(Note: This post contains potential spoilers to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and maybe a few Shakespeare plays.)
For those of you who don’t already know, I am an unapologetic Buffyverse enthusiast. All this means is that Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel are the closest things I have to religious doctrine, and that I can’t seem to know anyone for very long without referencing this universe.
There are a lot of reasons to love the Buffyverse, from the character development, the empowering feminism, the struggle against overwhelming odds, and the emotional joys and horrors of victories and grief. But putting aside all that, I also love the writing on the level of dialogue and word choice. The Buffyisms.
I believe that there is something in Whedonesque dialogue that grows from the literary soil of Shakespearian dialogue.
Joss Whedon is a huge Shakespeare fan, first of all. He often invites friends to his house to put on Shakespeare plays. In his “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit, someone asked why he decided to create his own version of Much Ado About Nothing, and he wrote (perhaps a bit tongue-in-cheek):
“I wanted to drag Shakespeare from obscurity. I’ve been a fan my whole life, and it’s time other people started noticing him!”
If a writer mentions another writer that had a profound impact on him, it’s important to understand how that literary relationship influenced his work. To understand someone, it helps to know who they love and why.
There are all sorts of parallels between the work of both writers, but I want to talk about the word choice and sentence structure here. Both of them write dialogue that mimics real-life speech while also being heavily stylized. This communicates a tone that ties together the world and allows for more flexibility in language.
We all know the jokes about how you can make something sound Shakespearian by throwing in some “thou”s, “thy”s and “’tis”s and adding “eth” onto the ends of words.
“Thou art more lovely”
You can also make something sound like a Buffyism by throwing in some “much?”s and adding “-y” “-age” and “-ness” to words.
They both invent their own words or phrases that sound funny at first, but just seem to work.
“a sorry sight”
“gives me the wiggins”
The banter is sharper than it will be in any conversation you actually take part in. The insults are more colorful.
“They have a plentiful lack of wit”
“Rodney Munson. God’s gift to the bell curve. What he lacks in smarts he makes up in lack of smarts.”
“I shall cut out your tongue”
“’Tis no matter, I shall speak as much wit as thou afterwards.”
-Troilus and Cressida
“You’re really campaigning for bitch of the year, aren’t you?”
“As defending champion, you nervous?”
-Cordelia and Buffy
“No man’s pie is freed from his ambitious finger”
Yeah, I could do that… but I’m paralyzed with not caring very much.
At times, their phrasing allows for deeper readings of the text. They write lines that can reach beyond the context of the current story and say something thought provoking and widely applicable.
“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em.”
“If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.”
Shakespeare is, of course, known for his verse. Whedon demonstrates his handle on writing emotionally rich story in verse through “Once More With Feeling” (a musical episode of Buffy that deals with heavy themes including drug addiction and deception in relationships, worries about marriage, the difficulties of helping an adult child as a parent, depression, and suicidal thoughts).
“Every single night, the same arrangement
I go out and fight the fight.
Still, I always feel this strange estrangement.
Nothing here is real; nothing here is right.
I’ve been making shows of trading blows
just hoping no one knows
that I’ve been going through the motions,
walking through the part.
Nothing seems to penetrate my heart.
I was always brave and kind of righteous,
now I find I’m wavering.
Crawl out of your grave, you’ll find this fight
just doesn’t mean a thing.”
Ultimately, my favorite parallel is that Shakespeare and Whedon each create monologues for their characters that carry tremendous emotional weight, demonstrating a larger perspective on what it is to be human.
“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
“And they have no purpose that unites them, so they just drift around, blundering through life until they die, which they-they know is coming, yet every single one of them is surprised when it happens to them. They’re incapable of thinking about what they want beyond the moment. They kill each other, which is clearly insane… and yet here’s the thing. When it’s something that really matters, they fight. I mean, they’re lame morons for fighting, but they do! They never… they never quit. So I guess I’ll keep fighting too.”
I think that the relationship between Shakespearian language and Whedonesque language can provide a greater understanding of both the writers’ work, coming from either direction. Understanding Shakespeare’s influence can provide greater context for Whedon’s dialogue, and appreciating Whedon’s dialogue can bring modern audiences to a place to better understand and appreciate what Shakespeare was doing with his.
And, if nothing else, it can make watching Whedon’s version of Much Ado About Nothing doubly enjoyable.