6 Ways to Enjoy Shakespeare Through Popular Culture

One of the delights of studying Shakespeare is that you gain a better understanding of all the people who were inspired by his writing as well.

This might seem obvious, but it goes further than you think. Pretty much any great writer from the late 17th century onwards will have read the works of Shakespeare; they form a common language from John Keats to George Bernard Shaw to Malorie Blackman. It doesn’t matter whether the writers in question even liked Shakespeare – his echoes show up all the same. It’s a popular piece of trivia to list all of the words and idioms first recorded in Shakespeare’s works, such as “bated breath”, “heart of gold”, “break the ice” and “wild-goose chase”, but these lists don’t quite do justice to the depths of his influence.

Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister satirised the Thatcher government to great acclaim.
Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister satirised the Thatcher government to great acclaim.

Think about the cartoons where an overly dramatic character stretches out their hand as if to hold up the skull of Yorick in the gravedigger scene of Hamlet, or the endless parodies of Sonnet 18 (‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’). A great example of this shared understanding is in the 1980s British sitcom Yes, Minister: one of its lead actors, Nigel Hawthorne, didn’t know much about politics so struggled to understand the context of some of the storylines. The director hit upon the idea of explaining it to him in terms of Shakespeare. “He’s like Malvolio this week,” he instructed on one occasion, and Hawthorne got it right away.
If you’ve ever got really engrossed in a TV series with a group of friends, you’ll know what it’s like to have that kind of understanding, with references and in-jokes that non-fan just won’t get. But with Shakespeare, you get to share that in-joke with pretty much everyone who’s read anything over the past 300 years. What once seemed like a weird turn of phrase becomes a hilarious reference. And there’s nothing that demonstrates how this works quite as well as the popular culture on this list.

1. The Lion King and Hamlet

Hamlet has probably spawned more adaptations, parodies, sequels and other spin-off works than any other play in the canon of English literature. Hamlet in popular culture is a lengthy Wikipedia article in its own right. Even its spin-offs have spin-offs; Tom Stoppard’s famous 1966 play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (its title is a line from Act 5, Scene 2 of Hamlet) lends its own title to the 2009 film Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead. Hamlet’s more famous lines, such as “To be or not to be…” have been quoted and parodied more times that anyone can count.

The Bard even makes his way into our favourite Disney films.
The Bard even makes his way into our favourite Disney films.

But possibly the Hamlet tribute that more people have seen than any other is The Lion King. In its initial theatrical run alone, it was seen by 74 million people. By now, even its musical adaptation has been seen by approximately 140 million people around the world. The debt its story owes to Hamlet has been widely acknowledged – the king killed by his scheming brother, the son visited by his father’s ghost, who shies away from acting against his evil uncle until pushed to do so – it’s all there. The obvious difference, of course, is that The Lion King has a happy ending – but then, the vast body count at the ending of Hamlet would probably not be appropriate for a Disney movie.

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2. 10 Things I Hate About You and The Taming of the Shrew

The Taming of the Shrew is among the most difficult of Shakespeare’s plays to stage for a modern audience (along with the gore-fest of Titus Andronicus, which was staged in all its “grotesquely violent” glory at the Globe a couple of years ago, leading to audience members fainting in horror). The storyline is that Bianca, the younger sister of Katherina, is not permitted to marry until Katherina does – but Katherina is famously bad-tempered and “shrewish”, so no man will marry her. That is until Petruchio comes along, determined to persuade her to submit to him. He humiliates, insults and abuses her – including depriving her of food and sleep – until she gives in to him. The play finishes with Katherina’s speech that “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper”; hardly enlightened attitudes to women.

How does a misogynistic Shakespeare play become a feelgood teen romcom?
How does a misogynistic Shakespeare play become a feel-good teen romcom?

Different productions have dealt with this in different ways. A few years ago, the Royal Shakespeare Company used the framing narrative (skipped by most productions) to imply that the whole nastiness of the play was just a misogynistic fantasy in the mind of a drunkard. More commonly, it’s played with wit and irony; in Petruchio, Katherina has found her match, and their relationship is one of equals. When she describes him as her lord, life and keeper, it is decidedly tongue in cheek.
That’s how the story goes in 10 Things I Hate About You, where the story is – improbably – turned into a teenage romantic comedy, where Bianca isn’t allowed to date unless her older sister Kat also has a boyfriend. It’s witty and pulls no punches with its feminism. If you’re trying to understand how Shakespeare’s writing could have been interpreted in so many different ways over the centuries, watching this in comparison to a more traditional production isn’t a bad way to start.

3. Shakespeare in Love

The Oscar-winning romantic comedy Shakespeare in Love, released in 1998, shows what a skilled scriptwriter can do with their audience’s shared knowledge of Shakespeare. The film tells the story of William Shakespeare at the time of writing Romeo and Juliet, when he is struggling with writer’s block and meets the beautiful Viola de Lesseps, a merchant’s daughter who disguises herself as a man in order to perform as an actor.

An Elizabethan audience would have been familiar with the film's famous gender-bending.
An Elizabethan audience would have been familiar with the film’s famous gender-bending.

The story is accessible to an audience with only a cursory knowledge of Shakespeare. There are nods to famous lines, such as Shakespeare beginning to write Sonnet 18, him coming to Viola’s balcony like Romeo to Juliet, and Queen Elizabeth instructing Shakespeare to write a play “for Twelfth Night.” These are references that could probably be understood by anyone growing up in an English-speaking country, even if they’ve never seen or read a Shakespeare play.
But there are also rewards for people more familiar with Shakespeare’s work, and with 16th-century theatre in general. References are made to Christopher Marlowe’s plays Doctor Faustus and The Massacre at Paris, and the playwright John Webster appears as a child, already keen on the bloodthirstiness that his plays would later be famed for: he says of Romeo and Juliet, “I liked it when she stabbed herself.” This is particularly fun given the film plays fast and loose with historical accuracy otherwise, including characters who could not have existed and freely changing the order in which Shakespeare wrote his plays. In other words, the references are there for the people who will enjoy spotting them, but accuracy is thrown aside when it might spoil the plot.

4. She’s the Man and Twelfth Night

Crossdressing comes up a lot in Shakespeare, and that’s echoed in the popular culture adaptations. Women were not permitted to be actors on the Elizabethan stage, so female parts were played by teenage boys – something that writers of romances featuring Shakespeare have long been inspired by. Long before Shakespeare in Love had the idea, in 1804 Alexandre Duval wrote Shakespeare Amoureux, the story of Shakespeare falling in love with an actress playing Richard III.
Shakespeare clearly enjoyed the ridiculousness of all this crossdressing, writing several plays where female characters pretend to be men – so a boy would be dressed as a woman pretending to be a man, and hilarity would ensue. In modern versions, you then get a female actor pretending to be a male actor in order to play a woman who might over the course of the play then pretend to be a man. It seems likely that Shakespeare would have approved.

Viola (Amanda Bynes) crossdresses her way into her brother's boarding school.
Viola (Amanda Bynes) crossdresses her way into her brother’s boarding school.

Twelfth Night is possibly the pinnacle of crossdressing in Shakespeare, where two twins, Viola and Sebastian, are separated in a shipwreck. Viola disguises herself as a boy and winds up at the centre of a love triangle among people who don’t realise she is secretly a woman. If this seems like the perfect set-up for another teen romantic comedy, that’s what the producers of She’s the Man thought as well. There’s no shipwreck, and the action moves to an American high school, but there’s just as much crossdressing and just as many jokes based around the fact that Viola is secretly a girl – the gender stereotypes are just updated a little for the four hundred years that have passed. The name of the play reflects a line in Viola’s crucial speech, “I am the man.”
As with the other items on this list, there are extra references for those paying attention – for instance, a bulletin board in the school advertises their production of What You Will, the alternative title of Twelfth Night.

5. West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet is a popular choice of inspiration for modern adaptation of Shakespeare plays. It’s well-known, it’s got a great storyline, but at the same time, it’s easier to tell that story in an updated version; unlike, say, Much Ado About Nothing, it’s easy to add meaning for a modern audience by setting it in a new context. There’s Shakespeare in Love, as we discussed above, which uses the writing of Romeo and Juliet as its springboard. There’s Taylor Swift’s hit single ‘Love Story’, where she casts herself as Juliet with a boyfriend her family disapproves of (although in ‘Love Story’, the solution to her family’s doubts is for her boyfriend to propose). And there’s West Side Story.

Be honest: we've all attempted the moves at least once.
Let’s be honest: we’ve all attempted the moves at least once, and with limited success.

In Romeo and Juliet, the young lovers are kept apart by the feud between their two families. West Side Story replaces Romeo and Juliet in Verona with Tony and Maria in New York City. Tony is white and a former member of the gang the Jets; Maria is from Puerto Rico and her brother, Bernardo, is the leader of the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang. The original idea for the opposing sides had been to have one of the lovers from an Irish Catholic family and the other from a Jewish family, set on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, but the backgrounds and locations were changed as the production developed. Gang warfare remained a headline issue in New York in 1957 when the musical was first in rehearsal, so though it’s performed as a semi-historical piece now, it wasn’t at the time.

6. Upstart Crow

As many of the adaptations above demonstrate, the more you know about Shakespeare and his work, the more rewards you’ll find in jokes and references in adaptations, put there for those in the know to understand. But nowhere is this demonstrated as well as Upstart Crow, a new sitcom starring Shakespeare. There are jokes there for people who don’t know Shakespeare’s work that well (such as a running gag about the quality of the coach service between London and Stratford – riffing on typical British complaints about trains), but a lot of the comedy is only there if you’ve been paying attention when studying English Literature.

Watch it for David Mitchell, if nothing else.
Watch it for David Mitchell, if nothing else.

For instance, Christopher Marlowe is a leading character, who tries to persuade Shakespeare to write plays for him – something that only makes sense as a joke if you know about the theory that Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by Christopher Marlowe under a pseudonym, as Shakespeare allegedly would not have had sufficient education to write them. Plots and quotes from different plays are aired and usually dismissed, such as when Anne Hathaway suggests to Shakespeare that his “bloodthirsty Jew play” might be improved if the Jew were a more sympathetic character (as in The Merchant of Venice).
The plot of The Merchant of Venice is then enacted in a later episode, where a pound of Shakespeare’s flesh in demanded and a judge dismisses the idea that the flesh can be taken but no blood should be shed as ridiculous. When Shakespeare suggests using it as the plot of a play, Anne Hathaway makes that objection, but he argues that “it might work. You know, if I bury it in a lot of iambic pentameter.” The more you know about Shakespeare, the more enjoyable the series is – something that can be said for a remarkable amount of the literature published in English since Shakespeare’s death.
Image credits: bookshelf


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