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It's almost Shakespearean

by Ethan Tussey

by Erika Johnson-Lewis for IN MEDIA RES

Please note that both the video and this post are littered with profanity. It’s probably NSFW.


While looking for videos for this post, I was struck by the slight incongruity between how critics have described Deadwood’s use of language with the fan-created videos, which often focus on its unrestrained use of profanity. There’s one video that has edited down the first episode to its curses. This video begins with with Al Swearengen, sweaty and bleeding, knife in hand, exclaiming, “Welcome to fucking Deadwood.” The video moved to a variety of instances of the use of the word “cocksucker.” From there it moves from blasphemy, to fuck, to cunt, to colorful descriptions of sexual acts and racial and ethnic slurs. The last section begins with often humorous--if at times ridiculous--speeches, and finally moves to more eloquent and insightful moments from a variety of characters. What I liked about the video was the way in which Deadwood moved from the profane to the sublime and back again.


Milch himself has claimed that the excessive profanity was used to approximate the language of the frontier in order to give the audience a sense of authenticity while remaining familiar to a contemporary audience for whom the repetitive use of the phrase “god damn it” might not resonate in the same way “limber dicked cockersucker” does. Milch claims, in an interview, that profanity functioned as a kind of social equalizer, a way for people from all walks of life to communicate with one another. He also notes, “Many of them might have been illiterate, but they knew the King James Bible and Shakespeare, and that’s what shaped the way they thought and the way they expressed themselves.” Regardless of whether they were familiar with the works of Shakespeare, it’s interesting that Milch brings up the influence since almost every review of the series compares it to Shakespeare. There may be no author who encapsulates what “Culture” is better than Shakespeare, so what is at work in the comparison aside from saying that the people in the show talk funny? Does it somehow point to television, or at least television created by someone who has been granted auteur status, occupying the same cultural space that Shakespeare once did: catering to both the groundlings and the cultured nobility who today might be those people who “don’t watch television”? 

The Language of Deadwood

Examining the particularities of Deadwood's language

from Deadwood (2006)
Creator: David Milch
Distributor: HBO
Posted by Ethan Tussey
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