Updated: Mar 30
“Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how,” proclaims the young Englishman in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. “His celebrated passages are quoted by everybody,” responds the other. “They are in half the books we open and we all talk Shakespeare, use his similes, and describe in his descriptions.”
Over four hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, his work is no less pervasive than in Austen’s time, and in no small part due to his use of language. Inventive neologism, indelible turns of phrase, soaring poetic beauty, pulse-pounding excitement, psychological insight, sly ribaldry, subversion, and satire are all to be found in Shakespeare’s choice of words and form. Yet many modern films drawn from Shakespeare, dispense with his language entirely, instead adapting stories that were, themselves, already adapted by Shakespeare from a litany of classical, historical, and literary sources. If the intrinsic value of Shakespeare is so deeply rooted in his language, can a film that does away with it still justifiably call itself “Shakespeare?” Actually, yes. Allow me to explain.
There are many ways to think about Shakespeare, but we can divide them broadly into two categories: Shakespeare the man, bound strictly to his life and times, whose work must be examined in context, and Shakespeare the cultural force: timeless, malleable, modern. A study of Shakespearean text requires the former lens, but if you’ve ever seen Shakespeare performed well, then you already know it won’t do here. Shakespeare in performance is alive, immediate, and thrilling. What does the Globe Theatre Fire of 1613 have to do with the stirring passion of Kenneth Branagh’s St. Crispin’s Day speech, the seething bitterness of Al Pacino’s “if you prick us,” the pitiable heartbreak of Jean Simmons’ “hey nonny,” or, for that matter, 10 Things I Hate About You? Nothing. Examining Shakespeare’s modern impact calls for a modern perspective.
So, if we accept a definition of “Shakespeare” beyond the context of one man’s life, allowing us, in modern times, to claim a share of ownership of his legacy, what of the fact that the stories he immortalized were not originally his? Is West Side Story really an adaptation of Shakespeare, or simply another incarnation of story elements dating as far back as the 4th century A.D.? Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, drawn heavily from Arthur Brooke, transforms the poem into an intricate clockwork machine, condensing the timeframe and plunging the characters into a headlong rush of mistakes, violence, passion, and paradox. Plautus’ Menaechmi and Amphitruo are combined and unified in Comedy of Errors. A range of sources, both literary and legendary, informed King Lear, none of which conclude with the death of Lear and Cordelia. That Shakespeare's stories were not his own, does not devalue his structural, thematic, philosophical, and poetic innovation. However, while we accept that West Side Story is, in a sense, “Shakespeare,” can it be so easily lumped together with Luhrmann’s, Romeo + Juliet, 2013’s Warm Bodies, or (god help us) Twilight? Clearly, some distinctions must be made.
Let's create three categories. It'll be fun; I promise! First, the “Adaptations:” films drawn directly from Shakespeare's language, if heavily edited. Think Branagh, Luhrmann, Whedon, 2015’s Macbeth or 1971’s King Lear. You get the idea. Next, the “Re-Tellings:” Kurosawa’s Ran and Throne of Blood, or She's the Man, which jettison the language and change the setting, but maintain fidelity to story and character. Finally, the “Analogues:” Forbidden Planet, The Lion King, Star Wars Ep III: Revenge of the Sith (think about it), which draw on Shakespeare in only the most elemental fashion. A sub-category could perhaps be termed “Meta-Analogues:” films like Kiss Me, Kate, Shakespeare in Love, and Get Over It, which play analogous stories directly against their literal inspiration. While adaptations and re-tellings can both be viewed, for our purposes, as “Shakespeare,” the analogues can safely be dismissed as too far removed for relevance.
With these distinctions made, let's take a closer look at the re-tellings. Lacking Shakespeare's language, 10 Things I Hate About You, nevertheless hews closely to The Taming of The Shrew - more so, in fact, than Kiss Me, Kate. The distasteful sexism of Shakespeare's play and the efficacy of appropriating “shrewishness” for feminism within the fundamentally problematic structure of a romantic comedy are discussions for another time. Films like 10 Things are important, not just for keeping Shakespeare’s influence alive and well in our pop culture awareness, but as a tool for overcoming barriers to accessibility. What greater barrier does a high school student face when confronting Shakespeare than the language? How fitting, therefore, that so many Shakespearean re-tellings are set in modern high schools, and how well some of the material lends itself to such a setting! In bringing a 400 year-old text to life for a new generation, educators share a priority with directors and performers: accessibility, engagement, and immediacy. What better way to introduce Twelfth Night to students than to precede it with a viewing of She's the Man?
Beyond the classroom, the artistic viability of the Shakespearean re-telling holds true. The strength, life, and power of Shakespeare in modern performance is tied to its reinvention. These stories, as immortalized by Shakespeare's astonishing constellation of talents, have infused our culture, speech, values, dreams, fears, and fascinations. A Shakespearean film, even one without Shakespeare's language, nevertheless draws from the bottomless well of his resonance in our lives.
We must never stop reading, performing, and filming Shakespeare in his own words, but neither need we be so protective as to eschew its re-telling. Shakespeare is for everyone, after all. Let there be no lock upon the door.
(Sometimes) a theatrical director/actor/producer and writer, and (mostly) a bartender and New Beaconite often found in semi-aimless wander, Edward is pleased and honored to contribute this piece to the most excellent Story Screen.