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Most Absurd!

Shakespeare's silliest lines, seriously considered.

The Bard wrote many a sublime line, but our focus for the Most Absurd project is on the ludicrous stage directions, cheeky insults, and laugh-out-loud observations that highlight the Bard's lighter side. 

If you like optical illusions, visual puns, inside jokes, random bears, cats in too-small boxes, rogue pirates, and Scotland represented as an egg yolk, this is for you.



"Exit, pursued by a bear" is a stage direction from Shakespeare’s "The Winter’s Tale" that is infamous for its hilarity and difficulty to stage. It's one of the best literary inside jokes (welcome to the club!). 

Generally, Shakespeare limited his stage directions to the most basic instructions - [Exit Hamlet], [Enter Ophelia], [Dies] - simple enough. But in this particular direction, a lot of things happen at once without any warning or supporting dialogue. Antigonus has been tasked with abandoning the baby Perdita in a desolate place, but he's having second thoughts. Suddenly a storm wrecks his ship, and then… he "exits, pursued by a bear." 

Wait WHAT? So, apparently there’s a bear in the woods, and it has entered. Hungry. Without so much as an “O help!” he is chased off stage and dispatched. How can this sudden deluge of violence and fur not be funny? How do you stage it without destroying the tone of the scene? Do you embrace the surprise and have a little fun? 

We went with “a little fun” and for this illustration, a bear materializes out of the woods without warning and "just because."

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Huh? Why, of everything the Bard wrote would we pick this absurd stage direction? 

Because it was there, my friend. Because it was there.

Like our other favorite stage direction ("Exit, pursued by a bear"), this line originated from one of Shakespeare's later "Romance" plays, in this case Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Despite its challenges, we are big fans of its wild, massive scope. Part Odysseus, part Job, the play features literal deus ex machina moments when greek gods appear, and the best random pirate kidnapping of all time.

Given how much of the play takes place at sea, we wanted our illustration to feature a rogue wave and a shore. Because the play builds its themes using high fantasy, we made a sand castle the object under threat. A setting sun and the wave combine to suggest a pirate flag. 



Wait, we can explain. It began when we asked our super-smart-Shakespeare-scholar friend what her favorite quotation was. We promised to illustrate it no matter what. Apparently, she took it as a challenge. Her answer?:  "What, you egg!" [Stabs him]. 

Challenge accepted. 

We could tell you how pivotal this line is to the progression of Macbeth. We could go on about how brilliant all of the bird metaphors are leading up to the moment when Macduff's son is stabbed by Macbeth's super-evil henchmen. We could wax poetic about all the deep symbolism and stuff. But sorry Will, nothing - NOTHING - can undo the accidental comedy of calling someone an egg, and then stabbing them.

For this illustration, we represent Macbeth's domination of Scotland with a crowned medieval helmet placed on top of the country's map. The map is colored with the tartan plaid of clan Macduff.

BUT WAIT! The helmet and map double as a fork and fried egg.

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This line kicks off the second scene of The Tempest. Stunned by the fury of Prospero’s supernatural storm, a horrified Ferdinand leaps into the sea while shouting this zinger (via the spirit Ariel).

We know he meant "devils" literally. But we thought about the ways in which everyday tribulations feel like proverbial hell (think Sartre's famous line "Hell is other people").

Musing about how humans immiserate each other (and the tragedy of the commons and all that) finally brought us to the perfect metaphor for endless suffering. Ladies and gentlemen, we submit for your consideration: the humble traffic jam.

In our illustration, a seemingly endless line of cars winds its way along a devil's tail. The point of the tail directs you to your final destination: here. 

That's hellish torture. Except in Northern New Jersey where it's just called "Wednesday."

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In Shakespeare’s plays, the rich and powerful are sometimes clueless, and the penniless “fools” are often the smartest guys in the room. Sound familiar? 

In our illustration we used a king and jester to represent the wise and foolish respectively. We then used text as a device to represent the quality of their thinking.

In contrast to his outward appearance, the fools’ thoughts are rich and dense, forming an elaborate jeweled crown. Likewise, the king’s are sparse and simplistic, forming a jester’s hat. 

The idea of the "witty fool" reminds us of Socrates' famous quotation "I know that I know nothing." Wisdom begins with knowing you're a fool, and we see this quotation as a challenge to engage the world with real curiosity, humility, and openness. As far as the arrogance and self confidence of the "foolish wit" - well let's just do our best to avoid that stuff, shall we? 

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So I had my horns done. What do you think? Outrageously expensive, but worth it if you want to be the #GOAT of goats. 

This whack-a-doodle insult comes to us courtesy of the Henry Vcharacter Pistol, who pistol-whips a French officer simply for being French.

How dare he speak with that damned accent? Wear those luxurious clothes? 

What is it about this French dandy that reminds Pistol of a mountain goat? Was it the outrageous, oversized horns of the French Alpine Ibex, whose population was considerable at the time?

We'd like to think so.

But wait! This is no ordinary mountain goat. It's a damned and luxurious mountain goat. One who has shamelessly out-blinged his plain-horned peers. 

And for you haters who gonna hate, just remember what nanny used to say: they're just jealous!

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If you want to enjoy yourself, you’ve got to go big or go home! Seriously, it’s the law now.

Although little is known of the historical figure Jack Cade, Shakespeare had fun bringing him to life in the Henry VI trilogy. As he depicts it, Cade’s bumbling rebellion against the king in 1450 is chock full of political tropes that sadly still resonate today. 

Cade is a man of the people, yet he pontificates about his royal lineage. He promises to foster universal brotherhood, yet aspires to be worshipped as “lord.” And he’s all for worker’s rights, so long as they work for free. But when it comes to prosperity by fiat decree, nothing he says compares to the lunacy of outlawing small beers.

Sadly he never wins the throne, so we’ll never know what utopian dreams may come - where one is compelled to consume more alcohol, read less, and kill all the lawyers (we’ll save that last one for another day).

In our illustration, we combine a hefty pint of the strong stuff with the full legal force of “the law” - in this case a judge’s gavel which has smashed an inadequately sized drink. 

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From Timon of Athens, the complete quotation is "For thy part, I do wish thou wert a dog, that I might love thee something." Ouch!

For our part, we do wish to totally take this line out of context. So we wondered: do exotic pet owners ever regret their decisions?

Let’s ask Mia and James. Everything had been going so well. Romantic dinner, long walk in the park, awkward invitation for a nightcap that led to the couch. When suddenly, James' pet peacock slipped out of his playroom and inserted himself  into the conversation. Gillian tried to laugh it off with a clever remark, but was interrupted by a mouthful of feathers.

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This line belongs to Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 

One of Shakespeare's most popular troublemakers, Puck lures unsuspecting characters into the woods by imitating the voices of their lovers. Spells are cast, chaos ensues, and none of the characters are ever aware they are being toyed with.  

We spent some time brainstorming the things that make fools of us all, and boy was that a long list. But ultimately nothing can compete with the allure of our glowing screens. What a farce it is to stare at our phones, caress the glass, and mistake it for good company. 

Puck was able to trick a lover or two, but even he would marvel at technology's ability to make mischief at scale. 

In this illustration, windows reveal two isolated figures trapped in tiny, glowing rectangles, all composed of isolated smart phones. The ground level phones invite you to enter the complex where humans check in but they don’t check out.

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What is it about an undersized box that cats find so irresistible? Whatever it is, Celia and Rosalind must have felt the same way when they bought themselves a tiny cottage in the Forests of Arden. 

Out of context, Celia's line from As You Like It could be used for all manner of location-based comic effect - bedroom? hotel bar? toilette? But we couldn't resist assigning it to a haughty cat who claimed your gift box for a summer cottage, while inadvertently refashioning the tissue paper and ribbon into Elizabethan duds.If you have cats you know what we're talking about.

The intended gift was a copy of the play (and it's still worth the read). But, patient reader, we ask your forgiveness for any stray hairs that make their way into the box. And we must apologize on behalf of feisty felines everywhere - as they most certainly will not. 

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This knee-slapper is spoken by conman/rogue/all-around-ne'er-do-well Autolycus in The Winter's Tale. Despite its age, it feels perpetually fresh, and we love how it reminds us of some certain politicians (hell, most of them).

But while the speaker and the sentiment are pretty cynical, there's a humbling lesson in it as well: that even compulsive liars sometimes speak the truth, which is what makes them so high maintenance.  

In our illustration, we went with that familiar deception-machine, the broken watch, which manages to tell the truth twice a day (maybe even thrice when Daylight Savings ends!).

Politicians everywhere should be thoroughly impressed with such impressive levels of truth-telling.

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Hamlet tosses this little mic-drop to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Act II, Scene ii of his eponymous play. We know that he's messing with them, but we got to wondering: what the heck does the world look like when the wind is north-north-west?

The illustration points the way toward this unfortunate outcome, where the sane go barking mad, and the sky is filled with dreaded hawk-saws.

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