Shakespeare Re-Deux:

The Bard at his Most Bizarre


Without question, William Shakespeare is not only the greatest writer in the literary canon, but also the greatest thief. From Hamlet, which is believed to be based on Thomas Kyd’s the Ur-Hamlet, to Othello, which was lifted from a story in Cinthio’s Hecatommithi, Shakespeare’s plays not only demonstrate his genius for verse, but also for sampling and recycling the work of others—always, of course, with substantial improvements. Even when constructing his own plot as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he liberally sampled characters and events from a variety of sources including Ovid’s Metamorphoses, from which he borrowed the story of Pyramus and Thisbe for the play within a play during the Act V wedding scene. It is therefore only poetically fitting that over 400 years after his death so many American filmmakers would take their cue from the master rogue himself and steal from his plays to create new dramatic works for the cinema.  

             Although the film industry’s relationship with Shakespeare ironically dates back to the silent era—one of the first film versions of one of his plays was a production of Hamlet featuring the actress Sarah Bernhardt as the Prince of Denmark—movie studios have always had a difficult time bringing the Bard to the silver screen. With the exception of a handful of films including Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968) and Taming of the Shrew (1967), most faithful translations of Shakespeare’s plays have proved more deadly to box office sales than any poison the best of apothecaries could dream up. In response, many clever filmmakers wishing to explore these great works have taken the bold step of lifting Shakespeare’s timeless characters and themes and up-dating them in settings more familiar to contemporary audiences than 16th Century England.    

            One of the first films to do this was Forbidden Planet (1956), a now cult-classic science fiction re-telling of The Tempest in which the reclusive scholar, Prospero, is re-imagined as the mad scientist, Dr. Morbius; his spirit helper, Ariel, re-cast as Robby the Robot; and the brutish monster Caliban updated for post-Freud savvy audiences as the Creature from the Id. Despite its roots in classic literature, however, this film is probably most notorious for being the only movie in history to launch the career of a robot. Robby became a veritable pop culture icon, enjoying a robust career in movies and television, most notably in the 1960’s TV series Lost in Space.

            Other filmmakers, however, have endeavored to bring Shakespeare even more down to earth with films like “O” (2000) and 10 Things I Hate about You (1999), which sets Othello and Taming of the Shrew in, fittingly enough, the halls of the American high school. Just imagine Othello as a star basketball player in an all white school, or the bitter Kate as a boy hating teenager named Kat, and you can begin to piece together the rest.   

            Appropriately, the weirdest of these film adaptations is Billy Morrissette’s Scotland, PA, which re-envisions Shakespeare’s Macbeth in a fast food restaurant during the 1970’s. Conceived by Morrissette while working at a Dairy Queen and daydreaming about killing his boss, the film transforms Shakespeare’s murderously ambitious tragic hero into a short order fry cook. Instead of Kings, Crones, and Noblemen, this noir/comedy offers up a Macbeth re-enacted by fast food entrepreneurs, three drugged out hippies with a magic 8-ball, and a Colombo-like police detective who eventually unravels the case. Although critical reactions have run the gambit from fair to foul, Morrissette’s rendering of Macbeth definitely makes Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy accessible to contemporary audiences—especially to anyone who has flipped burgers for $4.50 an hour.

            In this vein, Ken Ludwig’s Shakespeare in Hollywood, which re-enacts the plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on a 1930’s movie set, is yet another in a long tradition of plays and films which prove the timelessness of Shakespeare by sampling and remixing his work to create new dramas and comedies that resonate with contemporary audiences just as deeply as Shakespeare’s plays once did with the multitudes who crowded into the Old Globe to see his spin on these classic tales.


Dan Tarker – Literary Associate