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6 Ways to Enjoy Shakespeare Through Popular Culture


27 June, 2016

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 doesnt matter whether the writers in question evenliked Shakespeare
his echoes show up all the same. Its a popular piece of trivia to list all of the
words and idioms first recorded in Shakespeares works, such as bated breath,
heart of gold, break the ice and wild-goose chase, but these lists dont quite
do justice to the depths of his influence.

Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister satirised the Thatcher government to great
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 summers day?). A great

example of this shared understanding is in the 1980s British sitcom Yes, Minister:
one of its lead actors, Nigel Hawthorne, didnt 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. Hes like Malvolio this
week, he instructed on one occasion, and Hawthorne got it right away.
If youve ever got really engrossed in a TV series with a group of friends, youll know
what its like to have that kind of understanding, with references and in-jokes that
non-fan just wont get. But with Shakespeare, you get to share that in-joke with
pretty much everyone whos read anything over the past 300 years. What once
seemed like a weird turn of phrase becomes a hilarious reference. And theres
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 spinoff 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 spinoffs; Tom Stoppards 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.Hamlets more famous lines, such as
To be or not to be have been quoted and parodied more times that anyone can

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 fathers ghost, who
shies away from acting against his evil uncle until pushed to do so its 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 ofHamlet would probably not be appropriate
for a Disney movie.

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

The Taming of the Shrew is among the most difficult of Shakespeares 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 Katherinas speech that Thy husband is
thy lord, thy life, thy keeper; hardly enlightened attitudes to women.

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, its 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.
Thats how the story goes in 10 Things I Hate About You, where the story is
improbably turned into a teenage romantic comedy, where Bianca isnt allowed to
date unless her older sister Kat also has a boyfriend. Its witty and pulls no punches
with its feminism. If youre trying to understand how Shakespeares writing could
have been interpreted in so many different ways over the centuries, watching this in
comparison to a more traditional production isnt 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 audiences 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 writers block and meets the
beautiful Viola de Lesseps, a merchants daughter who disguises herself as a man in
order to perform as an actor.

An Elizabethan audience would have been familiar with the films famous genderbending.
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 Violas 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 Englishspeaking country, even if theyve never seen or read a Shakespeare play.
But there are also rewards for people more familiar with Shakespeares work, and
with 16th-century theatre in general. References are made to Christopher Marlowes
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. Shes the Man and Twelfth Night

Crossdressing comes up a lot in Shakespeare, and thats 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 brothers 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 dont realise
she is secretly a woman. If this seems like the perfect set-up for another teen
romantic comedy, thats what the producers of Shes the Man thought as well.
Theres no shipwreck, and the action moves to an American high school, but theres
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 Violas
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. Its well-known, its got a great storyline, but at the same time,
its easier to tell that story in an updated version; unlike, say, Much Ado About
Nothing, its easy to add meaning for a modern audience by setting it in a new
context. Theres Shakespeare in Love, as we discussed above, which uses the
writing of Romeo and Juliet as its springboard. Theres Taylor Swifts 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 familys doubts is for her boyfriend to
propose). And theres West Side Story.

Lets be honest: weve all attempted the moves at least once, and with limited
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 its performed as a semihistorical piece now, it wasnt 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 youll 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 dont know Shakespeares 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 youve been paying attention when studying English Literature.
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 Shakespeares 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 Shakespeares 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
Shakespeares death.