes.

    Heads, by the way.

    I do like the connection you made to the roleplaying scene, and it’s true. One doesn’t have to play a big role in the pre-existing story, but could take a small, insignificant role that comes out to something large, in itself. A very good point you’ve made, BBB!


  5. Hooray great post 🙂 Love R&G are dead and also the Mel Gibson Hamlet. Love the way you use R&G to talk about the place that roleplayers can take on the Warcraft stage.


  6. I concur with most of the points. One thing: I would not recommend that anyone start out by READING Shakespeare. I always find that, when reading a script, it is to fully appreciate the actions of the characters. Especially for shakespeare, where the script is just that, very little direction beyond a listing of lines. See a live performance or recorded performance, or find a film adaptation, but SEE it.


  7. Wow – I used to play verbal tennis with my best friend in high school. I’m not suprised that you love that movie, but it’s still cool to read all the references anyway.

    Then you throw in the best Moonlighting episode at the end. Sweet.


  8. And as far as whether you like Mel Gibson’s Hamlet or not wasn’t really my point. I agree that there are some very fine performances out there.

    My point was that there some incredibly over the top ways some movies or plays I’ve seen have shown actors delivering their lines, notably the hammy Hamlet in R&G Are Dead, who has to have one of the funniest “I’m an actor overacting Hamlet” delivery of lines I’ve ever heard.

    And in Mel’s Hamlet, I felt that the very natural delivery of some seriously difficult dialogue was remarkable.


  9. You know, I loved Strange Brew, I still know how to play the beer hunter, I learned what a took was and fatback from that movie, and yes, you’re right…. another great take on Hamlet. And a damn fine movie, too.

    Hmmm, I see my Netflix list is growing today, woot!


  10. A guildie and have kicked around the idea of making characters on an RP server named Rozenstern and Guildencrantz (yeah, intentionally spoonerized) and forming a guild called , and spending the whole time levelling trying to figure out what our names are.

    But you left out another awesome Hamlet variation: Strange Brew, that early-80s classic from Bob & Doug McKenzie. Bob and Doug are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and they hope to get jobs at Elsinore Brewery. While there, they meet Pam, the daughter of the president. Her father has recently died, and the company has been taken over by her scheming uncle. . . .

    It’s ridiculous, and the whole thing is Hamlet, through and through. Check it out!


  11. Great article Bear! Nothing annoys me more than character stories where they come from some heroic legend that doesn’t make any sense in the lore. The belief that your character should be the “hero” is a bit of a plague in the RP community.


  12. Manny, kiss my ass.

    You just know that I love James Earl Jones.

    Hey, did you ever watch A Family Affair starring James Earl Jones and Robert Duvall like I toldja to?


  13. My first intro to performed Shakespeare spoiled me. I was in high school and got hold of two tickets to see Othello. And being the typical high school geek, couldn’t find a date to go. Took me mum. It’s cool though, how many people can say that the first time they saw Shakespeare performed was with James Earl Jones playing Othello and Christopher Plummer playing Iago. I enjoyed almost (but not quite) everything about Gibson’s Hamlet. R&G r dead was terrific. I also loved the Moonlighting version of Taming, but my favorite version of that, is the movie with Burton & Taylor (their RL fireworks made the movie rock) I also totally enjoyed Kevin Branaugh’s Henry.


  14. Omg. “Atomic Shakespeare” was indeed the best Moonlighting episode evar!! We had that one taped and rewatched it all the time. So brilliant. 🙂 (“I doth!”) Knowing my love for Hudson Hawk, you could probably guess that scene was my favorite.

    I’m with Anna, too — the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s show is great fun. Less literary, perhaps, but very entertaining.

    My main guild is an RP guild Horde side, and although I don’t do much roleplaying myself, I do like to be surrounded by it. I think you hit the nail on the head, too. Your character can be very richly developed without your being the long-lost half-human daughter of Thrall. Every once in a while we get a new person in the guild that comes up with a character history like that, but they never last long. I don’t think the normal RP that everyone else does is nearly interesting or dramatic enough to them. I think they’re missing the point a bit…


  15. Another R&G are dead fan! I remember watching that movie the second and third times and realizing all the little things that I missed the first time through. I’d never thought of them in relation to WoW roleplaying, but I think you’re on to something there.

    Another “alternative Shakespeare” that I love is The Complete Works of William Shakespeare by the Reduced Shakespeare Company. (though there is less literary value in that one, it’s unbelievably funny)


  16. OMG! Someone who remembers Moonlighting! Back when Sybil Sheppard was hot (though it took special camera lenses to make it so) and Bruce Willis actually a funny actor! One of the original “smart and witty dialog can actually make a good run in the TV studio system” shows.

    Goodness, did we just date ourself…?


  17. never cared much for mel gibson’s hamlet. i much prefer kenneth branaugh.

    and only tangentially related, i’ve always thought scenes from shakespear would make wonderful machinema. i see prospero from the tempest as a magnificent troll, his debased slave caliban as a tauren, and the unforgettable bosun with “the gallows look” as a dwarf…


  18. Damn I’m impressed that you know and love R&G are dead, its an absolutely wonderful film. I did literature through high school (somewhat badly) and that film summed up why you can love the “stuffy classics” as they can be communicated in great ways that pinpoint why they are good hundreds of year later.

    Baz Lowman’s Romeo and Juliet is another film adaptation that was excellent, despite the performance from the male lead.

    As for us as the background characters, I think thats OK. We get to participate in the events that you read about in the lore, and for me the game is far more about the potential for immersion in a world, and participation with friends; rather than mechanical calcs, or some upgrade cycle.

    Have a read of the novels, then go back into Kara and fight Moroes again. Doing this gave me a buzz well beyond the win, and then the cut scenes and emotes make much more sense. It was the story that gave Karazhan depth again in that run.

    And while we don’t get to write the lore, the player base as a collective get to influence the game on mass. Our feedback, suggestions, and experience through the game can really help direct the direction of the game. If ZF was hated, and ZG was badly adopted, then ZA would be a graveyard, or not even created. Likewise this is why Naxx is coming back (imho). Its not just content re-use, its also to get that element of the lore into the face of the wider player base. Arthas is huge in the lore, and to have Naxx fall off the radar would not make sense if Arthas is still kicking around.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.