Romeo and Juliet, Sweat, and the Value of Vulgarity in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn


“To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin.” Okay, so maybe this isn’t the first line that jumps to mind when you think of the great American classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but it’s a darn important one.

Ernest Hemingway wrote that Huck Finn is “the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” However, many schools continue to dispute Hemingway by placing Mark Twain’s masterpiece near the top of their banned books lists. In fact, the novel has a long and perhaps proud history of being restricted due to its coarse language (Mark Twain reportedly told his editor that all the controversy was sure to bolster book sales), though the specific points of contention have changed greatly over the years.

Upon initial publication of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1884, it was Twain’s use of everyday, uneducated slang that got everybody’s bloomers in a bunch, especially in conjunction with descriptions of bodily processes like sweating, itching, and scratching. (Nope, not even the good ones.)

Vulgar or not, this folksy groundedness was no cakewalk for Twain to convey, and his original manuscript includes three separate versions of the opening sentence alone: first, “You will not know about me,” then, “You do not know about me,” and finally, “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’; but that ain’t no matter.” Multiply that thought process by four hundred pages and then tell me who’s not taking this seriously enough.

While Twain’s portrayal of rural American dialects has since grown incalculably in our esteem, the novel’s frequent use of the “n word” – in keeping with the historical accuracy of Huck’s vernacular – has earned it harsh criticism in more recent years despite the fact that the story powerfully and unequivocally condemns racism. Twain probably said it best himself when he declared, “Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.”

So between all the itching and scratching and n-wording, how does Shakespeare manage to enter into the mix? The novel’s bastardized version of theatre’s most famous soliloquy occurs when Huck’s swindler friends put together a profoundly uninformed production of the balcony scene in “Romeo and Juliet,” mixing in bits of “Hamlet,” “Richard III,” “Macbeth,” and “King Lear” while they’re at it. Though the enterprise is hilariously funny, it speaks to the importance of a literary education more than anything else. In fact, Huck Finn was originally written as a sequel to the bestselling children’s story The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, yet the educational standards at the time were such that even school children would have snickered at the swindlers’ ignorance of Shakespeare. How many among us can say that about our kid brother or sister?

Of course, despite all its Utterly-Important-American-Literary-Classic-ness, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn also revels in its dirty, gritty bawdiness – as do readers the world over. We mustn’t forget that when the Shakespearean production inevitably fails, the swindlers begin putting together a second, largely improvised performance called The Royal Nonesuch. At the bottom of the public advertisement, the lead villain adds: “LADIES AND CHILDREN NOT ADMITTED.”

” ‘There,’ says he, ‘if that line don’t fetch them, I don’t know Arkansaw!’ “

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