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The Endless Adaptations of Shakespeare

Romeo & Juliet
Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio in ROMEO AND JULIET (1996)

According to IMDb William Shakespeare 1646 writing credits. These range from the Laurence Olivier epic Henry V to being credited as writing additional dialogue on Blackadder. The latest Shakespearean masterpiece to be made into a film is The Tragedy of Macbeth directed by Joel Coen and starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand (a pair of leads who have five Oscars between them). William Shakespeare is often credited as the greatest writer in the English language, his plays are performed all over the world and it seems we never tire of seeing his plays made into movies.

Neither A Borrower Nor A Lender Be – Filmmakers Using Shakespeare

10 Things I Hate About You inspired by The Taming of the Shrew
10 Things I Hate About You inspired by The Taming of the Shrew // Credit: Buena Vista Pictures

There are varieties of “Shakespearean” films and there is a big difference to what some of them owe Shakespeare. There are Shakespeare films like Olivier’s Henry V, 2015’s Macbeth where they are performed with the dialogue and setting given by Shakespeare. Then you have Romeo + Juliet or Richard III with Ian McKellan, the dialogue is kept and the setting updated. Then you have the films that are inspired by the story but jettison everything else – so 10 Things I Hate About You is based on The Taming of the Shrew. And then, of course, you have the huge influence of just Shakespeare’s ideas and plots – The Lion King has almost exactly the same plot as Hamlet but Shakespeare gets no writing credit. The criminally unknown film Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is an adaptation of the Tom Stoppard play of the same name, which is set in Hamlet but follows the inconsequential characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in fact, so inconsequential are these characters they themselves do not know which is which. Any scheming female character is Lady Macbeth, countless love stories are compared to Romeo and Juliet and an indecisive lead character is Hamlet reborn.

What Is Past Is Prologue – History And Story

Tom Hiddleston as Henry V in The Hollow Crown
Tom Hiddleston as Henry V in The Hollow Crown // Credit: BBC

Shakespeare’s influence is even more pernicious. The cultural phenomenon of Game of Thrones is often said to be inspired by the Wars of the Roses, the medieval English civil war between great noble families. However, the popular conception of the Wars of the Roses is intrinsically bound up with the Shakespearean plays about those wars. The historical figure of Richard III is almost completely lost to the Shakespearean version. Separating Cleopatra or Julius Caesar from their plays is almost impossible. The tv show Rome wisely decided to not have a scene on the funeral of Julius Caesar, from which some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines come from, and instead have a character relate their experience of watching the funeral, comparing the eloquent and scholarly Brutus with the emotional and unrestrained Mark Antony.

Often Shakespeare stories are considered the definitive telling of that type of story – when writing about doomed love, star-crossed lovers, and young intense love then it is Romeo and Juliet that comes to mind. A struggle for power – Macbeth, Richard III, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra. Betrayal – Othello, Macbeth, Richard III.

To Thine Own Self Be True – Welles, Wilde & William

Michael Fassbender as Macbeth // Credit: Macbeth, StudioCanal

There is a famous quote concerning Shakespeare attributed to both Oscar Wilde and Orson Wells – “We now sit through Shakespeare in order to recognise the quotations.” This could mean a number of things from – such as the thrill of hearing “something wicked this way comes” from Macbeth is pleasant aside from any theatrical concerns, or that there is a pretentiousness at play, people do not like Shakespeare, they like to be able to say they’ve seen Shakespeare. It does demonstrate the outsized impact Shakespeare has had on how we speak and the list of words and phrases still in use that Shakespeare created is astonishing. There is a sense that Shakespeare is good for us, it’s worthy, to be called the greatest writer in the English language creates a feedback loop of admiration. Do we watch Shakespearean films to look clever? Do people make them to look clever? The answer is probably sometimes they do.

If Money Go Before, All Ways Do Lie Open – The Profitable Shakespeare

The Tragedy of Macbeth // Credit: Apple TV+

Romeo + Juliet made over $100,000,000 on a budget of less than $15,000,000, was a cultural phenomenon and helped make Leonardo DiCaprio a household name. They are capable of making a big profit and can garner huge critical acclaim. Financial success and critical acclaim are perhaps the only two metrics that measure in filmmaking. And you don’t even have to pay for the rights, not only is Shakespeare out of copyright, his plays were written before copyright even existed.

Though I Am Not Naturally Honest, I am Sometimes so By Chance – My Opinion

I do enjoy Shakespearean film and will certainly be watching The Tragedy of Macbeth, I have been accused many times of the twin sins of snobbery and pretentiousness, I don’t think that’s all it is. Shakespeare is a wonderful source for modern filmmakers. The great writer Robert Graves once said “The remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he is really very good – in spite of all the people who say he is very good.”

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Posted by
Richard Norton

Gentleman, podcaster and pop culture nerd, I love talking and writing about pretty much all pop culture.