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Shakespeare & Beyond

“All I Want For Crispin’s:” Mya Gosling’s Shakespearean Holiday Songbook

“What’s the closest thing we have to a Shakespeare Christmas play?” I asked a few years ago. One answer arrived this month: The Shakespearean Holiday Songbook, a collection of a dozen or so Shakespeare plays retold as parodies of popular Christmas carols written and illustrated by Mya Gosling, the creator of Good Tickle Brain, “the world’s foremost (and possibly only) stick-figure Shakespearean webcomic.”

It’s a delightful assortment of Shakespeareana set to familiar holiday tunes like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (“Hamlet the Danish Princeling”) and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” (“Old King Lear’s Dividing His Crown”). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of the parodied plays are Histories and Tragedies, as serious and gory subject matter juxtaposed with a joyful holiday ditty is hard to resist. (This season I’ll definitely be singing, “Dip our hands in blood of Caesar / Fa la la la laa, la laa laa laa”). Yet when Mya sets the climax of Macbeth to the tune of “O Christmas Tree,” the result — “O Birnam Wood, O Birnam Wood / Approaching are thy branches” — is a mournfulness not far removed from Shakespeare’s original.

Shakespeare’s Comedies are represented as well. Falstaff convinces himself it’s possible to “Have Yourself a Merry Wife of Windsor” (to the tune of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”), and there’s a lovely midwinter yearning to the “White Christmas”-inspired “I’m dreaming of a midsummer / A night of fantasy and play.” Most impressively, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is repurposed to become a duet called “Baby, I Love You So,” wherein Olivia (from Twelfth Night) urges Viola to remain, to which Viola (in disguise as Cesario) responds with the familiar opening line, “I really can’t stay.” Mya’s setting almost convinces me that Twelfth Night could become the holiday play its title suggest it is.

Mya began writing and illustrating her Shakespeare song parodies in 2014, beginning with mashups of The Sound of Music with both King John and Hamlet, followed by fusing Sondheim with Shakespeare’s forest plots in “Into The (Shakespearean) Woods.” She wrote four songs inspired by Hamilton, imagining how Lin-Manuel Miranda might have written Hamlet (“Wait For It”), Richard III (“I’m Hunchbacked”), Romeo and Juliet (“The Tomb Where It Happened”), and even a musical declaration from Shakespeare himself (“(I Am Not Throwing Away) My Plot”). Mya’s song and accompanying comic, “A Modern Major Shakespeare Fan,” her musical celebration of Shakespeare’s complete works — in alphabetical order, no less, and set to Gilbert & Sullivan’s “I am the very model of a modern major-general” — remains definitive.

But her first printed collection (optimistically designated “Vol. 1”), features exclusively her holiday song parodies. In an email, Mya said she chose them because “they are songs with a high degree of familiarity throughout the English-speaking world…practically everyone knows ‘Jingle Bells’” (which she has cleverly reinterpreted to tell the story of Richard III: “Dashing for the crown / See him scheme and slay / Cutting monarchs down / Laughing all the way”). Capitalizing on the universality of Christmas carols speaks to something encouraging about the universality of Shakespeare, too: that his characters and plots are familiar enough to play with and recontextualize in an irreverent singalong format. In that vein, every song is also accompanied by Mya’s trademark stick-figures in what she describes as “cheerful illustrations of murder and mayhem.”

While Mya had intended for a while to put together a print edition of her parodies, the final impetus came when she started practicing the ukulele during the pandemic. As a result, her songbook features ukulele chord notations for every song, and while it isn’t required that singers play the instrument while they sing her lyrics, Mya advises that “they all sound hilarious when accompanied by the plinky-plink cheerfulness of a uke.”

The songbook contains two new songs created especially for this printed edition, and they’re arguably the richest of the lot. Henry V’s stirring pre-battle St. Crispin’s Day speech gets a musical makeover in an epic version of “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” “I won’t want a lot for Crispin’s,” Henry sings to his troops, continuing for five verses and ultimately appealing to a higher power: “Lord, give me the chance / All I want for Crispin’s is France!”

And in “Violent Night,” her version of Titus Andronicus set to the tune of “Silent Night,” Mya itemizes the many and varied deaths in that play before commenting ironically on Shakespeare’s enduring popularity:

         Violent night, bloody night
         What a deranged playwright.
         If you’re entertained by this bloodbath,
         Maybe you are a sociopath.
         Who says Shakespeare is dull?
         Who says Shakespeare is dull?

And isn’t that a lovely sentiment for the holidays?