By my troth, thou art a hooplehead

If anyone bemoans the state of TV in my presence, I tend to point them in the direction of HBO. At least if they’re not against watching series that may be very sexual or violent, or that may “contain language” (as opposed to all the Marcel Marceau-inspired television programming, of course). I’ll tell them to check out Six Feet Under, naturally, and The Sopranos. I myself haven’t checked out The Wire yet, but it’s definitely at the top of my list. From what I’ve seen so far, HBO series have a fairly consistently high level of quality, in terms of acting, writing, directing, cinematography.

I was rather surprised to find just how much I liked Deadwood. As a genre, the western doesn’t interest me that much. It took me two or three episodes to acclimatise to the language – not just to the incessant swearing, but to the elaborate quality of the dialogues. But then I was hooked.

One of the reasons is definitely the language. I know that the word “Shakespearean” is overused in criticism especially of TV and cinema, usually to give the younger, technological media a veneer of respectability that isn’t really needed anymore. But series creator David Milch’s writing does strike me as similar in quite a few respects to Shakespeare’s plays. Milch deftly mixes ‘high’ and ‘low’ language; he uses an impressive range of registers, styles and imagery to convey the characters. The difference is simply that with Shakespeare most people need to read the footnotes to see how filthy the language is at times. (I could imagine that it’s either frustrating as hell for the actors to speak the dialogues or greatly enjoyable. Or both.) The characters. Now, in a list of the best fictional characters on television, you couldn’t leave out an Al Swearengen. As a matter of fact, I’d say that you couldn’t leave him out of a list of the best fictional characters, period. (I imagine he might be joined there by Tony Soprano and his mother Livia. Now, I’d love to eavesdrop on a barroom conversation between Tony and Al.) I wouldn’t even consider it hyperbole to compare Al Swearengen to one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations, Falstaff. He’s just as rich, complex and ambivalent – and arguably as attractive – as the fat, vainglorious, cowardly and ultimately tragic knight of Shakespeare’s Henry IV. (Having said that, I would love to see Ian McShane in a Shakespearean role. Richard of Gloucester, for instance.) 


While everyone loves Al, I must say that some of the more minor characters are my favourites. The first of these is Ellsworth. It’s difficult to write a fundamentally decent character and not make him boring, but they more than succeeded. And how can you not love a character who says the following, keeping a completely straight face?

Joanie Stubbs:   Will you keep a girl company?
Ellsworth:   I will, but I’m expensive.

Or indeed this?


Ellsworth:   Well, Ma’am, I’ve got myself a working gold claim.

Joanie Stubbs:   Well, sir, is that a damn fact?

Ellsworth:   A hell of a working gold claim, and if we knew each other better I’d throw “fucking” in there somewhere.

Joanie Stubbs:   If you did I’d try to catch it.

Ellsworth:   A working fucking gold claim, Joanie, and thank you for allowing me my full range of expression.

My second favourite character must be Dan Dority. He’s not the brightest, and he doesn’t exactly have great impulse control. But there’s something funny and sweet to his devotion to Al. His genuine distress when he thinks that Al prefers pretty boy Silas Adams to him, or when Al almost dies of a gleet. Again, like Shakespeare at his best, Milch mixes pathos and comedy perfectly in his best characters.

Dan Dority and Al Swearengen


It is to Dan and to Ellsworth, to Al, Sol, Seth, Trixie, Joanie, Charlie, Alma, Jane – and yes, even to E.B. – that I raise my glass of bourbon and say: “To your health, cocksuckers and hoopleheads! See you soon!”


P.S.: If you’re looking for a (Swiss-)German blog to read, especially if you’ve got a thing for outlandish international cuisine (and flame-baked Smurfs), check out Magenta’s Lucky Page. Highly recommended!

3 thoughts on “By my troth, thou art a hooplehead

  1. thirithch September 28, 2007 / 11:54 am

    In the unlikely event that anyone posts comments on this entry (thanks a lot if you do!), please refrain from season 2 and 3 spoilers. (The last episode we’ve seen is “Requiem for a Gleet”.) Cheers!

  2. bardolatry October 2, 2007 / 2:07 am

    I found this by means of your ‘Shakespeare’ tag. I simply wanted to say that, personally, it’s rather more enjoyable than frustrating as hell to make obscure jokes that are absolutely filthy. It also means that many Shakespearean actors are much like thirteen-year-old-boys in their tendency to suddenly see dirty meanings in EVERYTHING.

  3. mltweeker August 12, 2008 / 1:53 am

    i have like to refer to the language of HBO’s Deadwood as “Shakeswearengean “

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