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Why 'The Sopranos' is Shakespearean '" or is it?

With "The Sopranos" final season here, the word "Shakespearean" is turning up a lot. But just how Shakespearean is "The Sopranos," really?

If the Soprano universe is not big enough to contain the great globe itself and all that it inherits, it still holds a lot of big themes: family, duty, honor, violence, morality, destiny, insanity, ambition, aging, class, warfare, philosophy, success, death.

There is psychological torment of the lead character (Tony, King Lear), family dysfunction (the Sopranos, Leontes' or Hamlet's families), moral complexities (Dr. Melfi, "Measure for Measure"), discontinuity of intent and results (Henry VI, Carmela), the existential sense that something big has gone wrong and must be righted (the minor tetralogy, New Jersey).

There's that feeling you could take all these capos and soldiers and wiseguys and their goomars and their posturing and scheming and drop them down in the places of all those wolfish earls in the history plays and nobody would miss a beat.

There are lots of interesting little parallels:

Like Henry IV, Tony knows that the head that wears a crown lies uneasy.

Like Hamlet, who has bad Uncle Claudio, Tony has bad Uncle Junior.

Like the Macbeths, Tony has deep, scary dreams.

Like Lear, Tony, for all his little eccentricities (racketeering, extortion, murder, etc.), is often portrayed as more sinned against than sinning.

Laertes has a wacko sister (Ophelia). Tony has a wacko sister (Janice).

Both oeuvres have an Italian flavor, and it's scarcely less obvious in Shakespeare, with "Romeo and Juliet," "Julius Caesar," "Two Gents," "Much Ado," "Othello," "Winter's Tale," "Shrew," Titus," "Merchant," "All's Well," "Antony and Cleopatra," "Coriolanus," "Cymbeline."

Both have their Dons (Tony Soprano, Johnny Sack, Don Armado, Don John, Don Pedro, etc.).

Both Shakespeare and David Chase have a complex character named Adriana who is married to a rogue she loves but who makes her crazy. And both Adrianas have a sharp demeanor that conceals an inner tenderness.

Tony tries to be a good guy to two families, Carmela and kids at home and Paulie and the goombahs at the office, just like Prospero tries to be a good guy to two families, Miranda and company on the island, and in the end his nasty brother Antonio and the people of Milan.

Phil Leotardo is a jealous hothead easily angered, like Hotspur, whose military prowess is legendary but who is hotheaded and uncontrollable, "a wasp-stund and impatient fool."

Paulie Walnuts, also like Hotspur, has a bad temper, but he's loyal to Tony (although he once talked to a rival boss) in a way that Phil is not to Johnny Sack (at least a dozen Shakespeare characters).

Like Hamlet, Paulie has mother issues. Wouldn't you if you found out your uncle killed your father and married your mother? Or if you found out your mother was your aunt and your aunt was your mother?

Tony has Silvio when he needs a cool head, just as Romeo has Benvolio.

Much as Sir Rowland de Boys was a friend to Duke Senior, the father of the lead character, Rosalind, in "As You Like It," Johnny Boy Soprano, the father of the lead character in "The Sopranos," was a friend to Dominic DiMeo, who ran the Jersey mob.

Like Shakespeare's Christopher (Sly), who has a drinking problem, The Sopranos' Christopher (Moltisanti), who has a drug problem, has delusions of grandeur. Chris 1 imagines himself an aristocrat, Chris 2 imagines himself a screenwriter.

Tony's disappointment in Anthony echoes Henry's disappointment in Hal.

Bobby Bacala's loyal soldiering on echoes the loyal soldiering on of Macduff, Cassio, others.

Carlo throwing Dom's severed head down for us to see echoes Richard III's throwing down of the head of Somerset for us to see.

Much as Shakespeare characters escape the stress of life in the palace by retreating to the Green World, Tony drives home at night to the leafy burbs of Jersey.

But what's the deal with the bear that shows up at Carmela's once Tony is gone? And hasn't there always been something suspicious about that bear that kills Antigonus on the coasts of Bohemia?

Is that to say all the similarities are coincidence? Maybe. But then how do you explain the fact that Dr. Melfi's son goes to Bard College?

The world of "The Sopranos" is a limited milieu, mobsters' New Jersey, while Shakespeare created worlds upon worlds, comic ones, tragic ones, romantic ones, problem ones.

And oh yeah, most of the Soprano characters speak goombah. Shakespeare's characters range from vigorous vernacular to colorful coinages to idiotic doggerel to regional Elizabethan dialects to some of the most sublime iambic pentameter ever uttered. "The Sopranos" in the end is not so much Shakespearean as Shakespearesque.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.