Favorite Shakespeare Adaptations (and References)

Today marks the 400th anniversary of the death of the Bard himself, William Shakespeare.

For me personally, my high school had a fantastic theater program, so that I studied Shakespeare more than most at that age. I made fake blood for a production of Romeo and Juliet, performed in a cabaret of Shakespeare monologues and scenes, even saw the Globe Theater and went to Stratford-on-Avon as part of the program’s trip to England to see The Tempest. I’ve also attended a number of outdoor productions at the Vanderbilt Mansion, which makes a lovely setting for any Shakespeare play.

Shakespeare has inspired people for centuries now, and inspired many works along the way. This is a brief overview of my favorites. Let me know yours in the comments!

“Brush Up Your Shakespeare”

A song from Kiss Me Kate, itself an adaptation within an adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, imagine two hardened gangsters singing about how to use Shakespeare to woo women, complete with heavy Brooklyn accents. That is this song. Guaranteed to bring a laugh.

Captain Shakespeare

I love the movie Stardust, based on the book by Neil Gaiman, for many reasons, one of which was not in the book at all.

Captain Shakespeare, played by Robert DeNiro, seems like a tough lightning-harvesting pirate in the magical realm of Stormhold, but once behind closed doors he is… very much the opposite of a macho man. His name is a reference to this dual nature: “I’m thinking ‘Great English wordsmith,’ my enemies and crew are thinking ‘Shake! Spear!'” Sadly, the character never quotes the Bard he is named after, but he makes the movie very fun.

Comic Relief Sketch 2007

Before Catherine Tate joined Doctor Who as a companion, she collaborated with David Tennant, then the Doctor, on this hilarious sketch taking place in a high school Shakespeare class. They have since worked together on a production of Much Ado About Nothing as the hilarious Beatrice and Benedick.

The Lion King

Much has been made of the parallels between The Lion King and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. What irritates me is when people say this makes is derivative or unoriginal.

Shakespeare himself took from other writers, from myths and legends, to create his works. Very little is truly “new” when it comes to fiction, but it is how creators rearrange and make things relevant that makes a work stand on its own, apart from what inspired it.

Other than the, y’know, lions, there is a lot to be said of how Lion King makes Hamlet new and awesome. Nobody dies except Mufasa and Scar, for one. Ophelia/Nala doesn’t go crazy, and is actually pretty awesome. No mothers making out with uncles, or convoluted “let’s make them think I’m crazy” schemes. The “ghost scene” between Hamlet and his father doesn’t come until much later instead of the top of the show. And Hamlet/Simba blames himself for his father’s death. So, though one is inspired by the other, they are not the same, and that’s what makes both awesome.

Reduced Shakespeare Company, “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)”

This is just a short clip of the awesomeness that is Reduced Shakespeare. In trying to cram the complete works of Shakespeare in one 90-minute show, the company parodies the whole of Shakespeare canon, while still giving due reverence. You can find the whole taped production here.

“The Shakespeare Code”, Doctor Who

This is definitely one of my top five Doctor Who episodes for multiple reasons, but one is the time-traveling Doctor interacting with the genius Will Shakespeare. David Tennant, who himself has performed Shakespeare brilliantly, spouts off many of the Bards best lines… inspiring the Bard who has yet to write them. Also features a trio of witches/aliens who use Shakespeare’s genius to almost bring about the apocalypse through the rumored lost play Loves Labours Won.
Yeah. Just go watch the episode to get the full context.
Shakespeare in Love

It isn’t historically accurate. I know. But you’ve got to love the concept: a young Shakespeare, still overshadowed by his peers, finds the inspiration for one of his best-loved works from a real-life tragic romance. The play, of course, is Romeo and Juliet. Say what you will about the original, but this film makes a good case for the fact that in an age of plays with broad humor and a bit with a dog, Romeo and Juliet would have stood from the crowd. Sometimes the emotion trumps the logic of the plot.

Something Rotten

Basically the polar opposite of Shakespeare in Love, in which Will is on top and the other playwrights are down in the dumps. Two brothers end up, through bizarre means, creating the world’s first musical. The depiction of Shakespeare himself is… unorthodox, but with Christian Borle in the role certainly hilariously rock star-esque.

Théâtre Illuminata Series

This young adult fantasy series by Lisa Mantchev was one of my favorites as a theater geek teenager, and for good reason. The first book takes place in a magical theater called the Theatre Illuminata, where the characters of every play ever written all exist, bound to the place by the Book of scripts. Within the world is teenage Beatrice “Bertie” Shakespeare Smith, who is not a player or a crew member, but an orphan who has grown up in this world and fears to leave it.

Shakespeare is just all over this series. The titles, Eyes Like Stars, Perchance to Dream, and So Silver Bright, are taken from Shakespeare quotes. The first book features Bertie trying to stage Hamlet in Ancient Egypt. And many of his most famous characters show up, bumping and fighting and snarking: Bertie’s best friends are the troublemaking fairies from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Ariel from The Tempest is portrayed as long-haired, blonde, and sexy, and Ophelia shows up to drown herself if there is a body of water around.

This is just a sample of the magic of these books. Some great lines:

  • “[Hamlet] dodged remarkably fast for a melancholy introvert.”
  • “Maybe I got sick of accusations, sick of being Polonius’s daughter, and Laertes’s sister, and Hamlet’s girlfriend. Maybe I wanted, for a short while, simply to be myself.”
  • “The fairies put on their thinking caps, which were red and pointy.”

William Shakespeare’s Star Wars

Imagine Star Wars… in iambic pentameter.

I’m just going to stop there and give you some lines.

  • “I pray thee, sir, forgive me for the mess/And whether I shot first, I’ll not confess.”  – Han Solo
  • “O help/ Me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, help. Thou art/ Mine only hope.” – Leia
  • “LUKE —But O, what now? What light through yonder flashing sensor breaks?
    HAN It marks the loss of yon deflector shield.”
West Side Story
Based on classic Shakespeare, though it lost the Tony Award in 1958 to The Music Man, it became a classic itself in the musical theater world. Originally conceived as “East Side Story,” a Romeo and Juliet between a Jewish girl and Catholic boy, the creators were inspired by headlines of gang violence between Puerto Rican and European immigrants to give the story even more relevance. Though the portrayal of the Puerto Ricans is… debatable, the music and the story are timeless.