Keep It Simple, Shakespeare

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Hello, Mr. Plummer…

I LOVE a good Shakespeare reading, It just makes me smile all over. The setting doesn’t have to be fancy, either, because the language is so vivid and powerful that it creates its own scene. Even a black background (such as in this clip of Damian Lewis reciting the “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech) is completely fine. It doesn’t matter; Shakespeare is inspiring.

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Or the magic could happen in a living room like the Huxtables’ in the fifth episode of the fourth season of The Cosby Show, which features our guest of honor and which was originally broadcast on October 22, 1987. Simply titled, “Shakespeare,” it doesn’t have much of a plot, but what is there is gold.

Yes, The Cosby Show is a bit tainted nowadays because of Mr. Cosby’s various issues which shall remain nameless. I won’t give my opinion on them, but suffice it to say a lot of people are disappointed or not sure what to think, including me–I grew up listening to Cosby’s comedy records and The Cosby Show was a staple at my family’s house when it was on TV. Anyway, moving on…

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When it comes to “Shakespeare,” I’m going to try not to get super-detailed, because this is one of the show’s more obscure episodes, but on the other hand the plot only takes place over a single day without a lot of dramatic conflict, so I will be covering all the high points, including the ending, and there’s not much to spoil, anyway.

The episode kicks off with Cliff (Bill Cosby) getting the bright idea to have a barbecue. It’s November and thirty degrees out, but what of it? Despite Claire’s (Phylicia Rashad) attempts to talk him out of it, the grill is calling and Cliff is answering.

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Meanwhile, Theo (Malcolm Jamal Warner) and his buddy, Cockroach (Carl Anthony Payne II) have to read Julius Caesar for their history class and they’re not understanding it. It’s boring, or so they say. They just might have some help, though, since English professor Dr. Barnabus Foster (Roscoe Lee Brown) is visiting from Hillman College and is in the kitchen gently ribbing student Denise (Lisa Bonet) about why she hasn’t taken his class yet.

Rudy’s (Keisha Knight Pulliam) got her own racket going, since she’s writing a story about a princess and a dragon, whose working name is Vanessa. The real Vanessa (Tempestt Bledsoe) isn’t too keen on being a dragon, but Rudy is noncommittal about what changes will be made.

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Into the fray comes Cliff’s dad, Russell (Earle Hyman) with his friend, drama professor Jonathan Lawrence (Christopher Plummer), the latter of whom can’t believe anyone would barbecue in thirty-degree weather and who bets Russell a dollar that they didn’t smell charcoal from three blocks away. Cliff invites them to stay for dinner.

Later on the entire group is sitting around the living room eating off of paper plates when Theo and Cockroach tell everyone about their history assignment, and that’s when things get really, really good, because Jonathan, Dr. Foster, and Russell all start quoting from Act One of Julius Caesar.

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It. Is. Awesome.

Sure, it’s three guys reading lines to each other in the Huxtable living room, but the applause from both the studio audience and the cast members is real and it’s spectacular (Watch the clip here). Everyone knew they were watching something special.

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Things aren’t over yet, though, because Rudy’s story is finished and waiting to be read aloud, Theo and Cockroach get inspired to perform a Shakesperean rap complete with beatbox, and Cliff’s got to clean up the barbecue stuff. Captain Blood is on TV, though, so the cleanup might have to wait.

Christopher Plummer was, of course, no stranger to Shakespeare. A classically trained actor, he got his start performing on the radio in Canada, as well as making a plethora of stage appearances, including that of the title character in Henry V at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario in 1956. Plummer always held that Shakespeare didn’t have to be acted; one just had to have a conversation.

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Christopher Plummer as Henry V in 1956. (Stratford Festival)

What’s cool about the “Shakespeare” episode is not only the wonderful readings by three master thespians, but that they all take the time to validate and encourage Rudy by reading her story out loud as only they can. It’s a lovely element that I remember relating to as an almost eleven-year old before I knew much of anything about Shakespeare.

This aspirational feeling was probably a thing for a lot of Gen-Xers during that decade. Shows from the nineteen-eighties often excelled at meeting kids where they were at, encouraging them to use their imaginations, to write stories and to be creative, while at the same time giving them something to grow into in a way that preserved their innocence. Nothing is demanded or forced. It’s just presented and allowed to speak for itself. It was a great period in children’s and family programming that ought to be remembered and drawn from today.

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That wonderful actors like Christopher Plummer were not only able to be in on that but to bring The Bard along is the icing on the cake.

For more of the charismatic Christopher Plummer, please see Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews and Gabriela at Pale WriterThanks for hosting this blogathon, ladies–I hope you bring it back! Thanks for reading, all, and I hope to see you on Tuesday, when we’re going to start a grab bag string of posts lasting an entire week. No spoilers, though, people–you’re just going to have to keep checking in. Have a good one…


The Cosby Show is available to own on DVD from Amazon as a complete set or individual seasons 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8.

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If you’re enjoying what you see on Taking Up Room, please look for additional content on Substack, where you’ll find both free and subscriber-only articles. I publish every Wednesday and Saturday.

12 thoughts on “Keep It Simple, Shakespeare

  1. Yeah i had the misfortune of buying the first 3 seasons of that show when news of Cosby broke, i just couldn’t enjoy again what I enjoyed as a teen in the 80’s. Cool recollection though, that 3 way reading is brilliant.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Never saw this episode but I can picture it, thanks to your great post. Love that a sitcom episode actually featured Shakespeare, and Plummer was the perfect choice to be the professor.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent recollection. I’m sure I remember this episode, a bit bizarre yet splendid, and making good use of Mr Plummer’s talents. For obvious reasons, reruns of the show do not get aired in the UK these days…

    Liked by 1 person

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