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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
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CHAPTER 21

In Chapters 21 to 23 Huck tells us about his visit to a small town in Arkansas with the duke and the king. You should read these three chapters as a unit.

Chapter 21 begins with the two con men getting ready for the Shakespearean performance they intend to give in the towns they visit along the river. One of the duke's occupations, remember, was acting, so he's the resident expert on topics like the plays of Shakespeare. Of course, he doesn't know nearly as much about Shakespeare as he pretends, but he knows enough to fool the others on the raft.

Huck describes the duke's ham acting as he tries to reconstruct Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy. Finally, he says he has it, and Huck gives us the speech that he recites.

As you might expect, the soliloquy isn't quite accurate. It includes lines from Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and a few other plays, along with lines from other scenes in Hamlet.

Aside from what it says about the duke, the speech is a pretty good piece of comedy in its own right. If you read it aloud, and pretend that it has meaning, you might find that it actually does sound like a real speech from Shakespeare. Give Mark Twain credit for composing a good parody.

As fake as it is, Huck is impressed. Describing the duke's rendition of the speech, he says it "just knocked the spots out of any acting ever I see before."

In the circular that the duke prints to advertise their show, he bills himself as David Garrick and the king as Edmund Kean. Those were real people, probably the most famous Shakespearean actors of the 19th century. (The circular, by the way, has Shakespeare's name misspelled.)


Huck gives us a careful description of the town and its residents, and it sounds like an awful place. The streets are muddy, the houses are falling apart, and the stores are neglected. The men he describes are lethargic do-nothings whose main concern is where their next chew of tobacco is coming from.

In other words, Huck now finds himself in surroundings that are the direct opposite of the ones he just left-the studied gentility of the Grangerford home. You remember what Twain's comment was on that branch of society. You might think he was setting up this contrast to show how these people are different from the aristocrats he condemned earlier. But don't be too quick to jump to conclusions. Read the rest of the chapter, and the one that follows, and see how Twain has these people behave.

Huck, along with many townspeople, witnesses the cold- blooded shooting of a tough-talking drunk who insults a well- dressed man named Colonel Sherburn. Sherburn shows a little patience by giving the drunk a warning. When the warning is ignored, the colonel kills him.

The reaction of the townspeople is what this incident really is about. Notice what they do immediately after the man is shot. Watch them argue over who will get the "front-row seats" to see him take his last breath. Notice the pleasure they take in watching a reenactment of the shooting.

Then, although no one raised a finger when the shooting was taking place, they decide to mob together and lynch Colonel Sherburn. Huck doesn't comment on any of this, but you should be able to deduce how Twain feels about these people. If not, you'll find out in the next chapter.

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